Black Subjugation in America


On a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City’s (Vietnam) War Remnants Museum—focusing on The ‘American War’—I was reminded how Americans have never, as a country, come to grips with our invasion and war on Vietnam, neither our war on its people or its very physical being. Yet, while we haven’t come to grips with our war on Vietnam, Americans as a whole have never come to grips with our own history, specifically how Europeans stole this land from Native Peoples, and then built this country on the blacks of African slaves, while institutionalizing white supremacy. Accordingly, issues of slavery, race, racism, etc., have been relegated to the margins of American experience, confined overwhelmingly to “The South.” And with anything so marginalized, it can be ignored—if not forgotten.

Three recent books, however, when combined, have challenged this marginalization; in fact, together, I argue that they call for the (re) placement of the issues of slavery, racism and white supremacy at the very center of American historiography and popular understanding. They also support African American calls for reparations. The late Theodore W. Allen’s two volume work, The Invention of the White Race­—published originally in 1997, but republished in 2012—takes a “round-about” route to the issue, powerful when completed but a long way to keep readers’ attentions. Allen’s first volume, “Racial Oppression and Social Control,” examines the way the Protestant British controlled Catholic Ireland after colonization, and focuses on the system of “Protestant Supremacy,” whereby the lowest, no-account Protestant was deemed superior to the most accomplished Catholic. In other words, Allen focused on how the English—mainly through importing Protestant Scots to rule—maintained control over Catholic Irish in Ireland. Interestingly, he wrote it to understand how social control was developed in the British colonies in North America, and most notably in Virginia.

However, it is Allen’s second volume that demands attention. Titled “The Origin of Racial Oppression in Anglo-America,” Allen—who spent 20 years working in the Colonial Virginia archives—argues that for the first 60 years of Virginia, there were no white people in the colony! He points out that people referred to each other by their national origin—as Englishmen, Dutchmen, (Protestant) Irishmen, Germans and later Scandinavians—and that references to “whites” did not occur until the 1680s. What was going on…?

Key to understanding this is to recognize that about three-quarters of all Europeans who entered Virginia in the first sixty years were indentured servants, people who had agreed to subordinate themselves to the control of anyone who would pay their passage to the colony for a set period of time (usually seven years). Oftentimes, this has been presented as similar to an apprenticeship, where one works for little in exchange for learning a trade, a bed and clothing, and receiving some tools and/or some land after the term is completed. Allen, however, argues that this indentured servitude was, in fact, much closer to actual slavery, albeit limited to a set period of time. The control was all-but-total. For example, miscreants were not just admonished or even jailed, but many were whipped. (Allen claims that the whipping of white people made it much easier for them to accept whipping of blacks later on.) Allen also points out that it was illegal for male and female “servants” to have sex; and if the woman got pregnant, her servitude was legally extended by two years!

Interestingly, however, Allen points out that most Africans entered the colony the same way; not as chattel slaves, but as indentured servants—only about 25 percent came as chattel slaves in the early years. Importantly, what this meant was that the conditions between white and black servants were very similar and relations were generally affable.When the colonial elites used servants to try to extend landholdings by stealing even more land from Native tribes for their precious tobacco—which sucked up nutrients from the land, requiring new acreage about every three years—African and European servants ultimately banded together in 1676-77 in what became known as the civil-war stage of Bacon’s Rebellion, and turned on the elites. They burned Jamestown to the ground, and seriously threatened the existence of the colonial government. Once the rebellion was suppressed and colonial order restored, the elites faced the problem of how to prevent such events from happening again. They consciously decided they had to prevent possible unity between poor whites and poor blacks from ever re-emerging.

Their solution solved their problem. They chose not to elevate poor whites over poor blacks, thus improving the situation for whites, but rather lowered blacks below the already poor whites. This they did by passing a series of laws that worsened the situation of most blacks and, most notably, changed black indentured servitude to black chattel slavery for life. They also allowed for the selling of individual slaves to different slave masters, attacking the very existence of black families. Free blacks were not ignored, either, as their rights were systematically taken away from them, and by 1735, they could no longer vote, a right they had enjoyed in Virginia for over 100 years.

At the same time, the elites began a massive propaganda campaign directed toward the poor whites, convincing them that they were in all ways superior to blacks, that whites were human while blacks were “animals” (i.e., sub-human), and that blacks deserved to be enslaved permanently. The changing laws and the propaganda—done often through church Sunday Schools, as this was the only education poor whites in the South received prior to Reconstruction—were joined by material incentives for poor whites serving in the slave patrols and especially for capturing runaway slaves. And, of course, there was the not-always-implicit threat that if the poor whites did not support the white-based, elite-dominated social order, that they could be enslaved as well. And ultimately, most poor whites accepted the (re) established social order, and incorporated their sense of white supremacy into the very essence of their beings, consciously or unconsciously passing this on to children and other family members, and insisting on its acceptance by later European immigrants.

