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How The South Kept Slaves Until WWII
May 18, 2013 11:27 AM   Subscribe

The horrifying, little-known story of how hundreds of thousands of blacks worked in brutal bondage right up to the middle of the 20th century. It was a crime for for a black man to lack employment and a crime to change jobs without his previous employer's permission. It was a crime to sell the proceeds of his farm to anyone other than the man from whom he rented land. A crime for a black man to speak loudly in the company of a white woman, to walk beside a railroad line, to fail to yield a sidewalk to white people, to sit among whites on a train and, in practice, generally a crime for blacks to be accused of any crime by a white person.
posted by blankdawn (59 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite

 
Horrifying? Yes. Little-known? Uh... not really.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:34 AM on May 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Certain details of the article -- such as widespread use of flat out kidnappings, and the massive scale on which plantation owners profited directly from convict labor -- are I believe not generally recognized parts of mainstream (or even mainstream progressive) discourse.
posted by blankdawn at 11:37 AM on May 18, 2013 [12 favorites]


Horrifying? Yes. Little-known? Uh... not really.
They don't teach about re-enslavement as part of reconstruction in school; they talk about segregation, widespread poverty and lack of mobility, but not the return of slavery.
posted by numberwang at 11:39 AM on May 18, 2013 [25 favorites]


How much evidence is there thaat re-enslavement was this widespread? It's an excellent article, but I know better than to put too much trust in a site like Alternet.
posted by Green Winnebago at 11:42 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I knew about reconstruction and the ways in which Southern whites kept the whip hand over their former slaves, but not so much that slavery was already being reinstated in all but name only in 1865, or that it endured up until WWII. (If you ignore the modern prison system.)
posted by MartinWisse at 11:43 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Well, this sits depressingly with the fact that Angola is still one of the worst prisons in the US and still picks cotton.

I'll concur that I wasn't aware of the degree of intentional re-enslavement indicated here (although with only one case for evidence - numbers would be good). I was always told the already relatively appalling story that chain gangs just worked on infrastructure for the states concerned.
posted by jaduncan at 11:43 AM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Too bad we aren't also teaching today about the new Jim Crow.. And talking more about how to end it. That is directly affecting black communities today.
posted by bearwife at 11:44 AM on May 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


How much evidence is there of widespread re-enslavement? It's an excellent article, but I know better than to put too much trust in a site like Alternet.

ANSWER: The article mentions that in just one section of the National Archive there are 30,000 pages of material consisting of letters asking for help regarding kidnappings and "re-enslavements" along with the official "bureaucratic responses."

"A similar body of material rests in the files of the NAACP... and dwarfing everything at those repositories are the still largely unexamined collections of local records in courthouses across the South... containing hundreds of thousands of handwritten entries."

Next there are the financial records: "This new slave trade generated millions of dollars for state and local governments—for many years it was the single largest source of income for the state of Alabama."

The article describes the mechanics of even "legal" (non-kidnap) convict slavery. Blacks who tried to leave "labor contracts" with abusive bosses were rounded up and whipped, like fugitive slaves. Debts to company (monopoly) stores built up, so debt slavery resulted.

Mortality rates and work conditions were bad enough to rival slavery in some cases.

I respect your skepticism but I think the article lays it out pretty plainly. The author wrote both a book and PBS documentary on the subject, and has worked for the WSJ and the Post were he won a Pulitzer.
posted by blankdawn at 11:52 AM on May 18, 2013 [17 favorites]


slavery was already being reinstated in all but name
...even as Spielberg’s film conveys the euphoria felt by African Americans and all opposed to slavery upon passage of the amendment in 1865, it also unintentionally foreshadows the demise of that brighter future... the African American housekeeper... reads the amendment aloud. First, the sweeping banishment of slavery. And then, an often overlooked but powerful prepositional phrase: “except as a punishment for crime.”
Naming it as slavery wasn't, and still is not, at odds with the actual wording of the 13th Amendment.
posted by XMLicious at 11:52 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Read the book by the author (there are a few comments about it in this thread). It struck me as well researched, and I learned things I hadn't known about the details and extent of the phenomenon. The article deserves better than the dismissive first comment.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:12 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, I linked to the wrong comment. Here's y2karl's comment with 5-6 links to reviews and the Google Books page.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:15 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that, if anything, the "little known" aspect is the idea that the Prison Industrial Complex stretches back to 1865.

I mean, it's blatantly obvious to anyone who knows anything about US history post 1865 that blacks in the former Confederacy were largely kept disenfranchised and forced into unfair sharecropping situations that were only technically Not Slavery. I grew up in the South and we learned this in school.

I also feel like the use of prison labor for private ends is generally somewhat known, but often not really considered bonded labor, as it should be.

Even among people who know about all of the above -- for instance, me -- I had no idea that this started happening in such a systematic and organized way immediately after the Civil War. I thought it was a Crack Epidemic/War On Drugs thing, hazily connected to Jim Crow concepts like "vagrancy" and Bad Old Days punitive measures like chain gangs and workhouses and such.

