Tag Archives: Neo-slavery

When Welfare Was White: What The Fight Over the Safety Net Is Really All About

8 Oct

Much has been written about the fight over the social safety net. Many say that Newt Gingrich calling President Obama the “food stamps president,” and Mitt Romney lying about the President dropping the work requirement in welfare is dog whistle racism meant to gin up a base they’ve spent 50 years building with racist appeals to civil rights backlash.

I agree. But I also think there’s something missing from that argument. We have, it seems to me, become so focused on trying to demonize conservatives as racists that we are missing just how fundamental racism has always been to the structure of the welfare state and, what’s more, what all the fuss over means-based government entitlements is really all about.

In order to understand what’s at the base of all of this fighting, one need only remember back to when welfare was white.

Gary Delgado and Rebecca Gordon write in From Poverty to Punishment: How Welfare Reform Punishes the Poor,

At first, welfare was based on a specific, if unarticulated, ideology of gender roles and race. Its framers expected that white women’s primary responsibility would be child rearing and unpaid domestic labor, while white men would engage in paid labor as their families’ “breadwinners.” Based on this division of labor with the family, paid work was expected to provide a “breadwinner wage” – a wage that would support the paid worker, his wife, and their children. With the introduction of welfare, the government assumed financial responsibility when no other breadwinner was available. White widows were cast as “deserving damsels in distress.”

Aid to Families with Dependent Children(AFDC), what we think of as welfare, was introduced as part of the Social Security Act of 1935, which also provided social security and unemployment insurance. At its inception, AFDC didn’t anticipate the participation of women of color, especially Black women. The intent of the program was to keep white women out of the workforce so they could fulfill their role as mothers.

Whites didn’t consider the value of Black women to their own families, but instead focused on their value to the white-owned businesses and white households that employed them. Black women were expected to work, and in highly exploitative jobs that few whites would ever take. And welfare was designed to avoid interfering with their availability as workers. This is why some welfare offices in the South stopped providing aid to Black families during cotton picking season.

In subsequent generations, as people of color won access to welfare, the program changed, as did our ideas about welfare recipients. The political debate shifted from how to provide for the needy as a way of serving the common good, to how to control the deviant behaviors of recipients who were cast as lazy, dishonest, promiscuous moochers. The sentiment driving the post-integration discussion of welfare can be summed up the by the title of the act that reformed welfare under Clinton: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. That Act assumes that recipients are alienated from work because of their dependency on welfare, rather than because they are denied all but the most onerous, low-paid and humiliating work. To reconcile them to work, time limits and penalties were imposed on recipients to push them into the workforce. But the workforce isn’t where many former recipients end up. Instead they lose their benefits without finding work.

So let’s get it straight. The fight over who does and doesn’t deserve welfare is a fight about race and always has been. In fact, it has roots that stretch all the way back to the days of convict leasing which, after all, was not completely abolished until 1948, 13 years after welfare went national.  It is also very important to recognize the profound and vicious sexism that informs the paternalistic attitude shaping welfare policy, allowing us to talk about recipients but not with them, as though they have nothing to offer to the debate.

But, maybe most importantly, while racism has been used as a weapon to attack welfare, the fight isn’t just about race.

The real fight over welfare is over workers and wages. And while the fight over workers and wages cannot be separated from our history of slavery, coolie labor, and manipulation of immigration policy to maintain a pool of highly exploitable immigrant labor, race isn’t the only thing driving the dynamic.

This is why providing benefits to white widows who would otherwise be housewives was relatively noncontroversial. But when welfare became a program that interfered with the super-exploitation of Black women, all that changed.

That’s why conservatives are so obsessed with welfare when there are so many other areas of spending that are less popular and doing so much more to drive up the deficit. A robust social safety net drives up wages, just as the threat of poverty and unemployment drives wages down. The more vulnerable we are, the more desperate we become. That, to me, is what all the fuss is about.

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.

Why Don’t We Racially Profile Whites?

10 Aug

A while back I wrote a post called White Identity Politics. In it, I wrote:

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

I was trying to make the point that while whites seem to think of themselves as raceless, they in fact are the inventors of the whole system of race. They have a racial identity, and their historic (and contemporary) role in creating and perpetrating racism is as integral to that identity as surviving slavery and facing it’s continuing legacy of injustice is to the identities of African Americans.

In the name of white racial identity, whites have engaged in genocidal warfare against Native Americans. As the victor in this war, whites took land and natural resources not rightfully their own and corralled the surviving Native Nations onto reservations and forced them into inequitable treaty agreements, before attempting to make them disappear entirely through programs of forced assimilation. And ever since, it’s been part of white identity to celebrate white settler history and tout U.S. exceptionalism in spite of the fact that this nation is founded upon genocide.

Whites enslaved Africans – they invented race as we know it for this purpose. Even after a war was waged to end slavery, whites invented convicted leasing. Through this system, they unjustly imprisoned Blacks for the purpose of re-enslaving them. By doing so they not only created a pool of free labor, they terrorized the mass of the Black community of the South into remaining in poor jobs, often for their former masters and their descendents, for fear that they would be imprisoned since unemployment was a crime for Blacks in some jurisdictions. And where Blacks are concerned, much more followed, including Jim Crow and our current war on drugs (notice how I bring that up constantly? I think you should, too).

