I note with some interest the debate over whether it is ethically necessary to refer to slaveholders as “enslavers” in order to convey our disapproval over their actions. The obsessive use of the enslaving terminology in The Half Has Never Been Told (Baptist) bothered me at the time, and now I see he was part of a trend.
I understand the motivation—up to a point. Anyone who participated in the slave system had a share in the responsibility for it. It is not anachronistic to look at it this way, since many members of slave-owning households had the same feeling and chose to opt out. Of course, this moral judgment applies not only to those who directly owned slaves, but also those whose livelihood was predicated on enslavement, which includes financiers accepting slaves as collateral and business owners producing goods for slave maintenance and exploitation. To some extent, in my opinion, it even applies to workers for those slavery-based businesses: I’d like to think that I would never have taken such a job if I had been around back then.
Nevertheless, the insistence on language that parcels out responsibility to each participating individual implicitly distracts attention from the systemic, collective basis for slavery. In what sense was an individual slaveholder an enslaver, personally responsible for the enslavement of his or her chattel? An individual is responsible for whether they will be the one with the whip, but not whether individuals will be placed in bondage to someone. The institutions of slavery, which encompassed the political, legal and financial mechanisms that defined, enforced and managed enslavement, took care of this. Language that foregrounds individual responsibility backgrounds the institutional basis of the system.