When you frame it as "re-enslavement" and not "prisons really sucked back in the olden times and also Jim Crow laws", it really puts everything into perspective in a way that I think really is a "little known" narrative of widely known events.
posted by Sara C. at 12:19 PM on May 18, 2013 [19 favorites]


Quite under-reported, IMHO. I'm reading Blackmon's book right now, and I regularly have to choke down a feeling of white-hot rage--and I'm a white male. Can't imagine how angry this would make an African-American...
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 12:33 PM on May 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah, ivan, I commented in the previous thread "I can recommend the Blackmon book, but be prepared to be angry and/or depressed."
posted by benito.strauss at 12:38 PM on May 18, 2013


If there is a lesson to be learned from this issue--esp. the Blackmon book--it is that it is the federal govt and not the individual states that will finally protect our citizens legally.
It was, after all, the govt that in 1950 integrated our military years before the states did, and when the states did, it was only after the govt had to step in. It is, too, the govt and not the states, that will protect the right to vote in states that try to prevent minority voting.
posted by Postroad at 12:39 PM on May 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


If there is a lesson to be learned from this issue--esp. the Blackmon book--it is that it is the federal govt and not the individual states that will finally protect our citizens legally.

The federal government will protect all of our citizens before any of the states can, yes. But the Jim Crow institutions across the South did not preclude other states from being decent places. No, the Governor of Massachusetts can't step in and make things better for people in Alabama, but that's not the Governor of Massachusetts's job.
posted by Etrigan at 1:19 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carrol with a cane he twirled around his diamond-ringed finger, at a Baltimore hotel society gathering...
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 1:29 PM on May 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Blackmon book -- Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, buy it, read it -- is one of the most eye-opening things I've ever read. Several things stuck out: the way companies could literally place orders for how many workers that they wanted to purchase in the courtroom, and, since the list of "crimes" was such that every black man alive could easily be found guilty of one of them no matter what he was doing, the sheriff would just go out and get however many where needed was one.

But also, the role that this kind of labor played in the industrialization of the New South, often run by Northern companies, whose presidents back in Pittsburgh didn't want to know -- an echo of how the profits from the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries were mostly earned by Northern businessmen even though the slaves went south.
posted by Fnarf at 1:30 PM on May 18, 2013 [10 favorites]


A lot of modern anti-black racism is very quiet. It's nearly as effective. It is pervasive, tenacious, and sometimes, even unconsciously creeps into the acts of white folks who don't have anything against blacks and who consider themselves 'color blind'. Honestly, I don't know that we'll ever get over our inherent tribal human nature, and when one "tribe" is so easily identified by skin color at a distance, I am inspired to deep sorrow.

It's human nature to get by with what we can get by with, and when crap like this is hidden by geography and enforced by isolation, poor access to communication, and lack of local advocates, horrible things happen. It makes me appreciate the heroes and heroines of the racial equality movements all the more, and inflames my heart in their defense and support.

Of course, three white women being held in sexual slavery will get top billing for years, but generations of black folks treated comparably... sadly lacking newsworthiness.
posted by FauxScot at 1:48 PM on May 18, 2013 [9 favorites]


No, the Governor of Massachusetts can't step in and make things better for people in Alabama, but that's not the Governor of Massachusetts's job.

Sure it is, because he's a human being.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:35 PM on May 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


You've ended unemployment forever!
posted by XMLicious at 2:47 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


> the list of "crimes" was such that every black man alive could easily be found guilty of one of them

That was the most awful part of the book for me, where the “Do you have any money, boy?” challenge was explained:
• if one said "no", then you could be arrested for vagrancy.
• if one said "yes", then you could be arrested on suspicion of theft.

Since the cost of the court proceedings fell on the defendant, they could be held on vagrancy charges until their labour paid them off. Which — whoops! — they never quite did.

A million fiery fuckstorms on the memory of whoever came up with that ‘logic’.
posted by scruss at 3:12 PM on May 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


How much evidence is there that re-enslavement was this widespread?

I have been all over this here for years. Read the book -- he covers it so extensively. PBS even made a special about it. Which could have been so much better.

And as noted here:
The very concept of reparations for antebellum slavery, the sort over which the Civil War was putatively fought, is a topic that is the hottest of hot potatoes in the national conversation.

Yet the slavery of which Blackmon wrote, what he called neo-slavery, lasted from the end of Reconstruction until the end of the Second World War -- in other words, until the middle of the 20th Century, which is well within living memory of many alive today. And given that timeline, there are likely living survivors of that slavery.

I would argue that no one alive today has a stronger case for reparations than they, those survivors, and their heirs, and, in fact. all heirs of all so re-enslaved, as Blackmon puts it.
posted by y2karl at 5:29 PM on May 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


(This is one reason why so many Southerners with a sense of history shudder when folks start musing about how awesome jury nullification is.)

The convict lease system was an injustice so huge, so glaring, so pervasive and systemic that it's hard to wrap your around. Here's one good analysis.

Hell, the history of Henry DeBardeleben and his son "Uncle Charlie" is such a horror story it'll keep you up at night.

