Resistance To Slavery

George M. Fredrickson and Christopher Lasch

Posted November 12, 2021


The issues involved in the study of “resistance” to slavery are badly in need of clarification. The problem, one would suppose, is not whether the plantation slave was happy with his lot but whether he actively resisted it. But even this initial clarification does not come easily. Too many writers have assumed that the problem of resistance consists mainly of deciding whether slaves were docile or discontented and whether their masters were cruel or kind. In this respect and in others, as Stanley Elkins noted several years ago, the discussion of slavery has locked itself into the terms of an old debate. (1) The pro-slavery stereotype of the contented slave, which was taken over without much conceptual refinement by U. B. Phillips and others, has been attacked by recent historians in language much the same as that employed by the abolitionists more than a hundred years ago, according to which slaves hated bondage and longed to be free. “That they had no understanding of freedom,” Kenneth Stampp argues, “… is hard to believe.” A few pages later, and without any intervening evidence, Stampp progresses from this cautious thought to a fullblown statement of the case for “resistance.” “Slave resistance, whether bold and persistent or mild and sporadic, created for all slaveholders a serious problem of discipline.” He concludes, in a burst of rhetoric, that “the record of slave resistance forms a chapter in the story of the end-less struggle to give dignity to human life.”(2)

It should be apparent that the traditional terms of reference, on either side of the dispute, are not sufficiently precise to serve as instruments of analysis. One of the faults of Phillips’ work is his consistent failure to distinguish between cruelty and coercion. By compiling instances of the kindness and benevolence of masters, Phillips proved to his own satisfaction that slavery was a mild and permissive institution, the primary function of which was not so much to produce a marketable surplus as to ease the accommodation of the lower race into the culture of the higher. The critics of Phillips have tried to meet him on his own ground. Where he compiled lists of indulgences and benefactions, they have assembled lists of atrocities. Both methods suffer from the same defect: they attempt to solve a conceptual problem—what did slavery do to the slave—by accumulating quantitative evidence. Both methods assert that plantations conformed to one of two patterns, terror or indulgence, and then seek to prove these assertions by accumulating evidence from plantation diaries, manuals of discipline, letters and other traditional sources for the study of slavery. But for every instance of physical cruelty on the one side an enterprising historian can find an instance of indulgence on the other. The only conclusion that one can legitimately draw from this debate is that great variations in treatment existed from plantation to plantation. (But as we shall see, this conclusion, barren in itself, can be made to yield important results if one knows how to use it.)

Even if we could make valid generalizations about the severity of the regime, these statements would not automatically answer the question of whether or not widespread resistance took place. If we are to accept the testimony of Frederick Douglass, resistance was more likely to result from indulgence and rising expectations than from brutalizing severity. (3) A recent study of the geographical distribution of authentic slave revolts shows that most of them occurred in cities and in areas of slavebreeding and diversified agriculture, where, according to all accounts, the regime was more indulgent than in the productive plantation districts of the Cotton Kingdom. (4) Open resistance cannot be inferred from the extreme physical cruelty of the slave system, even if the system’s cruelty could be demonstrated statistically.

II

There is the further question of what constitutes resistance. When Kenneth Stampp uses the term he means much more than open and flagrant defiance of the system. To him resistance is all noncooperation on the part of the slaves. And it cannot be denied that the annals of slavery abound in examples of this kind of behavior. Slaves avoided work by pretending to be sick or by inventing a hundred other plausible pretexts. They worked so inefficiently as to give rise to the sus-picion that they were deliberately sabotaging the crop. They stole from their masters without compunction, a fact which gave rise to the complaint that slaves had no moral sense, but which is better interpreted as evidence of a double standard—cheating the master while dealing honorably with other slaves. Nor was this all. Their grievances or frustrations led at times to the willful destruction of the master’s property by destroying tools, mistreating animals, and setting fire to plantation buildings. Less frequently, they took the ultimate step of violent attack on the master himself. Perhaps the most common form of obvious noncooperation was running away; every large plantation had its share of fugitives.(5)

The question which inevitably arises, as Stampp piles up incident after incident in order to show that slaves were “a troublesome property,” is whether this pattern of noncooperation constitutes resistance.

Resistance is a political concept. Political activity, in the strictest sense, is organized collective action which aims at affecting the distribution of power in a community; more broadly, it might be said to consist of any activity, either of individuals or of groups, which is designed to create a consciousness of collective interest, such consciousness being the prerequisite for effective action in the realm of power. Organized resistance is of course only one form of political action. Others include interest-group politics; coalitions of interest groups organized as factions or parties; reform movements; or, at an international level, diplomacy and war. In total institutions, however, conventional politics are necessarily nonexistent. (6) Politics, if they exist at all, must take the form of resistance: collective action designed to subvert the system, to facilitate and regularize escape from it; or, at the very least, to force important changes in it.

Among despised and downtrodden people in general, the most rudimentary form of political action is violence; sporadic and usually short-lived outbursts of destruction, based on a common sense of out-rage and sometimes inspired by a millennialistic ideology. Peasant revolts all over the world, have usually conformed to this type. (7) In total institutions, prison riots are perhaps the nearest equivalent. In American slavery, the few documented slave rebellions fall into the same pattern. (8) What makes these upheavals political at all is that they rest on some sense, however primitive, of collective victimization. They require, moreover, at least a minimum of organization and planning. What makes them rudimentary is that they do not aim so much at changing the balance of power as at giving expression on the one hand to apocalyptic visions of retribution, and on the other to an immediate thirst for vengeance directed more at particular individuals than at larger systems of authority. In the one case, the sense of grievance finds an outlet in indiscriminate violence ( as against Jews ) ; in the other, it attaches itself to a particular embodiment of authority (as in prisons, where a specific departure from established routine may set off a strike or riot demanding the authority’s dismissal and a return to the previous regime). But in neither case does collective action rest on a realistic perception of the institutional structure as a whole and the collective interest of its victims in subverting it. That explains why such outbreaks of violence tend to subside very quick-ly, leaving the exploitive structure intact. Underground resistance to the Nazis in western Europe, on the other hand, precisely because it expressed itself in an organized underground instead of in futile outbreaks of indiscriminate violence, had a continuous existence which testifies to the highly political character of its objectives.

It is easy to show that Negro slaves did not always cooperate with the system of slavery. It is another matter to prove that noncooperation amounted to political resistance. Malingering may have reflected no more than a disinclination to work, especially when the rewards were so meager. Likewise, what is taken for sabotage may have originated in apathy and indifference. Acts of violence are subject to varying interpretations. If there is something undeniably political about an organized, premeditated rebellion, an isolated act of violence could arise from a purely personal grievance. Even the motive of flight is obscure: was it an impulse, prompted by some special and immediate affront, or was it desertion, a sort of separate peace?

These acts in themselves tell us very little. We begin to understand them only when we understand the conceptual distinction between resistance and noncooperation; and even then, we still feel the need of a more general set of conceptions, derived from recorded experience, to which slavery—an unrecorded experience, except from the masters’ point of view—can be compared; some general model which will enable us to grasp imaginatively the system as a whole.

III

Only the testimony of the slaves could tell us, once and for all, whether slaves resisted slavery. In the absence of their testimony, it is tempting to resort to analogies. Indeed it is almost impossible to avoid them. Those who condemn analogies, pretending to argue from the documentary evidence alone, delude themselves. Resistance to slavery cannot be established (any more than any other general conception of the institution can be established) without making an implicit analogy between Negro slavery and the struggles of free men, in our own time, “to give dignity to human life” by resisting oppression. The question, in the case of slavery, is not whether historians should argue from analogy but whether they are willing to make their analogies explicit.

Stanley Elkins compares slavery to the Nazi concentration camps and concludes that the effect of slavery was to break down the slave adult personality and to reduce him to a state of infantile dependence, comparable to the condition observed by survivors of the concentration camps. In evaluating this particular analogy, we are entitled to ask how well it explains what we actually know about slavery. In one respect, it explains too much. It explains the fact that there were no slave rebellions in the United States comparable to those which took place in Latin America, but it also rules out the possibility of noncooperation. Elkins’ analogy suggests a state of internalized dependency that does not fit the facts of widespread intransigence, insubordination, and mischief-making. Stampp may not adequately explain this pattern of behavior, but he convinces us that it existed. Elkins is open to criticism on empirical grounds for failing to take into account a vast amount of evidence that does not fit his theory of slave behavior. Many of Elkins’ critics, however, have not concerned themselves with the substance of his analogy. Raising neither empirical nor theoretical objections against it, they have seized on its mere existence as a means of discrediting Elkins’ work. He should rather be congratulated for having made the analogy explicit, thereby introducing into the study of slavery the lands of questions that modem studies of total institutions have dealt with far more systematically than conventional studies of slavery.

Elkins was careful to emphasize the limits of the comparison. He did not argue that the plantation resembled a concentration camp with respect to intentions or motives; “even ‘cruelty,’ ” he added, “was not indispensable as an item in my equation.” His “essentially limited purpose” in bringing the two institutions together was to show the psychological effects of closed systems of control; and the objections to the analogy may after all derive not from the analogy itself but from a tendency, among Elkins’ critics, to take it too literally. As Elkins observes, the “very vividness and particularity [of analogies] are coercive: they are almost too concrete. One’s impulse is thus to reach for extremes. The thing is either taken whole hog . . .; or it is rejected out of hand on the ground that not all of the parts fit.”

