In America, racial oppression is not ancient history

Courtland Milloy
Columnist February 7, 2012

When talking about his childhood in Earle, Ark., during the 1920s and ’30s, my father always mentions a sheriff who rented out prisoners to wealthy landowners. Black men arrested on charges such as vagrancy and drunkenness, or just for being “uppity,” were forced to pay off their fines by working in coal mines, cotton fields, turpentine camps and timber mills.

“People would come to town from all over the county on weekends, riding wagons and mules,” my dad recalls. “Naturally, guys who had worked hard all week on the farm would want to have a little fun. They might buy a half a pint, get drunk. Then the sheriff would show up, and the next thing they knew they’d be working on a plantation and you might never hear from them again.”

The practice, known as “convict leasing,” is explored in a PBS documentary, “Slavery by Another Name,” that airs Monday. For more than 80 years, from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II, roughly 800,000 people throughout the South were forced to work under circumstances that were as bad, if not worse, than slavery. The death rate at some work camps and mines was as high as 40 percent.

For me, the film doesn’t carry the same power as listening to a parent talk about growing up in those days, but it concludes by making the same important point that Dad often does.

“This is not ancient history,” he tells me. “This actually happened in my lifetime.”

And the effects of centuries of racial oppression don’t just disappear in one or two generations — nor do the attitudes that gave rise to it.

Douglas A. Blackmon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book on which the documentary is based, also titled “Slavery by Another Name,” and a contributing editor to The Washington Post, sums up how America’s economic system was rigged to benefit one group at the expense of another.

“At the end of the Civil War, there were 4 million freed slaves who lived in absolute poverty, uneducated, little access to opportunities,” he says in the film. “We also know there were an equal number of white Americans in the South, like members of my family, my ancestors, who were also impoverished, illiterate, no access to opportunities. Over the next 75 years, American society performed a miracle of sorts. Those 4 million whites living in those conditions became 40 million middle-class Americans by the beginning of World War II. That’s what made American society extraordinary, the superpower that it is today. But all of that was done in a way that excluded African Americans and brutalized African Americans at the same time.”

The documentary would make an effective teaching aide for a high school history or economics class. Despite all of the emphasis on Black History Month, too many black youngsters remain ignorant of their history — as evidenced by the popularity of that whitewashed movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails.” Anyone who believes that institutional racism in the 1940s was just some white folks using the “n-word” definitely needs to see this documentary.

The program offers a visual dimension to the stories my father tells and shows why that sheriff always turns up in his recollections. The lawman, with his badge, gun and white hat, represented a profound corruption of the American justice system. And, in many ways, he still does. Not even the Constitution — with its amendments abolishing slavery, its guarantees of citizenship and the right to vote — has been able to completely halt the nation’s reliance on racism in service to capitalism.

The stories that I have to tell a grandchild will be eerily similar to the ones my dad tells. There was great progress; we even got a black president. And yet, while black people made up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, we were more than 40 percent of the prison population. At least 37 states allowed corporations to move business operations inside prisons. And in some privately run prisons, inmates earned as little as 17 cents an hour for a six-hour day while the corporations raked in billions of dollars in profits each year.

The wealthy landowners of my dad’s youth had simply traded in their mint juleps for martinis and executive suites.

Slavery by another name lives on.

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