“Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations— as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco. One historian has already gone so far as to call slavery ‘the ultimate segregator’. He does not ask why Europeans seeking the ‘ultimate’ method of segregating Africans would go to the trouble and expense of transporting them across the ocean for that purpose, when they could have achieved the same end so much more simply by leaving the Africans in Africa.” —Karen & Barbara Fields, Racecraft
There are a few films that exist which are what most people would call “one time-watchers”. Movies whose themes are so heavy that they just aren’t ones you watch over and over again. When I think of films like this, my habit is to think of Schindler’s List (the only movie that has ever made me cry) or The Pianist or The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, because— as a Jew— the holocaust represents the greatest crime ever committed, and therefore portrayals of that event have a heavy emotional impact even seven decades later.
And yet in 2013, when I went with my mother and grandmother to see the one-time-watcher 12 Years A Slave in its opening weekend (based upon Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir), my level of sympathy for— and emotional investment in— the plight of the black characters did not differ even slightly from the sympathy and investment I had felt in the past while watching movies about Jews in the holocaust. What struck me as I watched 12 Years A Slave on that evening six years ago, besides the abject cruelty and sadism of the villain depicted therein (for which the actor Michael Fassbender should have won an Oscar) was that— unlike other movies and shows which depict southern slavery’s racist nature— 12 Years exposed to its viewers the nature of slavery as an economic engine.
It is not a surprise that tellings of stories— and even tellings of true stories— about slavery before and during the Civil War diverge on the question of whether racism is an evolved aspect of human nature which we need to be constantly vigilant against, or if racism is powered by more recent economic drivers. But regardless of how one feels about the origins of race and racism themselves, it’s hard to ignore how the economic engine which for so long drove literal slavery continues today to drive slavery of a more subtle nature (and how this “subtle slavery” impacts all of the working class now and not just African-Americans).
This subtle slavery, more commonly recognized in modern political language as the lingering presence of “systemic racism”, can be difficult to identify in terms of which aspects of “the system” are truly infected with it (so much so, that a great many “color blind” Americans mistakenly believe systemic racism does not exist at all). But as I hope to demonstrate throughout this article, the capitalist foundation upon which our country was naively built— and by which, the country still thrives today far less naively— has always required the existence of a steady underclass most easily kept confined by the idea of “race” and of racial inferiority; and while multiple ethnicities have spent time in this underclass before eventually being accepted into mainstream society (Irish and Italian immigrants, Jews, and today Mexicans), one racial group has remained an underclass constant: African-Americans.
But while American capitalism has required the existence of a steady underclass historically categorized by race, and while this has meant that African-Americans have had to disproportionately shoulder the burden of wealth inequality and a broken criminal justice system, the reality today is that wealth inequality and a corresponding broken criminal justice system have begun to impact lower and middle-income Americans of all ethnic groups. In blunter terms, the cancer is spreading. Thus, for those who are starting to be impacted by inequality and injustice, it is necessary— morally and strategically— to understand the struggle of a people who have been enduring this for a much longer time.
None of this is to say, of course, that individual racism is not also still an issue in this country. There are many, many different reasons for why individuals choose to hate others on the basis of ethnicity or color (though none of them valid). But as far as systemic racism is concerned, I argue that what makes it a much more significant problem is its ability to affect everyone everywhere in various terrible ways; that if capitalism did not— in some way— incentivize systemic racism in what was once the “New World” and what is now the United States, our society may have become more equitable far more quickly. In short, as we embark on a brief romp through American history, my desire in this essay is to show that systemic racism— and the economic philosophy that birthed it— is indeed a problem with traceable roots, as well as give an idea of what we as a people might be able to do to change it.
If one is to attempt a history of American slavery and what has followed in the 156 years thereafter, one must first begin with indentured servitude. In the early 17th century, as pilgrims sailed from England to the “New World”, indentured servants worked to build colonies like Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay. While these indentured servants without a doubt encountered mistreatment and dishonesty on the part of their masters, eventually indentured servants outnumbered property holders, and were well-armed to boot (due to their need to hunt on behalf of the household). After one rebellion occurred, then, in 1676, which resulted in the torching of Jamestown, a line of thinking inevitably began to emerge among the property holders across all colonies that indentured servants needed to 1) be gradually liberated, so they would not begin a string of crippling rebellions, and 2) be given land outside the confines of the towns, so as to further the colonial project and incentivize an end to hostilities. Yet this left wealthy settlers with a problem: Who would fill the labor gap once the indentured servants were liberated? Who would build the towns and the large estates and the roads and the bridges, once the former servants set themselves to building their own homes?