And there are still parks and streets and schools named after these fucks. Ugh.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:36 PM on May 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Strong traces of the culture of slavery remain in the American industrial relations system. Compare the at-will employment states with the slave states; it's pretty much a one-to-one correspondence. The conflation of employment of a person with ownership of that person continues.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:43 PM on May 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


Agree with FauxScot. Always a good idea to check your privilege -- if you are the beneficiary of privilege in any way...
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 5:47 PM on May 18, 2013


Bill Moyers is where I first saw and heard about Slavery By Another Name: Author Douglas Blackmon on 20th Century Neo-Slavery

And the book's home page: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II -- where you can watch the rather disappointing PBS special by the same name. From an excerpt of the book there:
...Waves of disease ripped through the population. In the month before Cottenham arrived at the prison mine, pneumonia and tuberculosis sickened dozens. Within his first four weeks, six died. Before the year was over, almost sixty men forced into Slope 12 were dead of disease, accidents, or homicide.

Most of the broken bodies, along with hundreds of others before and after, were dumped into shallow graves scattered among the refuse of the mine.

Others were incinerated in nearby ovens used to blast millions of tons of coal brought to the surface into coke—the carbon-rich fuel essential to U.S. Steel’s production of iron. ...

Almost a century later, on an overgrown hillside five miles from the bustling downtown of contemporary Birmingham, I found my way to one of the only tangible relics of what Green Cottenham endured. The ground was all but completely obscured by the dense thicket. But beneath the undergrowth of privet, the faint outlines of hundreds upon hundreds of oval depressions still marked the land. Spread in haphazard rows across the forest floor, these were sunken graves of the dead from nearby prison mines once operated by U.S. Steel. Here and there, antediluvian headstones jutted from the foliage. No signs marked the place. No paths led to it.
See here also

You don't think we owe these people and their children something ?
posted by y2karl at 6:33 PM on May 18, 2013 [8 favorites]


For people who have just finished reading Slavery By Another Name, I recommend Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow.
posted by box at 7:31 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Previously
posted by XMLicious at 7:49 PM on May 18, 2013


How much evidence is there that re-enslavement was this widespread?

Tons. Tons and tons and tons of evidence. The paperback is 400 pages long in a small font, with an additional 40 pages of footnotes in an even smaller font.

I know better than to put too much trust in a site like Alternet.

That seems more than a bit willfully obtuse. But yeah, pick up a copy of the book and read 20 pages at random. You'll see.
posted by mediareport at 8:28 PM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


> I know better than to put too much trust in a site like Alternet.

Alternet is a pretty decent site - I note you have no examples as to why you don't believe it - but you know, you are giving away your prejudices. A few seconds' Googling would have found all the corroboration you need - you would also have found out that writer has won a Pulitzer Prize for writing on this same issue.

What's funny is that with a name like Blackmon, I expected the writer to be African-American but it looks like he isn't. More power to him, either way...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:12 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Horrifying? Yes. Little-known? Uh... not really.

Hey, the slave drivers knew.
posted by telstar at 10:49 PM on May 18, 2013


but that's not the Governor of Massachusetts's job.

Sure it is, because he's a human being.


Wait, which Governor of Massachusetts are we talking about?

Compare the at-will employment states with the slave states;

Point of clarification -- at-will employment is not the same thing as right-to-work. Your point applies primarily to the latter category.
posted by dhartung at 12:35 AM on May 19, 2013


The paperback is 400 pages long in a small font, with an additional 40 pages of footnotes in an even smaller font.

That speaks to quantity, not quality.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:18 PM on May 19, 2013


The question was about quantity; rest assured the quality's there as well. Again, I suggest any skeptic simply grab a copy from the library, pick a chapter at random and read a dozen or so pages to get a flavor for the quality of the evidence, if the Alternet piece has you wanting to learn more.
posted by mediareport at 4:49 PM on May 19, 2013


Oh I have no dog in this fight, I've just seen too many books that overstuff the bibliography with intimidate readers.

Mind you, from a quick look at the bibliography and especially the section on court records, it did seem overwhelmingly over-weighted to Alabama.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:07 PM on May 19, 2013


> ... simply grab a copy from the library ...

You don't even need to get out of your seat and go to the library! The GoogleBooks entry seems to have the entire text available. (I don't know if GoogleBooks will cut you off after a certain number of pages.)

> ... it did seem overwhelmingly over-weighted to Alabama.

Raising ... new .... issue. ... Must ... not ... concede ... argument ...
posted by benito.strauss at 5:23 PM on May 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


it did seem overwhelmingly over-weighted to Alabama.

So the systematic enslavement of Black people isn't convincingly demonstrated unless it definitively involves more than one state?
posted by gingerest at 6:13 PM on May 19, 2013


Slavery by Another Name on YouTube.
posted by homunculus at 7:00 PM on May 19, 2013


When you frame it as "re-enslavement" and not "prisons really sucked back in the olden times and also Jim Crow laws", it really puts everything into perspective in a way that I think really is a "little known" narrative of widely known events.

