PBS: Slavery by another name

The Founding Fathers of the United States drafted and approved a Constitution that codified and institutionalized the American slaveocracy system without ever mentioning the word “slavery.” After the Civil War the authors of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (key among whom were were James M. Ashley, James F. Wilson, Lyman Trumbull, and Charles Sumner) not only mentioned the so-called “peculiar institution,” they furnished a giant loophole in the law that allowed slavery and indentured servitude to continue to exist in perpetuity as follows:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

With slavery redefined and sanctioned as “a punishment for crime,” the nation thereby maintained the legality of the system while promoting the fiction of emancipation. The existence of free black people in the U.S. has always been viewed as a mortal threat to white supremacy. Therefore, under cover of law, millions of African Americans were forced back into servitude in the decades after the Civil War. Racist police forces operating in tandem with racist and corrupt judicial officials and municipal courts systematically re-enslaved blacks with the tacit approval of the federal government—which followed an unwritten policy of allowing the states to decide cases involving peonage (forced servitude). The retention of involuntary labor policies and practices thus devastated the lives of African Americans, particularly those living in the South. For example, by 1908, of the 1.1 million African Americans residing in Georgia approximately half were living under the direct control and force of whites. Forbidden to move or seek different employment, the post-slavery generations of black southerners found themselves trapped in this new form of enslavement until the early 1940s.

The 1940s marked a decisive change in US government policy not as a result of a sudden concern for the injustices being done to African Americans, but out of fear of enemy propaganda about US racism during WWII. To protect the image of the nation abroad, the Justice Department and the FBI began to investigate charges of involuntary servitude and prosecute offenders. In 1948 the entire federal criminal code was revised, and by 1951, as the Cold War was coming to a boil, the US Congress passed several statutes making any forms of slavery in the U.S. a crime.

Douglas A. Blackmon, the Pulitzer prize winning author whose book provided the basis for the PBS documentary shown below, uses the label “Slavery by Another Name” to describe the laws enacted specifically to maintain white supremacy and black subservience following the Civil War. Scholar-activist Michelle Alexander refers to the more recent variation of neoslavery—the emergence of the prison industrial complex in the post-Civil Rights era—as The New Jim Crow. Taken together, and with other recent studies by Loïc Wacquant, David M. Oshinsky, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Robert Perkinson, and others, these works show clearly why we cannot relegate slavery to the distant past.

“Slavery by Another Name” provides stark evidence of our continued failure to recognize and address the history of slavery in this nation. It exposes the ghosts in our blood that infect and haunt each generation as it goes forward in ignorance of the past and its consequences for the future.


To view a previous post I made about “Slavery by Another Name,” which includes an excellent interview of Douglas A. Blackmon by Bill Moyers, click here.


“Outniggering” their way to the White House

In seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party to run for Governor of the State of Alabama in 1958, the late George C. Wallace, who was part of the old Dixiecrat wing of the party that since has migrated en mass to join the ranks of the GOP, ran in the primary election against John Patterson, the State Attorney General. Patterson was a poster boy for antiblack racism in Alabama. While serving as the AG he used the courts as a blunt weapon to drive civil rights activists out of the state, and even approved of the death sentence for a black man who had been convicted of stealing a dollar and ninety-five cents from a white woman. Patterson’s campaign in the primary race also was endorsed and supported by the Klu Klux Klan (Wallace had the endorsement of the NAACP). In 1958 Alabama, however, that endorsement and his public expressions of virulent antiblack racism proved to be a winning strategy for Patterson. George C. Wallace found that out to his dismay when he lost the primary election.

After his defeat, which was the first time he had lost a campaign in his political career, Wallace had the following conversation with his campaign aide, Seymore Trammell:

WALLACE: “Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race?” TRAMMELL: “I’m not sure, uh, Judge. What do you think?” WALLACE: “Seymore, I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”

The anecdote above points to something obvious to anyone who has keenly observed American politics before and since: right wing “white” politicians often try to “outnigger” their opponents in their efforts to win primary elections. As times changed, however, and it became impolitic to make overtly racist appeals in the public arena, they modified their campaign rhetoric. Their antiblack policies, attitudes, and beliefs didn’t change, but they universally adopted a new vocabulary of coded terms like “welfare queens,” “forced busing,” and “state’s rights” to dress their racism up in new rhetorical drag. They soon learned those “silent dog whistles” worked equally well in rallying and driving working-class “white” voters to the polls. Armed with this new tactic they went into overdrive implementing and administering their odious Southern Strategy, which was designed during the Nixon era to lure “whites” from the Democratic to the Republican Party. The ridiculous claim that Obama was not born in America provides an excellent example of how this process has worked in recent years. Birtherism, as this form of racial hysteria has been dubbed, is just a subtle way of yelling “nigger” in public, and tricking low information “white” working class voters into voting against their own interests and in favor of the agenda and policies of a wealthy elite.

All of the above brings me to a recent NYT op-ed piece in which the always readable Charles Blow offers his insightful take on the GOP strategy of promoting racial hatred as a Republican Party family value: The G.O.P.’s ‘Black People’ Platform – NYTimes.com.

The outniggering contest is in full swing, and will continue until the Republican Party nominates its candidate for the White House. But even after their choice is made, the dog whistles will sound nonstop until election day.