White Supremacy and the Obama Legacy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World (2017)

Book Review

This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.

Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.

Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”

“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”

Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.

My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.

 

The Case for African American Reparations

A Moral Debt: The Legacy of Slavery in the US

Al Jazeera

Film Review

In this documentary, journalist James Gannon, a descendant of slave owner and confederate general Robert E Lee, investigates the legacy enslavement has bequeathed the descendants of slaves

Gannon interviews a number of Black historians, scholars and activists who help him understand the immense economic disadvantage descendants of slaves have faced since the end of the Civil War. Not only did southern Blacks face decades of Jim Crow laws that allowed them to be arbitrarily imprisoned and re-enslaved, but vibrant Black communities in the North were routinely destroyed by white race riots in the first half of the 20th century and “urban development” schemes after World War II. African American communities were also deliberately excluded (referred to as “redlining”) from federal mortgage guarantee programs that enabled white families to acquire wealth via home ownership.

As the result of his investigation, the journalist has become a strong advocate of the African American reparations movement. Scholars estimate descendants of slaves are owed approximately $17 trillion. This includes the wealth they created as chattel and Jim Crow slaves, the value of black businesses destroyed by white terrorism and urban development and the monetary disadvantage they experienced due to exclusion from federal mortgage subsidy programs.

Hidden History: The Abolitionists who Led the European Colonization of Africa

Slavery Trade Routes – Part 3 Slavery’s New Frontiers

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The final episode in the series begins with the revolution in Saint-Domingue (modern day Haiti) that would signal the beginning of the end for the slave trade. Led by Tousaint L’Ouverture, in 1791 the entire slave population of Saint Domingue (90% of residents) revolted again their plantation owners. It would be Napoleon’s first military defeat.

Although the British Navy succeeded in shutting down much of the slave trade in 1815, they couldn’t stem the flow of slaves to feed the prison-style industrial coffee plantations in Brazil. An additional 2 million Africans were deported to Brazil between 1815 and 1850. At present, Brazil has the second largest population of Africans in the world (with Nigeria at number one).

Although the trafficking of slaves to the US stopped in 1815, the American slave population continued to grow – in part due to the routine rape of female slaves by their white masters.

US Last Country to Abolish Slavery

In 1825, after achieving independence, all former Spanish colonies abolished slavery. French, English and Dutch colonies would gradually follow suit. The US formally abolished slavery in 1865 during the Civil War. In reality slavery continued in southern states with Jim Crow laws that denied Blacks the right to vote, freedom of movement and the right to self-defense. In addition, laws providing for the arrest of unemployed blacks for vagrancy resulted in a de facto involuntary servitude.

European Colonization of Africa

For me, the most interesting part of the film concerns the direct link between the abolition of slavery and the intensive European colonization of Africa. The military adventurers who conquered Africa were all “abolitionists.” Officially the purpose of their missions to Africa were to end the slave trade. In reality, they were deeply committed white supremacists who cut deals with Arab slave traders and local chieftains to put poor African peasants to work (involuntarily) on their African coffee, palm oil, rubber and cotton plantations.

The video can’t be embedded but can be seen free at the following link:

Slavery’s New Frontiers

The Negro Motorist Green Book

 

green-book

 

Victor H. Green, a post office employee and activist in Harlem, published the first Green Book in 1936 for the New York area. The next year, it expanded to cover the whole country. The book listed “hotels, boarding houses, restaurants, beauty shops, barber shops, and various other services” where Black people would be served. 15,000 copies were produced each year (until 1964) and sold to market Black-owned businesses and more friendly White ones like Esso, one of the few gas stations that would sell to Black people.

During the shameful Jim Crow period, when many businesses all over the US refused to serve black people (even in emergencies), the information allowed black families to travel to parts of the US they had only heard of. In the South, knowledge of safe and unsafe areas could be life saving.