It is precisely because all the parts don’t fit that an analogy is an analogy rather than a literal correspondence, and it ought to be enough, therefore, if just one of the parts demonstrably fits.(9)

The real objection to Elkins’ analogy is not that analogies in themselves are pernicious but that there is no compelling theoretical reason, in this case, to stop with one. The concentration camp is only one of many total institutions with which slavery might have been compared; a total institution being defined, in Erving Goffman’s words, as “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.”(10) An excellent example—the one, indeed, that springs immediately to mind—is the prison, “providing,” Goffman says, that “we appreciate that what is prison-like about prisons is found in institutions whose members have broken no laws.”(11) In several respects, prisons, especially penitentiaries, are more analogous to plantation slavery than concentration camps. Prisons are not, like the concentration camps, designed as experiments in deliberate dehumanization, although they often have dehumanizing effects; in this respect the motive behind the system more nearly approximates that of slavery than of the concentration camp. More important, the problem of control is more nearly analogous. The disproportion between the authority of the guards and the impotence of the inmates is not absolute, as it was at Dachau and Buchenwald, but subject, as it seems to have been under slavery, to a number of variables—the temperament of the guard or master, the composition of the prisoners or slaves, the immediate history of the institutions involved.

Prison officials, like slaveowners and overseers, face a constant problem of noncooperation. “Far from being omnipotent rulers who have crushed all signs of rebellion against their regime, the custodians are engaged in a continuous struggle to maintain order—and it is a struggle in which the custodians frequently fail.” (12) This situation occurs, according to the sociologist Gresham Sykes, because although the custodians enjoy an absolute monopoly of the means of violence, their enormous power does not rest on authority; that is, on “a rightful or legitimate effort to exercise control,” which inspires in the governed an internalized sense of obligation to obey. In the absence of a sense of duty among the prisoners, the guards have to rely on a system of rewards, incentives, punishments, and coercion. But none of these methods can be carried too far without reaching dangerous extremes of laxity or demoralization. As in most total institutions—the concentration camp being a conspicuous exception—rigid standards of discipline tend to give way before the need to keep things running smooth-ly without undue effort on the part of the custodians. An absolute monopoly of violence can be used to achieve a state of total terror, but it cannot persuade men to work at their jobs or move “more than 1,200 inmates through the mess hall in a routine and orderly fashion.”(13)

The result, in the maximum-security prison, is a system of compromises, an uneasy give-and-take which gives prisoners a limited leverage within the system. To the extent that this adjustment limits the power of the guards, a corruption of authority takes place. (14)

Plantation literature produces numerous parallels. We can read the masters’ incessant and heartfelt complaints about the laziness, the inefficiency, and the intractibility of slaves; the difficulty of getting them to work; the difficulty of enlisting their cooperation in any activity that had to be sustained over a period of time. We can read about the system of rewards and punishments, spelled out by the master in such detail, the significance of which, we can now see, was that it had had to be resorted to precisely in the degree to which a sense of internalized obedience had failed. We see the same limitation on terror and physical coercion as has been observed in the prison; for even less than the prison authorities could the planter tolerate the demoralization resulting from an excess of violence. We can even see the same “corruption of authority” in the fact that illicit slave behavior, especially minor theft, was often tolerated by the masters in order to avoid unnecessary friction.

One of the most curious features of the “society of captives,” as described by Sykes is this: that while most of the prisoners recognize the legitimacy of their imprisonment and the controls to which they are subjected, they lack any internalized sense of obligation to obey them. “The bond between recognition of the legitimacy of control and the sense of duty has been tom apart.” (15) This fact about prisons makes it possible to understand a puzzling feature of the contemporary literature on slavery, which neither the model of submission nor that of resistance explains—the curious contradiction between the difficulty of discipline and the slaves’ professed devotion to their masters. Those who argue that the slaves resisted slavery have to explain away their devotion as pure hypocrisy. But it is possible to accept it as sincere without endorsing the opposite view—even in the sophisticated form in which it has been cast by Stanley Elkins—that slaves were children.

The sociology of total institutions provides a theory with which to reconcile the contradiction. “The custodial institution,” Sykes argues, “is valuable for a theory of human behavior because it makes us realize that men need not be motivated to conform to a regime which they define as rightful.” (16) It is theoretically possible, in short, that slaves could have accepted the legitimacy of their masters’ authority without feeling any sense of obligation to obey it. The evidence of the masters themselves makes this conclusion seem not only possible but highly probable. Logic, moreover, supports this view. For how could a system that rigorously defined the Negro slave not merely as an in-ferior but as an alien, a separate order of being, inspire him with the sense of belonging on which internalized obedience necessarily has to rest?

IV

It might be argued, however, that slaves developed a sense of obedience by default, having had no taste of life outside slavery which would have made them dissatisfied, by contrast, with their treatment as slaves. It might be argued that the convict’s dissatisfaction with prison conditions and the insubordination that results derives from his sense of the outside world and the satisfactions it normally provides; and that such a perspective must have been lacking on the plantation. Elkins, in denying the possibility of any sort of accommodation to slavery short of the complete assimilation of the master’s authority by the slave, contends that a consciously defensive posture could not exist, given the total authority of the master and the lack of “alternative forces for moral and psychological orientation.”17 This objection loses its force, however, if it can be shown that the slave did in fact have chances to develop independent standards of personal satisfaction and fair treatment within the system of slavery itself.

Such standards would have made possible a hedonistic strategy of accommodation, and in cases where such a strategy failed, strong feelings of personal grievance.

It is true that the plantation sealed itself off from the world, depriving the slave of nearly every influence that would have lifted him out of himself into a larger awareness of slavery as an oppressive social system which, by its very nature, denied him normal satisfaction. In order to understand why slaves did not, as Elkins suggests, become totally submissive and ready to accept any form of cruelty and humiliation, it is necessary to focus on an aspect of slavery which has been almost totally ignored in discussion of slave personality. The typical slave, although born into slavery, was not likely to spend his entire life, or indeed any considerable part of it, under a single regime. The slave child could anticipate many changes of situation. It would appear likely, from what we know of the extent of the slave trade, that most slaves changed hands at least once in their lives; slave narratives and recollections suggest that it was not at all uncommon for a single slave to belong to several masters in the course of his lifetime of servitude. In addition, the prevalence of slave-hiring, especially in the upper South, meant that many slaves experienced a temporary change of regime. Even if a slave remained on the same plantation, things could change drastically, as the result of death and the accession of an heir, or from a change of overseer (especially significant in cases of absentee ownership). (18) Given the wide variation in standards of treatment and management techniques—a variation which, we suggested earlier, seems the one inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the traditional scholarship on the management of slaves—we are left with a situation that must have had important psychological implications. An individual slave might—like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom—experience slavery both at its mildest and at its harshest. He might be sold from an indulgent master to a cruel one or vice versa. He might go from a farm where he maintained a close and intimate relationship with his master to a huge impersonal “factory in the fields,” where his actual master would be only a dim presence. These changes in situation led many slaves to develop standards of their own about how they ought to be treated and even to diffuse these standards among the stationary slave population. By comparing his less onerous lot under a previous master to his present hard one, a slave could develop a real sense of grievance and communicate it to others.(19) Similarly, slaves were quick to take advantage of any new leniency or laxity in control. (20) Hence it is quite possible to account for widespread noncooperation among slaves as resulting from a rudimentary sense of justice acquired entirely within the system of slavery itself. These standards would have served the same function as the standards convicts bring from the outside world into the prison. At the same time it is necessary to insist once again that they give rise to a pattern of intransigence which is hedonistic rather than political, accommodationist rather than revolutionary.

If this picture of slave motivation is less morally sublime than contemporary liberals and radicals would like, it should not be construed as constituting, in any sense, a moral judgment on the Negro slave.

Sporadic noncooperation within a broad framework of accommodation was the natural and inevitable response to plantation slavery. It should go without saying that white men born into the same system would have acted in the same way. Indeed, this is the way they have been observed to act in modern situations analogous to slavery. In total institutions, the conditions for sustained resistance are generally wanting—a fact that is insufficiently appreciated by those armchair moralists who like to make judgments at a safe distance about the possibilities of resistance to totalitarianism. Rebellions and mutinies “seem to be the exception,” Erving Goffman observes, “not the rule.”

Group loyalty is very tenuous, even though “the expectation that group loyalty should prevail forms part of the inmate culture and underlies the hostility accorded to those who break inmate solidarity.” (21)

Instead of banding together, inmates of total institutions typically pursue various personal strategies of accommodation. Goffman describes four lines of adaptation, but it is important to note that although these are analytically distinguishable, “the same inmate will employ different personal lines of adaptation at different phases in his moral career and may even alternate among different tacks at the same time.” “Situational withdrawal,” a fatalistic apathy, is the condition into which many inmates of concentration camps rapidly de-scended, with disastrous psychic consequences to themselves; it undoubtedly took its toll among slaves newly arrived from Africa during the colonial period. “Colonization,” which in some cases can be regarded as another type of institutional neurosis, rests on a conscious decision that life in the institution is preferable to life in the outside. . . There are no definite communal objectives. There is no consensus for a common goal. The inmates’ conflict with officialdom and opposition toward society is only slightly greater in degree than conflict and opposition among themselves. Trickery and dishonesty overshadow sympathy and cooperation. . . . It is a world of I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘mine,’ rather than ‘ours/ ‘theirs, and his.’ “

Clemmer adds, p. 293: “Such collective action of protest as does arise, comes out of an immediate situation in which they themselves are involved, and not as protest to an idea.”

world. Colonization, in turn, must be distinguished from “conversion,” the inmate’s internalization of the view of himself held by those in power. In Negro slavery, this is the “Sambo” role and is accompanied, as in the concentration camp, by an infantile sense of dependence. Colonization, on the other hand, would apply to the very small number of slaves who agreed to reenslavement after a period as free Negroes. (22)

The fourth type of accommodation is “intransigence,” which should not be confused with resistance. The latter presupposes a sense of solidarity and an underground organization of inmates. Intransigence is a personal strategy of survival, and although it can sometimes help to sustain a high morale, it can just as easily lead to futile and even self-destructive acts of defiance. In slavery, there was a substantial minority who were written off by their masters as chronic trouble-makers, “bad niggers,” and an even larger group who indulged in occasional insubordination. It is precisely the pervasiveness of “intransigence” that made slaves, like convicts, so difficult to manage, lead-ing to the corruption of authority analyzed above. But as we have already tried to show, there is nothing about intransigence that precludes a partial acceptance of the values of the institution. In fact, Goffman observes that the most defiant of inmates are paradoxically those who are mostly completely caught up in the daily round of institutional life. “Sustained rejection of a total institution often requires sustained orientation to its formal organization, and hence, paradoxically, a deep kind of involvement in the establishment.” (23)

The same immersion in the institutional routine that makes some inmates so easy to manage makes other peculiarly sensitive to disruptions of the routine, jealous of their “rights” under the system.

