Jamestown was the first North American to participate in the Atlantic slave trade. According to official accounts, a Dutch ship transported 20 African slaves pirated from a Spanish ship to the Jamestown in 1619. They were traded for “victuals (food).” The settlement would turn away a second slave ship (presumably their slaves were also pirated) to avoid “Spanish animosity.”
With plenty of surplus labor to supply their indentured servant scheme (see Hidden History: How Slavery Fueled Capitalism), England was slow to tap into the African slave trade. Initially they only transported slaves to Bermuda and the Bahamas to work sugar plantations. Prior to 1660, the English transported 200,000 African slaves to the New World. Of these, 120,000 went to Bermuda and the Bahamas, 22,000 went to New England and 50,000 to Virginia. The first slaves worked in glass, pitch, sassafras or iron production, but low demand meant poor return for investors.* It was only when Jamestown settlers began growing tobacco (in high demand in Europe due to its addictiveness**) that slavery became profitable in Virginia.
The 1666 Great Fire of London (and subsequent rebuild) also gave the Virginia slave trade a boost by creating local job opportunities for homeless Londoners that might otherwise have emigrated indentured servants.
Virginia adopted slave laws initially codified in Bermuda and the Bahamas. These differed significantly from those adopted by Portuguese and Spanish in Central and South America. Under English law, Africans and mulattoes were denied the option of buying their freedom (as under Roman slave law adopted by Catholic slave colonies).
Ayers describes the background behind Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675 in some detail. After 1670, white settlers and freed indentured servants*** had little prospect of accessing new undepleted land in the coastal settlements. At the same time, they experienced increasing conflict with Native Americans as they pushed West sinking fertile land. In 1676 after Governor Berkeley banned freed servants from squatting on indigenous land, aristocrat Nathaniel Bacon (who belonged to Berkeley’s governing council) mobilized disenchanted indentured servants, free Africans and slaves to join an armed expedition against the native Americans and eventually Berkeley himself.
The rebellion collapsed when Bacon died of dysentery. Berkeley was recalled to England in disgrace following the rebellion.
*Queen Elizabeth and her successors, who “owned” the land the first Virginia settlers claimed on behalf of England, granted charters signing it over to private investors willing to finance ocean voyages to the New World.
**King James I was the first to campaign to outlaw tobacco use, owing to its detrimental effect on human health.
***The standard contract required an indentured servant to work for a master 7 years, after which Virginia colony investors would grant them 50 acres of their own land.
Film can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander (2010)
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans functions as a racialized caste system similar to Jim Crow segregation laws. She defines caste as “as system in which a stigmatized racial group is locked into inferior position by law and custom.” In addition to the mass imprisonment itself, America’s unusually harsh treatment of ex-felons means extraordinarily high numbers of African Americans face legal discrimination for the rest of their life.
It’s both legal and socially acceptable to discriminate against ex-offenders. Federal agencies are legally required to exclude ex-felons from welfare and food stamp programs, public housing and Pell grants and student loans. Job discrimination against ex-felons is legal in nearly all states, and most states prohibit ex-felons from voting or serving on juries. Unable to find jobs or housing (relatives who take them in risk losing their homes under drug forfeiture* laws), many return to prison when they can’t meet the terms of their probation/parole (which usually includes stable housing and employment).
In addition to tracing the political origins of the War on Drugs, The New Jim Crow also provides a detailed analysis of the complex political and sociological dynamics that underlie white racism and the refusal of a post-racial “colorblind” society to acknowledge the immense damage mass incarceration wreaks on African American families and communities. She also explains the perplexing paradox that leads working class whites to vote against their own economic interests by electing Tea Party conservatives.
The War on Drugs: A Republican Scam
As Alexander elegantly demonstrates, the War on Drugs is part of a deliberate strategy by the Republican Party to play on racial animosity among working class whites to win their votes. The American elite has used this divide and conquer strategy to discourage multiracial coalitions all the way back to Bacon’s Rebellion* in 1676. According to Alexander, the original Jim Crow laws were largely a reaction to a brief multiracial coalition that formed as part of the Populist movement in the late 1800s.
Nixon was the first president to deliberately target the racist vote with the intention of transferring previously Democratic southern states to the Republican column. He pioneered the use of racially coded rhetoric such as “law and order,” “tough on crime” and the “undeserving” vs the “deserving” poor.
Here Alexander emphasizes that the affluent white liberals who championed 1960s civil rights legislation were essentially immune to the economic impact of most civil rights legislation. As professionals and academics, they weren’t competing with African Americans for the same jobs. Moreover, as residents of wealthy suburbs, their kids were excluded from mandatory busing laws.
Targeting the Racist Vote
Thanks to a highly sophisticated public relations campaign by Nixon and Republicans, by 1980 low income whites no longer saw poverty as stemming from a faulty economic system. They now blamed civil rights legislation and an overly generous welfare system. As a result, 22% of registered Democrats voted for Reagan in 1980.