Allen’s work shows the process by which the colonial elites made sure their rule would not again be contested: they lowered blacks into chattel slavery, and inculcated a belief of white supremacy among the poor whites. In effect, they incorporated poor whites into the white ruling elite over the blacks, albeit in a very subordinate position vis-à-vis the economic and political elites. It was this process, argues Allen, that enabled the existence and expansion of black chattel slavery. In other words, slavery and racism were not “normal,” based on biological differences, but were socially constructed by the elites to maintain social control over both whites and blacks. And with that social control (re) established, the stage was set for the development of a black slave-based, but capitalist, cotton industry that ultimately shaped the development of the modern world. Edward Baptist explicates what happened to black slaves, showing “how slavery changed and moved and grew over time”:

In the span of a single lifetime after the 1780s, the South grew from a narrow coastal strip of worn-out plantations to a sub-continental empire. Entrepreneurial enslavers moved more than 1 million enslaved people, by force, from the communities that survivors of the slave trade from Africa had built in the South and in the West to vast territories that were seized—also by force—from their Native American inhabitants. From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all of this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people. Their practices rapidly transformed the southern states into the dominant force in the global cotton market, and cotton was the world’s most widely traded commodity at the time, as it was the key raw material during the first century of the industrial revolution. The returns from cotton monopoly powered the modernization of the rest of the American economy, and by the time of the Civil War, the United States had become the second nation to undergo large-scale industrialization. In fact, slavery’s expansion shaped every crucial aspect of the economy and politics of the new nation—not only increasing its power and size, but also, eventually, dividing US politics, differentiating regional identities and interests, and helping to make civil war possible (p. xxi).

Where Baptist writes about forcing “African American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently,” he details the use of brute torture of individual slaves through the lash; a process so ubiquitous that Baptist refers to it throughout the book as “the whipping machine.”

It is this story—how slavery was absolutely central to the development of the United States—based on accounts from the slaves themselves, that Bishop tells so powerfully. Key to this was seeing the development of slavery as a process—“Things happened because of what had been done before them—and what people would do in response” (xxiii)—but that the center point at all times “was the experience of enslaved African Americans themselves” (xxiv). And as he points out, “by the 1840s the North had built a complex, industrialized economy on the backs of enslaved people and their highly profitable cotton labor” (xxvi). Through explicating the process of slavery’s expansion, Baptist illuminates the growth of the US economy. He argues that slavery was not a pre-capitalist formation, but a capitalist one that was based on the exploitation and oppression of African Americans and their ability to work. The profits made were plowed back into more land and slaves in the South, while in the North, they were invested in emerging industries.

What Baptist also makes clear is how slavery was not limited to the South, although most of its production was based there. The fact is that, through torture, slaves produced more cotton than could be consumed in the United States—“Many enslaved cotton pickers in the late 1850s had peaked at well over 200 pounds a day” (470)—and thus, this had to be exported and sold to realize profits. That means that boats, trains and wagons had to be located and hired to transport cotton from individual plantations to the (international) ports on the coasts, space on ships had to be procured, insurance had to be paid, and “factors” engaged internationally to solicit buyers for the produced cotton. None of this happened “automatically.” And though he doesn’t belabor the point, these “service providers” were often located in the far southern cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia.

Yet even the production of cotton was not limited to just southerners. Investors—not only rich people from across the country, but international banks such as Baring Brothers of England as well as banks in the US North such as Brown Brothers—provided credit for the purchase of slaves, often mortgaging individual slaves; in other words, if a loan could not be repaid, the banks would gain title to the individual slave, which they could then sell for more profit. In all, a tremendously brutal, yet productive and profitable system of oppression and exploitation. Baptist explains:

In the hands of cotton entrepreneurs, slavery was a highly efficient way to produce economic growth, both for white southerners and for others outside the region. In the 1850s, southern production of cotton doubled from 2 million to 4 million bales, with no sign of either slowing down or of quenching the industrial West’s thirst for raw materials. The world’s consumption of raw cotton grew from 1.5 billion to 2.5 billion pounds, and at the end of the decade, the hands of US fields were still picking two-thirds of it, and almost all of that which went to Western Europe’s factories. By 1860, the eight wealthiest states in the United States, ranked by wealth per white person, were South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Connecticut, Alabama, Florida, and Texas—seven states created by cotton’s march west and south, plus one that, as the most industrialized state in the Union, profited disproportionately from the gearing of northern factory equipment to the southwestern whipping-machine (350).