Indeed, periods of intransigence can alternate, in the same person, with colonization, conversion, and even with periods of withdrawal.

The concentration camp was unique among total institutions in confronting the typical prisoner with a choice between situational withdrawal, which meant death, and conversion, which, in the absence of alternatives, came to dominate the personality as a fully internalized role. In other total institutions, however, all four roles can be played to some extent, and “few inmates seem to pursue any one of them  very far. In most total institutions most inmates take the tack of what some of them call ‘playing it cool’ This involves a somewhat opportunistic combination of secondary adjustments, conversion, colonization, and loyalty to the inmate group, so that the inmate will have a maximum chance, in the particular circumstances, of eventually getting out physically and psychologically undamaged.” (24) The slave had no real prospect of “getting out,” but unless he was infantilized—a hypothesis that now seems quite untenable—he had a powerful stake in psychic survival. He had every reason to play it cool; and what is more, slavery gave him plenty of opportunities.

But the most compelling consideration in favor of this interpretation of slavery is that the very ways in which slavery differed from other total institutions would have actually reinforced and stabilized the pattern of opportunistic response that we have described. The most obvious objection to an analogy between slavery and the prison, the mental hospital, or any other institution of this kind is that slaves for the most part were born into slavery rather than coming in from the outside as adults; nor did most of them have any hope of getting out.

We have answered these objections in various ways, but before leaving the matter we should point out that there is, in fact, a class of people in modern asylums—a minority, to be sure—who spend the better part of their lives in institutions of one kind or another. “Lower class mental hospital patients,” for instance, “who have lived all their previous lives in orphanages, reformatories, and jails,” are people whose experience in this respect approximates the slave’s, especially the slave who served a series of masters. As a result of their continuous confinement, such patients have developed a kind of institutional personality. But they are not, as one might expect, Sambos—genuine con-erts to the institutional view of themselves. Quite the contrary; these people are the master-opportunists, for whom “no particular scheme of adaptation need be carried very far.” (25) They have “perfected their adaptive techniques,” experience having taught them a supreme versatility; and they are therefore likely to play it cool with more success than those brought in from the outside and incarcerated for the first time. These are the virtuosos of the system, neither docile nor rebellious, who spend their lives in skillful and somewhat cynical attempts to beat the system at its own game.

V

There is a passage in Frederick Douglass’ Narrative that suggests how difficult it was even for an ex-slave—an unusually perceptive observer, in this case—to understand his former victimization without resorting to categories derived from experiences quite alien to slavery, categories that reflected the consciousness not of the slaves themselves but, in one way or another, the consciousness of the master-class.

Douglass described how eagerly the slaves on Colonel Lloyd’s Maryland plantations vied for the privilege of running errands to the Great House Farm, the master’s residence and home plantation. The slaves “regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by the overseers; and it was on this account, as well as a constant desire to be out of the field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth careful living for. He was called the smartest and most trusty fellow, who had this honor conferred upon him the most frequently.”

Then follows a passage of unusual vividness and poignancy: The slaves selected to go to the Great House Farm, for the monthly allowance for themselves and their fellow-slaves, were peculiarly enthusiastic. While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. . . . They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. Into all of their songs they would manage to weave something of the Great House Farm. Especially would they do this, when leaving home. They would then sing most exultingly the following words:—

I am going away to the Great House Farm!

O, yea! O, yea! O!

This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

But as these passages so clearly show, the “horrible character of slavery” did not he, as the abolitionists tended to think, in the deprivations to which the slaves were forcibly subjected—deprivations which, resenting, they resisted with whatever means came to hand-but in the degree to which the slaves (even in their “intransigence”) inevitably identified themselves with the system that bound and confined them, lending themselves to their own degradation. In vying for favors they “sought as diligently to please their overseers,” Douglass says, “as the office-seekers in the political parties seek to please and deceive the people.” (28)

Even more revealing are the reflections that follow. “I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear.” It was only from without that the slave songs revealed themselves as “the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish-anguish, it should be noted, which expressed itself disjointedly, “the most pathetic sentiment” being set to “the most rapturous tone.” It was only from without that the “dehumanizing character of slavery” showed itself precisely in the slave’s incapacity to resist; but this perception, once gained, immediately distorted the reality to which it was applied. Douglass slides imperceptibly from these unforgettable evocations of slavery to an abolitionist polemic. It is a great mistake, he argued, to listen to slaves’ songs “as evidence of their contentment and happiness.” On the contrary, “slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.” Yet the slaves whose “wild songs” he has just described were those who were “peculiarly enthusiastic,” by his own account, to be sent to the Great House Farm, and who sang “exultingly” along the way. The ambiguity of the reality begins to fade when seen through the filter of liberal humanitarianism, and whereas the songs revealed “at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness,” in Douglass’ own words, as an abolitionist he feels it necessary to insist that “crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery.” (27)

If the abolitionist lens distorted the “horrible character” of slavery, the picture of the docile and apparently contented bondsman was no more faithful to the reality it purported to depict. But this should not surprise us. It is not often that men understand, or even truly see, those whom in charity they would uplift. How much less often do they understand those they exploit?

Notes

1 Stanley Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), Ch. I.

2 Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (New York, 1956), pp. 88, 91.

3 Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Cambridge, 1960), pp. 132-133.

4 Martin D. de B. Kilson, “Towards Freedom: An Analysis of Slave Revolts in the United States,” Phylon, XXV ( 1964), 179-183.

5. Stampp, Peculiar Institution, Ch. III.

6. Total institutions are distinguished not by the absolute power of the authorities—a definition which, as will become clear, prejudges an important issue—but by the fact that they are self-contained, so that every detail of life is regulated in accordance with the dominant purpose of the institution. Whether that purpose is defined as healing, punishment, forced labor, or (in the case of the concentration camps) terror, all total institutions are set up in such a way as to preclude any form of politics based on consent.

7. See E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Manchester, 1959); Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1957).

8. Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831, the only significant slave uprising in the period 1820-1860 that got beyond the plotting stage, would seem to be com parable to a millennialist peasants’ revolt. Turner was a preacher who, according to his own testimony, received the visitation of a spirit commanding him to “fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Quoted in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943), p. 296. See also Aptheker, Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion (New York, 1966).

9. Elkins, Slavery, pp. 104, 226.

10. Erving Goffman, Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, 1961; Chicago, 1962), p. xiii.

11. Ibid.

12. Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, 1958), p. 42.

13. Ibid., p. 49.

14. Ibid., pp. 52-58.

15. ibid., p. 46.

16 Ibid., p. 48.

17. Elkins, Slavery, p. 133n.

18.  Frederic Bancroft, in Slave Trading in the Old South (New York, 1959), concludes (pp. 382-406) that more than 700,000 slaves were transported from the upper South to the cotton kingdom in the years 1830-1860, and that most went by way of the slave trade. He also estimates (p. 405) that in the decade 1850-1860 an annual average of approximately 140,000 slaves were sold, inter-state or intrastate, or hired out by their masters. This meant that one slave in twenty-five changed his de facto master in a given year. When we add to these regular exchanges the informal transfers that went on within families, we get some idea of the instability which characterized the slave’s situation in an expansive and dynamic agricultural economy. The way slaves were sometimes shuttled about is reflected in several of the slave narratives, especially Frederick Douglass, Narrative; Solomon Northrop, Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn, Buffalo, and London, 1853); and [Charles Ball] Fifty Years in Chains: Or the Life of an American Slave (New York, 1858).

19. Positive evidence of this development of internal standards and of the vacillation between contentment and dissatisfaction to which it gave rise is as difficult to find as evidence on any other aspect of slave psychology. As we have indicated, adequate records of personal slave response simply do not exist.

There is, however, some indication of this process in the slave narratives and recollections. One of the most revealing of the slave narratives is Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains. Ball’s account seems huer than most to the reality of slavery because, unlike most fugitives, he escaped from servitude at an age when it was difficult for him to acquire new habits of thought from his free status and association with abolitionists. Ball recounts the common experience of being sold from the upper South with its relatively mild and permissive regime into the more rigorous plantation slavery farther south. Upon his arrival on a large South Carolina cotton plantation, Ball, who was from Maryland, makes the acquaintance of a slave from northern Virginia who tells him what he can now expect. “He gave me such an account of the suffering of the slaves, on the cotton and indigo plantations—of whom I now regarded myself as one—that I was unable to sleep this night.” (pp. 103-104.) Later, he describes himself as “far from the place of my nativity, in a land of strangers, with no one to care for me beyond the care that a master bestows upon his ox . . .” (p. 115). The regime is indeed a harsh one, and he feels very dissatisfied, except on Sunday when he is taken up by the general hilarity that prevails in the slave quarters on the holiday. Eventually, however, he experiences a temporary improvement in his situation when he is given to his master’s new son-in-law, who seems kindly and permissive. In a remarkable description of slave hedonism, Ball recalls his state of mind. “I now felt assured that all my troubles in this world were ended, and that, in future, I might look forward to a life of happiness and ease, for I did not consider labor any hardship, if I was well provided with good food and clothes, and my other wants properly regarded.” (p. 266.) This is too good to last, however; and Ball’s new master dies, leaving him in the hands of another man, “of whom, when I considered the part of the country from whence he came, which had always been represented to me-as distinguished for the cruelty with which slaves were treated, I had no reason to expect much that was good.” (pp. 271-272.) His new master turns out to be much less harsh than anticipated, but the master’s wife, a woman with sadistic tendencies, takes a positive dislike to Ball and resents her husband’s paternal attitude toward him. When the master dies, Ball recognizes his situation as intolerable and resolves upon flight. ( p. 307. ) Ball’s narrative reveals the way in which a slave could evaluate his changes of condition by standards of comfort and accommodation derived from experience within the system itself. In desperate situations, this evaluation could lead to extreme forms of noncooperation.