Although Nixon coined the term, it would be Reagan who formerly launched the War on Drugs in 1982. The Reagan administration cut the white collar law enforcement in half to focus on street crime. This was during a period when street crime was rapidly declining and sociologists were predicting a phase-out of US prisons as they didn’t deter crime. Reagan also significantly increased DEA and FBI anti-drug enforcement while drastically decreasing funding for drug treatment. He also instituted financial incentives rewarding local policing units for high numbers of drug arrests. Alexander believes these financial rewards were directly responsible for initiating wholesale street sweeps and stop and frisk laws that have led cops to regularly jack up black motorists and inner city youths in the hope of finding illegal drugs.
Finally in 1985, he launched a major media campaign to sensationalize the crack cocaine epidemic. It worked. In 1980, only 2% of the US population viewed illegal drug use as the most important issue facing the US in 1980. By 1989 this number had reached 64%.
Clinton Escalates the War on Drugs
In 1992 Clinton and the New Democrats tried to recapture the Democratic votes they had lost to Regan and Bush by promising to enact even stricter anti-crime and anti-drug laws. Thus it was under Clinton law enforcement budgets and jail populations exploded. It was also Clinton who ended AFDC (Aid For Dependent Children) started under the New Deal – at precisely the same time inner city communities lost all their manufacturing jobs when factories shut down and moved overseas.
Clinton also initiated the federal programs to militarize local police, providing training to set up SWAT teams and surplus Pentagon tanks, body armor, weapons and helicopters. He also enacted the laws denying former drug felons access to federal programs. Sadly Obama, the first African American president, renewed and increased funding for many of these programs.
Discrimination in the Courts
In addition to discriminatory*** drug policing that focuses nearly exclusively on inner cities, African American defendants fare nearly as badly in court. Alexander cites many instances in which poor defendants receive limited or no access to legal representation. Many innocent clients, totally unaware of the future impact of a felony conviction, are intimidated into pleading guilty in return for a reduced sentence.
Ending the War on Drugs
In addition to outlining the ugly racialized history of the War on Drugs, Alexander also summarizes the conservative Supreme Court decisions that have systematically denied due process to people of color facing drug possessions. She concludes by offering a way forward – to end both the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of people of color.
In addition to legalizing marijuana (and possibly other drugs), she calls for the total structural reform of the criminal justice system. She believes only a multiracial movement with bottom up advocacy for poor blacks and whites alike can bring this about. This is exactly what Martin Luther king was working for when he was assassinated.
In the following video, Alexander talks about her book
*Drug forfeiture or asset forfeiture laws allow federal and state authorities to confiscate any and all assets (mainly homes, cars and cash) of an individual suspected of a drug-related crime. A subsequent finding of innocence doesn’t guarantee return of the assets, which often requires a lengthy and expensive court process. Some police departments deliberately misuse this law to confiscate cash and belongings of black motorists even where no arrest is made.
**Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion of white settlers and black and white indentured servants that would lead plantation owners to push for formal slavery laws to discourage further collaboration between whites and blacks.
***Although African Americans constitute only 15% of drug users, they represent 75% of the US prison population. Statistically drug dealers are more likely to be white than black, but local law enforcement authorities make no effort to police white suburbs or university campuses for illegal drug use. In fact, 80% of drug arrests are for possession (in 80% of cases for marijuana). Only 20% of arrests are for sales
I’ve just discovered another excellent film series at the African Element website. This 20 minute clip, Episode 4, is about Bacon’s Rebellion and how the British ruling elite invented race to to confuse poor white’s about their working class status.
Slavery in Black and White
Darius Spearman (2012)
The concept of whiteness and race is only about four hundred years old. It originates in preferential race laws that were passed after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. The latter consisted of an alliance of poor white settlers, former indentured servants and Africans who drove Governor William Berkeley out of Jamestown (the capital of colonial Virginia) and burnt it to the ground. A similar rebellion occurred in the Maryland colony around the same time.
Prior to the discovery of the New World, enslavement occurred exclusively in the context of war and military conquest. Ireland was the first plantation colony. During the fifteenth and sixteenth century, large numbers of Irish peasants were driven off their farms as the aristocracy converted them to sheep pasture. With no means of support, landless Irish peasants migrated to London, where they provided for themselves through begging, casual labor and petty crime.
Large numbers ended up in prison. They could win their release by agreeing to a seven to eleven year period of indentured servitude in the American colonies. There they commingled with African indentured servants, who enjoyed equally atrocious living and working conditions.
Classic Divide and Rule
Following Bacon’s rebellion, the Virginia colony sought to drive a wedge between poor blacks and whites by passing a series of laws awarding European indentured servants specific privileges. Among others, this included 50 acres of land (on their release) and the ability to testify in court and enter into contracts.
Simultaneously the legal status of African indentured servants also changed, with the passage of Slave Code laws in Virginia and other colonies. These laws enabled masters the right to claim Africans and their offspring as permanent chattel slaves or property. The legal justification was that Africans weren’t English and didn’t enjoy the protections of English common law.
It was a classic example of divide and rule. Convinced of their innate superiority over Africans, poor white settlers shunned any associate with them, making any cross-racial collaboration (against the British aristocracy) highly improbable.