Free PDF (1949 edition): The Green Book

 

Involuntary Servitude: Prisoners Fight California Wildfires

Thanks to climate change, California’s wildfire season got an early start in 2016 – in February. According to the BBC, 30 percent of California’s firefighters (roughly 4,000) are state prison inmates. They make $2 a day while at fire camp, and $1 an hour while on a fire line – saving state taxpayers $80 million a year. Inmates also earn two days off their sentence for every day they’re on a fire. The work of battling a 100 foot high fire wall is incredibly dangerous, and inmate firefighters suffer a “handful” of injuries every year – usually from falling branches and debris.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

While the BBC feature quotes inmates as being honored by the “privilege” of fighting fires, the inmate fire fighting program is taking place against the backdrop of a federal court order requiring California to reduce overcrowding. In 2011, the The Supreme Court upheld  a lower court ruling ordering California to cut their prison populations (by reducing the sentences of low level offenders).

State correction officials complied by offering an early prison-release program to all minimum security offenders – but only “so long as it proves not to deplete the numbers of inmate firefighters.” In 2014, state Attorney General Kamala Harris argued against the program, concerned it would severely impact fire camp participation “a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”

The New Jim Crow

In other words, California is openly balancing the state budget on the backs of prison slave labor.

Given that low income minorities comprise the great majority of California’s prison population – for circumstances largely beyond their control – this policy clearly violates the UN Convention on Human  Rights (which forbids slavery and involuntary servitude).

In fact, it sounds a lot like southern Jim Crow laws.*

In The New Jim Crow , lawyer Michelle Alexander describes in detail how urban police deliberately target minority neighborhoods for enforcement of drug possession and other victimless crimes. She also cites numerous examples of minority arrestees forced to cop guilty pleas owing to their inability to obtain competent legal representation.

Below prisoners fight a 2014 fire in Shasta County.


*In the Jim Crow system that followed Reconstruction, most southern states passed arbitrary vagrancy laws that were used to imprison black males and force them into unpaid slave labor on plantations, on the railroads and in factories and mines. See 1941: The Year Slavery Finally Ended

 

A Novel About Jim Crow

some singSome Sing, Some Cry

By Ntozake Shangi and Ifa Bayeza

St Martin’s Press (2010)

Book Review

Some Sing, Some Cry is a novel tracing seven generations of a fictional African American family from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. The authors are sisters and the first half of the book is based on family oral history.

The novel’s matriarch originates from on an island off the coast of South Carolina and takes the name of a prominent plantation owner who has fathered children by both her mother and herself. The family are forced off their land when Reconstruction ends, migrating to Charleston.

The first half of the book is the strongest, with its poignant depiction of family members being stripped of their newly won freedoms as Jim Crow laws ban them from most occupations. To a large extent, the plot revolves around complex prejudices within the African American community against family members with darker skin. In one instance, the plantation owner kidnaps an light-complected male child and raises him as his heir. In another a “bright-skinned” uncle passes as Irish to evade trade union rules that ban Negroes.

The novel’s main focus is the role newly freed slaves played in the development of modern American music. The reader gets the strong sense that many Mayfield family members turned to working in minstrel shows, music halls and clubs when Jim Crow laws banned them from other occupations.

The sections dealing with the great northern migration, Harlem renaissance and birth of ragtime and jazz are also quite riveting. I came away with a totally new insight into the African American origin of the dance crazes of the “roaring twenties,” eg the “Charleston” and the “Black Bottom.”

This was also my first exposure to the extreme discrimination African American soldiers faced during World War I. Unlike white troops, they weren’t issued gas masks. Forced to improvise, they covered their faces with urine soaked rags to protect themselves against mustard gas.

Reclaiming Our History

plutocracy

Plutocracy: Political Repression in the United States

Scott Noble (2015)

Film Review

As German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously stated, “History is written by the victors.” In the US, most history books are written by and for the corporate oligarchs who run our government. Plutocracy is the first documentary to comprehensively examine early American history from the perspective of the working class. Part II (Solidarity Forever) will cover the late 19th Century to the early twenties. The filmmaker is currently seeking donations to complete the project. If you’d like to help, you can donate to their Patreon account.

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed free at Plutocracy

Plutocracy starts with Shay’s Rebellion in 1786, the insurrection of Massachusetts farmers against the courts and banks that were fleecing them of their meager wealth and property. Similar rebellions in Rhode Island and Virginia would cause leading US bankers, merchants and plantation owners to organize a secret convention to create a central government and standing army. Each of the 13 original states, which in 1787 were still independent and sovereign, sent delegates to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.