Despite the fact that he was recalling his experience after having escaped from slavery and, presumably, after coming under the influence of northern antislavery sentiment, Ball’s general attitude remained remarkably accommodationist, at least in respect to slavery at its best. In a revealing passage, he notes that the typical slave lacks a real sense of identity of interest with his master, is jealous of his prerogatives, and steals from him without qualms. Yet, Ball concludes, there “is in fact, a mutual dependence between the master and his slave. The former could not acquire anything without the labor of the latter, and the latter would always remain in poverty without the judgment of the former in directing labor to a definite and profitable result.” (p. 219.)

20. See Stampp, Peculiar Institution, pp. 104-108.

21 Goffman, Asylums, pp. 18-19. Cf. Donald Clemmer, The Prison Community (New York, 1958), pp. 297-298: “The prisoner’s world is an atomized world. “

22. Colonization, while uncommon among slaves, is frequently encountered in prisons and particularly in mental institutions. The high rate of recidivism among convicts and the frequency with which mental patients are sent back to asylums reflect not simply a relapse into a former sickness which the institution did not cure, but in many cases, a sickness which the institution itself created—an institutional neurosis which has its own peculiar characteristics, the most outstanding of which is the inability to function outside systems of total control.

23. Goffman, Asylums, p. 62.

24.  Ibid., pp. 64-65.

25. Ibid., pp. 65-66.

26. Douglas, Narrative, pp. 35-37. 

27. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

(Civil War History, Volume 13, Number 4, December 1967, pp. 315-329 )

“Boss Lady’s” Slide into the Great Big Nothing

By Curtis Price

Posted October 15th, 2021


 They thought she could never die, so often had she escaped death, even after she got on dialysis and chain-smoked away with oxygen tank on. But finally she was dead, lying in the red velvet coffin with that same hardened look of pure meanness she wore all her life. They knew she had truly died because someone stole the diamond rings off her still-warm fingers after she had gasped her last breath, an act that would have warranted a stabbing or pistol-whipping when she was alive.

“Boss Lady” had come down South from the mean streets of East Detroit – the Mack Avenues and Jefferson Streets – after her mother was stabbed to death. The murderer was never found, and, in all truth, probably not sought too much; after all, what was one more, early, poor black death in Motor City? Relatives in Alabama took the family in. Years later, rumors circulated that “Boss Lady” had killed her mother to get money to buy heroin. Whether it was true or not was beside the point. It was believable.

“Boss Lady” hit the streets running. At first, she was doing stick-ups. But then she graduated to running a boosting ring, made up of crack addicts who would go out to the Huntsville suburbs and shoplift. All they got for their efforts was a place to lay their head and a few rocks to smoke. “Boss Lady” kept the rest, which she fenced at substantial profit. Crime, after all, is just another form of capitalism so her profiting off others should come as no surprise.

Soon, “Boss Lady” expanded her business enterprise. She became a major crack dealer in Northern Alabama, picking up shipments from Houston and New Orleans. Many of her expanding network of minions, as well as rivals in the game, took falls, but she survived unscathed, leading some people to whisper she was ratting people out. Her ruthlessness was the stuff of legend; once, in a bar argument, she stubbed her cigarette in a woman’s eye. She was the enforcer, keeping order in her own crew and as a woman in a man’s world, had to be tougher, more vicious.

I met her after her prime, after she finally ended up doing a long bit in the Federal pen. She was still doing her thing, but others had stepped in and taken chunks of her market. Again, street-level capitalism is no different from its “respectable” counter-part of Brooks Brother suits and board rooms. You crush competitors, you win over rivals’ customer base.

We had a mutual friend in common, someone who had known her for decades. We ate a few time collectively in those all-you-can-eat down-market Chinese buffets, the kind where a vague, musty smell wafted through the dining area; the kind where women, bent over scooping ice cream, let long hair dangle in the food. It was a cuisine that made TV dinners look like Michelin and who knew if the mystery meat, which never tasted like the labels, was some stray neighborhood dog or cat, as rumors had it. These buffets were – and continue – to be popular with working-class people because eating there is one area of their lives where there are no limits, no constraints. The ultimate cost of the ticket, though, only tallies up later down the road: in obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, those three Pale Horsemen stalking the blue-collar South.

Our common friend had told me her history, but warned never to let her know. She, of course, knew that I knew, while pretending she didn’t know that I knew and I did the same in return, a kind of mashup “Victor/Victoria” verbal role play. I liked her, even though I found her draining to be around for too long. She had the sleek demeanor of an apex predator always on the prowl.

But it was also like admiring a beautiful, coiled, poisonous snake, with multi-hued scales: you admired it from afar; you didn’t want to get too close. She asked for my number and we texted innocuous texts a couple times, but that was it. Until several years later out of the blue, she accidentally sent me pix of a couple bricks of white-whatever, a photo destined for someone else with the same first name. She told me to delete it, which I did. But I never saw her again.

“Boss Lady” died surrounded by her courtesans, but they secretly hated her and she returned the favor, never trusting anyone around her. She knew her strength was ebbing and that dark day was dawning. She wanted to immerse herself in the presence of people, even if these people were just grinning in her face. No one liked her; she was feared more than respected – but never liked. When the news got out of her death, many in black Huntsville secretly cheered.

Our mutual friend said she won’t be “peddling her poison anymore.” But I kind of admired her in a cool, clinical sense. She had grown up with nothing and never learned how to read or write. But despite the deck stacked against her, she ended up with a nice house, a couple cars, and money in the bank. She was never one to flash her wealth. Her sisters, on the other hand, were living in the projects, with multiple children, waiting for the monthly check. “Boss Lady” never fell into that trap, she wanted more out of life, even if she hurt people right and left going up – and hurt people right and left going down.

The Twilight of the American Left


Posted September 4, 2021

“Leftists, in this telling — whether Ivy League professors or Antifa militants on the streets of Portland — are thus little more than the unwitting dupes of the ruling class. However much they profess to hate the Democratic Party, they are, in practice, its running-dog lackeys. They support the party electorally, harass and cancel its designated enemies and enforce pro-Democrat ideology in the media, academia and the workplace. Crucially, they also help maintain the permanent state of moral emergency that serves as a pretext for the expansion of ruling class power, whether in the form of the increasingly direct control that tech monopolies wield over political discourse or the pursuit of Covid policies that transfer wealth upward and subject workers to a dystopian regime of medical surveillance.

At the core of this diagnosis is the idea that “identity politics”, “antiracism”, “intersectionality” and other pillars of the progressive culture war are mystifications whose function is to demoralise and divide the proletariat.’

Read the whole text at:

https://unherd.com/2021/08/twilight-of-the-american-left/

Those Were the Days

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted August 17, 2021



I can’t shake it. After the expensive testing, overfilled flight and 15 hours straight in my mask in planes, trains, and automobiles, my 20 month hiatus from home ended with a feeling that things had changed in some fundamental ways.

Maybe “Midwest nice” has taken a beating as much as the economy during the dual political and viral pandemics? There seems to be a wariness in the air. The side eyes I got elevated the simple act of wearing a mask in Walgreens to social/political commentary.

In my first day back, my next door neighbor felt the need to declare his love of country in our socially distanced welcome back chat. People talked about birthday cakes for dogs in a grocery store parking lot. Starbucks gives away “pupachinos” and beer for dogs is a thing. Football season started. All normal stuff and yet it feels off. It’s like everyone has been exposed from their carefully cultivated hiding places where they usually reveal themselves only to those they are sure will agree.

My long hair is a dead giveaway in this Trump town that I’m not playing by the rules on purpose even as my skin color indicates that the game isn’t mine to play anyway. I’m not the only one though as others are participating in acts of defiance from mocking mask mandates on trains through quietly refusing to get vaccinated. It is their game and yet they refuse to play because this time they disagree with the rules promoting individual inconvenience for the greater good.

There are unhoused, addicted people living in a park conveniently served by the drug dealer working there. The police aren’t too interested in any of them. Small towns aren’t so small anymore. What we thought were big city problems are more commonplace. Maybe the problems so many urbanites have to deal with encroaching on these once imagined bastions of wholesomeness contributes to a certain disappointment if not cynicism? That could be a part of the eroding trust in institutions and each other. An implicit social contract has been broken.

The January 6 insurrection was billed as an effort to “stop the steal”. It was more than about the election. This political double entendres also meant to stop the taking of a way of life, a constructed political and social hegemony that guaranteed at least a slight advantage to nativists and their allies. We now know many of the insurrectionists came from political districts that experienced large demographics shifts in the last 10 years.

As the 2020 census headlines shout about the first decline in the percentage of white population in the US since 1790, the ongoing sense of loss of control, that most never really had, will continue to prop up know nothing, media born demagogues. They will profit off of every perceived slight against the mythical status quo.

The feeling in the air reminds me of the opening of the tv show “All in the Family”. Archie and Edith Bunker sit together at a slightly out of tune upright piano lamenting days gone by. I wonder how many are singing a similar song today? How toxic is it when they do?

“And you knew who you were then

girls were girls and men were men

Hair was short and skirts were long…

I don’t know just what went wrong

those were the days”

“Those were the days”

Songwriters: Charles Strouse / Lee Adams

Alabama Gulag: My Coerced Flight Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

By Curtis Price

Posted July 28, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Hinterlands: Rural Detroits

“Now Open – Fireworks”

By Curtis Price

Posted July 15, 2021


Leaving the bleak, blue-collar Decatur, Alabama neighborhood known as Old Mouton, which aptly ends in a near vacant strip mall, I hit 67, the highway shunting traffic into 20, filled with the 24-7 rumble of trucks barreling toward Memphis. But by not turning on 67, I drive straight, ending instead little by little in a rural area. A few turns later, the grass grows higher and the distance between older, non-descript buildings widens. This is an area that hasn’t seen development in decades.

