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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


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 )

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, ( 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?


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.


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.


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),

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,

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,”

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

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.

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.


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.


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

Response to Hard Crackers Tribute to Noel Ignatiev

By Pekah Wallace

Posted May 9, 2021

We can pay attention to things that beg out empathy, or indulge in personally destructive, narcissistic and attention-seeking behaviors and self-aggrandizement…

The Seventh Edition Hard Crackers Release-Party was celebrated Sunday, October 27, 2019,at Freddie’s Bar and Backroom, Brooklyn, NY. A dive of sorts, and a throwback to times and places in the Boroughs where writers like Eugene O’Neill, surrounded by some of the most motley crew, was inspired to write masterpieces. The Iceman Cometh comes to mind.

If bad weather conditions were any predictor that the event would mark its final publication of Hard Crackers, Chronicles of Every Day Life, the size of the turnout told a different story. We started out for New York plenty early, and what should have easily been a two-hour sprint from Connecticut, became four hazardous, long hours, wrestling a rainstorm out of hell. The wipers never caught a break, neither did our eyes, peeled back, as blinding heavy downpours turned to perilous flooding. At no point did we think we’d make it there. On board were two of the most important pieces of cargo entrusted to my care. Jay, my son, and Noel Ignatiev, founder and chief editor of Hard Crackers. Noel was unusually excited to celebrate yet another publication of Hard Crackers. But foremost in his thoughts was his special invited guest, James Livingston, whom he would be meeting, in person, for the first time. He trusted me to get him there, if not on time, in one piece.

By the time we arrived at the Backroom, weather conditions had just begun to open up. The event was a success, surprisingly well attended, in spite of bad weather! Livingston read from his autobiography, someone played the guitar, and Noel spoke, as the many young aspiring revolutionaries listened, transfixed. Also present were some members of the Board, John Garvey, Mike Morgan and Geert Dhondt. I also recall seeing Matthew Capri. Ignatiev sold many copies of Hard Crackers that day which meant more money for publication of the next edition, and that pleased him very much. Making tbe budget of several thousand dollars, to get each edition of Hard Crackers to press, was hard work,

However, In spite of his illness and doctors’ appointments, sometimes twice a week, Ignatiev needed to make new connections daily and nurture old ones, to assure continued flow of subscriptions to Hard Crackers. He sought and encouraged new writers, reviewed and edited all submissions to Hard Crackers, at the same, worked diligently to finish writing his novel, Acceptable Men, dormant for 20 years. Between times, he practiced his Cello, and any of a number of harmonicas he kept nearby in his desk drawer.

Early to bed and early to rise, Ignatiev maintained a strict routine, a daily constant, steady discipline. He had lost a lot of weight but remained strong and vibrant, often getting ahead of the day, he showered, shaved, dressed, to take himself and Miles for a leisurely walk. At the end of a very busy and productive day, he walked Miles again, took in an occasional movie or a tennis match, checked in on social media happenings, or chatted with a friend, as he settled in for the next 8 to 10 hours, connected to a feeding tube, and a noisy suction pump which swallowed for him. Yet, Ignatiev never complained, hopeful he would swallow again, as he looked forward to his impending corrective surgery.

Clearly, none of this was good enough for Jarrod Shanahan, a so-called comrade and disgruntled former member of the Hard Crackers Board, who, we later learned, spent countless hours begrudgingly trolling Ignatiev’s every move on social media, in an attempt to undermine Ignatiev’s integrity and position as editor in chief.

On November 9, 2019 Ignatiev passed; 13 days after the Hard Crackers Release- Party, and only seven days after arriving in Arizona to visit his grandchildren.  If death did not land the final blow, Shanahan, stabbed Ignatiev in the back, defenseless. Such cowardly act he could not have ventured on his own, without the help of members of the Hard Crackers Board, in particular, his handmaiden and partner in crime, Zhandarka Kurti, Ignatiev’s second most pernicious nemesis. I am not surprised Kurti would aid and abet placing Shanahan’s bellicose pen, front and center of the organization’s attempt to pay tribute to the work and life of Ignatiev.

