Black History: A History of Permanent White Oppression, from 1619 to 2016
Slavery and Jim Crow are the parts we remember—but the parts we have forgotten extend far further, and far more recent, than those two institutions.
When are black people going to get their act together?
That’s a question many white people, particularly white conservatives, have been implicitly asking for decades. If it weren’t for the fact that the question is inherently wrong, the answer would no doubt be complex and multi-faceted—but the first part of it really ought to be much more obvious than it apparently is.
When we stop oppressing them.
The problem, of course, is that we think that we already have. And part of the reason we think this is that we have forgotten, or were perhaps never aware of, much of our history of white supremacy. We acknowledge the evil that was slavery, and we recall in disbelief the fairly recent shame of Jim Crow. And that’s about it.
But Jim Crow ended decades ago! Blacks are equal under the law now! Why aren’t they pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?
The reality is that white oppression is one of the most resilient and adaptive social forces in all of human history. Every time we think that we have ended white supremacy, it reinvents itself—and each successive iteration is more subtle, more invisible, than the last.
So resilient is systemic racism, in fact, that we are either oblivious of, or choose to omit from our recollection—or at least from our discussion—at least six other forms of systemic white oppresion. So as Black History Month in 2016 comes to a close (it’s a leap year, and I still couldn’t manage to get this thing published while it was still February), here is a quick timeline of what I have learned, so far, of the history of white oppression of black people in the United States.
As you read, notice two things: First, that after slavery, many of these various systems of white oppression overlap; second, that there has not been a single moment in American history since 1619 in which blacks were not systematically terrorized and oppressed by whites.
I’m going to gloss over the parts you know the best. That is not to say that we understand slavery well enough—while we are well aware that it happened, most of us don’t even have a passing understanding of what it was like—but the focus here is on those forms of systemic white oppression that you may never have heard about. I won’t bore you with a recounting of slavery that would be more or less familiar to you. For now, I want to focus on one particularly destructive aspect of slavery, which will be a running theme throughout most or all of what has come after.
The institution of slavery had profoundly destructive effects on black families. Consider the following description from The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Forced partings were common in the antebellum South. A slave in some parts of the region stood a 30 percent chance of being sold in his or her lifetime. Twenty-five percent of interstate trades destroyed a first marriage and half of them destroyed a nuclear family.
When the wife and children of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia, were to be sold away, Brown searched for a white master who might buy his wife and children to keep the family together. He failed:
The next day, I stationed myself by the side of the road, along which the slaves, amounting to three hundred and fifty, were to pass. The purchaser of my wife was a Methodist minister, who was about starting for North Carolina. Pretty soon five waggon-loads of little children passed, and looking at the foremost one, what should I see but a little child, pointing its tiny hand towards me, exclaiming, “There’s my father; I knew he would come and bid me good-bye.” It was my eldest child! Soon the gang approached in which my wife was chained. I looked, and beheld her familiar face; but O, reader, that glance of agony! may God spare me ever again enduring the excruciating horror of that moment! She passed, and came near to where I stood. I seized hold of her hand, intending to bid her farewell; but words failed me; the gift of utterance had fled, and I remained speechless. I followed her for some distance, with her hand grasped in mine, as if to save her from her fate, but I could not speak, and I was obliged to turn away in silence.
In a time when telecommunications were primitive and blacks lacked freedom of movement, the parting of black families was a kind of murder. Here we find the roots of American wealth and democracy — in the for-profit destruction of the most important asset available to any people, the family.
I read that a few months ago, and wept. After I recovered, I reflected on my reaction, and the way that becoming a husband and a parent had changed me. I am a fairly dispassionate person — highly logical and rational, sometimes to a fault, and rarely ever emotional. I could imagine past versions of myself reading those paragraphs. As a young man, I would have experienced a detached, ideological anger. As a young married man, I would have felt a very personal anger. But as a father of small children, I sobbed uncontrollably just to imagine such a thing.
The effect of slavery was, to a very large extent, the quite deliberate destruction of the black family. That is something that a community does not recover from easily — and as we shall see, recovering is something the white establishment in the years since the end of slavery has never given the black community the chance to do.
