Last night, on Bill Moyers Journal, one of the topics was an amazing new book, Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal. It's about the way in which virtual slavery was reimposed on the Southern black population, and lasted well into the lifetime of people still alive today.
This involved much, much more than legal segregation under Plessy, as Moyers describes, and Blackmon explains below. This is incredibly important not only in its own right, but because of the light it throws onto the strikingly similar way that drug laws and other punitive measures have been used in the last several decades to largely crush the promise of the Civil Rights movement for millions of poverty-struck black Americans, people who are, themselves, the descendents of generations who had their freedom stolen from them a second time after supposedly being freed by the Civil war.
BILL MOYERS: At one time there were thousands of slaves in our county. And after Richmond fell to Union troops, my home town became, briefly, the military headquarters of the Confederacy. But in twelve years of public schools I cannot remember one of the teachers I deeply cherished describe slavery for what it was. Nor did they, or anyone I knew, talk about how our town's dark and tortured past in restoring white supremacy after the Civil War, prevented the emancipated slaves from realizing the freedom they had been promised. Across the South, from Texas and Louisiana to the Carolinas, thousands of freed black Americans simply were arrested, often on trumped up charges, and coerced into forced labor. And that persisted right up into the 1940s, when I was still a boy.
This is truly the most remarkable piece of reporting I have read in a long time. I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough. What you report is that no sooner did the slave owners, businessmen of the South, lose the Civil War, then they turned around, and in complicity with state and local governments and industry, reinvented slavery by another name. And what was the result?
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: Well, the result was that by the time you got to the end of the 19th century, 25 or 30 years after the Civil War, the generation of slaves who'd been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and then the constitutional amendments that ended slavery legally this generation of people, who experienced authentic freedom in many respects tough life, difficult hard lives after the Civil War but real freedom, in which they voted, they participated in government.
BILL MOYERS: They farmed?
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: They farmed. They carved out independent lives. But then, this terrible shadow began to fall back across black life in America, that effectively re-enslaved enormous numbers of people. And what that was all about, what that was rooted in, was that the southern economic, and in a way, the American economy, was addicted to slavery, was addicted to forced labor. And the South could not resurrect itself.
And so, there was this incredible economic imperative to bring back coerced labor. And they did, on a huge scale.
BILL MOYERS: You said they did it by criminalizing black life.
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: Well, and that was that was a charade. But the way that happened was that, of course, before the Civil War, there were Slave Codes. There were laws that governed the behavior of slaves. And that was the basis of laws, for instance, that made it where a slave had to have a written pass to leave their plantation and travel on an open road.
Well, immediately after the Civil War, all the southern states adopted a new set of laws that were then called Black Codes. And they essentially attempted to recreate the Slave Codes. Well, those that was such an obvious effort to recreate slavery, that the Union military leadership that was still in the South, overruled all of that. Still, that didn't work. And by the time you get to the end of Reconstruction, all the southern legislatures have gone back and passed laws that aren't called Black Codes, but essentially criminalized a whole array of activities, that it was impossible for a poor black farmer to avoid encountering in some way.
BILL MOYERS: Such as?
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: Vagrancy. So, vagrancy was a law that essentially, it simply, you were breaking the law if you couldn't prove at any given moment that you were employed. Well, in a world in which there were no pay stubs, it was impossible to prove you were employed. The only way you could prove employment was if some man who owned land would vouch for you and say, he works for me. And of course, none of these laws said it only applies to black people. But overwhelmingly, they were only enforced against black people. And many times, thousands of times I believe, you had young black men who attempted to do that. They ended up being arrested and returned to the original farmer where they worked in chains, not even a free worker, but as a slave.
BILL MOYERS: And the result, as you write, thousands of black men were arrested, charged with whatever, jailed, and then sold to plantations, railroads, mills, lumber camps and factories in the deep South. And this went on, you say, right up to World War II?
DOUGLAS BLACKMON: And it was everywhere in the South. These forced labor camps were all over the place. The records that still survive, buried in courthouses all over the South, make it abundantly clear that thousands and thousands of African-Americans were arrested on completely specious claims, made up stuff, and then, purely because of this economic need and the ability of sheriffs and constables and others to make money off arresting them, and that providing them to these commercial enterprises, and being paid for that.
I have known the broad outlines of this story for a long, long time. But listening to the telling of it in such specific detail, and knowing that there was an entire book of meticulously researched information on this system of de facto slavery, I could not help but be struck at how chillingly similar this system was to the current conditions under which the inner city black community lives today. The wildly disproporationate arrest, trial and incarceration rates for black vs. white drug users is a very well-documented and long-established fact.
# "At midyear 2006 more black men (836,800) were in custody in State or Federal prison or local jail than white men (718,100) or Hispanic men (426,900) (table 13). Black men comprised 41% of the more than 2 million men in custody, and black men age 20 to 29 comprised 15.5% of all men in custody on June 30, 2006.
"Relative to their numbers in the general population, about 4.8% of all black men were in custody at midyear 2006, compared to about 0.7% of white men and 1.9% of Hispanic men. Overall, black men were incarcerated at 6.5 times the rate of white men. The incarceration rate for black men was highest among black men age 25 to 29. About 11.7% of black males in this age group were incarcerated on June 30, 2006. Across age groups black men were between 5.7 and 8.5 times more likely than white men to be incarcerated."
Source: Sabol, William J., PhD, Minton, Todd D., and Harrison, Paige M., Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, June 2007), NCJ217675, p. 9.
And beyond the incarcerated, and even the formerly incarcertaed, there is an entire community--indeed, and entire race that is kept down. As I noted in a diary back in March, "Two Long Recessions", the Black unemployment rate is double the white unemployment rate, in good times and bad. As a result, there are no good times for the black community as a whole. Permanent recession is their lot:
As I noted in that diary:
Perhaps, you might think this is because blacks just aren't as good job prospects as whites--lower skill, or whatever. Not so much...
Many New York employers discriminate against minorities, ex-offenders by Steven M. Schultz · Posted April 1, 2005; 10:56 a.m.
Black applicants without criminal records are no more likely to get a job than white applicants just out of prison, according to a Princeton University study of nearly 1,500 private employers in New York City.
The study, "Discrimination in Low Wage Labor Markets," was conducted by sociology professors Devah Pager and Bruce Western . It is the largest and most comprehensive project of its kind to date.
The study, which investigated discrimination against young male minorities and ex-offenders by employers, also showed:
• Young white high school graduates were about twice as likely to receive positive responses from New York employers as equally qualified black job seekers;
• Ex-offenders face serious barriers to employment; a criminal record reduced positive responses from employers by about 35 percent for white applicants and 57 percent for black applicants.
Even without criminal records, however, black applicants had low rates of positive responses, about the same as the response rate for white applicants with criminal records. Hispanics also faced discrimination by employers, but were preferred relative to blacks.
Note that these ratios--"about twice" and a reduction of 35% compared to 57%--are quite in line with blacks having twice the unemployment rate of whites.
So, yes, the general shape of this history was not a surprise to me. Not a surprise at all. But Blackmon's book puts all this recent history into a bone-chilling, almost Lovecraftian perspective. We live today in a system of organized evil that has not materially changed at its core since the era of slavery.
It's not just dark romantic poetry when Leonard Cohen sings:
Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe is still picking cotton
For your ribbons and your bows.
It's the stone cold truth.
And electing a black man as President won't do a damn thing to change it. If anything, it will be one more facile excuse for continuing to ignore the legacy of systemic evil that still lives in our midst.
Note: I will be out when this diary posts, so if you comment and I don't respond right away, please be patient. Thanks.