White America's historical relationship with Black America is profoundly parasitic
The Department of Justice report on institutional and day-to-day white supremacy by the Ferguson police and Courts against the black community was long and detailed. It contained many ugly gems of information, many of which have not been widely discussed.
For example, writing at the Huffington Post, Nate Robertson offered the following intervention:
In the city of Ferguson, nearly everyone is a wanted criminal.
That may seem like hyperbole, but it is a literal fact. In Ferguson -- a city with a population of 21,000 -- 16,000 people have outstanding arrest warrants, meaning that they are currently actively wanted by the police. In other words, if you were to take four people at random, the Ferguson police would consider three of them fugitives...
The Department of Justice's 102-page report is a rich source of damning facts about the Ferguson criminal justice system. But tucked halfway in and passed over quickly is a truly revelatory set of figures: the arrest warrant data for the Ferguson Municipal Court.
It turns out that nearly everyone in the city is wanted for something. Even internal police department communications found the number of arrest warrants to be "staggering".
By December of 2014, "over 16,000 people had outstanding arrest warrants that had been issued by the court." The report makes clear that this refers to individual people, rather than cases (i.e. people with many cases are not being counted multiple times). However, if we do look at the number of cases, the portrait is even starker. In 2013, 32,975 offenses had associated warrants, so that there were 1.5 offenses for every city resident.
That means that the city of Ferguson quite literally has more crimes than people.
To give some context as to how truly extreme this is, a comparison may be useful. In 2014, the Boston Municipal Court System, for a city of 645,000 people, issued about 2,300 criminal warrants. The Ferguson Municipal Court issued 9,000, for a population 1/30th the size of Boston's.
This complete penetration of policing into everyday life establishes a world of unceasing terror and violence. When everyone is a criminal by default, police are handed an extraordinary amount of discretionary power.The Nation details how the events in Ferguson are nationwide in scope:
“Once the system is primed for maximizing revenue—starting with fines and fine enforcement—the city relies on the police force to serve, essentially, as a collection agency for the municipal court rather than a law enforcement entity,” said Holder, later adding, “Our investigation showed that Ferguson police officers routinely violate the Fourth Amendment in stopping people without reasonable suspicion, arresting them without probable cause, and using unreasonable force against them.”
Holder’s conclusion, coming after an in-depth, six-month investigation in Ferguson, could have easily described many cities and local jurisdictions across the country.
As Nusrat Choudhury said in an ACLU statement back in January, “the vicious cycle of linking racial profiling and debtors prisons,” occurs nationally and “in the process, poor people—disproportionately people of color—and their families suffer from the collateral impacts of jailing on employment, and housing.”
In Louisiana and Washington State, for instance, those convicted of a crime are ordered to pay court and processing fees that can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars. In Washington State, the minimum fees for a felony conviction add up to $800, and in 2004 they averaged nearly $1,400. Poor defendants often wind up indebted and put onto a payment plan where interest accrues. The inability to pay can easily land them back in prison.These processes in Ferguson and elsewhere are Orwellian: the State's power is expansive and there are few if any ways for individuals to avoid its enforcers.
The moral hazard of police who are financially enriched from arresting people and through programs such as "asset forfeiture" adds another damning asterisk to the Department of Justice's findings about legal robbery in Ferguson and other other communities.
The history of race and the colorline in the United States and the West can be framed in many ways. There is a narrative of "progress" from slavery to civil rights, wherein the United States has inexorably marched forward and expanded freedom to include all people. The colorline can also be discussed in terms of discontinuity. We move forward and sometimes backwards towards some inexorable--and often hard to identify--future goal and end point.
America's history along the colorline should be accurately described as a hybrid system: there is clear (and most positive) change in the realm of superficial social relations, and substantive progress in terms of de jure white supremacy, but a deep vessel and reservoir of white racism exists as an almost fixed attribute of a society that is structured around maintaining and protecting white privilege and white power for the ingroup.
Here, history lives through the present; the present is in many ways the past made real in the now.
The racist debt peonage scheme in Ferguson is part of a continuity of racism in the United States that can trace its origins to the convict leasing and workhouse prison system of Jim and Jane Crow era America.
Douglas Blackmon explores the horrific abuses of individual life, liberty, and freedom of black people across the South in his essential work Slavery by Another Name.
Blackmon begins his book with this damning story of injustice along the colorline and a ruined life:
On March 30, 1908, Green Cottenham was arrested by the sheriff of Shelby County, Alabama, and charged with “vagrancy.”1 Cottenham had committed no true crime. Vagrancy, the offense of a person not being able to prove at a given moment that he or she is employed, was a new and flimsy concoction dredged up from legal obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century by the state legislatures of Alabama and other southern states. It was capriciously enforced by local sheriffs and constables, adjudicated by mayors and notaries public, recorded haphazardly or not at all in court records, and, most tellingly in a time of massive unemployment among all southern men, was reserved almost exclusively for black men. Cottenham’s offense was blackness.