One of those turns leads to Old Trinity road, a narrow, worn-down, two- lane street that goes on for several miles before dead-ending in the town of Trinity. Driving along Old Trinity road, I cruise through sparsely populated, residential areas, mostly mobile homes and wooden houses that look like large shacks. The air is heavy with humidity and the smell of vegetation broiling in the mid-day sun. What is striking is the amount of decay. It seems every third house is abandoned, some buckled in.

 It reminds me of a rural Detroit. Some structures have been burnt, but most still stand, tottering like street corner drunks in knee-high weeds. Backwoods near the train tracks, lays two piles of rubble, obscured by trees and dancing shadows, the remains of older houses hastily dumped without proper burial. Were they torn down and dropped off from elsewhere? Abandoned, did they implode under their own weight in the backwoods where they formerly sat? Were they ripped apart by tornadoes? Each reason is equally plausible and the true reason obscured.

Trucks rumble through here too, from the factories at one end of Old Trinity near Woodruff.  Most factories off Woodruff are small, looking as if they might employ a few dozen to a hundred workers. Except for the Wayne’s Farm Poultry plant. Wayne’s Farm is large and a reason why, despite Alabama’s repressive anti-immigrant laws, so many Latinos have settled in Decatur. But the rest look like they’ve been there for ages. Again, no new development.

Yet a few dozen miles away, in Huntsville, lay shiny, one-story sprawling suburban industrial parks engineering advanced weapons systems with the latest technology. A gleaming new Mazda plant, rising like an industrial Phoenix out of former cornfields, is sprouting up midway between Huntsville and Decatur. Such on the local level is capitalism’s combined and uneven development. Some areas are raised and stroked while others knocked down and gutted.

Alabama, of course, is fully rooted in the globalized economy. In recent decades, the state  became a Southern site for the auto industry, with Japanese transplants scattered along the north-south central axis. Aerospace has gotten a toe-hold in the Mobile area too, with Airbus. AAA USA and VT Aerospace now embedded. Contrary to lazy stereotypes, Alabama’s union density is the highest in the Deep South, although none of the transplants and aerospace factories are. (1)

Yet as Allan Tullos notes in Alabama Getaway, “In its newly celebrated global presence, Alabama shows contradictory faces, represented through the glad-handing eagerly extended by development officials and in labor practices reminiscent of an earlier era. Effusive in offering infrastructure improvements, tax breaks, and promises of compliant labor, state officials hop from industrial recruiting trips abroad to meetings in Montgomery with representatives of governments to discuss trading relationships. Meanwhile, the Birmingham-based Drummond Company faces repeated charges of union busting, failure to protect labor leaders from murder, payments to paramilitary terrorists, and exploitation of workers in unsafe conditions at its vast, open-pit coalmining operation in near La Loma in Columbia, South America.”

Tullos wrote over a decade ago. Today, however, outside the major cities, other parts of the state – rural and depopulating – are being primed, like post-industrial versions of Third World slum scavengers, to dispose of refuse generated elsewhere.

The most notorious example of this, notorious only because it couldn’t be hidden, was the infamous “poop train.” In 2018, a train piled with millions of pounds of human excrement from New York, was forced to stop in Parrish, Alabama, after a neighboring town successfully won an injunction banning New York shit from being unloaded. Parrish, not having zoning regulations, instead hosted the “poop train” unwillingly until behind-the-scenes wrangling sent it on its journey elsewhere. The state’s attorney of Alabama described the landfill as “America’s biggest industrial pay toilet.” As a SLATE article noted, “According to the AP, it’s common for Northern states to ship their waste to rural areas in the South, and landfills on inexpensive land can make good money from the practice.”(2) How many other such landfills are sprinkled over Alabama is anyone’s guess; it’s an industry shrouded in secrecy and willed silence.

In Gadsden, a city of 40,000, in central Alabama and once the second economic powerhouse in the state after Mobile, the last remaining factory – Goodyear Rubber – which had been in the city since the 1930s – shut down, stripping the city of its major employer and tax base.  Soon afterwards, Pilgrim’s Pride, a major poultry processor, proposed Gadsden to site a rendering plant, turning foul-smelling discards from pulverized chicken flesh into pet food and other uses. Unusual for this part of the South, community opposition has been fierce, with the outcome still up in the air.

In Anniston, a majority-black city 20 minutes drive from Gadsden, rocket fuel and low-level radioactive waste from around the country gets sent for processing at what remains of the local Army base, where mustard gas and other chemical weapons captured from WWII German armies were once stored before being disposed of on site in a pre-environmental regulations era. Yet only another hour away, a new graphite factory using state-of-the-art techniques in Alexander City will refine mined graphite to power electric batteries for Montgomery’s Hyundai plant. Ruthless development tied to equally ruthless economic stripping of economically superfluous areas.

In this way, having been separated from most viable economic activity, Alabama’s hinterlands stand primed for new roles as dumps for waste from elsewhere, a phagocytoxic neo-colonialism surfaces where instead of the North exploiting the state’s raw materials, the North spits out its undesired effluvium, a trajectory possibly to be boosted by China’s clampdown on recycling Western waste.  (3) Southern states supply an attractive alternative, with cheap, plentiful land, low population densities, and capital-friendly business cultures. In such a scenario, disposable people in the rural South will have a future processing toxic discards shipped in from more prosperous locations.

Notes

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.t05.htm

2. “Poop Train From New York Stuck in Parrish Alabama.”https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/04/poop-train-from-new-york-stuck-in-parrish-alabama.html

3. “We’re Not a Dump: Poor Alabama Towns Struggle Under the Stench of Toxic Landfills.?https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/apr/15/were-not-a-dump-poor-alabama-towns-struggle-under-the-stench-of-toxic-landfills

Human Fragility: On the Suicide of a Co-Worker

By Thom Elliot

Posted June 28, 2021


After the factory closed and my dreams of a secure working future as an operating manager of an e-waste concern died, I was initially unemployed for approximately a day. In a kind of mourning, I drove around my area and applied at two places, an LED sign manufacturer and PC Server & Parts which refurbished used computers and sold them online. I worked two days at the sign manufacturer, which I enjoyed, but it only paid $10 an hour, and I was simultaneously hired at PC Server for $13.50. I felt I couldn’t responsibly turn that down, so I quit the sign manufacturer and went to work at PC Server.

The first two weeks are a short story in themselves, working next to Pancake, a rather portly blonde with a prominent but obscure Nazi symbol (the Wulfsangle) tattoo on his forearm, who was obsessed with fishing, breasts, mudding, and getting shithoused. I was moved into the inventory warehouse after telling my supervisor that shipping was “pure suffering,” and so it was to be hefting computers around instead. I worked there for two weeks in inventory, learning the ropes etc, and for the most part enjoying it, working hard tearing down computers or stowing them etc, but definitely not fitting in with the forty or so nearly identical white men. I don’t fish or play video games, so the opportunities for socializing were nonexistent. I was regarded as the alien being I am, and that was mostly fine.

On the Monday morning of my third week, there was a meeting. We all gathered in the inventory section and the supervisor said “Well, Dylan died this weekend”. Dylan, a handsome, well built, fresh faced all-American type, blonde twenty three year old who I spoke to once because he was wearing a Cannibal Corpse shirt. I found out we both were at the final Slayer concert in Michigan. There was a moment of silence, and then the supervisor asked if anyone had any words. An older guy with spiky white hair, cartoonishly large gold colored crucifix, who seemed to wear only one shirt Bikers 4 Trump (who pointedly never spoke to me), said “Well, Dylan was a good worker, never had problems with anyone…and was a good worker,” then awkward silence, someone else said almost the same thing “Dylan worked hard, and never had problems with anyone,” more awkward silence.

So after saying I didn’t know him at all really, I said my usual short existentialist rap about “You’re never too young to die, you could die today, so the time for meaningful experiences with each other is now,” the supervisor muttered that it was well said, and we all went back to work. I go back to my section and the older dude was talking to some of the others, said he knew Dylan since he was ten years old, and that it’s a shame but “at least he got to see Trump’s first term.” For the rest of the day, a lot of these guys, including Pancake, all wanted to talk to me, I think they knew I had some experience with this sort of thing.

Over cigarettes, a guy confessed his mother had jumped out of a building two weeks before, but because of some situation the funeral was that weekend, so he now had two suicide funerals in one week. That’s how I found out the story. Dylan had been out with the manager of inventory, Jake, drinking on Friday night. There was some unclear skirmish between them over a woman while they were drinking, and on the way home, Dylan had become so distraught over it, at 65mph he jumped out of the truck. Jake immediately pulled over, and to the bleeding, twitching wreck of Dylan, he gave him mouth to mouth until he died at the roadside. His life hadn’t even started yet, and was already over.

 That night, I had nightmares, I was being attacked by invisible ghosts, slashed and molested by things I couldn’t see, and later that I lost Jenny in a surreal foreign airport and couldn’t find them. I barely slept, the nightmares so vivid and inescapable. The next day, I approached a couple people and just wanted to talk, I said “well I’m definitely traumatized, had nightmares all night” and would get cut off with “I don’t want to talk about it.” That happened twice, no one wanted to talk. I quit that day, did an Irish style goodbye, meaning I didn’t say anything, just clocked out and left. No moral of the story, no edifying truth, just human fragility.

Review: “The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren”

By Curtis Price

Posted on June 11, 2021


The Texas Stories of Nelson Algren. Edited and with an introduction by Bettina Drew. University of Texas Press, 1995

In “Texas Stories,” Nelson Algren populates his hardscrabble vignettes with the flotsam and jetsam of Depression-era America; characters that drift obsessively across the desolate, windswept Texas landscape like so many sagebrushes tumbling down the gullies of a prairie ghost town.

