It’s the Underlying Plot of the American Story
If there’s a plot line that runs through the American story from its earliest history to our own day it’s inhuman, homicidal racism. That issue, which has been solved or significantly improved in most of the world, remains a tragic ballast in the progress of the United States of America. It’s there that governments and citizens have been pussyfooting around murderous racial injustice for the past 400 years and the end is not in sight. Lynching, in one form or another, remains as American as apple pie.
The origin of European race-based slavery in the New World are not to be found on the American mainland, however. It occurred on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, site of today’s Haiti and El Salvador, and the perpetrators were Christopher Columbus (yes the same man celebrated so lavishly every year on October 12 in all but seven of the United States), his brothers and their followers. Their brutality and rapine set the benchmark from the outset for genocidal practices in the Americas. In just a few decades they eliminated 100% of the native Taino Indian population on the island, either through contagious diseases or plain murder.
A favorite mode was coursing the Indians with horses and hunting hounds, killing them and feeding their bodies to the dogs. Today not a drop of Taino blood remains in either Haiti nor El Salvador. How did the Spanish justify this enslavement, murder and mayhem in the West Indies? It was easy. Insofar as the red-skinned primitive people of the islands did not know God, did not fear him and were not even baptized, they were considered commodities, not human beings. Besides, they were needed as slaves to dig their coveted gold out of the ground for the Spaniards. (Source: A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas)
Black Slavery from Africa
The divine approval of this sort of barbarous practices arrived as early as 1455 when Pope Nicholas V issued the Romanus Pontifex, affirming Portugal’s exclusive rights along the West African coast to territories it claimed there and the trade from those areas, as well as the right to invade, plunder and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” (NY Times.com) The Holy Father’s timing was uncanny, as Columbus “discovered” America less than four decades later and Queen Isabella of Spain promptly authorized the enslavement of the native people of the West Indies.
The conditions imposed in the shipping of black slaves from Africa were unthinkable, which may be why white Americans have done their best not to think about them ever since. This trans-Atlantic slave trade represented a new form of race-based slavery. Endorsed by the Europeans, it resulted in the largest forced migration in history with some 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World like livestock until the early part of the 19th century. The conditions on the slave ships were severe and unhygienic in the extreme. The victims, who were chained to plank racks, suffered dehydration, dysentery and scurvywhich bred mortality rates as high as 30% among men, women and especially children. (Source: Wikipedia)
It is not an exaggeration to affirm that the product of black-slave labor laid the principal foundations for America’s prosperity up until the Civil War, and continued after Emancipation and Reconstruction in other, locally cooked-up guises. Seven of the eight wealthiest states in the union in 1860 were slave states. This is not to say the north didn’t benefit, as well. Southern-grown tobacco and cotton travelled north to be processed and sold, producing large profits for the Yankees.
Racial Progress or Business as Usual?
In 1808, the last year of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, the US banned the importation of slaves from Africa and the West Indies. This sounds like a noble gesture, but it was just business as usual. At the time the increase of the black slave population in America was due to what history books call “natural increase.” What they don’t tell you is that this increase was anything but natural. It was the mass production from slave-breeding farms scattered around the south. These highly lucrative businesses were akin to livestock breeding operations. In its heyday the port of Richmond alone shipped some 10-20,000 slaves a month into the southern slave market. Slaves delivered on ships arrived in better condition and drew better prices. This profitable local production of slaves motivated many of the proponents of the importation prohibition, including Thomas Jefferson, to back a move intended to eliminate foreign competition, thus shoring up slave prices.
Slavery was more than man’s inhumanity towards man. It was always about economics. Cheap labor that allowed America to compete with other nations. Much of America was literally built on slavery. Texas schoolbooks are now trying to make it sound not quite so bad. The breeding farms receive no mention at all.William Spivey on Medium, Mar 21, 2019, America’s Breeding Farms: What History Books Never Told You
Fast Forward Two Centuries
Let’s fast forward two centuries–skipping over a period that includes the Civil War and Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Black Codes, Separate but Equal, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Act, and the Obama presidency; all of which brought with them varying degrees of point and counterpoint and deserve treating in detail on other occasions. Today we have the privilege of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ monumental 19,000-word article, The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration, published in The Atlantic in October, 2015, which sums up the present-day outcome of those centuries of inequality and oppression.
In this definitive elaboration of America’s latest catalog of racial injustice, Coates’ cites sociologist, advisor to President Lydon Johnson and later US senator, Daniel Moynihan’s book, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” (known as the Moynihan Report and distributed inside the government without the author’s name), which argued in 1965 that the federal government was underestimating the damage done to black families by “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment” as well as a “racist virus in the American blood stream,” which would continue to plague blacks in his future, which is our present.
Moynihan’s proposed solution, that included provisions to rewrite the child protection laws to put fathers back into black homes (as having a man in the house exempted a family from government assistance) and to provide families with guaranteed minimum incomes, was too radical to be accepted by the legislators of mid-60s America–and today’s America, for that matter– but the report remains as a reminder of what might have been–and might still be possible someday.
Coates reminds us that America’s debt to African Americans remains unpaid:
That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have … But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.(Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Black Family In The Age Of Mass Incarceration)
Mass Incarceration Is the New Slavery
Not only does the US boast alarming incarceration statistics–the highest in the world–but the way in which they’re racially skewed is even more absurd. Here’s the incredible prison infrastructure that permits the United States to process almost 2.3 million alleged wrongdoers–“alleged” because nearly half of them have not been convicted of the charges they’re accused of: 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers and psychiatric facilities.
More than a third of people executed under the death penalty within the last 40 years have been Black, even though African Americans represent only 13% of the general population. African Americans are pursued, convicted, and sent to death at a disproportionally higher rate than any other race.
In early 2000, the percentage of Black people on death row were as follows for the states below:
- Maryland 72%
- Pennsylvania 63%
- Illinois 63%
- Alabama 46%
- Texas 41%
- Virginia 39%
- California 36%
- Florida 36%
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