How far have we actually come since emancipation?
I’ve been reading a bit lately about slavery and its evolution, and how that has impacted black folks in America. I use the word evolution very deliberately – because I believe the ugliness that allowed slavery to happen is still prevalent today, and that while the institution of slavery was outlawed, it didn’t come to a full stop, it shifted.
Slavery is not just a thing you do to a person. It is not just forced labor. Slavery is an economic system where, to put it simply, you derive profits from goods created utilizing free labor. That labor wasn’t literally free though, slaves were a commodity treated like any other good on the market – they were appraised and bought, sold, and traded at the whim of their owners. The owners incurred expenses to feed and house them, and provide some modicum of health care.
Slavery was the economic system in place long before we were a nation of states. It was perhaps wholly responsible for the success of this new colony/nation. We were able to become the world’s leading cotton producer because of our slave-based economy. That system was a part of our fabric, woven into our society.
There is a notion that I was taught in school that Abraham Lincoln flipped a magical switch and turned slavery off. That while there was still racism (until MLK fixed it), the institution of slavery ended when the North won the war.
This ignores so much of what came after the war and emancipation.
After slavery was technically abolished, southern states created a system of laws that only applied to black folks, called Black Code Laws. These laws sought to control newly freed black people and limit their upward mobility by removing rights to own property, and forcing them to sign labor contracts or be arrested. The poor white men who were formerly employed as fugitive slave hunters transitioned into jobs enforcing these laws. If a black person violated one of these laws, they were arrested, sentenced and then leased to plantations, manufacturers, and other corporations. The leasing price paid the cost of the government to house the “inmates” and of course the inmates were paid nothing. So – slavery was outlawed and a set of impossible to follow laws were created and black men were arrested and forced into free labor. But now they were called convicts and it was all legal. They had broken the law, and were “paying their debt to society.” These inmates were never given appeal and often held prisoner until they died.
Now let’s look at today. Hopefully by now you know about the mass incarceration rates in the US. We imprison more people than China and they have way more people than we do. While black people make up around 13% of our total population, they make up 40% of our prison population. Stop and Frisk Laws are strikingly similar to Black Code laws in that it’s up to the discretion of the officer whether to impose them – 90% of the people stopped are Black or Latin, and 90% of them are innocent. The War on Drugs is another iteration of Black Code, targeting poor black communities for crimes like simple possession of pot, even without intent to sell, and making those crimes felonies garnering double digit sentences. While whites charged with the same crimes would get off with a misdemeanor and probation. So today, we still have a series of laws, policies, and procedures in place to control the movement, freedom, and societal mobility of black people. Black Code and Jim Crow were eventually defeated in courts as we made legal progress, but that hasn’t stopped the underlying ideals from being ingrained in policies and procedures at our financial institutions, prisons, and government bodies.
So while we who speak up or stand up for justice have made some progress, we have to remember that we’re not the only ones fighting. There is another side, and they’ve made progress also. They were once the establishment and made the rules. They learned how to work our system of laws, and take the practice of slavery and make it legal by creating the prison-industrial complex, and manufacturing the myth of the dangerous criminal thug, so even “good white people” would turn a blind eye to what has been happening in prisons all over our nation for the last 150 years.
Today, the minimum wage for a prisoner is .23 cents per hour. How do you justify such low wages? Well, you start by considering the people less than. Maybe 3/5ths of a human. And then you can rationalize just about anything, I suppose.