Thus, as the demand for new labor increased, the criteria for what kind of labor was needed to meet that demand changed: Any new labor had to be 1) perpetual, not temporary (as was the nature of indentured servitude), 2) unpaid and without incentive, so that the likelihood of revolt would be lessened, as there would be nothing to revolt for, and finally 3) the labor force had to arrive in a steady stream and be readily replaceable. Therefore, this new labor could not come from England, because English settlers would never fully embrace a permanent persecution of their own countrymen, and besides, there were simply not enough people in England to fulfill the amount of labor the colonial project would grow to demand. So a new labor force had to come from some other place.
This “other place” was Africa.
The Dark Continent proved ideal primarily because African lands had no central governments that slave traders— kidnappers— had to negotiate with. It was simply a giant land mass full of people who were “citizenless” and ill-equipped for what was coming their way. Though the transatlantic slave trade had begun nearly 180 years prior, in 1502, supplying the sugar colonies of Brazil and the Caribbean (who over the entire history of the trade purchased 50% of all slaves), the end of widespread use of indentured servants in the colonies in the late 17th century would mark the beginning of massive American colonial participation in the trade.
The important detail to catch at this point in the historical timeline is that the English settlers found it much easier to accept and perpetuate a brutal system toward a new wave of labor, because the new slaves from Africa were not of the same appearance as the indentured servants who came before them. This point in the timeline is where race became a means of classification by which groups could be selected and subjugated or elevated. Again, regardless of what one may think about the origins of “race” itself— be it a construct or a thing with at least some genetic grounding— it becomes readily apparent that skin color became a way of dividing working Americans and keeping them from realizing their shared interest in creating a government which would exist to protect and serve them rather than enrich itself off their backs. More on this in a little while.
At the height of the Enlightenment seven decades after the colonies began their mass-consumption of slaves from Africa, the shared opinion among colonial philosophers and leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin was that slavery should be abolished. But as tensions began to reach a boiling point between the colonies and England, both Georgia and South Carolina threatened to withdraw support from the revolution if anti-slavery became one of its tenets (a controversy brought about by the insertion of abolitionism in the first draft of the Declaration of Independence).
The abolition of slavery in the new republic was further prolonged by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. With 530 million acres of land being added to the union, a massive labor force was once again required to make that land of any use to the settlers. Thus, 30,000 slaves would comprise half of the non-native population that settled the frontier in the first few years. Their role in creating and strengthening the production and overall economic wellbeing of the south, then, from this point onward, is key to our understanding why the hierarchy of race embedded in a system centuries ago still negatively affects African-Americans to this day (and again, as I will later show, is beginning to affect all of America’s middle income and poor).
From the Louisiana Purchase to the Civil War’s end, slaves produced sugar and tobacco, but mostly cotton. All of these combined made up over 70% of the south’s economy, and cotton alone comprised half of the entire economy of the United States. Even Great Britain, then the world’s most powerful empire— stretching from the westernmost part of Canada to the easternmost part of Australia, and from the tip of Africa to the far north of India— relied on slave-produced goods for 80% of its industrial raw material.
Hence Karl Marx’s observation in his 1847 work The Poverty Of Philosophy:
“Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.”
But after the Civil War, when African-Americans became emancipated from slavery, the south and its industries were almost completely destroyed. Having lost its main workforce to rebuild at a time when most of its young white men were either wounded or dead (and therefore unable to step up and do the work they should have been doing all along), a perfect storm was created once again by the need for new labor due to the freeing of the old.
The Aha! moment for southerners would come after the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865. For while the 13th amendment forbade slavery and forced labor under most circumstances, there was one tiny loophole: a man or woman could be forced to work without pay if they were convicted of a crime. And thus, almost overnight, the south’s population of former slaves began “committing crimes”. Crimes such as being homeless, being unemployed, not having proof of your employment on your person at all times, or consuming alcohol and/or owning a gun (these latter two were a part of the “Black Codes” established by southern states almost immediately after the passing of the 13th). Not only would a violation of any of the above entail loss of one’s own freedom to be used as prison labor, but if one was a parent and convicted, their child could be seized by the state and “apprenticed” to a former slave owner.
Here I would like to pause and point out how things could have been different. If the south had instead appealed to the good will of their fellow citizens in the north, immediately after the Civil War, to volunteer their time and resources to travel down and rebuild and replace what their armies had destroyed, as an act of charity, how much more quickly would America’s two halves have healed from their animosity? How many future decades of suffering caused by Jim Crow could have been averted altogether if the south— in choosing to ask northerners for help— had decided to at last leave African-Americans alone?