But even though the tramps, loners, carnival hustlers, whores (not “sex workers”), illiterate Okies, and Mexican convicts on the run gathered in these 14 short stories and sketches written at different stages of Algren’s long career belong to an era long since passed, “Texas Stories” resonates with contemporary relevance.


This is because Algren, who died in 1981, blends a sharply-honed psychology with his trenchant social protest, avoiding cheap sentimentality by focusing as equally on the tragic-comic and grotesque aspects of his character’s motives as he does on the underlying economic and social wrongs that have sent them spinning to their fate.
At his best, in short stories like “Kewpie Doll,” the balance works powerfully. In “Kewpie Doll,” a mundane, descriptive account of a boisterous crowd of poverty-stricken rural townspeople pilfering a train for winter coal, yields sharply to a horrifying conclusion – the decapitation of a child lost in the crowd on the tracks as the train takes off, all the more tragic for its seeming randomness. (It’s a powerful, disturbing imagery that Algebra recycled in “Somebody in Boots,” if memory serves me right.)

Unlike most of the U.S. left, Nelson Algren wasn’t afraid to embrace the tragic sense of life, something the American South marinates in, and which finds its highest expression in the blues tradition as well as classic C&W such as Hank Williams. He scorned those who had “pink pills for social ills” (that could have been a line in a hip-hop track!), which explained why he was of the left without being in it. After a brief dalliance on the periphery of the CP in the 1930s, Algren never joined anything again, preferring to be the perpetual outsider who could speak the truth without stepping on the toes of tender, mawkish sensibilities and rigid, party-line orthodoxies common, respectively, to reformist and revolutionary milieus.

 This hard-nosed social realism is a welcome contrast to the shallow “fully automated luxury communism” found in professional-managerial class circles in coastal elite cities, toxic waste-dumps of flatulent, campus-metastasized leftism, in which this layer stokes Twitter and social-media-fed recrudescence that is the polar opposite of genuine engagement.

Linking the Southern blues tradition to radical politics, with greasy overalls and dirt-under-fingernails, will be an ongoing subject that we will return to in future essays. In the meantime, it’s well-worth remembering one of Algren’s favorite quotes, from the Russian realist writer Alexander Kuprin: “The horror is that there is no horror.”

The Surprising Geography of Police Killings: Back-of-the-Napkin Calculations on Race, Region, and Violence

By Christian Parenti

Posted June 2, 2021


(Reprinted from Nonsite, (nonsite.org) under Creative Commons License). Originally published July 9, 2020

In the United States, the police kill African Americans at a rate that is about 100 percent greater, or two times, 200 percent, their proportion of the national population. In 2016, black people were 24 percent of those killed by cops, in 2015 they were 27 percent of such victims, but in both years black people were only 13 percent of the national population. (1) These outrageous disparities have very correctly triggered a nationwide rebellion.

But where do these racial disparities actually take place?

Amidst this moment of reckoning the South, cast as the cradle of racism, seems to come in for special criticism. Antebellum Southern slave patrols are regularly name-checked as an origin of American policing. Confederate monuments are toppling, as they should. NASCAR banned the Confederate flag. A Nation writer decried “stupid” Southerners for flouting social distancing at a bacchanalian redneck vehicle jamboree on the beaches of Galveston, Texas. A Washington Post columnist asked rhetorically if Donald Trump wasn’t actually the last president of the Confederacy. And, let’s admit it, most of the country thinks of the South as profoundly backward.

Given this vibe one might be surprised by the actual regional demographics of police killings. What follows is a very preliminary, incomplete, back-of-the-napkin sketch of data on police killings. My main source on police killings is the Guardian’s Counted Project. Economic and demographic data come from the U.S. Census, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), and the Kaiser Family Foundation. I am rounding numbers with decimals up and down. For a discussion of the sources used see the first two footnotes. (2)

The South

Let’s start with Tennessee, the state that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan. It seems reasonable to assume that the cops in Tennessee kill African Americans at a disproportionately high rate.

In 2016, police in Tennessee killed 25 people. Of these, nineteen, or 76 percent of the total, were white. Meanwhile, whites were 78 percent of the state’s total population. Tennessee police killed three black people, which was 12 percent of the total. However, African Americans were 17 percent of the state’s total population.

In other words, African Americans were, relative to their proportion of the state’s total population, actually 29 percent “underrepresented” in the stats on police killings. White people were 2 percent underrepresented in the police homicide stats.

Thus, Tennessee cops actually killed whites at a higher rate than they killed black people even as both whites and blacks were “underrepresented” in the police homicide stats. Latinos and Pacific Islanders each suffered one police homicide, and because they make up small percentages of the state’s population, were “overrepresented” in the police stats.

In Kentucky the cops killed 22 people. Of this total nineteen, or 86 percent, were white. The state’s population, as a whole, was 87 percent white. Two of the Kentuckians killed by cops that year were black, meaning they were 9 percent of the casualties. Meanwhile, African Americans were 8 percent of the state’s total population. One of the victims of Kentucky police homicide was Latino.

This means white people were slightly underrepresented among those killed by police while Latinos and African Americans were overrepresented relative to their proportion of the state’s population. But the black victims of police homicide in Kentucky were 12 percent overrepresented, not 100 percent overrepresented as they are in the national stats.

What about the Deep South where a greater percentage of the population is black? For example, take Mississippi—it doesn’t get any more “Deep South” than Mississippi.

In 2016, cops in Mississippi killed eleven people: six, or 55 percent, of these were white and five, or 45 percent, were black. The state’s population was 59 percent white and 37 percent black. This means Mississippi cops killed black people at a rate 49 percent higher than their prevalence in the state’s total population. Thus, we can say Mississippi displays a racist pattern as regards police killings. But it is only half as racist as the national numbers.

In Louisiana, cops also killed black people at disproportionately higher rates than they kill white people. African Americans were twelve of the 22 people killed by police. They were 32 percent of Louisiana’s population but were 54 percent of those killed by police in 2016. That ratio gets closer, but is not all the way, to the national aggregate numbers.

Florida is also closer to, but not at, the national average. In the Sunshine State African Americans were 16 percent of the population yet constituted 25 percent of those killed by cops in 2016. Cops in Florida thus killed African Americans at a rate that was 56 percent greater than the African-American percentage of the state population.

In Georgia cops killed thirty people in 2016. African Americans, being 17 of these victims but only 31 percent of the population, were 19 percent overrepresented. Latinos were 17 percent of police homicide victims but only 9 percent of the population and were thus almost 100 percent overrepresented. Whites on the other hand were 28 percent underrepresented in such stats, being only 43 percent of those killed by cops despite constituting 60 percent of the state population.

However, if we cross the Savannah River into South Carolina, the state that started the Civil War, the patterns change. In 2016 Palmetto State cops killed eighteen people. Of this total, four (or 22 percent) were African American even as they constituted 28 percent of the state population. This meant black people were 27 percent underrepresented in the police homicide stats. White victims of police homicide numbered fourteen (or 78 percent of the total) even as whites were only 67 percent of South Carolina’s population.

In other words, white South Carolinians were 16 percent overrepresented in the police homicide stats and they were significantly more likely to be killed by cops than were black South Carolinians.

I could go on with similarly weird and counterintuitive Southern examples but I will spare readers the jumble of numbers.

So then, where do cops kill black people most disproportionately?

Yankeedom 

One of the worst offenders as regards the disproportionate killing of black people—that is to say, the state with some of the most anti-black cops in the country—is liberal Massachusetts.

The Bay State—which during the Civil War produced the ultra-heroic, all-black 54th Regiment about which the fantastic film Glory was made—has police that kill black people at five times, or 500 percent the rate at which black people appear in the state’s total population. No wonder people joke about “up South in Boston.”

In 2016, police in Massachusetts killed fourteen people: five were white, five were black, and four were Latino.

White people are 79 percent of the population but only 35 percent of those killed by cops, and were thus 56 percent underrepresented in the police homicide stats.

Massachusetts police also kill Latinos at a very high rate. Latinos were 11 percent of the state population in 2016, but they were 28 percent of those killed by police. Thus, Massachusetts Latinos showed up in the police killing stats at a rate of 254 percent their proportion of the state’s total population, or 154 percent greater than the Latino share of the population.

The key number, however, is this: Only 7 percent of Massachusetts’s residents are black, yet they constituted 35 percent of people killed by cops. African Americans therefore appear in Massachusetts police homicide stats at five times the rate, or with 400 percent greater frequency, than do they appear in the state’s total population count. Now we are beginning to see where the national average comes from.

Illinois has a similar profile. In 2016 Illinois cops killed 29 people: nine of them (or 31 percent of the total) were white, while 61 percent of the state’s total population was white. Latinos were 27 percent of those killed by cops despite being only 17 percent of the state’s population.

Illinois cops also killed seventeen black people, (or 58 percent of the total) even as black people were only 14 percent of the state’s total population. In other words, during 2016 Illinois cops killed African Americans at a rate four times (or 314 percent greater than) the black percentage of the population.

Similarly, in Minnesota, cops kill black people at three times their prevalence in the state’s total population: 6 percent of the population versus 21 percent of those killed by cops. In New York police kill black people at three times their proportion of the population: they are only 16 percent of the population but constitute 48 percent of those killed by cops. In Michigan police kill African Americans at a rate about 2.5 times their share of the state population; they are 14 percent of the population but 37 percent of those killed by cops.

Moving west, the cops show anti-black racism in their patterns of killing but not to the level of what we see in the Northeast and Midwest. California fits the northern pattern. Cops killed black people at more than three times their share of the population. But Western police racism, expressed as lethal violence, falls most heavily on Latinos and Native Americans. Measured on a per capita basis no other racial or ethnic group comes near experiencing the appalling level of police violence meted out to Native Americans.

To be fair to the police of Greater Yankeedom, in general, they kill less often than do Southern or Western cops.

