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I'm having trouble understanding the bolded sentence in the following paragraph.

The use of enslaved laborers was affirmed — and its continual growth was promoted — through the creation of a Virginia law in 1662 that decreed that the status of the child followed the status of the mother, which meant that enslaved women gave birth to generations of children of African descent who were now seen as commodities. This natural increase allowed the colonies — and then the United States — to become a slave nation. The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, even as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children.

Source: New York Times (paywalled)

Here's what I think the sentence means: The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants because free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children.

However, I couldn't find any source that stated that "even as" meant "because," although "as" can mean "because".

According to the Oxford Languages Dictionary, "even as" means "at the very same time as." The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, at the same time as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children.

This latter sentence doesn't seem as logical to me as the former interpretation. Any help is appreciated.

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    The purpose of "even as" in this context is to show the stark contrast between two things happening at the same time: wealth secured for one group vs. wealth denied to another (e.g., inheritance inequality).
    – user294180
    Sep 16, 2021 at 20:35
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    The prohibition did not add to the enrichment of the whites (except, possibly, by the reduction in taxes allowed by black people's wealth defaulting to the state) but it did stop black people establishing property-owning dynasties which would have competed with the white dynasties. "At the same time" does not indicate that the prohibition directly enriched the whites, it indicates that, at the same time, the law allowed white people to establish dynasties and prohibited black people from doing so.
    – BoldBen
    Sep 17, 2021 at 1:51
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    'Even as' here means 'while at the very same time, in a stark contrast,'. '<< Hitler was promising peace in Europe even as he was preparing to invade Poland.' >> Feb 26, 2022 at 12:08

3 Answers 3

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The dictionary meaning (or rather use) of even as is 'at the same time as. See Cambridge English Dictionary reference. The word 'even' often has an aura of surprise at the conjunction of two things. The example given illustrates this. You have a conjunction of two states of affairs:

  1. that slavery in which the offspring of slaves must be themselves slaves provided wealth for slave-owners that could be inherited down the generations (just as if their slaves were horses or cattle);

  2. If a female slave became free (or perhaps even if a woman of colour was born free?) the law denied her the right to pass on any wealth she may have amassed. The idea is that bad as the system of slavery itself was, its oppressions could actually be extended to blight the lives and deaths of women who were not (or were no longer) slaves.

The link between these two things is regarded as particularly shocking. The idea seems to be:

1 is quite bad enough, but, by heaven, there was even 2.

What is not clear to me, and is a matter of history, is whether this means that in some US states no freed woman of colour could legally bequeath her wealth to children born to her while she was still a slave, or whether such laws applied to everywoman of colour, irrespective of whether she had ever been a slave. I was able to find evidence of a free grandmother of colour in Jamaica (a British colony) bequeathing wealth from the land she owned to her children/grandchildren. But I cannot help with the US.

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    This answer needs line editing.
    – Xanne
    Sep 17, 2021 at 3:09
  • Also note that “could” is not explained; it’s not clear what this means, or whether it is explained in the original source.
    – Xanne
    Sep 17, 2021 at 5:09
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    @Xanne Do you mean "could legally"? If so, I think it is clear. "Can" is widely used to mean the same as "may"; and the adverb "legally" make it clear. Of course, in one sense anyone can make a will - even a slave. But for a slave, and even a freed one, such a document had no legal force.
    – Tuffy
    Sep 29, 2021 at 9:37
  • “Could be,” but were they? If it was in the power of a state legislature to prevent black people from conveying property to heirs, did any do so? Is the intent to suggest the states “could” do so but in fact they didn’t, or did so rarely, or in a few states? Is this propaganda?
    – Xanne
    Sep 29, 2021 at 23:35
  • @Xanne I gave you an example of a woman of colour In the British colonies of the West Indies who actually did become wealthy and actually did bequeath her wealth to descendants. In general, the fact that I can do something does not entail that I actually do it (or that anyone else does it. For a start, you have to have property to bequeath. The word 'can' is ambiguous in this way. There are laws about how you legally bequeath property (what constitutes a legal will. Presumably British law about legal wills just did not mention civic or racial status, but in US laws it did.
    – Tuffy
    Sep 30, 2021 at 9:18
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even - adverb, emphatic, usually introducing a contrast or extreme: "The women collapsed and even some of the men fainted."

as - preposition -> that is in the manner or way of/that: "He spoke as a judge pronouncing sentence might."

It is not the same as "because".

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as means "while" or "coincident with":

They arrived as the clock struck twelve.

even is emphatic or an intensive.

I was trying to explain, but you didn't give me even three seconds to get my words out before you stopped me in my tracks.

Together they serve to highlight a stark contrast between two things happening at the same time:

They were living it up, eating nine-course dinners, even as people a mile away were scrounging for something to eat.

So, your original sentence:

The law also secured wealth for European colonists and generations of their descendants, even as free black people could be legally prohibited from bequeathing their wealth to their children.

could be paraphrased:

The law was safeguarding the wealth of European colonists, allowing it to pass from generation to generation, and that safeguarding was happening while the law was doing just the opposite for free blacks, by preventing them from passing wealth down to their children.

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