Tag Archives: convict leasing

The Durability of Race

5 Oct

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the death of racism. Many believe that as the global demographics change and Generation Y rises, racism will fade in significance. Some even suggest that what we are witnessing in the Obama backlash is just death throes.

That argument ignores history.

Here’s what I mean.

Neither the Emancipation Proclamation nor the abolitionist movement were enough to end slavery. Slavery was defeated in a Civil War that was fought not over race equality nor just for the cuase of freeing slaves, but over federal authority. The cynicism at the root of the “war against slavery” is revealed by the fact that when legal race slavery was finally defeated in 1865, the culture of  white supremacy survived, both in the North and the South.

Southern state governments, determined to maintain white supremacy, pivoted after the war and took advantage of an exception in the 13th Amendment that allowed for the indentured servitude of criminals. They created a set of legal codes that criminalized Black people. Crimes included changing employers without permission,vagrancy, and selling cotton after sunset.

Once imprisoned, African Americans were subjected to neo-slavery in the form of labor camps and chain gangs. But the impact of neo-slavery was not just on those enslaved. The system terrorized Blacks throughout the South keeping them subjugated to white employers who in many cases were their former masters.

The federal government’s unwritten policy through this period was to turn a blind eye, allowing the system to continue unacknowledged for more than 70 years. While many attempted to fight neo-slavery, what finally ended it was World War II. Just days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Francis Biddle, Attorney General under FDR, issued Circular N0. 3591 acknowledging the federal government’s unwritten policy of overlooking complaints of peonage and slavery and directing federal law enforcement officials to enforce the 13th Amendment.

The move was driven by fears that the Japanese and German propaganda machines would use the federal government’s tolerance of neo-slavery to undercut support for the war effort among African Americans. The circular was issued, but it wasn’t until 1948 that federal criminal code was rewritten to explicitly outlaw slavery.

Of course, while neo-slavery was finally abolished, other aspects of Jim Crow survived, as did the culture of white supremacy. Through Jim Crow, white supremacy was exercised by means of legal apartheid, a system that not only held Black people separate and unequal under the law, but that accommodated white terrorism and vigilante violence to suppress resistance.

When Jim Crow fell, it wasn’t just the result of the courageous efforts of civil rights activists. The death of Jim Crow was also brought about by the Cold War, a conflict in which racism in the U.S. could be weaponized by the Soviet propaganda machine.

But even as Jim Crow fell, the culture of white supremacy survived. The federal government, under Richard Nixon, pivoted to maintain white dominance by targeting the War on Drugs at Black communities. Like the Black Codes before it, the War on Drugs and a broader War on Crime would attempt to criminalize Black people, popularizing the idea that the rising crime rates of the 1970s was the result of the alienation of a permanent Black underclass and not, as sociologists suggest, the result of the baby boom.

Whites and Blacks use illegal drugs at approximately the same rate. The sheer numbers of white people puts them in the drivers seat of the illegal drug market. Yet law enforcement efforts target Black and Latino communities with the result that over two-thirds of people in prison for drug offenses are people of color.

Just as neo-slavery affected far more than those who were imprisoned and enslaved, the War on Drugs is having a broad and devastating impact on communities of color. Prisons take wage earners out of families and parents away from children only to return them years later to suffer collateral consequences such as the loss of voting rights, bans against certain types of employment, and banishment from public housing and “drug-free zones” that may follow them for the rest of their lives. And, for some, just for carrying marijuana in their pockets.

That so small an offense could cost one so much also contributes to a climate of fear and a culture of fatalism. A Black woman married to a man in prison on a drug offense once asked me to imagine what it is like to be a parent of a child in a militarized zone. She said, “every day I tell my kids, ‘if you are stopped by the police be still, be polite, and keep your hands out of your pockets.'”

White supremacy is also adapting to a changing world. Today, the criminalization of race affects more than African Americans. Latino immigrants are reduced to a criminal act when we refer to them as “illegals.” We exploit racism to criminalize Muslims to justify a grab for geopolitical control of a resource rich region of the world. And if you doubt that the growing fear and hatred of Muslims is rooted in racism, imagine for a moment the face of the Muslim threat that lives in the mind of Michelle Bachman. I assure you, it doesn’t have white skin and blue eyes.

We can’t just wait for the culture of white supremacy to be swept away by demographic and generational change. History show us that the durability of race will require much more of us than patience.

Read This Book: Slavery By Another Name

6 Jun

If you’re like me, you grew up with the belief that the Civil War ended slavery.  Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon puts that lie to rest by telling the story of the period of neo-slavery in America – a 75-year sweep of history, starting at the end of the Civil War up to the mid-20th century.

Slavery By Another Name is an accessible and highly informative read. You should check it out. I promise, it’s easy on the noggin, even if hard on the heart. And through the lens of the current war on drugs, the story is also relevant to our contemporary condition.

In the pages of this book we are assured that white resistance to racial equity is rooted in more than stereotypes and simple bigotry. The emancipation of slaves left Southern plantations “not just financially but intellectually bereft” because whites lacked the knowledge and skills necessary to keep agricultural enterprises profitable, and to bring the economically bankrupt post-war South into the industrial age. In order to accomplish that, African American know-how and labor was necessary.

This situation is a parallel of the condition of the early colonists whose settlements could not have survived without the intellectual contributions and labor of African slaves. Both these justifications for slavery speak to the economic incentives that drive the political system of racism.

Having made enemies of African Americans, how were whites to continue exploiting African Americans if not through coercion? Hence the establishment of criminal codes throughout the South specifically targeting African Americans. Through these laws, thousands were arrested for petty offenses like “selling cotton after sunset,” or changing employers without permission. Many were simply arrested because they were not protected by a white employer.

The incarcerated were consigned to forced labor camps where they worked on chain gangs. Many were leased to private enterprises such as U.S. Steel Corporation, the first billion dollar business and once the largest corporation in the world. U.S. Steel used convicts in coal mines under horrific conditions.

I guess that’s why we call them job creators, right?

And the system didn’t only result in the exploitation of those in labor camps. In Georgia in 1930, “In excess of 8,000 men – nearly all of them Black – worked in chain gangs in 116 counties. Of 1.1 million African Americans in the state that year, approximately half lived under the direct control and force of whites – unable to move or seek employment elsewhere under threat that doing so would lead to the dreaded chain gang.”

And what of the fortunes made through convict leasing? Many of the heirs of those who profited from neo-slavery are captains of industry today. Their fortunes remain intact. No one was ever held financially accountable.

In fact, the primary reason convict leasing was brought to an end was not concern for human rights. The system ended mainly because addressing the most extreme examples of American racism was necessary to building a successful WWII alliance against European fascism (not to mention a military industrial complex through which companies like U.S. Steel got even richer).

Check it out. Read it. Tell me what you think.

Racism is a House…or Something

4 Jun Remodel

When discussions of racism come up, folks are quick to remind me that race is not a real thing – it’s just a social construct. I agree. Race isn’t “real” in the sense that it’s not based in biology and it sure isn’t based on geographic difference. I mean, just check out Asia. What do Japan and Iran have in common other than some idea about the “Orient” invented by Europeans, right?

But this idea of race as a social construct is pretty academic. And folks often preface “social construct” with the word “just,” as if the fact that race isn’t natural (as in, from nature) means we can simply educate it away.

So let’s try that idea another way. Yes, race is a made up idea. But, based on that idea, we’ve built real structures, a whole society in fact, and the inequity created by those structures won’t go away just because we change our minds about race.

In this way, the idea of race is like one’s dream of a house. The dream is just an idea, but if you move from dream to blueprint and then from blueprint to construction, you end up with a real structure – a house, made of bricks and mortar (or wood and nails if you like). And, just like you can change your idea about your dream house but still be stuck in the one you built with your old blueprint, certain attitudinal norms about race can change without changing the structure of white supremacy.

In order for your old house to match your new ideas, you have to remodel or rebuild. In terms of race, what we have on our hands in the 21st century is less a remodel than a renovation. Surfaces have changed, but the structures are, for the most part, the same.

Based on the idea of race, we have, for generations, created blueprints in the form of our Constitution, public policy, and social codes, often enforced with violence. Based on those blueprints, we’ve built real structures like suburbs, ghettos, corporations, whole industries.

The legacy of this history lives on in our politics and our economy. Practices such as convict leasing of Black prisoners and the wide array of racist codes and practices in the South and the North – codes like exclusionary covenants, Jim Crow laws, red lining, immigration quotas and exclusion, etc., – have accumulated through history to create a wealth gap between whites and people of color that persists to this day and cannot be resolved unless we revisit this history and address its legacy. Until that happens, the wealth gap will continue to be an indicator of structural inequities as solid and consequential as that wall you wish you could get rid of between the kitchen and the dining room in your house.

I’m not trying to minimize the importance of voting rights protection and changing social mores. These things make a difference. But, structural inequality still exists because the changes we’ve won renovate, even improve, an existing structure that has built in inequities. And these improvements convince the folks that are the least affected by the structural problems that it’s fine in here, making those of us who continue to complain of real injustice look like a bunch of whiners.

So we’ve gotta focus on the structure. Giving too much credence to the ways in which society has (or hasn’t) been renovated rather than remodeled around race is a distraction. It allows us to avoid seeing and dealing with the need for change.

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