After three days behind bars, twenty-two-year-old Cottenham was found guilty in a swift appearance before the county judge and immediately sentenced to a thirty-day term of hard labor. Unable to pay the array of fees assessed on every prisoner—fees to the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses—Cottenham’s sentence was extended to nearly a year of hard labor.
The next day, Cottenham, the youngest of nine children born to former slaves in an adjoining county, was sold. Under a standing arrangement between the county and a vast subsidiary of the industrial titan of the North—U.S. Steel Corporation—the sheriff turned the young man over to the company for the duration of his sentence. In return, the subsidiary, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company, gave the county $12 a month to pay off Cottenham’s fine and fees. What the company’s managers did with Cottenham, and thousands of other black men they purchased from sheriffs across Alabama, was entirely up to them.
This section of Slavery by Another reads as though it was a part of the Department of Justice's report on Ferguson:
As I began the research for this book, I discovered that while historians concurred that the South’s practice of leasing convicts was an abhorrent abuse of African Americans, it was also viewed by many as an aside in the larger sweep of events in the racial evolution of the South. The brutality of the punishments received by African Americans was unjust, but not shocking in light of the waves of petty crime ostensibly committed by freed slaves and their descendants.
According to many conventional histories, slaves were unable to handle the emotional complexities of freedom and had been conditioned by generations of bondage to become thieves. This thinking held that the system of leasing prisoners contributed to the intimidation of blacks in the era but was not central to it. Sympathy for the victims, however brutally they had been abused, was tempered because, after all, they were criminals. Moreover, most historians concluded that the details of what really happened couldn’t be determined. Official accounts couldn’t be rigorously challenged, because so few of the original records of the arrests and contracts under which black men were imprisoned and sold had survived.
Yet as I moved from one county courthouse to the next in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, I concluded that such assumptions were fundamentally flawed. That was a version of history reliant on a narrow range of official summaries and gubernatorial archives created and archived by the most dubious sources—southern whites who engineered and most directly profited from the system. It overlooked many of the most significant dimensions of the new forced labor, including the centrality of its role in the web of restrictions put in place to suppress black citizenship, its concomitant relationship to debt peonage and the worst forms of sharecropping, and an exponentially larger number of African Americans compelled into servitude through the most informal—and tainted—local courts.
The laws passed to intimidate black men away from political participation were enforced by sending dissidents into slave mines or forced labor camps. The judges and sheriffs who sold convicts to giant corporate prison mines also leased even larger numbers of African Americans to local farmers, and allowed their neighbors and political supporters to acquire still more black laborers directly from their courtrooms. And because most scholarly studies dissected these events into separate narratives limited to each southern state, they minimized the collective effect of the decisions by hundreds of state and local county governments during at least a part of this period to sell blacks to commercial interests.Ta-Nehisi Coates expertly described the Ferguson police and courts as engaging in the systematic "plunder" of the black community. Plunder is an accurate term. I would modify it by suggesting on the macro-historical level that Black America has been giving White America a de facto subsidy and transfer payment for centuries (and never forgetting how white on black chattel slavery was the driving engine behind America's rise to global power).
What has been described as a type of "black tax" is in many ways the foundation for White America's wealth.
The "black tax" is present in many forms.
Discrimination in the labor market deems that white folks have had centuries of unearned opportunities (and continue to in the present) to accrue wages and wealth as compared to black Americans.
Suburbanization and white flight from America's central cities created an imbalance where those who lived in those racially exclusive communities could "free ride" from the hospitals, cultural centers, transportation hubs, schools, and other resources of "chocolate" cities while not contributing to the tax base.
Sundown Towns, anti-black and brown racial pogroms, redlining, and government programs such as the VA and FHA housing programs, were direct payments (and in the case of racial pogroms outright terrorism and violent theft) that built White America's inter-generational wealth while denying it to black Americans.
The black tax is operative here as well: African-Americans pay taxes for and subsidize the American State while historically and in the present being denied its full financial and material benefits.
Ultimately, the Ferguson debt peonage scheme, and its counterparts across the United States, when mated with the prison industrial complex and a profoundly racist criminal justice system, denies African-Americans the ability to fully participate in the public sphere as citizens with the ability to substantively and effectively advance their justice claims through voting. Thus, custodial citizenship is made the norm for millions of black Americans and their communities.
Black America has lined the coffers of White America with wealth and lucre. Ironically, it is black folks who have historically been looked upon by the White Gaze as a dependent class, the prototypical "takers" and not "makers" in America's political discourse.
The Department of Justice's Ferguson report and the reams of evidence about the economics of race and the colorline as gathered by historians, political scientists, economists, and journalists, highlights exactly the opposite fact: White America's historical relationship with Black America is profoundly parasitic.