When Roy Moore, a conservative outsider and former state Supreme Court justice most famous for twice getting kicked off the bench, captured Alabama’s Republican Senate primary last week, much of the analysis focused on two things: the seething fury of the Republican grass roots toward the party’s establishment and Moore’s devout following among Christian conservatives.
Yet this analysis missed the main reason so much anger exists in Southern politics: the failures of the modern economy.
In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt declared “that the South presents right now . . . the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem.” Nearly 80 years later, little has changed. The South remains the poorest region in America today. The Deep South — including Alabama — remains poorer still. While historians have traced the obvious legacies of slavery and Jim Crow to the deep inequalities between whites and blacks in the South, few have connected this factor to the region’s other enduring poverty: that of poor and working-class whites.
Although poor Southern whites were certainly never subjected to the violence and daily degrading humiliations of racial slavery, they did suffer tangible socioeconomic consequences as a result of living in a slave society.
Slavery’s cruel grip extended widely, damaging the lives of poorer whites who would never benefit economically from the institution. Pushed off the land and forced to compete with unpaid, brutalized slave labor, a significant portion of white Southerners wallowed in extreme poverty, the vestiges of which are still evident today.
By the 1840s and 1850s, the global demand for cotton had skyrocketed. In response, slaveholders from the cotton-poor Upper South sold more than 800,000 African Americans to Lower South states. This influx of slaves drastically reduced the need for white laborers, creating a large underclass who were unemployed or underemployed. Like their forefathers, most poor whites had spent their lives working in agriculture. But with the increase of enslaved labor, free labor was rarely required, except during the bottleneck seasons of planting and harvest.
Some poor white Southerners struggled to make ends meet with occasional odd jobs and seasonal agricultural work. Others chose to drop out of the workforce altogether, living off the land and often running afoul of the law.
Illicitly trading alcohol and food with the enslaved, poor whites made particularly inviting targets for a Southern legal system dominated by slaveholders, who often incarcerated them for behavioral, nonviolent “crimes” such as gambling, drinking and social interactions with the enslaved and free blacks. Their increasingly frequent bouts with local law enforcement officials helped brand poor whites as hardened, troublesome criminals.
In the decades before the Civil War, therefore, the Deep South’s poor whites found themselves increasingly at odds with the slaveholding class. Their poverty rendered them pariahs in a slave society. Not masters, not slaves, these “masterless” men and women fit in nowhere, and instead served to threaten the existing social and economic order.
But the slaveholding elites had a long-established, effective and well planned system of social control. They kept the white masses uneducated and illiterate, refusing to invest in a system of public education. Slaveholders instead used public money to fund law enforcement departments, creating an intricate criminal justice system that allowed slave owners to incarcerate (at will) white Southerners who failed to follow their social dictates.
By the eve of secession, the Deep South’s slaveholders were still jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder.
Ultimately, class tensions between white Southerners added to the causes of secession. Angered by their lack of job prospects, poor white laborers — whose ranks were rapidly increasing in Southern cities, thanks to migration — were becoming increasingly militant.
They began forming “associations,” or labor unions, and demanded freedom from competition with slaves, prisoners and even free blacks, whose wages always undercut their own. Vocal leaders of these groups threatened to stop supporting slavery if something was not done to help raise their wages and increase their opportunities for employment.
Between their cyclical and often dire poverty, their frequent targeting by the criminal justice system and their utter lack of job prospects, impoverished white Southerners were seething. They turned their ire toward the rich slave owners.
Wealthy slavelords were already strenuously defending slavery from attacks by Northern abolitionists and by the enslaved themselves. When bitter poor whites created a three-front battleground, slaveholders had few viable alternatives other than secession to protect their main source of wealth and revenue.
With the emancipation of African Americans, poor whites were finally incorporated into the system of white privilege, albeit at the bottom — as the Southern elite understood that this was a way to buy their political allegiance and to forestall a political alliance between poor whites and former slaves.
Poor whites quickly gained certain legal, political and social advantages solely based upon race. Their inclusion in white privilege allowed the former slaveholders to recapture control of Southern states after Reconstruction. Many times, these new freedoms came at the expense of African Americans, who now occupied the lowest rung of “free” society.
Both blacks and poor whites were better off after emancipation, but both were still constrained by historical and contemporary economic and social forces that, especially when manipulated by those atop the economic and political pyramid, made their respective interests seem contradictory.
In certain tragic respects, then, the 19th-century South offered ominous foreshadowings of 21st-century America. From an economic perspective, the extreme inequality of wealth and privilege remains striking, a direct reminder of the toll of unrestrained capitalism. People born into poverty in this country today rarely will be able to lift themselves out of the poor and working classes. For African Americans, the savage consequences of history, policy and racism have rendered prospects of economic ascension even more dismal.
While times of great economic turmoil have historically offered the best chances of a coalition of all oppressed laborers, regardless of race, they also present an ideal opportunity for the power-hungry elite to grow their wealth and power.
In Alabama, as in much of the South — and increasingly, much of the nation — poor and working-class whites are still reeling from the toll of poverty. Their anger and anxiety is easily channeled by savvy politicians. Controlling education, the media and politics, elite white Southerners continue inciting fears of immigrants, hatred of African Americans and an intense distrust of government and experts.
The conversation over the extreme (and growing) inequality in the United States is long overdue, and, more clearly now than ever, a subject of not simply regional but truly national urgency.
As the social theorist C.L.R. James eloquently penned, “The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased.” His sentiments seem to hold true years later, as deep economic disparity continues to weaken our democracy and render us a nation morally bankrupt.