But I think that's where this article seems weakest - they admit that this also happened to poor whites as well as blacks - so they're calling it "re-enslavement" when it happened to people who had never been enslaved.

They cite things like breaking a labor contract being viewed as illegal, but that has always been illegal. I think if anything, it was more likely to fall on uneducated newly freed blacks because they might not be able to read the contract that closely. Being forced to work longer for debt - well, were people forced to incur that debt? No, but it didn't seem a big deal at the time - like easy credit now.

We make a big deal out of "slavery" without defining what slavery is beyond "chattel slavery." But many men and women are enslaved today to contracts they cannot break or debt they cannot pay, white and black alike.

What is slavery? Is it being forced to work against your wishes? Being bound to contracts? Facing harsh punishments for rules you did not create? Having the proceeds of your labor taken away from you? None of this is exclusive and none of this is gone now.
posted by corb at 9:04 AM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


this also happened to poor whites

Could you please explain this? Because AFAIK it didn't.

It's true that whites were subject to the same bad prison conditions as black people, if they ended up in prison.

It's also true that poor whites in rural areas often subsisted as sharecroppers.

But from what I know about the South between the Civil War and Jim Crow, it just wasn't as systematic a thing as it was for black people.

It's a little bit like the justice system we have now. Are there laws that white people can break just as easily as black people? Sure. Do white people sometimes go to jail? Sure. Are white people sometimes poor and disenfranchised? Sure. But then think of the "Driving While Black" phenomenon. Or "Stop And Frisk" programs.

As a white person, I feel like it would be bad for me if I ended up in jail due to breaking laws (or, in an extreme case, maybe if I found myself associating with an underworld-ish sort of element and maybe was wrongly convicted due to having a bad lawyer or something).

But I look at the reality that black people -- especially black men -- face, and it doesn't seem like the prison system is there on the bizarre chance that one happens to commit a terrible crime. It's almost the opposite: staying out of prison requires a phenomenal effort devoted not only to never breaking even the tiniest letter of the law, but also to all kinds of unwritten social rules like "don't drive too nice a car".

It's not too hard for me to extend this systematic funneling of black men into prisons all the way back in time to the aftermath of slavery. I agree that I'd like to see some data on it -- which I imagine this book purports to be -- but we're not talking "the sky is green" illogical nonsense. The thesis makes perfect sense.

One of the most important things I ever learned about codified racism in America is that the Jim Crow system was started by people who remembered antebellum life. It wasn't just some organic offshoot of how people are naturally jerks, or a random chance occurrence that happened to apply to black people disproportionately because they were too ignorant to avoid it. Black people were systematically oppressed by white people who passed laws and very deliberately created a culture where black people had no chance to be free. And that was the POINT of these very comprehensive systems that were put into place.
posted by Sara C. at 9:26 AM on May 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


this also happened to poor whites

Could you please explain this? Because AFAIK it didn't.


Sure, the piece I was specifically looking at was:
During this time, some actual criminals were sold into slavery, and a small percentage of them were white. But the vast majority were black men accused of trivial or trumped-up crimes.
I think the problem with that is it really is very clearly biased - it doesn't lay out what "Actual Criminals" are as opposed to people "accused of trivial or trumped-up crimes." So it's kind of conveniently decreed than any white men sold into prison slavery were real criminals, while any black men sold into prison slavery were just people who were accused of bullshit.

One of the laws listed, for example, is the vagrancy statutes - they are cited as a law that is mostly enforced against black men, as evidence that they came from a purely racist basis. But the test of vagrancy has never been simply "is this person employed" but more "Does this person have connections who will take care of them, do they own land that they can reside on, or are they a burden on the state." Individuals with no such connections or land were more prey to this - which was more the case for recently freed slaves than anyone else. And it assumes that the point of vagrancy statutes was to arrest black men, when I think it much more likely the point of vagrancy statutes was to get poor people off of the streets.

One of the most important things I ever learned about codified racism in America is that the Jim Crow system was started by people who remembered antebellum life. It wasn't just some organic offshoot of how people are naturally jerks, or a random chance occurrence that happened to apply to black people disproportionately because they were too ignorant to avoid it. Black people were systematically oppressed by white people who passed laws and very deliberately created a culture where black people had no chance to be free. And that was the POINT of these very comprehensive systems that were put into place.

This is I think the point where I partially disagree with you, but it's in intent rather than effect. I don't think that people created these systems because they were focused on keeping black people unfree. I agree that the laws were created by people who remembered antebellum life fondly, but think the majority of these laws were more focused on /white/ people than on black people. The Jim Crow laws, for example, had very little to do with what black people did with or around black people. They were focused on what black people did to or around white people. (Still racist, sure, but from a different angle) These are people who wanted to make sure that they would never have to be inconvenienced by the sight of anything they found ugly, or interaction with anyone they found not worthy of interaction. Wrong, absolutely! But from an entirely different place than I think you think they're coming from. I don't think Jim Crow laws were created as a means to funnel black men into jails at all - I think they were created as a means of social control to attempt to preserve a sort of white bubble life where black people didn't really exist. (see: gated communities in our times)

And so it's the same thing with these slavery systems. I don't think white people enslaved black people because they just happened to be emotionally satisfied when black people were enslaved. I think that they were coldly looking at their profit and their bottom lines, and saw that there was a class of people they could absolutely still exploit for profit without other people putting up too much of a fuss. Thus, profit-driven motivations rather than just "pure racist" motivations.