Yet, while Baptist argues here and there that US cotton production was part of a global system of production, it remains for Sven Beckert to properly place it in the history of the global cotton industry. He does this by starting in the Global South, where the cotton industry emerged—notably in India—seeing it develop into global networks centered in the northwestern English city of Manchester—dependent though it was on cotton from the US South—and then ultimately returning to the Global South in the late 20th Century. What is especially interesting in Beckert’s account is his foregrounding the role of violence in the emergence of capitalism. Permit an extended quotation:

Such a thorough and rapid re-creation of the world was possible only because of the emergence of new ways of organizing production, trade and consumption. Slavery, the expropriation of indigenous peoples, imperial expansion, armed trade, and the assertion of sovereignty over people and land by entrepreneurs were at its core. I call this system war capitalism.

We usually think of capitalism, at least the globalized, mass-production type that we recognize today, as emerging around 1780 with the Industrial Revolution. But war capitalism, which began to develop in the sixteenth century, came long before machines and factories. War capitalism flourished not in the factory but in the field; it was not mechanized but land- and labor-intensive, resting on the violent expropriation of land and labor in Africa and the Americas. From these expropriations came great wealth and new knowledge, and these in turn strengthened European institutions and states—all crucial preconditions for Europe’s extraordinary economic development by the nineteenth century and beyond.

Many historians have called this the age of ‘merchant’ or ‘mercantile’ capitalism, but ‘war capitalism’ better expresses its rawness and violence as well as its intimate connection to European imperial expansion.

When we think of capitalism, we think of wage workers, yet this prior phase of capitalism was based not on free labor but on slavery. We associate industrial capitalism with contracts and markets, but early capitalism was based as often as not on violence and bodily coercion. Modern capitalism privileges property rights, but this earlier moment was characterized just as much by massive expropriations as by secure ownership. Latter-day capitalism rests upon the rule of law and powerful institutions backed by the state, but capitalism’s early phase, although ultimately requiring state power to create world-spanning empires, was frequently based on the unrestrained actions of private individuals—the domination of masters over slaves and of frontier capitalists over indigenous inhabitants. The cumulative result of this highly aggressive, outwardly oriented capitalism was that the Europeans came to dominate the centuries-old worlds of cotton, merge them into a single empire centered in Manchester, and invent the global economy we take for granted today.

War capitalism, then, was the foundation from which evolved the more familiar industrial capitalism … (xv-xvi).

And what makes Beckert’s account so powerful is the powerful combination of both historical depth and global sweep. He covers approximately 5,000 years of human history, from the cotton fields in Mexico to those in Egypt, India, China and the United States, all eventually linked together through the imagination and the cotton mills of Manchester’s capitalists, and distributed to markets around the world. He differentiated it from other crops, noting that it was based both in slavery and wage labor, and argues, “Cotton provides the key to understanding the modern world, the great inequalities that characterize it, the long history of globalization, and the ever-changing political economy of capitalism” (xvii). Echoing Baptist, Beckert emphases the centrality of violence to slavery and to the overall global network. Beckert writes,

This expansion of European trade networks into Asia, Africa and the Americas did not rest primarily on offering superior goods at good prices, but on the military subjugation of competitors and a coercive European mercantile presence in many parts of the world. Once Europeans became involved in production, they fastened their economic fortunes to slavery. These three moves—imperial expansion, expropriation, and slavery—became central to the forging of a new global economic order and eventually the emergence of capitalism (37).

Beckert asserts that slavery was central to the new system: “The deportation of many millions of Africans to the Americas intensified connections to India because it increased pressure to secure more cotton cloth. It was that trade that established a more significant European mercantile presence in Africa. And it was that trade that made it possible to give economic value to the vast territories captured in the Americas….” Ultimately, this qualitatively changed the world from what it had been previously.

War capitalism depended on the capacity of rich and powerful Europeans to divide the world into an ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The ‘inside’ encompassed the laws, institutions and customs of the mother country where state-enforced order ruled. The ‘outside’, by contrast, was characterized by imperial domination, the expropriations of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples, theft of their resources, enslavement and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states. In these imperial dependencies, the rules of the inside did not apply. There, masters trumped states, violence defied the law, and bold physical coercion by private actors remade markets (38).

