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

By Christian Parenti

Posted June 2, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But where do these racial disparities actually take place?

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

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

The South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yankeedom 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racialization of Poverty North and South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political Economy of North and South

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making of the Yankee Ghetto

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

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

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

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

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

The Modern Low-Wage South

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

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

Conclusion

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myths of Reconstruction: The Freedmen’s Bureau Medical Division

By Curtis Price

May 9, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Notes

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

2) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

3) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 162.

4) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

5) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 38.

6) Ibid.

7) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 21.

8) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 68.

9) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 61.

10) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 27.

11) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 73.

12) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 144.

13) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 83.

14) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 93.

15) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 99.

16) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 103.

17) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 109.

18) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 6.

19) Downs, Sick From Freedom, 130.

Further Reading

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

“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,” https://ifstudies.org/blog/theyre-out-to-get-you-police-misconduct-in-white-working-class-america?fbclid=IwAR1oz0wef5jN8N39XHpht3a8N6CbzvCE25mCkeXaA-lg2FA-6BeArw24hWs) 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.

Notes

1) John McWhorter, “Racist Police Violence Reconsidered.” https://quillette.com/2020/06/11/racist-police-violence-reconsidered/

2) https://www.ft.com/content/ffadb189-5661-40c3-b142-43f91cf38bdf

3) https://gen.medium.com/ive-been-a-democrat-for-20-years-here-s-what-i-experienced-at-trump-s-rally-in-new-hampshire-c69ddaaf6d07

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)