The reason I think it's important to tease out these intents is because I think when you call someone out as just a pure racist, they can look at their internal motivations of profit or isolation or what have you and say, "No, I'm not racist, I just want what's mine, you are WRONG and I'm not going to listen to you anymore."
posted by corb at 9:49 AM on May 20, 2013


I think when you call someone out as just a pure racist

I think it's pretty fucking fair to say that white former slave-owners coming up with ways to disenfranchise, exploit, and in many cases re-enslave black people following the Civil War

WERE FUCKING RACISTS.

I mean, really. I don't want to flame you, because it's mean and counterproductive and metafilter frowns on such things. But, REALLY.

Is the intent of the entire notion of bonded labor economic rather than pure race hate for no productive reason other to be big fat meanies? Sure. Yes. You're right.

BUT IT'S STILL FUCKING RACIST TO ENSLAVE BLACK PEOPLE I MEAN GAH WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU SERIOUSLY
posted by Sara C. at 9:56 AM on May 20, 2013 [9 favorites]


I think if anything, it was more likely to fall on uneducated newly freed blacks because they might not be able to read the contract that closely. Being forced to work longer for debt - well, were people forced to incur that debt? No, but it didn't seem a big deal at the time - like easy credit now.

Did you actually read the article? I don't see how you can act as though things like this:
A black worker in 1904 described to a journalist how he arrived at the farm at age ten as a free laborer. A few years later, he attempted to leave to work at another plantation. Before sundown on the day of his departure, one of the McRees and “some kind of law officer” tracked him down. The new employer apologized to the McRees for hiring the young worker, saying he would never have done so if he had known “this nigger was bound out to you.”

“So I was carried back to the Captain’s,” the man said later. “That night he made me strip off my clothing down to my waist, had me tied to a tree in his backyard, ordered his foreman to gave me thirty lashes with a buggy whip across my bare back, and stood by until it was done.”

When his labor contract finally expired after a decade, the man was told he could leave Kinderlou, so long as he could pay his accumulated debt at the plantation commissary—$165, the rough equivalent of two years’ labor for a free farmer. Unable to do so, of course, he was compelled to sign a contract promising to work on the farm until the debt was paid, but now as a convict.
emphasis mine, are some sort of freely-entered-into accumulation of debt comparable to signing up for a credit card and going on a splurge.

I'm also kind of flabbergasted that you seem to be saying that these things resulted as a sort of coincidence from people not being able to read, rather than as a product of racism. Does this mean that the mid-twentieth-century civil rights movement in the U.S. was basically unnecessary? And how did they end up not being taught to read in the first place, decades after the Civil War in many of the instances described, if this is an impartial outcome that would befall anyone regardless of color?

...also, on preview, I'm not really seeing the distinction between "pure racism" and just greedily exploiting a class of people to their ruin, misery, and death in many cases. Racism certainly coincides with hatred and ill will, but isn't defined by it - one can quite dispassionately think that black people are inherently inferior or that Jews are "born spies" and the dispassion doesn't make it any less racist.
posted by XMLicious at 10:09 AM on May 20, 2013 [4 favorites]


who passed laws and very deliberately created a culture where black people had no chance to be free. And that was the POINT of these very comprehensive systems that were put into place.

They didn't really have to pass laws it seems. Considering how many sheriffs, judges, etc were in the klan, I would think many laws (against lynching and raping for example) simply did not apply to white people if the crime were committed against a black person, and most likely many blacks were prosecuted and incarcerated without evidence if they stepped out of line, or for whatever reason.

I'm surprised more hasn't been done to investigate and prosecute the lynchings that went on in the South, other than the work of one reporter in Mississippi it seems.

The existence of organizations like the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching and the Commission on Interracial Cooperation is encouraging. At least there were some good people in the South willing and courageous enough to try to do what was right - just not enough I guess.

It's funny, I just watched Mississippi Burning last night and there are a few quotes that sort of jibe with racism from corb's perspective:
Clayton Townley: In the courts of Mississippi, they have been reminded, that they cannot, by force, turn our communities into replicas of their communities... communities in which negroes run riot, unrestrained and unpunished, as they do this summer in the streets of Harlem, or they do in the streets of Oakland, or they do in the STREETS OF CHICAGO!

Older Lady: They say we've got to eat together and use the same bathroom as the niggers.
And that's awful hard for some Mississippi folks to do.
They're not like us. They don't take baths.
They stink, they... they're nasty...
Is this "pure racism"? I don't know. The Preacher and the Klansman by Jerry Mitchell might be a good read to try to understand Southern Racism better.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:08 AM on May 20, 2013


I don't think that people created these systems because they were focused on keeping black people unfree.