But while prison labor succeeded in limiting the freedom of black fathers, brothers, and sons for purposes of profit, “separate but equal” segregation laws allowed for continued racial stratification post-slavery for those African-Americans who couldn’t be criminalized (mothers, small children, the elderly). At the end of “separate but equal” eight decades later, in 1954, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act ten years after, new ways were devised to keep African-Americans an underclass. The War on Drugs, which became official government policy in 1969 under the conservative presidency of Richard Nixon, imposed far stiffer penalties for heroin possession (frequently consumed by African-Americans in poor communities) than cocaine possession (which was a more expensive drug used by upperclass whites). Policies like redlining, “block-busting”, and discriminatory lending practices drove African-Americans into ghettos separate from their wealthier whiter fellow Americans. Inevitably this led to the establishments of “ghetto schools” which— also inevitably— received less funding than schools in wealthier whiter neighborhoods. All of this without mentioning, of course, the very strange and shady circumstances surrounding the “lone wolf” assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in 1968, just prior to the declaration of the War on Drugs and the “ghettoization” of African-Americans that followed soon thereafter.
Meanwhile, the disproportionate convictions of African-American men for petty and major crimes still continued; but a shift occurred in the 1980s that transformed imprisonment of African-Americans as a way to profit from free labor to the imprisonment itself being the source of profit. And it is here where we begin to see the birth of the modern private prison industry.
The private prison industry came about due to an overall privatization push by the Reagan administration that happened in conjunction with a booming prison population (due largely to the War on Drugs declared 11 years prior). The first of these private prison companies was Corrections Corporation of America (today called CoreCivic). Founded in 1983 by Jack Massey, who was also the founder of Hospital Corporation of America, and co-founded by Thomas Beasley, who at the time was also a chairman of the Republican Party, CCA promised to fill the void of incarceration demand and do so at a cheaper cost. Their first facilities were opened in Shelby County, Tennessee— a county whose populace at the time was 50% African-American (the population of African-Americans nationally was 11%). Other companies soon followed, including GEO Group, Management & Training Corporation, and Community Education Centers (acquired by GEO in 2017).
The business model was simple: the more inmates, the more facilities; the more facilities, the more money. This is how the economic system drives racial inequality today. Private prisons have become a corrupting influence on our courts and our law enforcement by making the source of profit more about influx than labor (though, of course, black incarceration was rotten and corrupt when the profit motive was free labor too). In doing this, our justice system is incentivized to prosecute— and render harsher verdicts upon— people from poor communities, who are majority African-American due to states’ and the federal government’s push over the past 150 years to actively impoverish them.
When combined with the fact that Americans have been conditioned to view their fellow black citizens as inherently criminalistic for as long a time, what results is a vicious cycle: mechanisms within our system create black poverty, black poverty begets black crime, black crime begets a steady stream of black convicts, black convicts are unable to find work upon release, so black convicts turn back to crime, which leads to their families experiencing more poverty, which leads to the next generation turning to more crime… and the profit never ends! And even if the pursuit and/or conviction of an African-American does not lead directly to a profitable outcome, because of our conditioning to see them as innately criminal, they are disposed of regardless.
This is why over the past decade we’ve come to know the names of the murdered Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Kalief Browder, Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Terence Crutcher, and Philando Castle. It’s also why we’re not shocked when we hear about a North Carolina cop choke-slamming a teen black boy into a Waffle House window for “being mouthy”; and why we’re further not shocked when the cop in question faces no consequences, despite the assault being filmed on another customer’s camera phone. The unspoken, subliminal, often unarticulated belief in the back of our minds is that law enforcement is always right and is always worthy of respect, and that black men— especially rowdy black men— are a danger and need to be brought to heel.
The most tragic outcome of this continuing injustice, of course, is that black men internalize this perception of themselves. This reminds me of the remark Frederick Douglass made in a speech given to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1865, that:
“Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.”
But this profit-driven justice system, which created laws around punishing poverty as a way of targeting African-Americans, is now beginning to affect all Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck or worse. Consider the “kids for cash” scandal in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where two juvenile court judges essentially sold first-time offending minors to private prisons for kickbacks, regardless of race. Or take the fact that Texas, California, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Illinois have debtors’ prisons where collections agencies can request delinquent debt-holders be sent to, if private debt goes unpaid (rather than delinquency merely being a mark against your credit score), regardless of if the offenders are white, black, hispanic, etc. When this last revelation is taken in conjunction with the knowledge that predatory lenders plague the ghettos, it’s easy to take notice of the conspiring of business and government to— no longer just maintain a steady underclass to keep our current economic system sustained— but to expand that underclass. Inevitably then, while police brutality has always been an issue in black communities all over the country, poor whites in the mountains of West Virginia and in dying towns near the Ozarks are now beginning to learn of it with their own eyes. Even in cities like Baltimore, low-income white neighborhoods are starting to feel police brutality’s unendurable sting.
None of this is to say, of course, that the history of the United States is rotten through-and-through with no redeemable aspects whatsoever. I don’t believe that for a second, and find other leftists who do believe that to be unbearably annoying in their self-righteousness. On the contrary, I think America has as many good and noble moments as it does wicked… but the wicked still counts. It still affects us today. And it’s on us, the living, to do something about it.
