Family Separation Is Not Only an American Legacy — It’s a Racist One

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions imposed a new policy of “zero tolerance” for illegal immigration to the United States on April 6, 2018, he laid the groundwork for reinstating a policy of family separation that historically has served as a tool of racial subjugation. Native American activists remind us just how central this type of policy has been to the history of the United States. Since the late nineteenth century, the US federal government systematically removed Native children from their communities and interned them in boarding schools, where they often faced physical violence for speaking their native languages and practicing their customs.

The roots of this inhumane policy stretch back even further, as historians of slavery including Brenda E. Stevenson, Wilma A. Dunaway, and others remind us. Family separation was at the very core of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and systems of chattel slavery in the United States, and descendants of enslaved people still search for their lost family members. Still others observe how federal, state, and local governments have continued to reinvent new forms of racist family separation. The mass incarceration of minority men (and increasingly minority and gender-nonconforming women) and the removal of babies born to crack-addicted mothers have produced new generations of separated families at least since the War on Drugs.

Hundreds of Native American children sit posed for a photo in uniforms.
Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States from 1879 through 1918. Over 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attended Carlisle. Only 158 graduated. (Wikimedia Commons)

But family separation is not a story unique to the United States. Certainly, it is important to recognize the separation of immigrant families as part of a longstanding history of violence against marginalized communities within our national borders. However, the deliberate destruction of families, and the rape of women and children that too often follows, has figured prominently in genocides, colonization, human trafficking, and unfree labor regimes across time and space. As anthropologist Horace Miner suggested in his 1956 essay on Nacirema culture (“American” spelled backwards), viewing cultural practices and social relations in the United States through an outsider’s perspective can sometimes activate a more critical response than when we examine our own society.

I propose to take that idea one step further by analyzing how family separation operated in a society not our own. It is my goal to use this approach to help fight against our collective complacency in the face of the everyday horrors and unimaginable suffering confronting immigrant families in the United States today. By studying family separation in a different time and place, we begin to understand how the Trump Administration’s current deployment of the practice is connected to global systems of racial inequality and gender relations of power.

As I research and write my current study of how racial inequality shaped pregnancy and motherhood in Cuban history, I am constantly struck by the parallels between the separation of enslaved families in nineteenth-century Cuba and the separation of immigrant families in the contemporary United States. Examining how family separation functioned in Cuba’s slave society offers a unique opportunity to activate our critical perspective, in part because few sound-minded Americans today would defend the institution of slavery, even though most of us benefit from modern day forms of unfree labor. But Cuba also promises to be a revealing case study because, historically speaking, North Americans have seldom held back their critiques of Cuban society. Even more so today, as the Trump Administration attempts to revive the sixty-year-old failed Cold War embargo against Cuba, disapproval of Cuban political and economic politics, among some circles, has become about as American as apple pie. If we can comfortably critique the historic practices of family separation in Cuba, then we are one step closer to dismantling the myriad apologist justifications for the United States government’s use of similar policies today.

Group of African men, women and children captured and in shackles, are herded by men with whips and guns in order to become slaves.
Group of men and women being taken to a slave market. (Wellcome Library, London/Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0)

For its first three hundred years as a Spanish colony, Cuba remained a colonial backwater. The growth of the Spanish population of the island grew only incrementally. A small number of slaves toiled mainly in urban trades and mining, and even fewer Natives, who were all but decimated in the colony’s early gold mining ventures, survived the island’s first century of Spanish colonization. Cuba’s demographic profile began to change beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century. Within the span of four decades, major developments across the Atlantic World — including the British occupation of Havana and the Haitian Revolution — set the colony on a path to become the world’s largest producer of sugarcane and one of the largest importers of enslaved Africans.

Cuba’s turn toward sugar and slavery brought unprecedented wealth to the island’s white planters and to the Spanish Crown, and the colony’s population, both free and enslaved, grew radically. But the sugar boom came to Cuba late — nearly two centuries after planters in Barbados had already settled on enslaved Africans as the principle labor force for sugar cultivation, and almost a century after enslaved Africans and their descendants powered sugar revolutions in Jamaica and St. Domingue. Cuba’s sugar boom was so late, in fact, that it occurred just a few years before the beginning of the end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in its empire in 1807, and within a decade, Spain entered into an agreement with Great Britain to end the trade to Cuba and other parts of the Spanish empire.