Maybe not, but it was certainly, from their perspective, a beneficial side effect.

I agree that the laws were created by people who remembered antebellum life fondly, but think the majority of these laws were more focused on /white/ people than on black people.

If you mean to demonstrate this, then why is your first example the Jim Crow laws, which punished black people, and exclusively black people, for supposedly criminal acts like voting?

The Jim Crow laws, for example, had very little to do with what black people did with or around black people. They were focused on what black people did to or around white people. (Still racist, sure, but from a different angle)

Emphases mine. Where do you think lies the disagreement between you and Sara C. here?

These are people who wanted to make sure that they would never have to be inconvenienced by the sight of anything they found ugly, or interaction with anyone they found not worthy of interaction. Wrong, absolutely! But from an entirely different place than I think you think they're coming from.

Emphases mine. Here you equivocate: Sara C. is not arguing that white people in the south re-enslaved black people because they were big ol' meanies. You're attacking a straw man.

I don't think Jim Crow laws were created as a means to funnel black men into jails at all - I think they were created as a means of social control to attempt to preserve a sort of white bubble life where black people didn't really exist.

... and funneling black men into jails is part of establishing that bubble life. It is a form of social control. I fail to see how the latter excludes the former.

And so it's the same thing with these slavery systems. I don't think white people enslaved black people because they just happened to be emotionally satisfied when black people were enslaved.

No one's arguing such.

I think that they were coldly looking at their profit and their bottom lines, and saw that there was a class of people they could absolutely still exploit for profit without other people putting up too much of a fuss. Thus, profit-driven motivations rather than just "pure racist" motivations.

Failure to recognize the humanity of black people is indistinguishable from "pure racism," whatever that is.

The reason I think it's important to tease out these intents is because I think when you call someone out as just a pure racist, they can look at their internal motivations of profit or isolation or what have you and say, "No, I'm not racist, I just want what's mine, you are WRONG and I'm not going to listen to you anymore."

"We musn't upset the dead racists by calling them racists."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:48 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


...also, on preview, I'm not really seeing the distinction between "pure racism" and just greedily exploiting a class of people to their ruin, misery, and death in many cases. Racism certainly coincides with hatred and ill will, but isn't defined by it - one can quite dispassionately think that black people are inherently inferior or that Jews are "born spies" and the dispassion doesn't make it any less racist.

Hmmm. I guess what I'm trying to say is that there's a big difference between saying, "Black people are inherently inferior because they are" or "Jews are born spies" and saying, "We can exploit black people more easily than other people because other people are not as interested in their welfare" or "These Jewish people are more economically desperate and thus we can use them as spies more easily."

Essentially, one is a target of convenience that doesn't need to be necessarily racist, even if the result has a disparate impact by race, while the other is thinking people are different based on race, not their circumstances and social positioning as Other.

And it's really important to know where this stuff is coming from if you want to do away with the results, in particular. If you want to get rid of exploiting a class of people, eliminating "racism" isn't going to do it - because the reasons for their exploitation still remain. You're giving a false target that allows people to continue what they're doing.

I don't see how you can act as though things like this:

A black worker in 1904 described to a journalist how he arrived at the farm at age ten as a free laborer...

emphasis mine, are some sort of freely-entered-into accumulation of debt comparable to signing up for a credit card and going on a splurge.


It depends on what it means to freely enter into debt and contracts. We don't now accept that minors can enter into contracts: but did we then? When did the child labor laws begin? What were the rules on child contracts, child labor, child apprenticeships, etc, back at the time? These things need to be viewed in context in order to be understood, not from our horrified gaze many years later.

Is the intent of the entire notion of bonded labor economic rather than pure race hate for no productive reason other to be big fat meanies? Sure. Yes. You're right.

BUT IT'S STILL FUCKING RACIST TO ENSLAVE BLACK PEOPLE I MEAN GAH WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU SERIOUSLY


I think it's really, really hard to talk about this stuff dispassionately - I know you're trying, I know you're not trying to be a jerk but just having a hard time with it. But I think these emotional touchstones if you will, make it harder to analyze why this stuff historically has happened and why it continues to happen. Your knee-jerk reaction is: it's racist to enslave black people. But what about enslaving Hispanic people, or white people, or doctors, or just poor people in general? Are those racist, or are those opportunist? Do you hate enslavement, or just enslavement of black people? I think, given your comments on the blue, you probably would or do hate enslavement overall - but the depth of your emotional reaction to the one makes it seem like you don't care as much about stopping the other.
posted by corb at 1:53 PM on May 20, 2013


Where do you think lies the disagreement between you and Sara C. here?

Sorry, I didn't see this. I think that Sara C. primarily thinks that prison enslavement at this time was a race-based emotional reaction to the loss of slaves - slaveowners were upset that their slaves had been taken away and wanted to get black people back enslaved as quickly as they could by any means they could. Whereas I believe my position is that prison enslavement at that time was an economic strategy in order to make up for the loss of a cheap and pliable workforce, with negative side effects to black people being a side effect rather than the primary goal. (I could be reading her wrong) And I think that that economic strategy may have been, you know, an awful-human model, but it did not need to be racist but opportunist at its core.

Where i think this matters is that I think more misery is created through opportunist dehumanization than through racism - and that it's more class-based than anything else. So I think that walling off one category of opportunist dehumanization as "most offensive" and calling it racism when it's not, allows the other opportunist dehumanization to operate with a free pass.

Failure to recognize the humanity of black people is indistinguishable from "pure racism," whatever that is.

Maybe, if we could be sure that it was only black people. But I think "failure to recognize the humanity of people outside of your self-identified tribe" is not racism. It's tribalism, at its core, but not racism. A really good example of this is American-centric warfare, where collateral damage isn't real unless it hits this country. It's not racist - because many of the people being killed outside our borders would count as the same race the people possessing those ideas are - but it is dehumanizing and tribalist.
posted by corb at 2:01 PM on May 20, 2013


Maybe, if we could be sure that it was only black people. But I think "failure to recognize the humanity of people outside of your self-identified tribe" is not racism. It's tribalism, at its core, but not racism. A really good example of this is American-centric warfare, where collateral damage isn't real unless it hits this country. It's not racist - because many of the people being killed outside our borders would count as the same race the people possessing those ideas are - but it is dehumanizing and tribalist.

Failure to recognize the humanity of nonwhites is racism. Failure to recognize the humanity of women is sexism. Failure to recognize the humanity of the poor is classism. These failures may intersect; they often do, for they are similar moral failures. There is certainly also bigotry against the white, the male, the rich, etc., but these are much less harmful in the context of the United States. Why are you so keen not to call this racism?

But what about enslaving Hispanic people, or white people, or doctors, or just poor people in general? Are those racist, or are those opportunist? Do you hate enslavement, or just enslavement of black people? I think, given your comments on the blue, you probably would or do hate enslavement overall - but the depth of your emotional reaction to the one makes it seem like you don't care as much about stopping the other.

This is argument in disgustingly bad faith. You should feel bad.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:06 PM on May 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


it's racist to enslave black people. But what about enslaving Hispanic people, or white people, or doctors, or just poor people in general? Are those racist, or are those opportunist? Do you hate enslavement, or just enslavement of black people?

corb, I would love for you to give us some details of the societies where this is an issue. We are dealing with the facts of the history of the United States, where enslavement of "black" people has been the most numerous and most encoded in the laws. Yes, there are plenty of ways were people of other "races" have been kept in effective slavery, even up to today. Sometimes it's done illegally, sometimes it's through questionable but legal contracts. But it's nowhere near the scope of pre-1860s America. And, as the book in the FPP lets us know, that situation persisted, imbedded in law and society, much later and much less changed in its essentials than many of us have learned.

So, where, specifically in time and place, has the problem rivaled that described in the book?

(Also, it's a minor point. but "enslaving doctors"? Are we talking Cuba here?)
posted by benito.strauss at 2:26 PM on May 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, where, specifically in time and place, has the problem rivaled that described in the book?

(Also, it's a minor point. but "enslaving doctors"? Are we talking Cuba here?)


I would argue that the difference between the time period described in the book and now is one of aesthetic only. Ie, maybe there aren't whippings persay - the one thing that we have categorically identified as a not-okay thing - but solitary confinement, etc. We still have a multitude of laws, such that it is impossible to exist in your daily life without breaking at least one of those laws. The police and legal system still use that multitude of laws to punish anyone that they feel is worthy of punishment, while still ignoring others that have equally broken the laws technically, but who they find much less dangerous to the social order. (In fact, modern laws against, say, sleeping on the subway, are enforced in much the same way that 'vagrancy' was enforced them) The fact that our prison labor seems to be "nicer" labor makes people think of it differently, but it is effectively the same. I really, again, don't see a single difference other than aesthetic and scale between prison/law then and now.

But yes, in terms of doctors, Cuba was what came to mind when I wrote that.
posted by corb at 2:39 PM on May 20, 2013


(I could be reading her wrong)

I think you are.

Sorry, I didn't see this. I think that Sara C. primarily thinks that prison enslavement at this time was a race-based emotional reaction to the loss of slaves - slaveowners were upset that their slaves had been taken away and wanted to get black people back enslaved as quickly as they could by any means they could. Whereas I believe my position is that prison enslavement at that time was an economic strategy in order to make up for the loss of a cheap and pliable workforce, with negative side effects to black people being a side effect rather than the primary goal.

I think it can be both, with the emphasis falling on one side or the other depending on the person you asked. You're drawing a false binary: Opportunism and racism are not mutually exclusive.

The closest thing I could find to this representation of what Sara C. has said so far in this thread -

slaveowners were upset that their slaves had been taken away and wanted to get black people back enslaved as quickly as they could by any means they could

- was this:

One of the most important things I ever learned about codified racism in America is that the Jim Crow system was started by people who remembered antebellum life. It wasn't just some organic offshoot of how people are naturally jerks, or a random chance occurrence that happened to apply to black people disproportionately because they were too ignorant to avoid it. Black people were systematically oppressed by white people who passed laws and very deliberately created a culture where black people had no chance to be free. And that was the POINT of these very comprehensive systems that were put into place.

