“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.

Myths of Reconstruction: The Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division

By Curtis Price

May 9, 2021


Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction by Jim Downs (Oxford University Press, 2015

According to popular image, the end of slavery was an era of liberation, a happy ending to a bitter war, with jubilant ex-slaves embracing and flourishing under new freedoms denied in the regime of Southern chattel slavery. In this absorbing and well-documented book, Jim Downs questions this interpretation.

 The same troops that sung “John Brown’s Body” on marches, when confronted first-hand with disease and illness among slaves, closed down the informal settlements that had formed on the perimeter of Union camps, forcing newly free slaves away from Army bases.  Sometimes Union soldiers kidnapped escaped slaves and sold them back to their former masters. This continued after the war ended with military and Freedmen’s Bureau officials, obsessed with black bodies only as a source of labor, entering freedmen camps and communities, removing able-bodied men and shipping them to work on distant plantations.  (1)

As Downs notes, “many free slaves died once they secured refuge behind Union camps. Even after the war ended, they continually struggled to survive in a region torn apart by disease and destruction.”  (2) To Harriet Jacobs ,a northern aid worker comforting sick freewomen surrounded by the dead and dying in Washington, D.C., wrote how their eyes seemed to cry: “is this freedom?” (3)

These conditions continued in the post-war period, when the Freedmen’s Bureau set up by Northern authorities, prioritized ex-slave health only as a means to get ex-slaves to return to the fields they had just fled. The objective of the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division was to support the emerging free labor system in the South and, by restoring workers’ health, return the region to productivity while avoiding “dependency” on government largesse.

***

Toward the end of the Civil War, thousands of slaves abandoned plantations and escaped behind Union lines, what W.E.B. DuBois famously labeled “a general strike” against the plantation system. But they arrived sick and famished, having trekked great distances, and at considerable personal cost. Their forced mobility, always on the run, meant that freedmen lost community ties, ties that had nourished slaves throughout slavery’s harsh regimens.

As the collapse of the Confederacy accelerated, in large part because of a refusal – the second, yet unacknowledged general strike of the Civil War – by Confederate draftees to fight “a rich man’s war,” kinship bonds among slaves further eroded and families were thrown on their own resources. Medical care that slaves had gotten on plantations or through informal systems of folk medicine within the slave community vanished.

Although a sense of personal and collective agency had helped slaves flee bondage, the other side of the coin that hasn’t gotten attention, as Downs points out, is that ex-slaves faced obstacles “that could not be defeated, no matter how willing or independent they may have been.” Ex-slaves confronted multiple biological crises – the need of bodies for nourishment, shelter, and respite from illness – that even the keenest sense of autonomy could not vanquish. (4)

The Union army had neither the resources nor the political will to address this onslaught of mass suffering. To Union commanders, the presence of so many sick and debilitated slaves hindered war efforts. The Emancipation Proclamation carried no clauses governing Northern armies’ responsibilities towards escapees nor any funding to address their plight, in large part because the Emancipation Proclamation was conceived in narrow strategic terms as an economic weapon undermining the South’s plantation work force, not as a measure promoting social or human rights for African-Americans. (5)

The Union army saw escaped slaves only as a potential source of extra man-power for the war, to relieve grunt work falling on white Northern soldiers. Able-bodied male slaves either signed on voluntarily or were forced to enlist for rations and shelter. Sometimes raids were conducted in camps and freedmen’s communities (a practice that continued, although reduced, during the post-war period with a few local representatives of the Freedmen’s Bureau.)

Women, children, the elderly, sick and disabled presented a special problem. In the eyes of Union commanders, sick slaves, women and children hindered mobility and used up scarce resources.  At times, escaped slaves were viewed only for their monetary value as chattel, such as when General Benjamin Butler wrote that “… more than $60,000 worth of them had come in” in describing an influx of escaped slaves behind Union lines.  Old slave pens from chattel days were re-opened by Northern troops as holding areas for escaped “contraband.” (6)

Without warning, Army officials sometimes suddenly broke up slave encampments, even after promising safety, and scattered escaped slaves elsewhere, even if this meant their risk of death from starvation or the spread of infectious diseases. Slaves, as Downs points out in his description of one slave family’s ordeals, “did not die from complicated medical illnesses or unknown diseases, they died because they did not have basic necessities.” (7)

The Army and, later, Freedmen’s Bureau officials wanted local authorities to take on responsibility for the welfare of ex-slaves, but local officials refused. Hostile to Emancipation, local officials in the South saw slaves as traitors getting their just deserts for abandoning the plantation. Ex-slaves were taunted over what they had lost from rejecting “benevolent” masters.  Many Southern officials found an opt-out by declaring since former slaves were never legally constituted as citizens, they were ineligible for local aid. (8)

This resistance to treating the medical conditions or providing basic social services of ex-slaves was a permanent feature of Southern official response from the end of the Civil War through Reconstruction – and beyond. To make matters worse, crop failures and drought swept through a South destroyed by war in the years after war’s end, making slaves’ survival even more precarious as available resources went to whites first.