A common suggestion is to give material reparations to African-Americans, and particularly descendants of African-American slaves. But reparations to African-Americans, though justified on a historical basis, will do nothing to stop capitalism’s continued need for an underclass; and thus, we would be making reparations for a problem that still exists and is worsening. It’s a band-aid on an artery bleed. The only way to put an end to the sustaining of an underclass— and all of the horror that follows with that— is to democratize the economy. The “radical” notion must be mainstreamed that just as African-Americans and everyone else should have ownership of their own bodies, so we should also have ownership of the things we produce and the means by which we produce them. Otherwise the systemic racism that is now morphing into a more general class warfare will only be compounded by the increasing challenges of automation, globalization, overpopulation, and climate change. But in order to democratize the economy, we must vote. We must vote in primaries. We must organize labor unions. We must strengthen already-existing labor unions. We must demand accountability of our law enforcement… by protest if necessary. In order to address economic inequality and racial injustice, the citizenry have to wake from their slumber. A democracy unused is a democracy dying.
Most of the information I talked about in Bottom Lines Matter is common access. Which is to say that most of the facts mentioned therein are overwhelmingly agreed-upon by historians and can be found in a wide variety of sources (would I really need to cite, for instance, that the Louisiana Purchase indeed took place in 1803? Or that slavery replaced indentured servitude?) However, for the more controversial facts (and opinions derived from those facts), like the 13th amendment providing a loophole for slavery’s continuation, or how African-Americans were driven into ghettos, or the negative effect of the private prison industry, you can read: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Jamelle Bouie’s piece in The Daily Beast on “How We Built The Ghettos”, and Shane Bauer’s interview with the Texas Observer titled “How The Racist Roots Of Private Prisons Still Permeate The System”.
As far as the War on Drugs deliberately targeting African-Americans by imposing harsher penalties for heroin possession than cocaine possession, there could be no better source than Richard Nixon’s own advisor John Ehrlichman, who confessed to interviewer Dan Baum of Harpers that “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
One thing I noticed upon rereading the article was that I mention the negative impact of Republican presidencies on black Americans, but fail to mention the negative impact Democrats have had on black Americans. While the unbalanced treatment of both parties was unintentional, I do blame the political philosophy of conservatism for being the primary force behind the economic reasoning that an underclass was needed to sustain production and profit. Indeed, a hierarchy of elites is a fundamental pillar of conservatism if Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke are to be believed. Without a doubt, the presidency of Bill Clinton negatively impacted African-Americans when taking into consideration his signing of the Violent Crime & Law Enforcement Act (1994) and the Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Act (1996), in conjunction with the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994) that further impoverished Americans of all races by shipping jobs overseas. And— as any Breitbart-consuming lover of the Politically Incorrect Guides would be quick to remind you— it was southern Democrats from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s who stood for slavery and Jim Crow, not Republicans (“The party of Lincoln!”) But Clinton’s “tough on crime” and welfare and free trade shenanigans are criticized precisely because he was a “liberal” passing rightwing legislation (partially as an act of appeasement for the Gingrich congress, and partially as part of the project to build a Third Way in the Democratic Party). And as far as the “Dixiecrats”, modern conservatives of course ignore the ideological switch that took place between the Republican and Democratic parties between the 1960s and 1980s over race, labor, and foreign policy issues.
This article marks the end of my Dispatches From A Dying Democracy series. As I pointed out in Eros: An Obituary, first published in Areo Magazine, our democracy is dying because romance is fading from public life, and what’s arriving in its stead is cold, bureaucratic, transactional “agreement”. In Democratize Social Media, first published in Paste Magazine, I pointed out that our democracy is also dying because everything we think, do, say, and purchase is all being collected by tech giants who hold very little regard for our rights. And finally, in this essay, published only here, I argued our democracy was dying because our economic system— which required a constant underclass formerly categorized only by race— has now decided it’s a little more hungry; and thus, poverty and the “justice” system that punishes poverty is now affecting poor whites and hispanics in addition to African-Americans. As the elite has grown smaller, the underclass has grown bigger.
But just because I argue our democracy is dying, doesn’t mean it can’t be saved. As you can tell from how I concluded Bottom Lines Matter, we are not yet at the point of no return. There is still hope, so long as we realize that the “hope” is ourselves and our fellow citizen. No god, alien civilization, or cosmic force of some other variety will do the work of restoring our civilization for us. And even great politicians cannot single-handedly right society’s wrongs. They rely on mass support, which we should only give them if they are truly great, not milquetoast and lackluster. Only an educated and engaged populist movement can ensure a republic of the people, by the people, and for the people.