They remembered antebellum life. They remembered how much cheaper it was to run a cotton farm; they remembered when The Blacks Knew Their Place. One hand shakes the other. Sara C. may herself be drawing something of a false binary ("It wasn't just some organic offshoot ... "), but the reading you gave strikes me as highly uncharitable. How did you get that representation from that paragraph? If not from that paragraph, then from where?

And again, please explain how the Jim Crow laws had little to do with black people.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:41 PM on May 20, 2013


Of course it was an economic strategy. I mean, duh. Christ.

You know why white people in the antebellum south liked owning slaves so much?

The money.

So of course when they lost this war and it meant the dismantling of their entire economic system, they figured out a way to salvage as much as they could.

By systematically oppressing, disenfranchising, and re-enslaving black people.
posted by Sara C. at 2:50 PM on May 20, 2013


I would argue that the difference between the time period described in the book and
now is one of aesthetic only. ...


You're not dealing with reality — you are just spinning yourself a self-dramatizing fantasy of persecution, like having someone bump into you is as bad as a knife in the heart. Bye.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:06 PM on May 20, 2013


It depends on what it means to freely enter into debt and contracts. We don't now accept that minors can enter into contracts: but did we then? When did the child labor laws begin? What were the rules on child contracts, child labor, child apprenticeships, etc, back at the time? These things need to be viewed in context in order to be understood, not from our horrified gaze many years later.

Well, here's a suggestion straight out of contract law at the time. Saying that children under 10 can enter into contracts that are enforced by physical violence is wrong, because they don't have the mental capacity to knowingly consent due to mental incompetence and/or infancy. For this reason, they couldn't borrow money and have a legally enforcible debt; the labour contract should not be considered legally enforcible under the same logic.

Setting contract law aside, all you have to do to see how racist this is is to consider how likely it is that a white child would have a similar life experience.
posted by jaduncan at 12:25 AM on May 21, 2013


And besides that - I guess I may have mislead by bolding the note that this all began when he was ten, which I just wanted to be sure was noticed - it's not as though absent any concerns of age it would be an illustration of perfectly fair labor practices, not even by the standards held a century ago.

Just take the fact that you can say things like "These things need to be viewed in context in order to be understood" and let it go unsaid that the context you're talking about is the way that white people would have viewed the situation and the context of the institutions of society erected by and for the white people of the country, rather than the context of the perceptions expressed in these thousands of letters described in the OP that were written by black people back at that time, almost as if the "we" you use doesn't include them. It demonstrates quite eloquently that you're not actually taking the impartial, dispassionately logical perspective on the matter you've been trying to pitch your viewpoint as, like when you tell Sara she's having a hard time not being a jerk.

She was entirely aware she was being sharp in her response to you. I think it's you who is involuntarily revealing denigrating attitudes you may not be consciously aware of.
posted by XMLicious at 1:19 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


And again, please explain how the Jim Crow laws had little to do with black people.

I can't help but mentally picture Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka here for some reason...
posted by jaduncan at 1:31 AM on May 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I first learned of the really terrible conditions in the post-Reconstruction South from The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, which I read early this year, around the same time I watched Roots.

There were local sheriffs ripping up train tickets to prevent black people from leaving. There were black men sitting at home, relaxing, on a Saturday, being arrested for not being at a job. It's horrifying.
posted by brainwane at 4:42 AM on May 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Along the same lines, but focusing on Parchman Farm Prison in Mississippi (which still operates today as Mississippi State Prison and which currently houses the state's Death Row), is David Oshinsky's Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.

Mississippi had a system where you could "lease" a "convict" (which, as described in Alabama by Blackmon, basically meant a black person who had been accused of anything by a white person) for labor. The terms of the lease allowed you to do whatever you wanted with your prisoner, and there were no requirements for what sort of work you could make them do or how to treat them (for example, you weren't required to feed them). The reason that Oshinsky describes the system as in some ways "worse" than slavery is that at least if you viewed the person as property, you had some economic incentive to keep the person alive to protect your investment. However, these leases had no penalty for killing the prisoner, and you could just get a replacement person if the person you had leased died, so there was really no reason not to literally work people to death (or just kill them because you felt like it, for that matter).

I'm another person who came up through American public schools (in New Jersey, if that matters) and never learned about this. We discussed sharecropping in history class, but it was described basically as an economic injustice, in the form of how unfair it was that people worked hard and didn't get to own their own crops or land. There was no discussion the huge amount of violence that perpetuated the system, or of the fact that those who owned the land basically controlled every aspect of their "tenants'" lives. And there was certainly no mention of the vast and brutal penal system that girded the entire system, keeping blacks effectively (or actually) enslaved for generations. We were also taught that the Civil Rights movement was about wanting to drink soda at Woolworths rather than about re-fighting the war that was supposed to have ended slavery. I'm grateful to the historians and others who are pressing us as a nation to remember these horrific facts about our history.
posted by decathecting at 11:09 AM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


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