Much of what Americans — black and white — believe about U.S. and African-American history is a product of historical amnesia or selective historical memory.
Many blacks believe slavery continues and comprises their contemporary condition. As the historically challenged documentary “13th” demonstrates, many blacks mistakenly believe mass racialized incarceration is modern-day slavery. Neoconservatives concur, but not on the question of mass racialized incarceration. When neoconservatives speak of contemporary slavery, they mean the welfare state, specifically the Great Society programs.
I’m a bit more sympathetic toward black folks’ substitution of mythology for history because they are trying to understand the continuation of racial oppression. For many black folks, slavery is the only word persuasive enough to describe the poverty, humiliation and powerlessness that characterize their lives.
Conservatives, however, are not simply mistaken, they are consciously perpetuating a falsehood in pursuit of a political agenda. When they speak about a “second slavery” it is in the service of an inhumane anti-statist program. As Rick Perlstein notes in a 2013 Nation article, for conservatives, slavery means reliance on government.
So, we’re clear, the form enslavement took in the U.S. and throughout the Americas was chattel slavery. That is, enslaved Africans were legally considered property and like animals and commodities they (and their progeny) could be bought and sold. Sans ownership and the resultant labor exploitation, no matter how horrible a condition may be it ain’t slavery.
What’s also troubling about these right-wing falsifiers who write outside their area of expertise is that the facts easily demonstrate the thoughtlessness, illogical, and duplicitous nature of their arguments.
First, as historians and social scientists know, slavery like every other social phenomenon has both a life and a legacy.
Second, although slavery was abolished in 1865 it didn’t die; it was turned into a newer form of racial oppression, sharecropping, which was followed by other systems of racial control.
Third, poverty like wealth. is inherited. Freed from slavery Black people entered the US capitalist system without any capital and with legal and extra-legal restrictions on where, in what industries and under what conditions they could live and work. In every southern state, where 90 percent of African-Americans resided, that state’s Black Codes favored capital and management in establishing the conditions under which they lived and labored. Simply put, these revised slave codes favored the owner or boss, which ironically is the Dutch term for master.
And as Rayford Logan states in his classic history of the African-American experience between 1877 and 1918, “The Betrayal of the Negro,” organized labor was the first large-scale entity to exclude b lack folk.
So, with freedom black folks were thrust penniless into a game of Monopoly. More than anything else, it is this legacy of entering their new condition of freedom without compensation for nearly 250 years of toil and abuse that explains the contemporary condition of African- Americans.
Moreover, not only do conservatives refuse to acknowledge the role of government in keeping black folks poor, they also refuse to admit its role in creating wealth for whites. Their historical amnesia leads them to ignore the ways whites benefited from support programs from which Blacks were excluded like the 1862 Homestead Act (initially blacks were not citizens and later were trapped in the South), the 1934 Federal Housing Authority’s insurance requirements (only insured suburban homes), the 1935 Social Security Act (excluded agricultural and domestic workers or 60 percent of employed Blacks) and the 1949 Housing Act (the FHA only funded home loans in racially homogenous suburbs).
But of course, unlike enslaved and sharecropping African-Americans, whites, “native” and immigrant, worked hard and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.
It’s interesting that conservatives claim Great Society programs had a negative effects on black folks. The data conclusively shows that before republican presidents began dismantling the Great Society it had positive impact on African-Americans.
Median family income among black families increased from under $5,000 in 1959 to $8,074 in 1969 before falling back to $7,808 in 1974. The percentage of black and other races (black composed about 94 percent of this category) living below the poverty line dropped by nearly 23 percentage points between 1959 and 1969, from 55.1 percent to 32.2, before it began to rise again in 1970. In 1959, the unemployment rate among blacks was 10.7 percent, but declined to 6.4 percent by 1969. In 1975, a year after Nixon resigned it had soared to 13.9 percent.
Scores of research demonstrate that financial hardship has the greatest negative impact on family structure and that home ownership has the most positive impact on health, educational attainment, and future wealth building. In other words there’s a relationship between unemployment, poverty, homeownership and family structure.
Yet, this complexity belies those lacking knowledge and appreciation of history and the social sciences and who prefer simple formulaic ideologically driven answers to complicated thinking about multifaceted social questions.
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.