On at least two occasions, Ignatiev rejected articles Shanahan submitted to Hard Crackers for publication. The first led to Ignatiev quitting the beloved magazine he founded, because of push-back form Shanahan and Kerti. With no discernable leader in place, Ignatiev resumed the role of editor in chief, on condition he hold ultimate authority to decide which articles make it into the magazine and which did not. Too much for Shanahan’s fragile ego, he quit the Board, claiming to avoid arguing with Ignatiev. Nonetheless, he continued to submit articles to Hard Crackers. His final submission bore no identifying markers authentic to Hard Crackers appeal to unite the working class of all races. It was clear to Ignatiev that Shanahan was not writing for Hard Crackers, but himself.  The article was academically obtuse, unwieldy, and its focus undecipherable. Ignatiev again rejected the article, before and after several unsuccessful attempts by other members of the Board to resuscitate it. 

It was around this time Ignatiev discovered that Kerti, unbeknown to Ignatiev, had placed in the archives one of Shanahan’s earlier articles Ignatiev had rejected. Kerti did not return Ignatiev’s call to inquire into her actions and, unceremoniously, Ignatiev removed the article from the archives, and blocked Kerti from future access to the archives.

Ignatiev died a month later. Shanahan and Kerti, unable to bring themselves to the podium at his celebratory memorial, strolled haplessly about, inseparable, claiming no pretentions or humility, conscience or remorse. Judas, a better man, would have run off and killed himself. Immediately thereafter, Kerti assumed the reins of Hard Crackers, James Murray and Curtis Price, resigned the Board, and Shanahan simultaneously resumed his position on the Board. Price went on to found Gasoline and Grits.

Whatever cheap fix Shanahan and Kerti and others may have derived from their impetuous, childish and malicious rants, to now claim themselves “revolutionaries who knew [Ignatiev] best,” is fiction, and an insult to Ignatiev and other revolutionaries everywhere. Shanahan and Kerti violated the golden rule and tried to extract special privileges from Hard Crackers for purposes of personal and professional gain. Failing to have his way, Shanahan blamed Ignatiev for his tortured ego, and set out to undermine Ignatiev’s reputation to others.

I have read the remaining submissions, including those by M. Treloar, Robert Gerst, Justine Johnson, John Strucker, John Bracey, Geert Dhondt, Cloee Cooper, Gary Fields, Don Hamerquist, Avery D’Agostino, Jay Kaspian Kang, John Garvey, and The Left Hook. While I admire Dhondt’s thoughtful inclusion of correspondence, in real time, between Ignatiev and the late Joel Olson his dear friend and comrade, as well as some excerpts from Ignatiev’s novel, Acceptable Men, Dhondt failed to assume greater liberty to countenance the very close, friendship he and his family have shared with Ignatiev over many years. Dhondt seemed to have safely avoided such personal endeavor, that would have otherwise smacked at the heart of the condescending, and hostile diatribe by Shanahan and his alliances. I view this as an opportunity missed.

A prominent, world-renowned historian and revolutionary, Ignatiev’s work speaks for itself. An anthology of his personal writings, essays, interviews, excerpts from his novels, and instructive submissions, would have best served as Tribute to his life and life’s mission.

Pekah Wallace, human rights law enforcement administrator and activist, is the surviving partner of Noel Ignatiev.


We are attaching an article by Shanahan that Noel refused to print so readers can judge for themselves how appropriate this text was for Hard Crackers. Contrary to Kerti’s self-serving, moaning about Ignatiev’s heavy editorial hand, as anyone can see this poorly written, pompous gibberish and ad hominem sectarian attacks had no place in Hard Crackers – or any other self-respecting publication, for that matter.

Invisibility and Blindness

By Jarrod Shanahan

Beep beep beep…Since their installation in 2013, the shrill exclamation sounding day and night at Chicago Transit Authority bus stops has injected a subtle yet incessant irritation into the ordinary perturbation of waiting for a bus that may or may not be coming anytime soon. I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, to declare this beeping a major annoyance.

Beep beep beep…Thirty times per minute.Where the fuck is my bus?It’s hot. I need not describe the heat in Chicago any more than the cold. The sun catches on a corner of the South Side bus shelter, furnishing a sliver of shade shielding all but an elbow I must today sacrifice to the risk of melanoma some decades down the line.