Instead of revising the Articles, as authorized by their state legislatures, the delegates closed the meeting to the public and voted to replace them with a federal constitution. The latter substantially limited the freedom and power of state legislatures and ordinary Americans.

Plutocracy moves on to cover the massive Irish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century and the appalling squalor so-called “white Negroes” lived in. During the 19th century, 80% of babies born to Irish immigrants died in infancy.

The film touches only briefly on the Civil War, describing laws that enabled robber barons like John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and Cornelius Vanderbilt to evade the Civil War draft by paying a poor person $300 to replace them.

It offers a detailed depiction of post-Civil War Reconstruction, which coincided with the 1871 Paris commune and saw blacks collaborating with poor whites to establish the South’s first public schools and hospitals. This was in addition to the election of numerous former slaves to judgeships and legislative positions.

Their eagerness to return Negroes to productive status on plantations led northern industrialists to pressure Congress to end Reconstruction by removing the federal troops protecting the rights of former slaves. It also led to their passive acceptance of unconstitutional Jim Crow laws and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. The chief aim of both was to prevent poor backs and whites from associating with one another.

The federal troops withdrawn from the South were redeployed in genocidal campaigns against Native Americans and Mexicans. By the end of the 19th century, not only had Mexico ceded half their territory to the US (including California, Texas, Utah, Nevada and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Montana – in the 1984 Treaty of Guadalupe), but US corporations enjoyed de facto control of all land remaining under sovereign Mexican control.

Stripping the Native Americans and Mexicans of their land in the West, readied the US for the rise of the robber barons of industry (Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie and Vanderbilt) and a corrupt system of federal and local government run entirely by bribery and patronage.

The corruption and squalid living conditions of the late 19th century would give rise to militant trade unionism, socialism, anarchism and populism. Plutocracy depicts the Pullman and similar strikes in which strikers were brutally beaten and killed by Pinkerton’s Detectives and other goons hired by industrial bosses, as well as national guardsmen and, on several occasions, federal troops.

The film opens with a poignant depiction of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in US history. It’s the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, involving 10,000 coal miners. Denise Giardini memorializes the Battle of Blair Mountain in her 1987 novel Storming Heaven.


*Rockefeller and Morgan had a relative monopoly on the banks, Carnegie on steel and Vanderbilt on the railroads.

 

The Cost of Racism to White America

The Cost of Racism to White America

University of Massachusetts Professor John H Bracey (2011)

Film Review

In his lecture, Professor Bracey blames racism and white privilege for US having the most poorly organized working class in the industrialized world. From the start of Jim Crow after the Civil War to the late sixties, Africa Americans were deliberately excluded from trade unions, a perfect set-up for white bosses to use non-unions black workers to bust strikes and unions. This absence of working class solidarity meant it took American workers until the 1930s to win basic rights and benefits (eg Social Security, unemployment compensation and welfare) that European workers won in the 1880s.

Racism also keeps white people ignorant of their own history. For example they are unaware (I sure was) that the Battle of the Alamo was fought to extend slavery to Texas (slavery was illegal when Mexico owned Texas).

The refusal of northern whites to confront their own racism would ultimately culminate in the Civil War, which would result in more deaths (1 million) than all other US wars combined.

Bracey also blames racist attitudes for the absence of public education in the South until after the Civil War. It would be black Reconstruction governments that established free public education in the South – for all children (black and white). They would also establish the first state universities in Georgia and Mississippi.”

Ironically it was African Americans who founded Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), though they were later excluded when the Ku Klux Kan violently overthrew the southern Reconstruction governments.

It was also black women who organized the southern textile mills and not Norma Ray, as portrayed in the popular film starring Sally Fields.

Continuing racism forces white people to sacrifice education, health, housing and social service programs to cover the phenomenal cost of mass incarceration (of mainly black and Hispanic Americans. At an annual cost of $40,000 per inmate, the cost of incarcerating 2.4 million Americans adds up to $960 billion annually.

The presentation starts at 7 min.