I have not had the opportunity to study the brief period of the Reconstruction to any great extent. To the extent that I have, it seems almost as if the Reconstruction offered a brief period of false hope to newly freed slaves. The period was not without its challenges, of course—segregation did exist, though it was flexible at the time, and white terrorist organizations quickly grew in strength and numbers; President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 by a pro-slavery Confederate sympathizer. Vice President Andrew Johnson was a conservative Southern Democrat who had been added to the ticket to help Lincoln win re-election in the South; he was pro-slavery and attempted to implement a white supremacist reconstruction policy in the South.
But the northern Republicans won a supermajority in Congress and thwarted President Johnson. The liberal Republican Congress established Republican state governments in the former Confederate states, run by coalitions of blacks, “carpetbaggers” (northerners who migrated to the South), and “scalawags” (Southerners allied with blacks and carpetbaggers). These Republican state governments passed significant civil rights legislation: They reorganized courts, improved judicial procedures, and established public school systems.
This progress, however, was limited and short-lived.
1866–Present: White Terrorism and the KKK
Southern whites, who resented the progress that blacks were making, rallied around the conservative Democratic Party. White terrorists intimidated and murdered blacks who tried to vote or get an education. Using fraud, violence, and intimidation, Southern Democrats regained control of state governments in the early 1870s, and by 1877, the last federal troops had withdrawn and the Reconstruction was over. Any hope of continued progress on the civil rights front evaporated.
Much as they would from the 1920s all the way through the 1960s, the KKK in the 1860s and ’70s formed alliances with local governments, which permitted and even participated in their activities. Many members of local government and law enforcement were KKK members, themselves.
Between the 1870s and 1915, the Klan largely disappeared—but white terrorism did not. From the 1880s through the late 1960s, as many as 4,000 black men, women, and children, as well as at least 1,300 whites who supported black civil rights, were lynched in the South.
In 1915, the release of the movie The Birth of a Nation, which glorified the original KKK, ignited a rebirth of the Klan. Throughout the early 20th century and the mid-century Civil Rights Movement, the Klan again partnered with and counted among its ranks members of local government and law enforcement, which were often complicit in white terrorism of blacks and civil rights workers.
In one infamous example, three civil rights workers were arrested under false pretenses in Neshoba County, Mississippi by deputy sheriff Cecil Price, who was himself a Klansman. Later that evening, the three were released, only to be followed by Price, re-apprehended, turned over to the Klan, beaten, murdered, and burried in an earthen dam.
That was in 1964. While the KKK remains in existence today, it now exists as a fringe hate group, no longer enjoying its connection to local politics and law enforcement. That connection, however, lasted through the late 1960s, if not later.
I once heard a young black worship leader say, “That’s an old lady ago!” But she was wrong—it’s a middle-aged man ago.
1865–1945: Convict Leasing and Debt Peonage
In 1850, non-whites comprised just 2% of Alabama’s prison population. By 1870, a mere five years after the end of the Civil War, that same Alabama prison population was 74% non-white. The cause of this was the advent of convict leasing.
The Southern economy was so thoroughly based on slavery that the Civil War and the end of slavery threatened to destroy it. In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, UC Berkeley professor Ian Haney López describes the convict leasing and debt peonage systems:
The constitutional amendment that banned slavery provided that “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.” Right there in the middle of the Thirteenth Amendment was a gaping hole — one big enough to allow the reestablishment of slavery by another name. Through innumerable stratagems, the South rapidly built a criminal justice system around imprisoning blacks. Fines for minor infractions suddenly morphed into jail time. Selective prosecution of blacks surged. New crimes made their way onto the books. But of course the point was not to fill jail cells; rather, it was to fuel a new form of involuntary servitude.
The heart of the system lay in leasing out convicts as laborers. As an economic matter, governments and private capital profited handsomely.
[In Alabama in the early 1900s] “First-class” prisoners were leased out for $18.50 a month, with the understanding that they would cut and load four tons of coal a day, or be subject to whipping. The weakest inmates, rated as “dead hands,” were leased out for just $9 a month, and lashed if their subterranean struggle failed to produce a ton of coal — 2,000 pounds — each day. The term “dead hands” was tragically apt, as the prisoners’ new masters faced a different economic calculus than under formal slavery. In slavery’s antebellum form, humans as property were at least minimally protected because of their long-term financial value. But under convict leasing, a man’s value did not exceed what his employer paid the state monthly. If the laborer died in custody, the employer suffered only trivial financial inconvenience, as another convict could be readily procured at the same tariff. One former slave owner, lamenting slavery’s demise as a more humane relationship, bemoaned convict leasing’s brutal math: “Before the war, we owned the negroes … If a man had a good negro, he could afford to keep him…. But these convicts, we don’t own ’em. One dies, get another.” “One dies, get another,” reports historian Eric Foner, became the working motto of the system’s architects.
