Sunday, February 19, 2012

Slavery In America: SURPRISE! It Really Only Ended In The 1940s

This is Black History Month. It is passing with little notice in the media and among the political elites, or celebration, even recognition of the contributions of African Americans to our society. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Republican race for president has treated the public to an orgy of racist invective and hatred rarely seen in our politics, such that listening to the media euphemisms we might as well call it "Dog Whistle" History Month.

Why can't the MSM say racist politics, instead? Because, there is a formidable right wing media propaganda network anchored by FOX and the Murdoch media empire that has effectively repressed coverage of resurgent racism in our politics, and society. The right wing has become adept at playing the victim card each time the words 'race' and 'racism' define the despicable, daily banality of bigotry on the right. A bigotry that extends not only to African Americans but also to women and gays.

As if. It's a "dog whistle" signified by the fact humans cannot hear it explicitly but recognize it implicitly. It's a convenient rationalization but not really true. African American commentators chafe under such artifice and challenge the doctrine of euphemism preached by some memo, somewhere, that we  musn't "racialize" this presidential race. This is past dog whistle, they say; it's a bullhorn.

Yet the Republicans keep getting away with blaming the media, the reluctant messenger, for their own racism. Mitt Romney pulled a bait-and-switch, outrageously forcing MSNBC to deny its own factual news report. Then Newt Gingrich made it a practice of attacking the messengers when they threw his words back at him and asked him to explain them. Now it's Rick Santorum's turn to cry foul over his and his proxy financier's damning statements against contraception, claiming a Reverend Wright exemption. Apparently, Santorum missed the media feeding frenzy hysterics surrounding the endlessly looping Rev. Wright rants. The Friess aspirin flap pales by comparison.

Aside from ingrained bigotry, Republicans have two distinguishing characteristics: (1) They are bullies, particularly to women and the poor, and (2) they are unremitting whiners. This contraception fight is a perfect example of Republicans behaving badly, more than usual. First, they bully; then we call their bluff and stand up for our rights; next, they start whining (the current phase, which may last a while — they will squirm like well-oiled pigs when cornered), whining louder still, before their final, total, complete metaphysical capitulation. Culminating in their being thrown out of office in massive numbers.

Still there's a pervasive denial of resurgent racism in our society, a racism whose embers were stoked by the election of our first African American President and exacerbated by the economic collapse of 2007. Even as it stares us in the face we are encouraged to dismiss racist politics, and look the other way as if it's just a harmless eccentricity of the Republicans. Central to the new racism was the rise of the Tea Party, fueled by Koch brothers money, powering the catastrophic Republican wave elections of 2010. As a result, the Congressional Republican Party — House and Senate — became the most obstructionist and right wing in history.

For those who still deny that racism is an essential element of Republican electoral politics, read Ari Berman's exposés in Rolling Stone and The Nation of the Party's assault on voting rights, and its "new Southern Strategy" of gerrymandering districts, effectively re-segregating the South, where most of this activity is occurring. The victims of these despicable practices are the poor, the young, people of color, and the elderly, all of whom are primarily Democratic voters. And watch this:

Racism is alive and well in America. "Only in America" as the saying goes. But this is Black History Month. About a week ago, I saw a documentary piece on PBS which should be required teaching in every classroom in America. That most Americans are unaware of this craven "hidden" history of race and slavery in America is an epic failure of our educational system. One that has perpetuated the ugly stereotypes we see today in stories as American and uplifting as Jeremy Lin's and as sad and tragic as Whitney Houston's.

Slavery by Another Name, a documentary that recently aired on PBS, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, tells the astonishing story of the "thousands of African-Americans who were arrested on trumped-up charges and forced to work as convict labor." The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but for one loophole, which kept hundreds of thousands of "former" slaves under lock and key for decades, beginning 20 to 25 years after the Civil War.

The 13th Amendment exception was as punishment for a crime. The system of involuntary servitude relied on this loophole, replaced slavery in the South with catastrophic consequences for former slaves, who could be driven back into forced labor for bogus crimes as trivial as vagrancy. Those arrested under this repressive regime couldn't afford the enormous fines, and were forced into "peonage" which is "essentially debt slavery." A person was held against their will "to work off an alleged debt to a landowner or to someone who has purchased them ... And that's the language that was used, buying and selling, someone who has been purchased from a county jail or purchased from a state prison system."

According to Douglas A. Blackmon, author of the book:
"[I]t became an instrument of injustice, instead of a system of justice. And there were rafts of laws that effectively criminalized black life. It was almost impossible for a black man in the South, in the rural South, in the early 20th century not to be at risk of arrest at almost any time. And the consequences of even the most trivial of offenses were enormous." ... It is "the missing link in understanding the persistence of the economic and educational gaps between African-Americans and whites in modern society today. Slavery didn't go away 150 years ago. African-Americans haven't had that long opportunity to recover from all the terrible damage of slavery."
American corporations participated and profited from this regime of convict labor. Mr. Blackmon said his book was based on an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, detailing forced labor in Alabama's Pratt Mines by Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., which was purchased by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel in 1907. The use of convict labor continued at U.S. Steel until 1912.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that such appalling labor practices have simply been outsourced to Asian sweatshops surrounded by barbed wire and Chinese factories producing the gadgets of our lives packaged for cutting edge and "hip" mega-corporations like Apple.

Mr. Blackmon said it's "mind-boggling" that the slavery in existence before the Civil War, from the beginnings of our slave economy republic, "the greatest moral failure of the history of our country," was followed by another form of slavery that persisted for another 50 or 60 years. "[It] is a sort of astonishing failure on the part of an entire society." It was only in the 1940s that this atrocious regime of debt slavery came under closer scrutiny and reforms were initiated leading to the enactment of fair labor laws to abolish it.

The must-see documentary can be viewed here. More on slavery in America can be viewed here.

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