Attorney General William Barr compared social distancing rules instituted to halt the spread of coronavirus to chattel slavery in the United States, resulting in a torrent of criticisms from lawmakers, commentators and historians.
“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. It’s — you know, other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,” Barr said during a forum at Michigan’s Hillsdale College on Wednesday.
Barr also defended a number of his controversial actions and opinions as attorney general during the event, including intervening in a number of high-profile cases within the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Historian Gerald Horne, who holds the Moores Professorship of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, spoke to Truthout about Barr’s comments, describing his words on Wednesday as “outrageous” and “laughable, if they weren’t so despicable,” and a “ridiculous view of U.S. history.”
“I guess he’s never heard of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II,” Horne said. “I assume he’s never heard of the mass deportation of eastern Europeans following World War I. I assume that he’s not familiar with the history of lynching with the complicity of U.S. authorities.”
Horne said that social distancing rules were vastly less intrusive than numerous actions the U.S. and state governments have taken over the last century — including attacks on workers seeking to unionize in the 1930s, the killings of students protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State in 1970 by national guardsmen, and the numerous laws over the years restricting the reproductive rights of women.
Barr himself has acted in ways that violate the civil liberties of Americans, Horne added. He cited Barr’s use of the Justice Department to intervene in a defamation case on behalf of the president, as well as his recent legal threats toward Black Lives Matter activists on “spurious grounds that they’re seeking to engage in sedition and/or overthrow the U.S. government.”
The Attorney General has used his position as head of the DOJ to defend the permissibility of Trump accepting foreign aid to win elections. Barr has also used his office to suppress investigations into Trump, and pursue inquiries of his political rivals. Barr also ordered authorities to attack peaceful protesters in front of the White House to ensure Trump could walk to a church for a photo op of him holding a bible.
“Mr. Barr needs a refresher course on the basics in U.S. history,” Horne said, concluding that Trump’s attorney general may also need to be reminded of what he learned in law school.
Speaking on CNN’s “New Day” program Thursday morning, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) called Barr’s comparisons of social distancing rules to slavery “ridiculous” and “god-awful.”
“It is incredible, the chief law enforcement officer in this country, would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives,” Clyburn said. “Slavery was not about saving lives, it was about devaluing lives.”
Others on social media expressed similar sentiments regarding the attorney general’s comparison this week.
“This statement is senseless and whitewashes the brutality and violence of our nation’s greatest sin,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Others noted a number of other events in U.S. history that Barr was conveniently forgetting.
“Japanese Internment? Jim Crow? Indian removal? Patriot Act? Border cages?” suggested epidemiologist and public health expert Abdul El-Sayed. “For this administration, there’s a different standard when it affects [people] of color.”
Historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author Jon Meacham also spoke out against Barr’s statement, noting that Barr was seemingly ignorant of a number of enduring consequences of the institution of slavery.
“If you think that this is akin to slavery, you obviously never suffered under the burden of slavery in real time or in its longtime system of segregation and the denial of the suffrage and voting rights that grew out of it,” Meacham said.
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