The Invention of Convenient Racism (Part 1)

“And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all of our names.” -Ta-Nehisi Coates

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are on your lunch break driving to McDonalds. You pull into the drive-thru and begin browsing the menu when you spot that new in-bone fried chicken wing combo. It’s the one from the commercial with the quirky dad and the phone-crazed teenager (the two of them bonded over the wings — it was heart warming). You order the chicken. But before you bite it, do you think about the bird this wing came from? Do you wonder if it was raised in a crowded, dimly lit warehouse with thousands of other miserable, sickly chickens?

You most certainly do not. The wing that you are about to bite into is crunchy and golden on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside. On TV, the wings united a family, and right now they’re about to unite you with a rush of lunchtime endorphins, and if you eat enough of them, maybe even a bit of the itis. So you proceed to indulge.

What we witness here is the power of dissociation. With a little bit of catchy marketing and attractive packaging, Americans will participate in deplorable industries: Buy blood diamonds to make your sweetheart smile. Fund sharecropping for a cup of joe. Support sweatshops to Be Like Mike.

All throughout our economy there exist a system urging us to accept the innocence and purity of the products we consume at face value. But if we look beyond the venerable logos, we often find underpaid workers, dirty factories, and dangerous additives. None of these practices are new. Corporate exploitation is as old as the county itself, and so is the need to feel justified in practicing that exploitation — the need to believe that any profits or products we enjoy are the results of fair, honest work. And so it is here, between the desires to satisfy our greed and soothe our guilt, that we can trace the birth of American capitalism.

At the turn of the century in 1800, many white Americans were struggling with their conscious because of slavery. In Washington, DC, residents and tourists “resented the way coffles, driven right through town, put the most unpleasant parts of slavery right in their faces,” writes Edward Baptist, a Cornell historian. “Clanking chains in the capital of a republic founded on inalienable rights to liberty became an embarrassment.” But that embarrassment never matured into anything more substantial, because Americans knew slavery was just too valuable.

In the antebellum era, “‘slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy,” writes Harvard University’s Walter Johnson. Ta-Nehisi Coates continues noting that, “the vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family … [is] estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars.”

But the extraction of this wealth was brutal. “It is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest,” writes Coates. “Enslavement must be casual with wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape.”

Not everyone could stomach this disturbing imagery. The citizens’ disdain for the clanking of chains in the capital is evident of that. But all discomforts aside, slave labor’s bountiful fruits were still in heavy demand. So to make this commerce more palatable, entrepreneurs began creating businesses that could retain slavery’s profits and while purging its “most unpleasant parts” from the public eye. In the northern free states, this refining process developed in the financial industries.

Here’s how entrepreneurs accomplished the sanitation of slavery. Beginning in the late 1780s, wealthy northern investors started forming finance companies to buy tens of millions of acres in slaveholding states. These companies, such as the Boston-based New England — Mississippi Land Company, then broke up the land into smaller pieces, which it sold in the form of paper shares to investors. And because northerners knew that this land would produce profitable, slave-made commodities, the shares sold like hot cakes. By making investing in slavery as simple as buying stock, finance entrepreneurs had democratized slave ownership. Investors from across the United States could now enjoy slavery’s exponential profits without ever having to witness the branding of flesh or the flailing of backs.

“People from the free states who might dislike the political ramifications of the Three-Fifths Compromise had very few qualms about pumping investment into a slave country,” writes Edward Baptist. “They expected to make their money back with interest from land speculation, from financing and transporting slaves, and from the sale of commodities. Investors nationwide bought the bonds of these land companies and put their securities into circulation like paper money.”

Dollars flooded the southern slave trade. Shares were sold. Loans were borrowed. Insurance policies were drafted. “The interlinked expansion of both slavery and financial capitalism was now the driving force in an emerging national economic system that benefited elites and others up and down the Atlantic coast as well as throughout the backcountry.” And so we see plainly, that just as the invention of cotton gin had separated the seeds from the flower, the financial markets had severed slavery’s violence from its profits.

When we discuss slavery today, we tend to cast it as a backward industry isolated in the south. But in tracing slavery’s financing back to the stock markets of Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia we can see that the peculiar institution was endorsed more than by a repressive southern minority. The rape, torture and theft of-of slavery attracted investments from and paid dividends to a national audience. And even after slavery’s fall over a hundred years later, the nationwide profiteering from racism would continue.

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