After this treaty went into effect in 1820, the legal slave trade to Cuba ground to a halt. And even though slave traffickers continued to import African captives into the island illegally through the 1860s, Cuban planters desperately searched for alternatives to replenish their enslaved populations in the face of the extraordinarily high mortality rates typical of sugar plantations. Before 1820, planters simply replaced the thousands of slaves who died from overwork, malnutrition, disease, and physical abuse each year with new African captives. However, after 1820, they increasingly turned to enslaved women, imposing on them the additional labor of reproducing the next generation of slaves who would harvest Cuba’s sugar.

Drawing of enslaved black men, women, and children, chained together and marching.
Slave transport in Africa, depicted in a 19th-century engraving. (Wikimedia Commons)

Cuban planters were able to exploit enslaved women’s reproductive labor, in part, because of a law mandating that legal condition of servitude passed from mother to child (a concept known as partus sequiter ventrem). According to this legal mandate, babies conceived by enslaved mothers — regardless of their paternal lineage — became the legal property of their mothers’ owner. Slave owners had the legal right to remove babies born of enslaved women from their mothers’ breast. Just as Daina Ramey Berry has pointed out for the antebellum United States, slave owners in Cuba bought, sold, and willed enslaved women’s fetuses even before they left the womb.

Spanish authorities eventually condemned family separation for its negative impact on infant survival. Between the 1820s and 1850s, officials at various levels of colonial and metropolitan governments issued recommendations that Cuban planters make more of an effort to keep enslaved families together to aid in increasing enslaved women’s fertility and reducing enslaved infant’s high rates of mortality. Nevertheless, slave owners could still legally sell infants and children away from their mothers, fathers, siblings, and extended families, and they often did. Some planters even forced enslaved women to become pregnant, only to reap the financial benefits of auctioning their offspring.

As the clandestine slave trade to Cuba sputtered out over the late 1860s, slavery as an institution ceased to be profitable in many parts of Cuba. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Free Womb Law — a law initiating the gradual abolition of slavery by freeing children born of enslaved mothers — became effective in 1870. Although some anti-slavery advocates celebrated the law for its humanitarian benevolence, Cuba’s free womb law, much like the institution of slavery itself, premised an infant’s freedom upon its separation from its family. If an infant remained with its mother, it was fated to labor as a slave until adulthood. If the mother wanted to defend the infant’s freedom, she would have to find someone else to raise it.

The basic arc of Cuban history that led slave owners to institutionalize family separation offers remarkable parallels with the current Republican separation of immigrant families. The economic system that Cuban slave owners built relied on enslaved labor, just as US industrial capitalism depends on cheap labor, made possible in part through immigration. However, changing global processes have strained both these economic systems. The gradual end of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade limited Cuban planters’ ability to sustain or increase their slave populations, while profit margins for sugar cane narrowed due to the expanded cultivation of sugar beets in the US and Europe. The consequences of more than a century of US military intervention and predatory trade policies in Latin America have pushed growing numbers of Latin Americans from their homes.

As the face of immigration darkened, high-paying jobs evaporated and wages stagnated in a deindustrializing US. In both contexts, family separation offered the dominant group a means to sustain, albeit temporarily, the faltering economic system they had built by controlling and exploiting a racial other. In the case of slavery, the separation of enslaved families offered direct material gains to the slave owner; family separation today enables a political party to uphold its commitment to “secure borders” while its supporters continue to benefit from undocumented labor by paying below minimum wage.

Both policies enjoyed the blessing of the law. Just as slave owners cited their property rights to justify the separation of the enslaved family, Sessions’ “zero-tolerance” policy condones the separation of immigrant families. Both policies systematically dehumanize and reduce to incarceration historically marginalized racial and ethnic populations, causing irreparable trauma for generations. So as much as family separation is an “American” legacy, it also forms part of a more global history of racial oppression.

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