Tuesday, March 17, 2015

From Slavery Then to Ferguson Now: How Anti-Black Racism Subsidizes White America

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. 


joe manning said...

One's first thought is legal remedy but its the very legal establishment that is maintaining the peonage system. There's culpability where there should be accountability when there's blatantly racist politicians in charge like majority whip Steve Scalise and Lindsey Graham (neoconfederate political adviser) www.dailykos.com/story/2015/03/12/1370495/-Lindsey The only recourse is street protests, more black lawyers, more scholarship, expanded voting rights.

chauncey devega said...

I don't know about using traditional strategies such as protest and voting to challenge the deep state and interests that are not responsive to the public. We do not live in a democracy--although folks foolishly believe that we do. Moreover, white Americans support a punitive and racist criminal justice system according to recent research on the topic. Quite a puzzle.

Glad to hear from you. Comments have been quiet these last few days, folks have been drinking too much because of St. Patty's day and/or tired of talking about Ferguson. You know me, I stay on an important topic as long as is necessary.

SW said...

The rampant issuance of warrants also prevents black citizens from accessing police help when needed. My barber is a young black guy, about 21. He was telling me how he saw his car being vandalized (windshield being smashed with a hammer), to which I asked did he call the police? He said no, because he has a warrant out for his arrest (that stemmed from a traffic violation). His reasoning for not calling the police was that the police may come and investigate the vandalism, but they would also arrest him for the outstanding warrant.

No police report creates a higher degree of difficulty in filing a successful insurance claim, which means his windshield will be delayed in getting fixed, which means he won't be driving to work any time soon, which of course means lost wages.

chauncey devega said...

That is the essence of custodial citizenship. Make everyone a criminal, create a sense of isolation, and then exploit them.

SW said...

Keep sharing Chauncey. Ferguson and its fallout is an important topic, and is only just beginning.

A quick thought on your last sentence:

"White America's historical relationship with Black America is profoundly parasitic."

I do agree. It's interesting though how such a large portion of white America will enable the parasitic relationship without actually benefiting in any material way, and most often times being hurt by the parasitic relationship.

I'm reading W.E.B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America. He points out in his chapter on The Planter, that only about 8,000 southerner whites owned about 4,000,000 slaves, leaving 5,000,000 southern whites as non-slave holders. These non-slave holders propped up the slave economy even though it meant poverty, as they could not compete with the output of the Planter class.

Similarly today, I was reading an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch about how entrenched the debt peonage system is across the St. Louis region, to which one white member of the community stated that there are just as many poor white people in Jefferson County (just outside St. Louis County) that pay egregious traffic fines, but do so without complaining.

Instead of attacking the overall injustice of the life-altering effect that court fees and traffic fines have on poor people, she'd rather note that poor black people are just complaining too much. Classic case of how those entrenched in whiteness will trade justice for the white wage.

chauncey devega said...

Can you send a link to that Post story. Talk about the psychic wages of whiteness.

SW said...

See below. In 2014 St. Louis County's municipal courts delivered $52MM to its municipalities.


Gable1111 said...

Ferguson, or the responses to the DOJ reports and thinking about what can be done is very frustrating. Even after what should have been an eye opening report detailing why black residents are still protesting and demanding change, media focus has been on the other report that "exonerate" Wilson, and is being interpreted as "hands up don't shoot" is a "lie." Never mind the facts DOJ validated about the thoroughly racist nature and approach of the police dept and court system and how black residents are being abused by these institutions in a debt peonage scheme.

joe manning said...

It is puzzling and tragic that the mass movements of the 60's were co-opted and turned reactionary. Hopefully, when the Republicans screw everything up they'll be some left wing populism.

balitwilight said...

The ultimate parasitic relationship between "white" America and "black" America is that the very identity of "white" person is raised on the foundation of an Untermenschen category of "black" person. They are two sides of the same false coin: both counterfeit.
"Black" only meant: "A label we impose on these Western Africans who (unlike wretched European bondsmen, have no recourse to Old World common-law) we may permanently enslave - and whose children we will enslave also even to the eighth generation."