In addition to the whip, various apparatuses and techniques of torture helped to manufacture hell on earth. Included among these were “come-a-longs,” steel bracelets attached to a prisoner’s wrists and fastened to a cross bar such that a twisting of the bar drove the victim to his knees in excruciating pain; and the “pick shackle,” a heavy, sharpened pick-head riveted upside down to an inmate’s ankle, making it impossible to run or even walk normally, and often affixed for the duration of a prisoner’s sentence. [Douglas] Blackmon reports that convict camp records are littered with notations regarding “amputations of feet and lower legs as a result of blood poisoning from the injuries caused by iron shackles abrading bare skin into raw, infected lesions.” In addition, Blackmon documents the prevalence of sundry forms of water torture, from pinning a man down and pouring water on his face so as to stop his breathing, to repeatedly plunging laborers head first into water barrels and holding them there until their spasms subsided, then reviving them and repeating, forcing them to endure the terror of drowning over and over again. Destroyed by the hopelessness and pain of their Sisyphean situation, many men begged their wardens to kill them, while others, to reduce their economic value and so possibly gain their freedom, mutilated themselves by “slicing their heel strings, hacking off their hands, or gouging out their eyes.”
Convict leasing recreated a facsimile of slavery directly, with convict laborers held and exploited under the terror of the lash in fields, factories, and mines. But it also reconstituted pre-Civil War racial stratification by undergirding the rise of debt peonage and sharecropping across the rural South. … The system’s ubiquity and caprice assured that virtually no African American man was safe unless under the protection and control of a white landowner or employer. If you wanted to be sure you would make it home from town — rather than being swept up, imprisoned under spurious charges, and sold into the convict lease system — you needed the surety provided by a powerful white man. Blacks went into sharecropping, a relationship itself akin to slavery, partly because they needed white bosses to protect them from the lethal convict labor system. The mortal threat of convict leasing and the chain gang subjugated African Americans to an agricultural peonage system at least until the mid-1940s.
Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the debt peonage system a bit more closely:
Many of Mississippi’s black farmers lived in debt peonage, under the sway of cotton kings who were at once their landlords, their employers, and their primary merchants. Tools and necessities were advanced against the return on the crop, which was determined by the employer. When farmers were deemed to be in debt — and they often were — the negative balance was then carried over to the next season. A man or woman who protested this arrangement did so at the risk of grave injury or death. Refusing to work meant arrest under vagrancy laws and forced labor under the state’s penal system.
Landowners were supposed to split the profits from the cotton fields with sharecroppers. But bales would often disappear during the count, or the split might be altered on a whim. If cotton was selling for 50 cents a pound, [sharecroppers] might get 15 cents, or only five.
We remember slavery. What we have entirely forgotten is the system that replaced it, which trapped many black men in a form of slavery even more brutal and deadly than its predecessor, and forced most of those who would avoid it into a new form of economic slavery to white masters.
Any discussion of the enslavement of blacks must include not only the official institution of slavery itself, but its successors in convict leasing and debt peonage. By such an accounting, slavery in America lasted from 1619 until 1945—a total of 326 years.
And do you know what 1945 is? That actually is an old lady ago.
1877–1965: Jim Crow and Separate But Equal
Here again, I’m going to gloss over the parts you remember the best. Jim Crow was a system of local and state laws in the South which enforced racial segregation and stripped blacks of the right to vote. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional.
This culminated in one of the most moving portions of American history, the 15-year Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to segregation. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an end to black disfranchisement (stripping blacks of the right to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and similar measures). The 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia declared anti-miscegenation laws, which forbade interracial dating and marriage, to be unconstitutional. Together, these three officially ended Jim Crow.
And yet, resistance to integration lasted well into the late 1970s. That’s not an old lady ago. It’s not even a middle-aged man ago. That’s a Gen-Xer ago. That’s the setting of That ’70s Show.