Reacting to ground-level reports of the growing plight of emancipated slaves, the Federal government felt forced to act, setting up the Freedmen’s Bureau as a temporary stop-gaps to assist desperate slaves entry into the new world of free labor. The Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau, one of several sub-departments of the Bureau, each tackling an aspect of ex-slave welfare, was established by the War Department. The Medical Division built over 40 hospitals to tend to freemen’s health and hired over a hundred doctors. But these measures were just a drop in the bucket in proportion to the growing need. Very quickly, the hospitals became de facto poor houses, providing housing, food and clothing to emaciated ex-slaves.

Contributing to high death rates among ex-slaves were the racialized concepts of African health that dominated U.S. medicine in the Civil War era. Because slaves were wrongly seen as immune to malaria because of their African heritage, malaria cases among black troops, for instance, were ignored. Northern doctors sent to practice in Medical Division hospitals thought people of African ancestry had weaker constitutions than whites and thus when fell sick were either under-treated or outright ignored.  Some Northern Medical Division doctors, even when sent, refused to treat freedmen. Charles Cox, an Illinois Democrat congressman speaking in opposition to the Freedmen’s Bureau legislation, no doubt spoke for many in the North when he said, “no government farming system, no charitable black scheme can wash out the color of the negro, change his inferior nature or save him from his inevitable fate.” (9 )

The passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill led to a drop-off in involvement of Abolitionist Benevolent groups as former activists felt – wrongly, as it turns out – that the Federal government was now taking over work that had previously been done voluntarily by Northern abolitionist groups. Aid workers remained, but were  sidelined and their observations ignored. At no point was any opportunity given by Northern authorities to freedmen to define their own needs. The anecdotes of suffering supplied by abolitionists were quickly replaced by the cold, impersonal calculus of raw numbers with no names attached.

The newly changed status from slave to freemen needing to making their way as workers in a free labor economy meant that health benefits that were formerly provided on the plantation now had to be introduced into individual labor contracts – if offered at all. Often the costs were too high for freemen to pay from meager wages, so health benefits stayed unused as new employers – often the same slave owners as before – now transferred the costs of reproduction to workers in accordance with the principles of the free labor system.

President Andrew Johnson, hostile to the Freedmen’s Bureau from the start, was determined to reinstate the old system of labor control inherited from slavery with power now shunted to employers. To Johnson, all Bureau activities cultivated a culture of “dependency” that had to be tenaciously fought.

 Instead of taking up care of freedmen, however, the ex-slave owners ignored their plight, leaving the stench of rotting bodies hanging in the air as corpses piled up in city streets. In Chattanooga, for instance, one Army official wrote that freed slaves were “dying by scores – that sometimes thirty per day dies & are carried out by wagon loads, without coffins, and thrown promiscuously, like brutes, into a trench.” (10)

O.O. Howard, then head of the Bureau, ignored Johnson and set up medical facilities anyway. But even Howard bucking the system was done with a commitment to the same goals. As Howard wrote, “the negro should understand that he is really free, but on no account, if able to work, should he harbor the thought that the Government will support him in idleness.” (11) When confronted with rising numbers demanding help, Howard concluded the problem was not unmet needs but instead a dangerous trend toward permanent dependence on state intervention.

(DuBois, in Black Reconstruction only mentions the Medical Division in passing but cites success stories such as the death rate among ex-slaves being reduced from 30% to 2.03%. Dubois couldn’t have been aware that the Medical Division’s statistics should be treated as suspect, inflated to make the Division’s work appear more successful than it was.

This, of course, was done to justify winding-down services and proving to Congress that the war against “dependency” had been won.  Federal Reconstruction officials as a whole needed to paint for Northern public opinion optimistic pictures of a booming South. To this end, Northern journalists were given tours touting the South’s rebirth under Northern tutelage, tours that showed happy freedmen working in fields and masked mounting black suffering offstage.) (12)

In many rural areas, where need was the greatest, overworked Division doctors lacked both time and resources to comply with the Division’s onerous bureaucratic reporting standards, leading to case undercounts. In the countryside, many ex-slaves died anonymous, unrecorded deaths from illness and starvation in bushes and forests without ever encountering a Medical Division doctor.

Yet even at their height, Medical Division hospitals could only treat an average of 20 patients at a time. Sometimes, hospitals and aid programs were forced off their sites so the land could be returned to former slave-owners.  Howard at first hoped to recruit doctors from the military to staff medical programs. But most Northern Army doctors left the South, with many openly expressing their lack of interest in treating black patients. (13)

Starved of funding, pressured by Northern officials to shut down as soon as possible, local hospitals were forced to improvise. Some Doctors hired patients to do menial work and were paid in food rations. Hospitals were told by Howard to grow their own vegetables on scraps of unused land to lower costs, A few defied Federal authorities and hired local workers anyway. Outside associations such as the Colored Benevolent Societies raised funds and provided food and clothing.

But Federal officials used this outside support as an excuse to further cut funding. The primary objective was to get fields back running again. As Downs notes, “ . . . Radical Republicans and members of Johnson’s administration who otherwise disagreed on the objectives of the Bureau – shared a view of ill-health as it related to one’s ability to perform arduous field labor.” (14) Later, in 1866, the Radical Republicans argued for able-bodied freedmen to be denied health care or assistance if they didn’t go back to the fields – a position indistinguishable from Johnson’s.

Left out in both Johnson and Radical Republican calculus was any acknowledgement of the role of war and internal displacement in stoking illness. Everything was narrowed to simplistic ideas of a “will to work” that was either present or not. The larger structural impediments to employment such as a ruined economy and infrastructure were never considered

During this period, dating roughly from 1862-1865, smallpox raged throughout the South, undoubtedly aided by freedmen’s forced dispersion. Smallpox carried a stigma of affecting the immoral, poor and promiscuous and carriers avoided public attention, making it harder to practice quarantine. Ex-slaves, for instance, hid evidence of infection from white eyes because they feared being told infection was God’s disproval of Emancipation. As smallpox spread up the Atlantic coast, military officials in D.C. pressured many freedmen to go back over the Potomac River, where they were warehoused in former slave pens in Alexandria; others were just abandoned to die. (15)

Smallpox was spread by large movements of freedmen, often forced out by local Freedmen’s Bureau to seek services elsewhere. Tragically, many freemen viewed freedom as the right to go wherever they pleased and thus unwittingly carried smallpox with them.

Susceptibility to illnesses such as smallpox for both Northern and Southern officials became one more sign confirming Africans’ inherent racial inferiority. The role of overcrowding and lack of housing escaped notice as a cause, even as both factors were acknowledged as exacerbating conditions when applied to whites. Instead, smallpox offered “proof” that blacks and whites had different biologies. Widely accepted as fact was the theory that African slaves were inherently doomed to die out, like Native Americans, and treatment was futile in stopping this inevitable outcome. As one religious leader spoke in 1863 about Africans, “Like his brother the Indian of the forest, he must melt away and disappear forever among the midst of us.”  (16)

These views were also held in the top leadership of the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division and officials refused to provide adequate funds to build separate facilities – pest houses – to house the infected. The logic was since freedmen were inevitably slated to become extinct, efforts to stem the spread of smallpox through basic sanitation measures and vaccination were futile. Thus Federal officials refused to follow long-known strategies for containing smallpox that had been standard practices for decades.

Occasionally, freedmen organized to demand better protection. In New Bern, North Carolina, a group of freedmen successfully approached a commander alleging the Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent committed “oppression and outrages.” In Columbia, SC, ex-slaves demanded an end to the unsanitary conditions at the local smallpox hospital. At other times, freedmen, not trusting the Northern military with their health and exercising what they felt was their new freedoms, refused to cooperate with Union army campaigns for mass vaccinations. (17) But such protests were rare.

By the time the Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division was shut, few of its hospitals remained. Although a handful of dedicated doctors and Northern volunteers continued to provide health care to newly emancipated slaves, these scattered efforts could never meet the overwhelming need. From then on, freedmen’s would be at the mercy of employers or their own wits and the first experiment with government-sponsored health care consigned to history.

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In many ways, the end days of the Confederacy saw a horizontal shift in suffering as Union troops and later Freedmen’s Bureau officials, confronted with the immense suffering of escaped slaves, refused to respond, leaving tens of thousands to die of hunger, exposure, and disease. Why are these circumstances unknown? As Downs points out,

“The few and scattered references of freedpeople suffering from the challenges of emancipation have been overlooked because these episodes do not fit into the patriotic narratives of the Civil War. Frozen feet and starvation complicate accounts dominated by heroic black soldiers or freedwomen in Union camps caring for both freed slaves and Northern troops. These carefully cast representations of freedpeople were often created by white authors in the late nineteenth century who strove to highlight the happy outcomes brought by emancipation. Recounting the hardships endured by former slaves during emancipation risked sending the erroneous message that the institution of slavery was no wholly cruel – inadvertently supporting the argument of antebellum pro-slavery advocates in response to the abolitionist movement” (18)

Alongside the exalted phrases of the Emancipation Proclamation and stirring accounts of black freedom during Reconstruction, we also need to center the experience of an anonymous freedwoman living in a dump cart in Montgomery who passed out while giving birth, only to find when she woke that hogs had devoured her baby. (19 130) She too is a face of Reconstruction and her baby’s death a case of social murder, perpetrated by the indifference of both Northern and Southern authorities alike, when confronted with the mass suffering of ex-slaves in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Notes

1) Jim Downs, Sick From Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 37, 123.

2) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

3) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 162.

4) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

5) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 38.

6) Ibid.

7) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 21.

8) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 68.

9) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 61.

10) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 27.

11) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 73.

12) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 144.

13) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 83.

14) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 93.

15) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 99.

16) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 103.

17) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 109.

18) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

19) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 130.

Further Reading

Harris, Paul. “How the end of slavery led to starvation and death for millions of black Americans. “ The Guardian, January 16, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/16/slavery-starvation-civil-war?fbclid=IwAR1Zv08337Uwv090IoP_RWnWTYcEWVt6F3hcsjwj-rADQR13hWGoQtaM6Sk