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How the history of slavery has affected who holds political power in the U.S.


As we look ahead to July Fourth festivities, it's also worth looking back on how this nation was built - in large part through the labor of enslaved people. Slavery is often thought of as the distant past. But make no mistake, it is still enmeshed in American power structures. An extensive project released by Reuters this week identified over 100 American politicians whose ancestors enslaved people. The list includes lawmakers, living presidents, governors and Supreme Court justices. We're joined now by Reuters editor Tom Lasseter, who led the project. Welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

TOM LASSETER: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

PARKS: So your project found that of the 536 lawmakers sitting in the last Congress, at least 100 descended from slaveholders. And of that group, that included a quarter of U.S. senators. Were you surprised by these findings?

LASSETER: Those numbers are, as we point out in the story, very much an at-least number. To arrive at a high degree of confidence that that sitting lawmaker descended from the ancestor in question, we built family trees starting at the present-day person to their initial relative on the 1950 census and sort of built back each rung back to that 1860 census.

PARKS: Do we have any sense on how voters feel about this information?

LASSETER: Sure. As part of the project, we did a national poll that looked at many sort of aspects of this. But one of them was, would knowing that a politician was a direct descendant of an enslaver affect the choice to vote for them or not. And this survey found that almost a quarter of respondents, 23%, said that knowing a candidate's ancestors enslaved people would make them less likely to vote for that candidate. And that number rose to 31% among respondents who identified as Democrats and 35% among Black respondents.

But it's important to note that you don't know from that how important that single issue would be and whether the voter would ultimately vote for that candidate. There are many - of course, many other issues on which voters decide whether to vote or not for candidates.

PARKS: Were you worried at all in the beginning or as you were working on this project that this is sort of implicating these people for actions of people that came, in many cases, well over 100 years prior to them?

LASSETER: No one living today is responsible for the institution of slavery in America. And at the outset of the conversation, I would tell them I'm a direct descendant of at least five people who enslaved others...

PARKS: Oh, wow.

LASSETER: ...In Georgia. And so I'm sort of very aware that they're not, of course, directly responsible for what their ancestors have done. The idea was, let's have a conversation about what this means for you as a leader in America, as someone engaged in conversation, debate, legislation on issues having to do with the legacy of slavery. And, you know, we go in presuming that most of them didn't know this fact. Certainly after we reached out to them, they knew.

PARKS: Were you surprised at the volume of lawmakers who didn't respond, who didn't want to engage with you all on this subject?

LASSETER: I was. I thought there would be more engagement. I expected there to be kind of an initial pause as they sort of processed the information. Again, we put a real priority on, you know, personal delivery of it and sort of talking it through in a cover letter that walked through sort of the nature of the project, trying to make clear that, again, this was not a gotcha but hopefully a place from which to have a conversation.

PARKS: So the majority of lawmakers involved in this story did not respond or engage with you all. But to be fair, some did. And I was especially struck by the response from Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth. Can you talk a little bit about what she said?

LASSETER: Senator Duckworth was aware of these ancestors, had not known that two of them had enslaved people. And the senator said, you know, look, I'm a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. You know, I talk publicly about the fact that I have ancestry reaching back that far, that I have an ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. If I'm going to talk about that part of my family history and I'm going to talk about that connection between my family and American history, I must also, you know, be willing to confront, you know, directly and squarely this facet of my family's history.

PARKS: Stepping back, what does all this data say to you about the American power structure? Or what are some kind of bigger takeaways that you take from this data?

LASSETER: Well, I think about it in terms - again, to use the word conversation - it's a time of renewed debate about slavery and its legacy in America. And many of these U.S. political leaders have staked positions on policies related to race. And at the center of that, of course, in America today, is a question of how this history should be taught, right? Not just in a classroom to our children, but in terms of understanding it as a nation ourselves. So something essential to that process, of course, is knowing the facts.

PARKS: That's Reuters editor Tom Lasseter. Tom, thank you so much for joining us.

LASSETER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.