Monday, April 19, 2010

A thought on American History

I saw a presentation by Douglas Blackmon on his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. This appears to be a good book and it has received good reviews.
Blackmon tells the story of the imprisoning of hundreds of thousands of blacks during several generations and leasing out their labor to local white owned businesses -- a form of forced servitude. This system, complementary to that of black tenant farming in the south, which served to force blacks to labor for the economic advantage of white land owners. Both can be seen as versions of involuntary servitude developed in the south after the emancipation of slaves.

Blackmon made a comment which was both very reasonable and very unreasonable in introducing his talk. He said that it made no sense to attribute the poverty of modern blacks to the poverty of their emancipated slave ancestors in 1865. It is clearly true that other (white) ethnic groups who were equally poor have progressed more economically than have blacks. It seems to me equally clear that had the blacks had more social and economic power in 1865 they could not have been as severely victimized as they were and in that sense their current plight is directly related to their plight in 1865 which is in turn related to the intervening decades of exploitation and repression.

In the Revolutionary War, the southern colonies constructed a rationale that they merited independence from the English king and parliament, and that they would associate with other colonies to obtain that independence. Between that war and the Civil War, the south built a cotton economy based on slaver; southerners from the power elite, especially after the Missouri Compromise, built a philosophical defense for slavery and for their right to run a slave society including a belief that southerners were keeping faith with the Revolution and with the Founding Fathers -- Washington and Jefferson.. After the civil war a new economic system was built that also exploited blacks for the benefit of a white power elite; southerners in that power elite built a philosophical defense again based on states rights and on segregation.

I understand that part of the justification offered by southerners was an attack on the northern system that was, in their view, following an English model of industrialization based on wage slaves. It is hard to argue against the position that northern mines and factories, not to mention civil works such as the construction of canals and railroads, were built by exploiting poor and especially poor immigrant labor. Indeed, in the north during the 19th century the power elites were systematically building a philosophical basis for this exploitation and some white ethnic groups faced long-term lack of economic and social opportunities due to the social and economic system in which they lived.

I find the ways in which societies respond to revolutionary change to be interesting. Pre-revolutionary power elites seek to build new social and economic systems to retain or restore their power, and I bet they often succeed. Philosophy seems to follow interest.

People now make the case that American society should seek to find ways to rectify the social and economic injustices done to the blacks in the past. Indeed, the country would be better off were blacks better able to compete economically and socially, since it is clear that they would contribute more to the welfare of all.

I wonder whether the same argument could be made for rectifying the hangovers from the economic and social injustices done to minority ethnic groups that were exploited as wage slaves for a century of more -- the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Eastern European-Americans, the Chinese-Americans.

1 comment:

John Daly said...

I read this book, although it was hard to bear the history of such viscous greed. We know about Jim Crow and the denial of voting and other civil rights. Think about the impact on a people of a cultural and economic oppression imposed not only by lynchings and beatings, but by the perversion of the legal system to force 100,000 to 200,000 into involuntary servitude in the worst of conditions, enforced by whips, dogs and guns. That was the United States for a half century.