Slavery is always about the past:
The story we tell about slavery is almost always regional, rather than national. We remember it as a cruel institution of the southern states that would later secede from the Union. Slavery, in this telling, appears limited in scope, an unfortunate detour on the nation's march to modernity, and certainly not the engine of American economic prosperity.
Yet to understand slavery's centrality to the rise of American capitalism, just consider the history of an antebellum Alabama dry-goods outfit called Lehman Brothers or a Rhode Island textile manufacturer that would become the antecedent firm of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Reparations lawsuits (since dismissed) generated evidence of slave insurance policies by Aetna and put Brown University and other elite educational institutions on notice that the slave-trade enterprises of their early benefactors were potential legal liabilities. Recent state and municipal disclosure ordinances have forced firms such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wachovia Corp. to confront unsettling ancestors on their corporate family trees.
But it's also about today:
Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.”