Thursday, May 08, 2008

Must Read

Just heard a fabulous Terri Gross interview (though she was her usual dopey self) with the author of the new book Slavery By Another Name. This book, by a WSJ writer, is another example of how one part of America continues to pretend what another part of America remembers as central--the ways in which Slavery and oppression never ended, they just shifted, after the Civil War. This is not unfamiliar territory to me and yet I was still stunned by what I was hearing in the interview. One of the most interesting facts I learned as that, technically, it was not illegal to enslave another person until new laws were passed close to the second world war. Debt slavery was illegal in some sense but those holding people forcibly could actually claim they had just "bought" the person and not "seized" them for debt. (I've been thinking about the history of debt slavery ever since the country has found itself mired in credit card debt and this seems an important historical footnote to our now disregarded usury laws).

From the synopsis:

Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of "free" black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.