The Racialization of Poverty North and South

Why is Northern policing so disproportionately racist? In 1831 Tocqueville noted the peculiar vehemence of Yankee racism: “slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary…. prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known.” (3)

This Northern prejudice often produced state constitutions that simultaneously outlawed slavery and prohibited African Americans settlement. Ohio, for example, outlawed slavery in its original 1802 constitution. But it also aggressively barred black immigration and enforced the ban with mob violence.

Northern tier states were also the first to pass eugenic forced-sterilization laws. By 1926 most Northern states had such laws but none of the Southern states did.

I suspect that modern patterns of “racialized” poverty, which is to say the racial demographics of poverty, does much to explain Northern police racism. Keep in mind, much of what police do is harass the visibly and “disorderly” poor. Disorderly frequently comes down to doing things in public that, if you had more money, you would do in private: drinking, smoking, buying and selling, yelling, arguing, disrobing, sitting down, and sleeping. (4)

The racism of Northern police also has something to do with the more “racialized” nature of poverty in the North as compared to the South. In the North, people of color tend to be heavily overrepresented in the ranks of the poor, whereas in the South there are higher rates of poverty and more of the white population is very poor. One crude way we see this is comparing the relative gap between white and black poverty rates in the North and South.

In the South the black poverty rate is typically about twice as high as the white poverty rate. But in most of the northern-tier states the black poverty rate is three times as high as the white poverty rate. (5) This is not because black people are necessarily wealthier in the South, though the highest black poverty rates do cluster in the north, but rather because there are more poor white people in the South. (6)

The U.S. Census defines four major regions: Northeast, Midwest, South, and West. Of these, the South has the lowest median household income; it also has “the largest share of counties with high income inequality.” The South remains the region with the lowest median wages, (7) has “maintained the highest rates of poverty over the past 40 years,” and has “the largest share of Americans living in poverty of all regions.” Food insecurity is highest in the South. It has the highest adult and infant mortality rates and the greatest prevalence of illnesses like cardiovascular disease, obesity, and HIV/AIDS. Southerners suffer higher occurrences of occupational fatalities, and the South has many of the highest rates of incarceration. (8)

The Political Economy of North and South

The South, from the settling of Jamestown onward, has always been home to a large population of poor whites. The South was intentionally designed to be a land of gentlemen and servants. This plan, if you will, shaped southern land distribution. Huge lots were given to rich men, while very little was made available to the common classes. The Yankee north, despite its many faults, pursued an intentionally more equal distribution of land. These divergent sectional settlement patterns had profound and long-term consequences for later economic development.

This sectional difference in land disposal patterns meant that the South never developed a large class of independent small farmers, whereas that class predominated in the North. As Charles Post has shown in his book The American Road to Capitalism, it was from this stratum of family farmers that American industrial capitalism emerged. During the nineteenth century, these small farmers, increasingly subject to market competition and price signals, began specializing and mechanizing. As subsistence production declined, production for sale increased. As it did, consumption increasingly depended on purchasing commodities with money in markets. Through it all the capitalist division of labor deepened, commodification and what Marx called “real subsumption” spread. With class struggle, in the form of growing unionization and then with the New Deal, the wealth produced by Northern industrialization, even as it made robber barons rich, also helped reinforce older Northern patterns of a more widespread, if modest, prosperity.

In the Slave South, several factors blunted this process. The extremely uneven land holding of the South limited the rise of a class of innovating, increasingly market-oriented small farmers. Uneven land distribution also translated into a lower population density and fewer cities, which meant smaller, less competitive markets. And as John Majewski explains in Modernizing a Slave Economy, weak and acidic soils, which are easily depleted by mono-cropping, encouraged the use of “shifting cultivation,” which in turn further reenforced the pattern of large land holdings, low population density, and class inequality.

Slavery also hindered economic development and industrialization because slaves were a fixed cost that had to be utilized even when not working on the cash crops. Because slaves could not be fired like free workers, slave owners needed to maximize their use of slave labor. This disincentivized and undermined the use of labor-saving equipment, resupply through markets, and the outsourcing of tasks to commercial specialists (like blacksmiths or carpenters). Put simply, instead of buying cheap, well produced bacon on emerging commercial markets supplied by small innovating farmers, slaveowners were incentivized to make their slaves raise hogs when they were not raising cotton. Thus even as slaves produced cash crops for export and plantations ran with capitalistic tools of efficiency, like modern account books, the fixed costs of slavery also encouraged nonmonetized production for use. This meant that in the South a smaller portion of production was governed by the law of value, and what Joseph Schumpeter called capitalism’s “gales of creative destruction.”

With large parts of the population (slaves) consuming little and producing much of what they consumed in a non-monetized, production-for-use fashion, even small yeoman farmers who might have innovated and mechanized along capitalist lines, were for lack of markets effectively held back and stuck in a twilight economy that was capitalist but still heavily governed by the slow logic of production for use. Thus southern industrialization and capitalist “expanded reproduction” were thwarted.

In Slavery and Freedom, James Oakes summarized how slavery underdeveloped the South as follows: “Slavery hindered technological innovation even where its profitability depended on the latest techniques for processing and transportation. It slowed the growth of cities and industry, hampered the growth of a consumer market, reduced the flow of savings, and promoted soil exhaustion and demographic instability by dampening interest in long-term improvements on the land.” (9)

In the South the pattern of economic development was about cash-crop exports and later also resource extraction. This pattern of economic development reenforced the region’s tremendous class inequality. In the words of the Southern chronicler J.W. Cash, this made the South a society of “Big Men and Little Men, with strict reference to property, power, and the claim to gentility.” (10)

As a result of the South’s tremendous class inequality, the region’s demographics of poverty have long been less racially skewed than in the North.

In her fine book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, Keri Leigh Merritt shows that poor, landless whites constituted a full third (some have said one half) of the population of the U.S. South! (11) To be clear these were not the hardscrabble small farmers. Rather these were a semi-itinerate, rural Lumpenproletariat, who owned no land and instead lived by occasional day labor, grazing hogs, gathering herbs, cutting wood for sale, stealing, poaching, making and selling liquor, fencing stolen goods, and prostitution. Prone to binge drinking, violence and cavorting with both free and enslaved African Americans (even as they were known for their loudly professed hostility to black people), these poor whites were by most accounts often genuinely dangerous. The planter class hated them. So too, it seems, did much of the smallholding yeomanry.

Prior to emancipation, slavery being the system that controlled most African Americans in the South, both extrajudicial mob violence and formal criminal justice were largely targeted at controlling this class of poor white Southerners.

Even today, in most Southern states the demographic distribution of poverty more closely tracks the overall demographic profile of the state than do poverty rates in the North. (12) Of the states with the top ten highest white poverty rates all except for Idaho and New Mexico had been part of the Confederacy.

Making of the Yankee Ghetto

Concentrations of black poverty in the Northern states that once banned black settlement is the result of the racist articulation of deindustrialization and urban renewal. The Great Migration, that is the large-scale relocation of African Americans from the rural South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West, began with the industrial boom of World War I. Pulled north by the lure of jobs, higher wages, and greater freedom, the migrants were also pushed north by the hard times brought on by the increasing mechanization of Southern agriculture, and by the despotism of Jim Crow segregation and lynch-law terror. Roughly six million black people moved north before the migration subsided around 1970.

The greatest part of this wave happened from World War II until 1970. But African Americans arrived in the land of industrial democracy and upward mobility just as that political economy began a process of radical restructuring driven by automation and then industrial relocation. Almost as soon as African Americans established themselves in Northern industrial occupations and cities, deindustrialization and racist slum clearance began.

As Thomas Sugrue shows in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, industrial employment in Motor City actually peaked in 1950, a full three decades before “deindustrialization” became a sociological watchword. As unionized industrial employment shrank, so too did the service sectors. According to Sugrue, black workers actually continued to move up the wage and skill ladder even as deindustrialization took hold. But this hardly made up for a shrinking regional economy and rising class inequality at a national scale.

Just as industrial employment was peaking, federally subsidized “slum clearance” and highway construction programs began reshaping Northern and Western cities. Coupled with suburbanization along racist lines, these developments increasingly forced black people into de facto segregated and underinvested communities. As businesses and middle-class whites left the urban core, municipal tax bases shrank, services and employment suffered, and concentrations of black poverty became defining features of the Northern-tier rustbelt.

The rustbelt geography became that of the doughnut city, with the African Americans’ deindustrialized core surrounded by autonomous, and for a long time de facto white, segregated suburbs.

The Modern Low-Wage South

Meanwhile, poverty in the U.S. South remained and remains widespread. This is revealed in the disproportionally high percentage of its population working for low wages. In 2016 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the “states with the highest percentages of hourly paid workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage” were: Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and (one western outlier) Idaho. (13)

That year saw 2.2 million Americans working for wages at or below the federal minimum. Fully 49 percent of these workers worked in the South. These low-wage workers were predominately women. White women and people of color of all genders were (and still are) disproportionately represented in low-wage work. However, in absolute numbers, low-paid workers as a whole, were and are predominately white. The BLS reports that 74 percent of workers making wages “at or below the federal minimum” are white. (About 10 percent of that number are likely white Latinos but the BLS does not disaggregate in that fashion.) Thus white people work low-wage jobs in proportion to their share of the population. African Americans, at 18 percent of this workforce, are overrepresented. Latinos and Asians are each slightly underrepresented among low-wage workers. Thus for every African American working for the federal minimum wage or less there are four white workers in the same position, and, although the BLS does not offer numbers for race and region together, we can assume that most of both groups are in the South. (14) In other words there are lots of poor white people in the South, and this probably helps explain why white people are killed at a higher rate in the south than in the north, and that, in turn, helps explain why black people so disproportionally show up in the northern police killing stats.

