Rethinking our notion of justice through the history of slavery is an appealing project, not least because it foregrounds what theories too easily forget: the agonies and abuses the most disadvantaged among us suffer. But it should also raise some concerns: about history, about human rights, and about justice.

History. The history of slavery does not narrate itself. We can all be shocked by the same images of violence, and we can all react with comparable levels of indignation in the face of racial exploitation. But the interpretive and theoretical nature of Johnson’s project will require the use of other intellectual means and tools that make it subject to close scrutiny and critique.

Johnson rejects what he characterizes as a dominant approach to the history of slavery—one that, in casting twentieth-century liberalism as a foil, makes freedom the goal of justice. But both the dominant approach and Johnson’s preferred one are idiosyncratic readings of slavery, conditioned by a whole array of pressures external to the subject matter itself. The profound contrast between the two approaches reveals the need to carefully examine and understand the history, not just the historiography. It also suggests the difficulties that belong to this enterprise and the reasonable divergences that may emerge.

Rethinking our notion of justice through the history of slavery is an appealing project, but it should also raise some concerns.

It would be wrong, in any case, to choose between the dominant approach and alternatives by asking what is gained by thinking one way or the other, or by deciding which approach is less harmful, or by considering which produces the best consequences for some other purpose or inquiry. We should solve our factual and historical disagreements by thinking about which approach offers the best reconstruction of what actually happened.

Finally, even if we accept Johnson’s contestable assumption that the dominant approach to the history of slavery presents a “dehumanized” view, his conclusions do not necessarily follow. For Johnson, the dominant approach presents “humanity as an aspect of the problem of freedom,” and freedom as “the freedom to make choices and take intended actions—in other words, the bourgeois freedoms of classic liberalism.” This account looks shoehorned. Is this really a fair assessment of dominant accounts of abolitionism and its legacy, including the civil rights movement? Where, for example, is Martin Luther King, Jr.? Couldn’t we say that the dehumanization narrative (if that is even a correct characterization) makes a call for equality? Couldn’t we say that these studies remind us, in the end, of the importance of recognizing that no part of humanity should be treated as possessing less moral worth? Why should we conclude that the dominant approach only makes a call for freedom, much less freedom in such restrictive terms?

Human Rights. Following Marx, Johnson rejects the idea that human rights represent the “final form of human emancipation.” For him it is a species of “liberal neo-imperialism, the justifying terms of continuing European and American intervention in the affairs of former colonies.” For sure, the rhetoric of human rights has been repeatedly misused and abused by authoritarian leaders and in the service of political power. However, as a law professor from Latin America, I find Johnson’s approach highly biased at best. The fact that governments in Latin America almost unanimously endorsed human rights discourse in the wake of dictatorships that devastated Latin America during the 1970s represents a fundamental collective achievement in advancing the rights of the most disadvantaged. Since the early 1980s, in fact, a majority of countries in the region incorporated different human rights treaties into their internal law. In some countries, such as Argentina and Bolivia, such treaties were explicitly awarded the status of constitutional laws. In other cases, such as Costa Rica or El Salvador, the treaties gained supra-legal status. As a consequence of the legal changes that followed, among other reasons, human rights began to gain life in real efforts to create more just societies.

Some initial examples: since the restoration of democracy, and in an unprecedented decision, Argentina began to prosecute hundreds of military officers who had taken part in the “dirty war” during the 1970s. General Pinochet was finally condemned and repudiated in Chile. In Brazil a national truth commission denounced the illegal arrests, torture, execution, and forced disappearances once performed by state agents. In Uruguay, once and again, massive social demonstrations have demanded respect for human rights.

The fact that governments in Latin America endorsed human rights discourse in the wake of dictatorships represents a fundamental collective achievement in advancing the rights of the most disadvantaged.

Some other examples: the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 gave aboriginal groups the right to “prior consultation,” with the objective of achieving agreement or consent to land use—such as logging, agribusiness, or mining projects—in indigenous territories. As a consequence, the Colombian Constitutional Court invalidated the national government’s mining policy for violating the rights of Afro-Colombian groups, and the Inter-American Court condemned Ecuador’s mining policies for violating both the right to consultation and the physical integrity of members of the indigenous community of Sarayaku.

Such actions and decisions in the last few decades constitute just a few illustrations of the role played by human rights law. This is hard to square with Johnson’s suggestion that human rights reflect just another form of “liberal neo-imperialism.” Of course the path to the full realization of human rights is long and difficult. But in Latin America we conceive of human rights as allies, rather than obstacles or distractions in the fight for human justice; we see them as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Justice. In the final part of his essay, Johnson enumerates six advantages of his alternative account of justice. But these features do not directly or naturally derive from the study of the history of slavery. They refer to preexistent values, related to a particular theory of justice—a theory of justice that undoubtedly many people, including myself, find attractive, but an independent theory nonetheless. As a result, those values, goals, and ideas of justice should be defined and defended independent of any account of the history of slavery. If we think it proper or better to criticize history from the standpoint of the “Global South,” we should give reasons for that; if we want our notion of justice to be “attentive to questions of gender and sexuality,” we should explain why. And if we want to defend a notion of justice attentive to questions of gender, we should do so regardless of whether the history of slavery calls attention to the issue. Even if our reading of that history did not inform the problems we care about, we would still have reasons for defending a theory of justice that is attentive, say, to questions of sexuality. We certainly should not go to the history looking to find in it a theory we are at pains to defend.

Johnson’s view of justice seems largely Marxist in spirit, which some of us may find appealing. But this leads him to emphasize certain values to the exclusion or discounting of others. For instance, his reading of history does not pay much attention to social relationships, community values and practices, hierarchy and traditions, rituals, social bonds, religion, spirituality, and many other aspects of the lives of slaves that many would find indispensable to understanding their ideals and ways of life. The fact that Johnson focuses on gender and sexuality rather than traditional values, hierarchy, or communal practices says more about his preferred theory of justice, which should be presented and defended in full, than it says about the history of slaves under capitalism.

This forum is featured in Race Capitalism Justice, now available in reprint. Order your copy today.