Beep beep beep…I struggle to hold my focus on some essential classic of critical scholarship, as the author stacks chic buzzwords likethey’re preparing full house in poker, coins needless neologisms of their own, and drops the names of their scholar friends for having first identified social phenomena experienced by hundreds of millions of people in their daily lives.

Beep beep beep…Neoliberal modalities of governance in the affective regime of the spatio-temporal metropole in the biopoliticalanthropocene, qua the biopoliticalanthropocene…Thinking back to when I first encountered sentences like this, and thought myself the hopeless inferior of their author, incapable of ever soaring to such Olympian heights, my face flushes and the page becomes a blur…

Beep beep beep BOOM! With great dramatic flair, a middle-aged black man standing three feet away from me has smashed an empty energy drink can completely flat. With great intent he rubs the aluminummedallion between his hands to inspect the thoroughness of the work. Satisfied, he paces ten steps to the periphery of the concrete. I observe, sipping Starbucks through a metal straw protruding from an otherwise plastic cup, which someone I had a crush on once assured me would spare a duck an untimely death. He reaches the corner of the concrete, where the bus station gives way to grassabutting an embattled woodland adjoining the Metra tracks. Then, with great sobriety, he hurls the disc into this woods.

Beep beep beepFor fuck’s sake!, I mutter, shaking my head conspicuously. He was standing next to a trash can to begin with!How inconsiderate can a person be?

Beep beep beep… The book is hopeless, and I’m not about to morph into Captain Planet and fight with a stranger over a singular piece of litter on a planet likely polluted beyond redemption. Instead I produce a Clif Bar, one of those candy bars for people who think they’re above candy bars. I struggle to keep chocolate off my hands and face as I devour this healthy snack in the midday heat, noting with satisfaction a seal of approval from the Rainforest Alliance on the product’s wrapper. I then promptly deposit the wrapper in a prominent garbage can, two feet from the spot where the man originally crushed the can, and to which he has now returned. I pace back to my precarious refuge from the sun, stare down the block, and note, with a heavy sigh, the absence of an oncoming bus.

“Hey…” the man asks me tentatively,“…is there a trash can there?”

I stare blankly. Having recently relocated from New York City, it has been hard adjusting to social customs of the Midwest, where apparently not everybody who engages you on the street is looking to rip you off or start a fight.

“Oh my god,” he continues, staring intently at the can “there is a trash can there!”

“Yeah, man…” is all I can muster. Is he fucking with me?

“I can’t see!” he exclaims. “Well… I can kind of see it now, that you pointed it out.”

I look into his eyes for the first time. He’s blind! The exact fucking person the beeping is meant for, calling through the darkness like a beacon in an otherwise endless sea.

“Man,” he chuckles.” I do that every day! I never knew there was a trash can there. I like my energy drink before I get on the bus. I used to carry the can with me all the way downtown to throw it away, but I didn’t want to spill it on anyone.”

I notice at once he’s not walking with a cane. How does he get around? I mumble something sufficiently convivial, as the bus approaches at last. I hear it one last time as the doors shut behind me: Beep beep beep

As the driver glides the massive two-part articulated bus gracefully through the tight concrete confines undergirding the Metra tracks and onto Lake Shore Drive, opening the emerald vista of Lake Michigan vanishing into a hazy horizon, my mind wanders to the major story that has consumed the energy of many intelligent people in my social world on this beautiful summer day. Several short videoscherry-picked from a weekend-long conference of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)have become the latest “viral” sensation, on which everybody feels the need to comment. The children of cable news have all become talking heads, fashioning their daily rations of news into spicy hot takes.

In one of these clips, a conference organizer alerts attendees to disabilities among their comrades of which the listener may be unaware – in other words, they are invisible – urging considerate treatment of those who suffer them, and listing the amenities available for people who have a difficult time navigating the environments of a loud and messy national political conference. In another, an angry speaker takes issue with the use of the word “guys” as a generic term used to mean “people,” which in addition to reproducing the stubborn linguistic tendency in English to generalize masculine nouns, can be particularly hurtful to people who struggle in their social and professional lives to not be identified as men. As my friend Rebecca Hill put it: “On the scale of annoying things at meetings, this isn’t that big a deal.” How desperate must the haters be, she added “if this is the worst thing they could dig up for a ‘gotcha’?”