1933–1964: New Deal Exclusion
While government programs to help the poor are largely denigrated as government “handouts” to “lazy” minorities, the reality is that all of those social programs and many more of the New Deal Era were originally white-only. The Great Depression hit blacks and other minorities particularly hard, more so than whites, and yet blacks were systematically excluded from New Deal programs. New Deal programs were “supported by Southern Democrats who were actually devoted to preserving a strict racial hierarchy, and the resulting legislation was explicitly designed for the majority: its policies made certain … that whites received the full benefit of rising prosperity while blacks were deliberately left out.”
The Fair Labor Standards Act, for example, was enormously helpful for white factory workers, but excluded maids and agricultural workers, who were mostly black. The Federal Housing Administration was created to underwrite and insure home loans made by banks and private lenders, stopping foreclosures and making home ownership a possibility for a much larger share of Americans than had previously been the case. But these loans were effectively available only to whites.
So it is that while, for whites, the New Deal led to the largest expansion of the middle class ever seen, before or since, for blacks the New Deal not only failed to provide them with the same assistance, but in fact kept them trapped in poverty and various forms of reinvented slavery.
1934–1968: FHA Redlining
When it was established in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration included underwriting guidelines that specifically discriminated against and devalued neighborhoods containing minorities. As a result, blacks received only 2% of federally insured home loans. As the link above demonstrates, banks following the FHA’s guidelines systematically redlined minority housing districts. The outcomes of these policies included plummeting home values, white flight, and the departure of many businesses from minority neighborhoods. The direct result of this was the impoverishment of these minority communities.
At the same time, blacks migrating north to escape the convict leasing and debt peonage systems that threatened their freedom, their livelihoods, and their very lives in the South, were systematically victimized in predatory housing and lending schemes.
Today minorities, especially blacks, are by and large economically confined to impoverished, crime-ridden inner city ghettos. This is not the result of “poor choices” or cultural failings, as white conservatives are prone to believe. It is the direct result of discriminatory housing policies that helped whites while targeting blacks from the 1930s to the late 1960s.
While no longer built into official housing policy, those practices remain very much in place today.
1971–Present: The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration
In 2012, Michelle Alexander wrote a book that changed everything. Prior to that, we were largely oblivious to the blatantly racist nature of the War on Drugs and the system of mass incarceration that characterizes our criminal justice system. Sure, a careful observer with an open mind could recognize that our criminal justice system racially profiles black people. But until Michelle Alexander wrote The New Jim Crow, we did not understand the extent to which our criminal justice system deliberately targets black people.
Proving this fact to be true is not something I can do in this space. This is a good place to start. But if you really want to understand the reality that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are, in every way, a new version of Jim Crow—in the exact same way that convict leasing and debt peonage were new versions of slavery—then you have to read the book. And when you’re done, read Ian Haney López’s book, Dog Whistle Politics, which will completely change the way you think not only of racial issues, but also of American politics.
But to whet your appetite, consider this mind-numbing statistic: Whites and blacks use drugs at about the same rate, and blacks sell drugs at equal or lower rates than whites—and yet today in America, blacks are incarcerated for drug charges at 10 times the rate of whites.
Finally, consider this quote from the introduction to Michelle Alexander’s book:
Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal.
No sooner had slavery ended than convict leasing, debt peonage, and Jim Crow replaced it. No sooner had convict leasing, debt peonage, and Jim Crow finally ended, in the mid- to late-1960s, than the War on Drugs was declared by Richard Nixon in 1971, leading to our system of mass incarceration that has replaced Jim Crow.
As for the mass incarceration of blacks, many today will trace that back to the drug war and the rise of “tough on crime” politics—and certainly it has escalated to previously unimaginable levels in the last 45 years. But as we saw above, the mass incarceration of blacks actually goes all the way back to the end of the Civil War, with the bogus imprisonment of black men for the purpose of feeding a new form of slavery that would last until 11 years before my dad was born.
1865–Present: Felony Disenfranchisement
Disenfranchisement is the term for stripping people of the right to vote. Disenfranchisement was one of the goals, and indeed one of the effects, of Jim Crow. Felony disenfranchisement is excluding those who are otherwise eligible from voting simply because they have a felony arrest in their past.
As of 2012, nearly 6 million people in the United States were denied the right to vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement. In some states, those with a felony arrest on their record lose the right to vote for life. This hits communities of color particularly hard: While blacks comprise 13% of the United States’ total population, they are 38% of our prison population. While approximately 2.5% of all voters are disqualified from voting in this way, that number is 8% for black voters.
In Florida alone, 1.5 million people were disenfranchised as of 2012, including 20% of all black voters. I bet George W. Bush is a huge fan of felony disenfranchisement.