In this grand parasitic design to grow fat on unpaid labor, "white" simply meant "I am not black!" - and thus is only visible when mounted like a rider on "blackness". And over generations, "black" further acquired all the negative traits the society needed to justify the unjustifiable; to present the crude bullies as the vulnerable and refined. Thus were born the "races".
And so the long "race" con-game, with all its "one-drop" and "octoroons" and (now) "multi-racials" worked for 450 years, and continues to do its lying work today. 2008: a "black" president is elected. Many wept. We've come so far!

joe manning said...

Throughout Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas he puzzles over the fact that poor whites tend to vote against their own interests. It seems that maintaining a system of mastery/subserviency trumps monetary gain; as depicted in 100 Years a Slave, the slaver was more committed to lording it over his slaves than having them work. This perversion filters down to working class whites arguably resulting in a vicious circle of self hatred that is inconsistent with a healthy ego ideal and super ego. Hence the high degree of free floating anxiety and anger on the right.

SW said...

Why is the perversion so effective? Is it because of deeply entrenched ignorance? Some are unaware of or can't conceive of a society structured in any other way?

balitwilight said...

This is only tangentially related... But it needs to be heard to believe the bile, the racist - "Patrick Moynihan/Bill Cosby" diseased-black-culture-single-parents-gangsta-rap-is-the-problem - filth, that was spewed on NPR's airwaves today by Harvard Professor Orlando Patterson. The NPR host eagerly lapped it all up, playing the wide-eyed naif who had "never" (oh yes, such analysis is rare to hear in America!) heard such "frank words" spoken about the real Negro Problem.

joe manning said...

Its a sling for a fractured ego. Better to be on the bottom rung than on no rung at all, which is where they see blacks. Its part of social control to keep them afraid, insecure, and desperate. I think the middle class is pretty much in the same boat but they're allowed a slightly higher status which they jealously guard.

Wild Cat said...

I didn't listen to it, but the only comment up is by an obvious follower of 'The Bell Curve,' who is entranced by it.

The Sanity Inspector said...

That's what's ironic: Officer Wilson was cleared, but the whole rest of the PD was called out. You would have thought that a flashpoint like this would have occurred in New York, Cleveland, Charlotte, or another of those recent incidents in which the police were more unambiguously at fault.

Maybe part of one solution would be to consolidate those little suburban township police departments into the county PD, so there won't be quite so much incentive to monetize the poor.

SW said...

I believe this will happen. Ferguson, for example, was already operating with a deficit. All of these fines were the second largest revenue driver for the city. You would think the gig is up, resulting in cuts to a significant revenue source that was used to pay over 60 police officers. It no longer seems financially feasible to maintain the police dept.

The other little municipalities around St. Louis County are smaller than Ferguson, and try to use the same oppressive money machine to reel in the revenue. Those police departments, and even city governments will not survive the inevitable cuts in revenue.

Nick said...

Thanks for posting this, even though it royally pissed me off. What a smug fucking piece of shit - and it doesn't surprise me one bit that the fucking "objective," white guppy "journalists" at NPR "lapped it up." The desire to "get all sides" of the story - even when one side is abysmally inaccurate and giving voice to it as actually damaging to society - has absolutely corrupted the truth-telling mission of journalism and destroyed its usefulness in this country.

Learning IS Eternal said...

"White America's historical relationship with Black America is profoundly parasitic."

So... Are we the Remoras or The Shark?

balitwilight said...

There are two opposing nouns in your quoted proposition, and two opposing nouns in your question. You have posed a perfectly ambiguous question :-)

Dan Kasteray said...

That's the answer then, throw the bums off welfare. Rob white America and the one percebr of this extortion system. Bomb the prisons and spike Darren Wilson's head on a fence along with all his friends.

Anyways, uplifting the black community and the rest of the oppressed would be a far greater engine of economic growth than all the slave prisons. But that would give to society and not to the people on the top.

Dan Kasteray said...

Living privileged only weakens you, morally, physically and spiritually.

Racists are like trolls, ignoring them only empowers them

Dan Kasteray said...

Don't knock voting and protesting. They're not the be all end all of this sort of action; but if they were useless or harmless then they wouldn't invest so much time and effort blocking your vote and pepper spraying unarmed protesters while simultaneously framing them as cop killers

Courtney H. said...

This is OT, but it is an interesting article: