We sometimes forget, and perhaps it is an intentional forgetting, that the racism we are fighting today was originally conjured to justify working unfree black people, often until death, to generate extravagant riches for European colonial powers, the white planter class and all the ancillary white people from Midwestern farmers to bankers to sailors to textile workers, who earned their living and built their wealth from free black labor and the products that labor produced. The prosperity of this country is inextricably linked with the forced labor of the ancestors of 40 million black Americans for whom these marches are now occurring, just as it is linked to the stolen land of the country’s indigenous people. Though our high school history books seldom make this plain: Slavery and the 100-year period of racial apartheid and racial terrorism known as Jim Crow were, above all else, systems of economic exploitation. To borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s phrasing, racism is the child of economic profiteering, not the father.
Numerous legal efforts to strip black people of their humanity existed to justify the extraction of profit. Beginning in the 1660s, white officials ensured that all children born to enslaved women would also be enslaved and belong not to their mothers but to the white men who owned their mothers. They passed laws dictating that the child’s status would follow that of the mother not the father, upending European norms and guaranteeing that the children of enslaved women who were sexually assaulted by white men would be born enslaved and not free. It meant that profit for white people could be made from black women’s wombs. Laws determining that enslaved people, just like animals, had no recognized kinship ties ensured that human beings could be bought and sold at will to pay debts, buy more acres or save storied universities like Georgetown from closing. Laws barred enslaved people from making wills or owning property, distinguishing black people in America from every other group on these shores and assuring that everything of value black people managed to accrue would add to the wealth of those who enslaved them. At the time of the Civil War, the value of the enslaved human beings held as property added up to more than all of this nations’ railroads and factories combined. And yet, enslaved people saw not a dime of this wealth. They owned nothing and were owed nothing from all that had been built from their toil.
Slavery’s demise provided this nation the chance for redemption. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, we could have birthed a new country, one that recognized the humanity and natural rights of those who helped forge this country, one that attempted to atone and provide redress for the unspeakable atrocities committed against black people in the name of profit. We could have finally, 100 years after the Revolution, embraced its founding ideals.
And, oh so briefly, during the period known as Reconstruction, we moved toward that goal. The historian Eric Foner refers to these 12 years after the Civil War as this nation’s second founding, because it is here that America began to redeem the grave sin of slavery. Congress passed amendments abolishing human bondage, enshrining equal protection before the law in the Constitution and guaranteeing black men the right to vote. This nation witnessed its first period of biracial governance as the formerly enslaved were elected to public offices at all levels of government. For a fleeting moment, a few white men listened to the pleas of black people who had fought for the Union and helped deliver its victory. Land in this country has always meant wealth and, more important, independence. Millions of black people, liberated with not a cent to their name, desperately wanted property so they could work, support themselves and be left alone. Black people implored federal officials to take the land confiscated from enslavers who had taken up arms against their own country and grant it to those who worked it for generations. They were asking to, as the historian Robin D.G. Kelley puts it, “inherit the earth they had turned into wealth for idle white people.”
In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Confederate land issued in 40-acre tracts to newly freed people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. But just four months later, in April, Lincoln was assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon this promise of 40 acres, overturning Sherman’s order. Most white Americans felt that black Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the bloody Civil War had absolved any debt. The government confiscated the land from the few formerly enslaved families who had started to eke out a life away from the white whip and gave it back to the traitors. And with that, the only real effort this nation ever made to compensate black Americans for 250 years of chattel slavery ended.
Freed people, during and after slavery, tried again and again to compel the government to provide restitution for slavery, to provide at the very least a pension for those who spent their entire lives working for no pay. They filed lawsuits. They organized to lobby politicians. And every effort failed. To this day, the only Americans who have ever received government restitution for slavery were white enslavers in Washington, D.C., who were compensated for their loss of human property.
The way we are taught this in school, Lincoln “freed the slaves,” and then the nearly four million people who the day before had been treated as property suddenly enjoyed the privileges of being Americans like everyone else. We are not prodded to contemplate what it means to achieve freedom without a home to live in, without food to eat, a bed to sleep on, clothes for your children or money to buy any of it. Narratives collected of formerly enslaved people during the Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s reveal the horrors of massive starvation, of “liberated” black people seeking shelter in burned-out buildings and scrounging for food in decaying fields before eventually succumbing to the heartbreak of returning to bend over in the fields of their former enslavers, as sharecroppers, just so they would not die. “With the advent of emancipation,” writes the historian Keri Leigh Merritt, “blacks became the only race in the U.S. ever to start out, as an entire people, with close to zero capital.”
In 1881, Frederick Douglass, surveying the utter privation in which the federal government left the formerly enslaved, wrote: “When the Hebrews were emancipated, they were told to take spoil from the Egyptians. When the serfs of Russia were emancipated, they were given three acres of ground upon which they could live and make a living. But not so when our slaves were emancipated. They were sent away empty-handed, without money, without friends and without a foot of land on which they could live and make a living. Old and young, sick and well, were turned loose to the naked sky, naked to their enemies.”
If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved, our country must finally take seriously what it owes black people.
Source: NY Times