Whites vilified, persecuted, and alternately exploited and then excluded Asians and waged a war against Mexico and forced them into an inequitable sale of territory that includes all or part of seven U.S. states. And there was Jim Crow, lynchings, mass race riots targeting Black and Asian laborers, and more, and largely with impunity. I would go on, but I think you get the point.

The whole of the U.S. experiment in democracy is marred by incidents of racist brutality, violence, and warfare, and the legal diminution, dehumanization, and exclusion of people of color.  In fact, it is what most characterizes race relations in America.

If an attempt were made to racially profile whites, the picture we would come away with would be anything but pretty. So I’ve been wondering lately, why is it that in spite of the fact that very nearly every modern mass shooting is committed by white males there is still no white racial profile of the mass shooter. One would think that a population, defined by race by their own choosing, that has for so long condoned mass murder, especially in the name of their race, would be, therefore, suspect every time an act of terrorism and mass murder took place in America. But they aren’t.

There is also no federally commissioned Report on White Families that parallels the Moynihan Report. When we think of welfare, we don’t see white people even when welfare was created for white people. When we think of drug crimes, we see Black people in spite of the fact that whites drive the illegal drug trade in the U.S. And we don’t just see them, we arrest them, prosecute them, and imprison them en masse.

A Race Files reader sent me an article by Tim Wise about the 2001 Santee, CA mass school shooting resulting in injury to 13 white children and the deaths of two, asking the same question. In it, he says:

…once again, we hear the FBI insist there is no “profile” of a school shooter. Come again? White boy after white boy after white boy, with very few exceptions to that rule…, decides to use their classmates for target practice, and yet there is no profile? Imagine if all these killers had been black: would we still hesitate to put a racial face on the perpetrators? Doubtful.

In the wake of last Sunday’s mass shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (by no less than a self-professed white supremacist) I think the question needs to be asked again. Why is there no white profile? I’m not saying it’s just, nor that racial profiling is the solution, but as long as law enforcement is going to continue to racially profile people of color, I think we need to create an echo chamber around this issue and say it again and again, white is a race, it has a history and tradition, and mass murder is by no means outside of it, so why aren’t we talking about this?

Job Creators or Profit Makers?

13 Jun

Lately a debate about corporations as “job creators” (usually in contrast to government regulation as a “job killer”) has been waging in the media. I’m guessing that most of you can see through the hype to the real issues at stake. But, just in case, here’s my take:

Businesses are job creators, but only in the sense that they hire workers to facilitate making stuff or delivering services that make them money. They don’t create jobs for the sake of providing employment. Creating jobs is just a means to an end, and the end in question is profit.

Profits are produced when goods and services are sold for prices greater than the cost of production. For this reason, profit, at least short-term profit, is maximized by keeping the costs of production as low as possible, including the cost of labor.

And what are those labor costs? Lots of stuff, including wages, insurance, and measures to insure worker health and safety. It’s stuff like protecting workers from toxic chemicals, moderating the pace of assembly lines, and providing proper lighting, protective gloves and glasses, breaks, days off and overtime pay, all of which adds to production costs and much of which is imposed on companies by government.

That’s why the business sector doesn’t like regulations that get between them and their employees. They like determining wages and benefits, and establishing working conditions by private decision in order to serve their private interests. Government regulations force public accountability in the public interest and that adds cost and reduces short-term profit.

That, from my point of view, is what the fuss is all about. Businesses want to operate in private, without the intervention of government ‘cuz government represents the public, and that public is, inconveniently, made up mainly of people who work and see it as in their interests to demand liveable wages and safe working conditions.

So why is all of this basic stuff about jobs and business being written about in a blog about racism?

Because the poorest workers are the most in need of government protection, and the most vulnerable of poor workers include workers of color. That’s been true since the days of slavery. Remember, government, not business, ended slavery.

Back when the government only served white male property owners, our laws protected slaveholders and allowed men to engage in super-exploitation of women whose often uncompensated labor is a huge and largely unexplored contribution to the creation of wealth in America. But the government giveth, and the government taketh away. By abolishing slavery and later neo-Slavery via convict leasing, government, as an instrument of the public interest, forced serious changes that transformed our country.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that you will agree that this transformation was for the good.

Bob Wing points out in Race and Nationality: The Racial Formation of Asian Americans, 1852–1965 that,

Until the 1840s or so, European immigrants to the United States or what became the United States had an inviting situation…The Irish and other European immigrants became white the day they landed on these shores…The often neglected dialectical opposite of Black oppression is white supremacy and white privilege: the obverse of the enslavement of Blacks was the monopolization of political power, land, skilled trades, and all other forms of rights, property, and privilege by whites, including immigrants. Combined with the ready availability of land opened up by the devastating Indian wars, until the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of whites…became bourgeois or petit bourgeois property holders of one kind or another.

This system is the historical foundation of structural racial inequality in the U.S. What brought it to an end was government intervention and regulation.

Of course, slavery is only the most heinous example of profit-making gone wild. Since slavery and neo-slavery were abolished, workers, especially workers of color, have continued to be exploited and mistreated. Their best hope? Get organized, join a union, and, if all else fails, get the government involved.

This is why we should all be very concerned about casting business as the job creating heroes on white horses who will save us from our economic woes if only we can get government out of the way. History teaches us that, left to their own devices, business will put profit before people, even if it means treating some people as nothing more than property.

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.

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