Conclusion

One clear takeaway from all these numbers is that Northern liberals—after all, they run most Northern city governments—should not feel too terribly smug when surveying the South, or applauding symbolic victories over racism, because very material forms of racism unfold up North on their watch and these are rooted not only in police prejudice but regional political economy and industrial policy. Transforming those “root causes” would be a massive though not impossible task. It would require challenging the prerogatives of capital; that is, confronting actual capitalists, i.e., campaign donors. That is a daunting prospect. And so, the liberal political class prefers progressive cultural change, renaming and redecorating, to the harder job of progressive economic change. Because, in the grand scheme of things, symbols are cheap.

Notes

1,  According to the Guardian’s much-lauded Counted Project—which is perhaps the most thorough and easily used database ever created on the not well tracked issue of police homicides—in 2016 police killed 1093 people of whom 266 (or 24 percent) were black. In 2015, cops killed 1146 people of whom 307 (or 27 percent) were black. African Americans were only 13 percent of the country’s total population in both 2016 and 2015. Thus, in 2016 police killed black people with a frequency equal to 185 percent of the black proportion (or percentage) of the total US population. While the year before cops killed black people with a frequency equal to 207 percent of the black proportion of the U.S. population. Thus let’s average the defense and say police disproportionately killed African Americans at twice, or two times the rate, or in proportions 100 percent greater than the 13 percent, that is the black portion of the U.S. total population.

2, The numbers discussed below are taken from the following sources: The Guardian’s Counted Project, which tabulated police killings in 2015 and 2016. For simplicity I am using only data for 2016. Numbers on the demographic distribution of state populations come from U.S. Census population estimates for 2016. For the categories white and African American I use numbers from the census category called “one race.” But in 2016 the Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics gave Latinos their own separate category, so when discussing Latinos I use that category even though this means there is some overlap between “Latino” and the only “one race” categories of white and African American and Asian. As one charmingly absurd and telling BLS footnote put it: “Estimates for the above race groups—white, black or African American, and Asian—do not sum to totals because data are not presented for all races. Persons whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.” For the demographics of low-wage workers, I use data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In all cases, I have rounded the numbers down for decimals of 0.5 or below, and rounded up for 0.6 and greater.

3. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America (1831), https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/de-tocqueville/democracy-america/ch18.htm.

4. In this regard the recently cancelled reality television show Cops was instructive. For lack of bank robberies, hostage negotiations, car chases, and shootouts, Cops mostly portrayed police officers telling pathetic and inebriated poor people (a lot of them white) to dump out their booze, handover their crack pipes, and explain where the fifty bucks in cash came from. The show was, despite its ideological zeal, prosaically honest.

5. For details on this reader can compare the white and black poverty rates on the Kaiser Family Foundation website page called “Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity.” I used the timeframe 2016.

6.  See the Kaiser Family Foundation website, the interactive database on their page called “Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity.”

7.  See Governing magazine’s ranking of states by wages as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the seventeen states with the lowest wages, fourteen are Southern and the other three are Western. Only Virginia has median wages above the national average and that is thanks in large part to Northern Virginia’s wealthy suburbs, which are part of the high-wage Washington D.C. Metro area. “Median Wages by State,” Governing, May 2016, http://www.governing.com/gov-data/wage-average-median-pay-data-for-states.html.

8. Regina Smalls Baker, “Poverty and Place in the Context of the American South” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 2015), 1–3. The South, as defined by the U.S. Census, is made up of the states of the old Confederacy, plus Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, and Oklahoma, which, during the Civil War, was one territory.

9. James Oakes, Slavery and Freedom: An Interpretation of the Old South (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1990), 37.

10. J.W. Cash, The Mind of the South, (New York: Random Books, 1941), 33.

11.  Keri Leigh Merritt, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

12. See “Percentage of People in Poverty by State Using 2- and 3-Year Averages: 2013–2014 and 2015–2016.” For a clearer display of states ranked by poverty rate, see “Interrelationships of 3-Year Average State Poverty Rates: 2014–2016,” https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/demo/p60-259.html.

13. “Characteristics of minimum wage workers, 2016,” BLS Reports Report #1067 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Washington DC, April 2017), 2.

14. “Characteristics of minimum wage workers, 2016” BLS Reports Report #1067 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Washington DC, April 2017

https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/minimum-wage/2016/home.html

Christian Parenti is an assistant clinical professor in New York University’s Global Liberal Studies Program. He has published four books, the most recent being, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (Nation Books, 2011). Parenti has reported extensively from Afghanistan, Iraq, and various parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; his articles have appeared in The NationFortuneThe London Review of BooksThe New York Times, and Jacobin.

Gambling Raid, Single-Wide

By Curtis Price

Posted May 22, 2021


I live in Decatur now, a blue-collar city of 40,000 that even its own residents describe as having “a pretty bad reputation in North Alabama for being a town with a sketchy profile and reputation.” A couple weeks ago, a SWAT team raided a single-wide being used as an illegal gambling hall not too far from me. As a neighbor who witnessed the raid told the local press, “More than five police cars with SWAT pulled up and the police had the assault-type guns It was like they were trying to catch a murderer. The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,” adding that he never frequented the hall because “I’m broke. I’m trying to buy some groceries and cigarettes.”

The cops seized 26 gambling machines, three firearms, marijuana, drug paraphernalia and more than $20,000 in cash.. Seventeen people were arrested. A police spokesman said,

“For the people who patronize these illegal operations, these machines are not regulated like the ones in businesses that have legal gambling operations such as those in Mississippi and Nevada, Their regulatory organizations set the minimum percentage of winnings that each machine must pay out over the life of the machine. “The machines that are in use in these illegal operations have the ability for those percentages to be changed. Therefore, the patron doesn’t have a guarantee that the machine will ever pay out at all.”

(Decatur Daily, May 9, 2021)

In a small yet perverse way, these comments show what is more and more the therapeutic ethos behind heavy-handed state intervention into private life today. In this case, the hall was raided not because it was a den of vice or deprived state coffers of money – with a few exceptions, gambling is illegal in Alabama – but from concern that customers weren’t getting . . . fair payouts. The state becomes a social worker with a club, acting from “care” and “protection” such as in misguided attempts to shut down corner liquor stores as a “public health” emergency.

But in this case, these weren’t high-rollers in BMWs trying to get their gambling jones off, just poor and working-class people trying to escape the grey monotony of life with the illusory thrill of playing games of chance where, like everything else in life under the thumb of Capital, they will lose more than they win. Now, seventeen people who can’t afford it have to pony up bail, hire lawyers, and miss work, all in the name of protecting them from themselves.

The neighbor was right. “The people in there weren’t messing with anybody. If they want to spend their money there that’s their business. I don’t see a problem with it,”

***

I must mention at this point that I’ve been to two illegal gambling halls twice in Alabama, so despite not being a gambler myself, I have first-hand experience with what goes on inside. The first time was after I came back from playing scratch-offs with an inveterate gambler across the Tennessee line at one of the legal “scratch-off shacks” designed to lure Alabama customers and separate them from their money. (He played and I soaked up the atmosphere, eventually writing an article for the old “Hard Crackers” before it was turned into “Soft Brooklyn Crumbs” after Noel Ignatiev died, an uninspired  and boring retread of the old “Left Turn” magazine that has nothing to do with Ignatiev’s original vision. ) My acquaintance insisted on stopping by a juke house for one last run. We drove up to a modest two story rancher in a mostly black working-class neighborhood in north Huntsville.

After checking in, we were led to the basement. The club basement was covered wall-to-wall with machines, including one video game, full of flashing lights and bells going off, that took up an entire wall. He still lost, which is what happens when the house stacks all the odds. But I listened to the trash-talking manager, a tough-as-nails, crew-cropped, young black lesbian fresh out of Wetumpka, the Alabama women’s prison. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer while inside and had a mastectomy. In the operating room, she begged the surgeon, “take the other one off, I don’t want it” But of course, the surgeon refused. She would have to fork over big bucks to the transgender treatment industrial-complex for that to happen.

The second time I got to see how illegal gambling houses worked up close because I knew the manager. He had set up several machines in a spare bedroom through a connection with the local black and white mafia (because low-level crime, it must be said, is probably the one most inter-racial and egalitarian pursuit in working-class America. The only color that ever counts in it is green) The machine-owners had somehow hauled in the machines without attracting neighbors’ attention, which the location of the house, set off and facing away from others, undoubtedly aided.  The mafia assured him the cops were paid –off so he had nothing to fear. Thoughtfully, they even supplied boxes of bulk snacks to sell.  Who says capitalism doesn’t work?

Well, things soon went South, pardon the pun. My intrepid entrepreneurial friend started drinking heavily, getting into arguments with customers. When the customers lost, they insisted he was somehow cheating them. He started” messin’ up” the money, which was substantial, sometimes a grand on a weekend night.  I offered to come by and hold his bank so he wouldn’t fuck it up, but my one attempt at consciously shoring up a capitalist enterprise was spurned. Deep in debt to the fried-chicken mafia, they swooped in and carted off the poker machines. Alas, my friend was not destined to become the Alabama Donald Trump.

But in watching how this gambling house worked, I saw flaws that could undermine what looked like a sweet set-up. One, as mentioned, the clients accused him of cheating them, an accusation they would never make to a casino in Las Vegas, where layers of impersonal bureaucracy – and a small army of security guards – separate owners from irate consumers. But in this setting, disgruntled customers could call the police and file anonymous complaints.  And who really knows if the mafia was paying them off? Or if some gung-ho cop decided to ignore the informal contract and make a bust anyway? (My natural suspiciousness ruins me for a life in crime, where taking risks is the name of the game.)

The second factor of concern was the number of cars that would be parked all over the front yard. That would be a sure tip-off to nosey neighbors that something was going on inside. (One gambling hall in Decatur solved that problem by setting up a phony church as a front, where excessive numbers of cars wouldn’t attract attention, a Holy Temple of the Perpetual Royal Flush perhaps.)

But unfortunately, there was no way to control the traffic flow; people showed up when they wanted to, not when you wanted them to come in discretely staggered. So that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that complaints about excess traffic were probably, in the end, the downfall of this illegal gambling hall in Decatur.