It wasn’t a big deal. But it became one. These short videos were abstracted from an entire weekend of debate and served up with no explanation save for “meanwhile, at the DSA.” By all accounts, over the duration of this conference,the largest and certainly most viable leftist organization in the United States struggled with fundamental questions implied by a deepening social crisis that calls for decisive action, and for which no rival left organization seems to have a better plan. With no mention of the broader conference, theseisolated clips were shared and viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The clips originated, it seems with other leftists eager to mock the organization, but quickly gained traction within the right-wing media, where the moral panic about “political correctness” run amok has simmered for decades, stoked with great alacrity by white male professors of a certain age who blame feminism for their students refusing to sleep with themand “identity politics” for being asked to not use chauvinistic language, or losing out on a job to someone who isn’t a white man.

Once in the hands of the right, these clips were used, as always, to deride and discredit all who seek to build a society according to the principles: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.By this point, the right’s work was largely done for it: the putative leftists sharing these videos had heaped derision in nearly identical terms as the Fox News article the story eventually earned. Leftist enemies of “identity politics” worked organically with reactionaries and outright fascists to reduce the entirety of the discussion surrounding the DSA conference to the content these short clips, and reduce the project of human emancipation to a punchline.

As a denouement of this sad spectacle, the avowednational chauvinist Angela Nagel relished a softball interview on the television program of Tucker Carlson, an avowed enemy of the working class and perhaps the closest mainstream pundit to the white nationalist movement, where the two chuckled together about the idiocy of the socialist left. Nagle, who did not attend the conference, conceded entirely to Carlson defining the convention in the terms of these stray clips, and actually upped the ante by claiming “everycampaign on the left and every organization on the left” to be this way.Nagle then claimed that so-called “invisible disabilities,” meaning any disability the observer cannot immediately discern in a person, do not exist, but are simply “bourgeois narcissism,” a phrase Carlson foundparticularly funny. “I don’t think if I spent a year trying to think of a better description,” Carlson replied gleefully, “I could come up with anything more precise than that.”Nagle’s latest declaration of chauvinism, for which she still has apologists disgracing themselves, is not an isolated case, but only the most prominent case of a hearty cooperative effort by left and right wing reactionaries to mock egalitarian politics in the name of some imagined purity of “class” based organizing.

Let’s be real: Are there people here and there who weaponized fantastic claims to disability for personal gain? Yes, and sometimes that is itself a sign of serious mental health issues. Are middle-class children politicized by radical liberal theory in the comfort of classrooms often irritating, and in need of serious real world experience to temper their righteous – and thoroughly petty bourgeois – indignation? Surely. Will a massive political convention of any group lacking an authoritarian power structure attract idiosyncratic individuals and likely degenerate into a total mess? Of course! That’s partly why most of the people mocking these clips can’t put together five people to start a group of their own.But to use the most outlandish adherents of a political perspective to discredit its intent, and to misinterpret in bad faith the strivings of political organizers to build inclusive spaces, is the stuff of Fox News anti-leftist smear, not serious left analysis. In fact, it’s not much of an analysis at all.

Such smirkingridicule is the stock and trade of a new breed of “socialist” evangelists touting the politics of “class” as somehow distinct from questions of how the class is stratified, and the impact class society has on those it victimizes – whether along the lines of race, gender, dis/ability, or countless other differential experiences one must consider in order to formulate a politics worth of the name emancipatory. This project becomes particularly evil when the most common “left” response to people vocalizing the particularities of their struggles in our cruel and dehumanizing society is derisive laughter – laughter that joins the chorus of fascist derision of the project of human emancipation. 

The is nothing “leftist” about laughing in the face of somebody’s claim to harm by capitalist society. There is nothing egalitarian about claiming to know somebody’s experiences better than they do, and to dismiss them outright.Nor is arguing that the outlandish excesses of “identity politics” are a more serious issue than the problems to which these politics are meant to respond.This is the same old neoconservatism which the Nagle’s of yesteryear have been peddling for decades.The denial of the reality of diverse experiences, no matter how “invisible” they may seem to the superficial observer, is not only bad personal behavior, but a reproduction of the chauvinism that structures our class society, and keeps working people divided while Nagel’s reactionary friends like Tucker Carlson look on smirking.

Chauvinism – especially the sneering, haughty, and derisive form of it that today passes as a serious “class” perspective among a new breed of “socialist” thinkers serving up the old wine of class-reductionism in shiny new jars – has no place in a movement for human emancipation. Chauvinism begins with a willful blindness to the validity of experiences outside one’s immediate perception. It hardens when that blindness becomes a willful ignorance. And thus it becomes something truly evil.

Or, so I thought as my bus slammed to a stop at Jackson Avenue, and the man who crushed the can went tumbling onto a row of seated passengers, apologizing profusely.

“Questioning The Old Progressive Dogma:” An Interview With Jean-Claude Michea

Interview with an unclassifiable philosopher.

Translated from Le Nouvel Observateur,  September 22, 2011

Posted OCtober 10, 2020

Le Nouvel Observateur – How does the Orphée Complex, the title of your book, define for you the imaginary of the progressive left?

Jean-Claude Michéa – Just as a Pythagorean would have preferred to die rather than cross a field of beans, a leftist activist immediately feels a sacred terror at the thought that something could have gone better in the world before. Such an incorrect thought would lead him to question the old progressive dogma that there is a mysterious sense of history, driven by the inexorable development of new technologies, and which would mechanically lead humanity towards an ever more perfect world. – that it has the face of the “bright future” or that of “happy globalization”. Difficult then not to think of poor Orpheus who, to bring Eurydice from the Underworld, had had to commit to go forward forever without ever allowing himself the slightest glance back. But the comparison with the wandering Jew of Eugene Sue would have been equally appropriate.

How do Orwell’s “conservative anarchism” and his defense of a “common decency” of “ordinary people” remain for you?

Unlike Marx – for whom the socialist ideal was to rest solely on science – Orwell always thought that the critique of capitalism had its source in a moral feeling of indignation and injustice. He thus rediscovered the spirit of the founders of socialism, who first denounced in the liberal order a system structurally based on selfishness and the war of all against all. But the moral understanding that “there are things that are not done” (Orwell) presupposes very strict anthropological conditions. It implies, Mauss said, a system of face-to-face relations structured by the triple obligation of “giving, receiving and giving back” and which constitutes in this respect the “rock” (the term is Mauss) on which all community possible.

Admittedly, to be able to place the idea of common decency in the heart of the socialist project, it was necessary first of all to free it from all its historical limits (limits which held, moreover, less to the fact communitarian itself than to its various forms of hierarchical organization). Nevertheless, this critical universalization movement of common decency necessarily finds its anchor in these elementary structures of reciprocity, which have always founded the very possibility of a collective life.

But it is precisely these primary solidarities (the famous “primary groups” of Charles Cooley) that the unlimited development of the market and law (hence of the spirit of calculation and procedural spirit) now threatens to destroy irreversibly. Orwell was therefore quite right to emphasize the “conservative” moment of any revolutionary political project. The possibility of a true socialist society will largely depend on the ability of ordinary people to preserve the moral and cultural conditions of their own humanity.

Did the left abandon the first ambition of socialism, coined by Pierre Leroux in 1834?

I would say rather that it has become what it was before the Dreyfus affair. Until that time, the left – the name under which the different liberal and republican currents were grouped together – had always fought on two fronts. On the one hand, against the “clerical and monarchist peril” – incarnated by the “whites” of the conservative and reactionary right – on the other, against the “collectivist danger” – symbolized by the “reds” of the socialist camp firmly attached as for their part, to the political independence of the proletariat (that is why we will never find a single text of Marx where he would claim the left or, a fortiori, his union).

It was only in 1899 – faced with the imminence of a coup d’état of the Right of the Ancien Régime and its new “nationalist” allies – that the modern left would truly take birth, on the basis of a compromise – initially purely defensive – between the “blues” of the original left and the “reds” of the workers’ movement (despite the fierce opposition of the anarcho-syndicalists).

It is therefore this ambiguous historic compromise between liberals, republicans and socialists – a compromise sealed against the only “reaction” and which would give the left of the twentieth century its particular mystique – which was gradually called into question, at the beginning of in the 1980s, as the idea of any attempt to break with capitalism prevailed (that is, with a system that subjugates the lives of ordinary people to the goodwill of the privileged minorities who control capital and information) could only lead to totalitarianism and the Gulag.

It is above all in this new context that the official left has come to reconnect – under an anti-racist and citizen dressing – with its old modernist demons of the nineteenth century, when under the name of “party of the movement” it had already for  watchword “neither reaction nor revolution”.

And since the right of Ancien Régime has given way to that of the followers of the economic liberalism of Tocqueville and Bastiat (which, we forget all too often, both sat on the left), we can say that the opposition of the right and the left, as it functions today, is essentially no more than an updating of certain divisions which, at the end of the nineteenth century, already divided the old party of the movement (we would now say the party of growth and globalization). This gradual disappearance of the old white and red parties in favor of an internal electoral antagonism to the blue party alone explains many things.

How is capitalism, which you think is prosperous and limitless, historically suicidal?

Originally, liberalism was simply a doctrine of limitations that should be imposed on the control of the state, churches and tradition in order to protect individual freedom. In practice, this doctrine led to the defense of the model of an “axiologically neutral” (or secularized) society in which everyone could live as he pleased, provided he did not harm others (free trade only being the application of this general principle to the particular sphere of economic activities).

If this system has been able to work so consistently for a long time, it is however because it continued to rely implicitly on a certain number of values (of “cultural deposits”, said Castoriadis) which no one thought of questioning yet “evidence.” Almost everyone, for example, agreed that there were common sense criteria for distinguishing honest action from dishonest action, a madman from a sane man, a child of an adult or a man of a woman.

Now, from the moment when all existing forms of philosophical categorization begin to be perceived as mere arbitrary and discriminatory constructions (and cultural liberalism sooner or later leads to this postmodern conclusion), the liberal system necessarily becomes incapable of defining by itself. even its own limits. And just as an unlimited economic growth is condemned to gradually deplete the natural resources that make it possible, so the unlimited extension of the right of everyone to satisfy his least personal fads can lead ultimately to undermine all the symbolic foundations of life in common.

In the image of King Midas, who died of being able to transform everything into gold, it seems that the global elites of modern liberalism are now philosophically ready, in order to satisfy their greed, to destroy even the very conditions of their own survival.

Interview by Gilles Anquetil and François Armanet

Source: “Le Nouvel Observateur” of 22 September 2011.

A Case of Police Brutality in the White Rural South

By Curtis Price

Posted on September 30th, 2020

Below is an account of police brutality written on Facebook by “R,” a white female rural-dwelling acquaintance of mine from a small town in Northern Alabama. We had worked together in a chaotic environment in which one crisis bled into another and working conditions were so bad people would go on lunch break – and never come back.

“R” struck a picturesque figure, long raven-black hair, pale skin, bright red lipstick, and the finely chiseled, aquiline features of the rural Scots-Irish, looking like a cross between Vampirella and a more glamorous version of any hardscrabble Melissa Leo character struggling against the odds for a place in the sun.

In the middle of all the madness, “R” was the rock in the stream forcing the raging waters to part. She exuded natural leadership and many of the mostly black women we worked with turned to her for help and advice. These women, all single mothers raising children and often working two jobs to make ends meet, had to endure lives of endless crisis such as children that had to be taken to the ER in the middle of the night when their mothers needed sleep to work 16 hours the next day, meaning they were often up 24 hours straight, sometimes half-falling asleep while standing up.

“R” helped them survive the day; deeply religious, she told these women God was looking out for them and things would get better. Her religion was not a moral finger-pointing at others for their alleged sins but a spiritual discipline against resentment, in Christopher’ Lasch’s poignant words, and a springboard propelling a determined resilience. Whether Divine Intervention ever came is questionable but “R” at least gave others the strength to make it through another day.

Of course, much of today’s left, like terriers rooting out truffles, will sniff out “whiteness” in this story and, having made such profound analysis, retreat to their boutique-leftist, hipster ghettos of Brooklyn, Oakland, Portland, and Seattle, content that they understand the world. This story, frankly, is not for them, but for those who want principled unity instead of the endless identity-derived divisions of today’s posturing, radical-chic middle-class left.

I have lightly edited the story for conciseness and grammar.

“On 6/13/2020, my husband, SG, called the Madison County Sheriff’s Department to file a complaint against a man that was threatening us via text and Facebook Messenger. He was speaking to the officer on the phone via speaker and SG told him he wanted to file a harassing communications complaint. The officer asked him what he knew about harassing communications.  SG told him that he used to be an officer. The officer got some information from S and stated he was coming out to take the complaint.

It must have been about an hour or so and the next thing I know there are three officers at my door. They state they wanted to see SG. I told them he was no longer there. The officer told men he knew SG was there and needed to see him. The officer stated that they had a warrant for him but would not tell me what for. But he never produced any paper work. He just spoke very belligerently to me.

They then came into my house looking for SG as if he had done some heinous crime. My children were sitting on the couch. I was told to stay in the living room at that time. I told the officers my husband has a shattered shoulder blade as they were going into the bedroom.

Then the older officer told me to come into the hallway at which point he placed handcuffs on me. I heard my husband again tell them about his shoulder and then I heard him yelling out in pain.

I was then taken into the living room in front of my children handcuffed. My mother came out of her room and I asked her to take the kids to the garage because all three officers were making statements that never should have been spoken in front of my children. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I am a dedicated nurse and mother. Yes, I made the mistake of saying he wasn’t here, but they then started making comments in front of my children that should never have been said!

I was still asking what the warrant was for, with no answer. Two officers then went out the front door with my husband, leaving the door open. They were discussing something and I am standing in my living room handcuffed just crying and watching them. The main officer looked at me and said, “Don’t look at me, you need to deal with him” and nodded his head to the older officer.  The older officer asked me where I worked and wanted to know my supervisor’s name. I gave him the info and he told me he would be calling my boss to let her know what type of person is working for her.

I was then taken into my kitchen, still cuffed. The taller officer then told me we had a lot of guns, which really I don’t think I do but he then asked me about them and checked to make sure they were registered and not stolen. I asked again what my husband had done that was putting us in this position and they told me it was about a bad check in 1991 (or 1993 maybe). And then they say we told you. NO THEY DIDN’T!

I was completely flabbergasted. All this brutality and bad mouthing over something that was NOT a violent crime and well past the statute of limitations! The taller officer then proceeds to tell me it’s just stupid to want to do a harassing communication on someone over Facebook. I tried to explain that it was also a text and that this man knew where I lived and had actually been to my house. This man had not only threatened my husband but me and my kids. But the taller officer completely blew me off. It was his civic duty to make a report but not one of the three of them would do so!

The older officer uncuffed me and told me, “You’re welcome.” Later we found out they had the wrong man on top of it. Ludicrous! This was handled very badly! They spoke to us like we were the lowest scum the whole time they were here and half of it was in front of my children. Yet you all go around trying to make kids believe you are the “good guys.”

My brother is a cop in another state and I told him what happened. All he could say was “Remember, not all cops are like this.” And I’m sure there are some good cops in Madison County but they are really paying for the brutality of cops like this.

My husband was brought home because he wasn’t the right guy and told me the arresting officer told him he got upset because he doesn’t like being told how to do his job. Which is ridiculous! . . . There was a study done a few years ago on officers and domestic violence and how domestic violence with police officers is rising. I can imagine why, if you allow officers to go in and treat people the way they do based solely on the bruised ego of one officer.  . . . Maybe more people need to realize that police brutality is alive and well in Madison County and it’s not race related – it’s ego related! And something needs to be done about it.”


Now, how can we dissect “R”’s understanding of what happened to her at the hands of the cops? She doesn’t see the underlying structure of policing and its role in controlling working class people, instead passing it off as a few bad apples in the bunch. She lacks the conceptual tools or connections to a larger analysis that would position her experience in its wider context. Her response is like that of most working class whites (as well as large numbers of working class blacks too), a matter of personalities.

But working class blacks have the continuity of a historical context in which to place such experiences that working class whites don’t have, even though they face police brutality as vicious as blacks do, as black scholar John McWhorter has documented. (1) (An even better text, too important to be buried in a footnote, is the Institute for Family Studies article, “They’re Out to Get You:  Police Misconduct in White, Working-Class America,” A major difference, though, lies in the fact that even isolated rural areas, a local NAACP will serve, however imperfectly, as that repository of  memory and mechanism for making abuse public.

But rural working class whites fall short in such infrastructure. In these areas, there’s an absence of intermediate organizations, those “little platoons,” as conservatives so love to gush. It’s only the immediate family and church – and beyond that, nothing. In case of the single, religiously unaffiliated, there’s just nothing. Lots of it. I know of such men, shaggy, disheveled, who tramp through the woods daily to the liquor store and then stay cooped up in their apartments drinking, with only the TV to keep them company, men for whom fantasies of “fully automatic luxury communism” is nothing but  a sick joke.

This breakdown – or perhaps more accurately, since in some cases there weren’t dense social networks to decompose to begin with, social stasis – and the ensuing loneliness and isolation is more accurate a predictor of Trump support than racial attitudes. As Timothy Carney argues in his book, “Alienated America: While Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse,” “People enmeshed in strong communities rejected Trump in the early primaries while people alienated, abandoned, lacking social ties and community rushed to him immediately.” As an economist put it, describing the hollowed-out areas where Trump did best, “These are nothing economies. Other than the hospitals and local government, there’s not a whole lot going on.”

This is supported by Carney’s analysis of Iowa Trump-supporting counties such as Pottawattamic, showing that the larger numbers of “the unattached, unconnected, dispossessed” living in “civil society deserts” the more correlation with voting Trump in the primaries. Nor is this phenomenon confined to the United States. A recent survey of European social attitudes found a connection between social isolation and support for right-wing populist parties. One respondent, an “Eric” in Paris, said he joined the Rassemblement National (the former National Front, France’s far-right populist party) because he found more genuine community in the RN then he did in any of the other parties, including the left-wing ones. (2) It doesn’t take much imagination to see the same development here, in the communal fervor of Trump rallies. Or for that matter, in the streets of Portland.(3)

“R” is more fortunately placed because she’s mobile, works in a larger nearby city and is Internet savvy so she has access to news and information (if what’s on the Internet can properly be called that). She reposted, for instance, Dollie Parton’s meme in support of BLM. But many in her situation don’t go online so they try to make sense of their world with the tools at hand, which of course, reinforce the ways things are, the inertia of the everyday that weighs on lives and consciousness, stifling awareness of alternatives and maintaining the status quo.


1) John McWhorter, “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered.”



The Ideological Delirium of the Modern Left

By Jean-Claude Michea

July 18, 2020

“To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment.” A simple glance at the intellectual and media world of today is enough to verify Orwell’s judgment. “Politically correctness” represents nothing else, in fact, than a liberal update of this double think that previously allowed the left intelligentsia to justify all the crimes of Stalin. Or – specifies Orwell – a “system of schizophrenic thought,” closed to the ingenuity of language and common sense, and whose power denies the most obvious facts (“he lies like a eyewitness,” quipped the Soviets) is based on this maxim of “double standards, two measurements “(the double standard of morality) which legitimizes all witch hunts and the clean conscience that accompanies them.

However, for Orwell, this totalitarian perversion of original socialism had its main source in the intelligentsia of the new urban middle classes whose “secret vow” was, according to him, “to seize the whip in turn.”

It is therefore understandable that by sacrificing its old working-class base to the “cultural” interests of these new social classes alone (as witnessed, among other things, by the fact that the radical critique of capitalism faded everywhere in face of the fight against the “hetero –patriarchy, ” ” white privilege “or “carnivorism”, the modern left blew up the last safeguards which still kept its intelligentsia from traveling the crossroads to ideological delirium in the end. . .

(Unofficial translation from a contribution to an Orwell symposium in Marianne, July 12, 2020)