Clearly, felony disenfranchisement could be lumped in with other forms of white oppression of black people. It was part of the Jim Crow packaged deal. But the right to vote is so critical to our identity, and indeed to the American understanding of freedom, that it seems necessary to treat it as its own issue. The systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens is one of the critical ways in which white American society has gone about maintaining white supremacy.
In a nation where the right to vote is integral to our very identity, there has never been a single moment in our history in which black people were not systematically robbed of that right.
On the Destruction of the Black Family and the State of Black Society
Black men, and through them the “breakdown” of the black family, are the focal point of much criticism from white society, especially conservative white society. I have made some of these very arguments myself, in the past. But take a look back at the history that has just been outlined, and ask yourself this: If the “breakdown” of the black family is the cause of much or all of what ails black communities, then what was it that caused the breakdown of the black family?
It’s not a trick question; the answer is plainly obvious. White society systematically destroyed the black family during the 250 years of slavery. Within 5 years after the end of the Civil War and the institution of slavery, the Southern states in which blacks were concentrated had imprisoned and re-enslaved huge numbers of black men. Those who escaped slavery did so by voluntarily accepting yet another substitute for slavery in debt peonage. With Jim Crow and Separate But Equal, and under the threat of white terrorism, whites deliberately trapped blacks in poverty by concentrating them in poor, segregated neighborhoods, severely limiting their opportunity for advancement by disqualifying them from broad swaths of society, and preventing their advancement through education. With the New Deal exclusion and FHA redlining, blacks were refused the assistance that enabled whites to rebound from the Great Depression and systematically corralled into slums and ghettos from which employers quickly fled, trapping them in poverty and forcing many to resort to crime to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Finally, the War on Drugs and a criminal justice system that specifically targets blacks further disrupted the black family, robbing children of their fathers and trapping as many as 1/3 of all black men in a cycle of crime and recidivism.
The reality is that white oppression of black people has never ended. It has only evolved, morphed, transformed itself. It has adapted to the times. When, after decades and even centuries, we finally outlawed one form of white oppression, it simply adapted, finding a new way of preserving the same racial hierarchy. That has continued to this day. The improvements we have made have been in degree, not in kind. In 2016, the oppression of black people by whites is alive and well—and in a way, perhaps even more insidious for its invisibility.
And we wonder what destroyed the black family?
To What End?
To wrap this up, we return to slavery, with a question. We have seen some small amount of the impact of slavery and its successors on the black community. But what has been the impact of slavery on white American society? No doubt a very long book could be written on that subject, and I’m sure that many have been. But at least one enormous long-term benefit reaped by white America as a result of slavery is the building of the American economy into the single greatest economic force in the history of the world. Ta-Nehisi Coates, again (emphasis mine):
By 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports. The web of this slave society extended north to the looms of New England, and across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where it powered a great economic transformation and altered the trajectory of world history. “Whoever says Industrial Revolution,” wrote the historian Eric J. Hobsbawm, “says cotton.”
The wealth accorded America by slavery was not just in what the slaves pulled from the land but in the slaves themselves. “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together,” the Yale historian David W. Blight has noted. “Slaves were the single largest, by far, financial asset of property in the entire American economy.” The sale of these slaves — “in whose bodies that money congealed,” writes Walter Johnson, a Harvard historian — generated even more ancillary wealth. Loans were taken out for purchase, to be repaid with interest. Insurance policies were drafted against the untimely death of a slave and the loss of potential profits. Slave sales were taxed and notarized. The vending of the black body and the sundering of the black family became an economy unto themselves, estimated to have brought in tens of millions of dollars to antebellum America. In 1860 there were more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the country.
A common buzzword in American politics today is the “redistribution of wealth.” Slavery was redistribution of wealth en masse — the wealth of their bodies, their very persons, and of the work of their hands, transferred to their white owners and to white society as a whole, building an economy that black people could not participate in. Not only that, but for decades after the end of slavery, and still today, evolving white racism has continued to prevent blacks from participating fully in the economy that their ancestors built.
Slavery was not a bad moment in American history, here for a brief period but long since gone. It is not ancient history. It was the cornerstone of the American economy for more than three centuries, and its effects are felt in immeasurable ways, even today. Together with its various successors, it is both the reason for the impoverished and broken state of black communities, and the source of white prosperity.