'The Economist' Retracts Racist Book Review About Slavery, And it's About Time

Well, that didn't take very long. Social media was set ablaze Thursday by a book review in The Economist, which criticized making whites seem like the villains of slavery and blacks the victims. And the magazine decided only to take the heat until Friday — The Economist retracted the racist book review, and posted an explanation in its place. They've actually still left the text up underneath the retraction, as a means of "transparency," so if you're not aware what all the fuss is about you can take a look for yourself.

In short, the review (which ran without a byline) was critical of Cornell University professor Edward Baptist's new historical book "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism." But rather than applying the kind of nuance and historical context vital to any writing about the American slavery era, whoever took the book on had a different message in mind, one which countless Twitterers described pretty aptly: #NotAllSlaveOwners.

It would be wrong to talk as though the review's final sentence, which condemns Baptist's book as a work of "advocacy" instead of "history" —because saying slavery was evil is apparently advocacy these days — was its only objectionable aspect. But it's undoubtedly the bright, underlined summation that sent a lot of people into rightful indignation.

Another unexamined factor may also have contributed to rises in productivity. Slaves were valuable property, and much harder and, thanks to the decline in supply from Africa, costlier to replace than, say, the Irish peasants that the iron-masters imported into south Wales in the 19th century. Slave owners surely had a vested interest in keeping their “hands” ever fitter and stronger to pick more cotton. Some of the rise in productivity could have come from better treatment. Unlike Mr Thomas, Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

Pretty bad, huh? The stuff about cotton production is also particularly troubling — the reviewer cast doubt on Baptist's explanation for its dramatic increase from 1800 to 1850, protesting that he only had historical testimony from a few slaves backing up his argument that slaveowners began working them more brutally and aggressively. However, he then turns around just one paragraph later and does his own speculating free of, well, any cited supporting evidence. Maybe productivity increased because slaveowners were treating them better?

Especially vocal in criticizing The Economist's review, besides the author himself — Baptist called it "blatantly racist" — was The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates. Widely regarded as one of the sharpest historical minds and essayists of the present moment, Coates went all-in against The Economist's take.

The Economist offered an apology for the review when they retracted it Friday.

Apology: In our review of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism” by Edward Baptist, we said: “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” There has been widespread criticism of this, and rightly so. Slavery was an evil system, in which the great majority of victims were blacks, and the great majority of whites involved in slavery were willing participants and beneficiaries of that evil. We regret having published this and apologise for having done so. We have therefore withdrawn the review, but in the interests of transparency the text remains available only on this special page and appears below.

Of course, there's still the matter of who actually wrote this whitewashing analysis — and we may never know that, seeing as it ran without a credited author. But whoever it is, they at least now know that handwringing about slavery isn't something people take lying down.