In a chapter titled “Slavery Takes Command,” Beckert specifically discusses the role of cotton production in the United States to the global empire. He notes the unique situation that prevailed here: “What distinguishes the United States from virtually every other cotton-growing area in the world was planters’ command of nearly unlimited supplies of land, labor and capital, and their unparalleled political power” (104). He notes that the expansion of cotton production was based on the removal of native inhabitants of the land. And he ties things together: “The coercion and violence required to mobilize slave labor was matched only by the demands of an expansionist war against indigenous peoples” (108).

In parallel to Baptist, Beckert emphasizes the role of the large plantation in this production system: “Indeed, 85 percent of all cotton picked in the South in 1860 was grown on units larger than a hundred acres, and the planters who owned these farms owned 91.2 percent of all slaves.” He commented, laconically, “The larger the farm, the better the planter was able to take advantage of the economies of scale inherent in slave-based cotton production” (110). Again, the violence.

Cotton demanded quite literally a hunt for labor and perpetual struggle for its control. Slave traders, slave pens, slave auctions, and the attendant physical and psychological violence of holding millions in bondage were of central importance to the expansion of cotton production to the United States and of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain.

Better than anyone else, slaves understood the violent foundations of cotton’s success. [This is what Baptist detailed so well-KS.]

The expansion of cotton manufacturing in Great Britain depended on violence across the Atlantic.

Beckert discusses the political power of the slave owners, noting the lack of competing elites within the slave states. Of course, the inclusion of the “three-fifths” clause into the US Constitution by slaveholders and their politicians signified their political power nationally. The violence, the expropriation of the land, and the political power to both enable and protect these features had astounding economic consequences. By 1859, in the Mississippi Delta alone, “as many as sixty thousand Delta slaves produced a staggering 66 million pounds of cotton,” which was over ten times as much as that exported by slaves in Saint-Dominique to France at its highpoint in the early 1790s. The Delta was so fertile that Beckert claims it was basically the Saudi Arabia of the early nineteenth century. By 1840, in the Delta’s Washington County, there were more than ten slaves for every white inhabitant. By 1850, in the same county, “each and every white family in the country held on average more than eighty slaves.” He notes

The largest Delta planter, Stephen Duncan, owned 1,036 slaves and the value of his property by the late 1850s was estimated at $1.3 million. While not typical cotton farms, plantations in the Delta were highly capitalized businesses, indeed among the very largest in North America, and the investments necessary would have been beyond the reach of nearly every northern industrialist (113).

This combination of books establishes a reality that can no longer be ignored, avoided or rationalized away. The fact is that slavery was at the heart of the “American” economy prior to the Civil War; this slavery was based on extreme violence—physical and psychological—that was liberally employed; and it was protected (and expanded) by white southern elites who had dominated national political power. The slave-based economy was not confined to the South: it was integral to both the (US) national and global economy. It was a capitalist production system that spanned the globe, although its key workers (slaves in the plantation South before the Civil War) were definitely not free; nonetheless, the clear goal was profit maximization, and the accumulation of political power as a result to ensure the maintenance and expansion of the plantation system.

The slave-based economy generated the profits that allowed the US to industrialize, and also enabled these processes to happen much quicker and much more extensively than could have been done without slavery. The factories and industrial-related employment provided allowed the US to absorb the millions of people immigrating from especially Europe in the late 1800s-early 1900s. Without this capability, emigration from Europe would have been much more limited, and had they been forced to stay on a generally limited land-base; it seems certainly worthwhile to speculate if Russia would have been the only European country to have a successful revolution in the early twentieth century…? To say the industrialization of the US had far-reaching global implications seems terribly inadequate.

While both Baptist’s and Beckert’s work are both crucially important and straight-forward, the addition of Allen’s work adds a level of detail often overlooked. He incorporates “white” people into the discussion, and not just as proponents and perpetrators of slavery. He shows how most poor and working class whites acquiesced if not accepted the lifetime enslavement of African Americans (and some facilitated it), and by so doing, moved into the ruling elite, helping to control people of color, albeit at a terribly subordinate level to the white economic and political elites. By doing this, and by accepting the dominance of the white elites, these whites perpetuated their own subordination by rejecting alliances with people of color. Considering that general social advances for working and poor people in this country have happened only when whites and African Americans have allied—during Reconstruction, during the industrial union movement of the 1930s and ‘40s, and during the mass mobilizations of the 1960s-early ‘70s—one can quickly realize the impact of this collective white decision to accept black subjugation, on whites as well as blacks. And why the ruling elites have worked so hard to ensure these alliances rarely ensue, and when they do, to limit them as much as possible.

The Black Lives Matters movement is again putting inter-racial unity on this country’s public agenda for the betterment of most Americans.   It is telling white Americans that our liberation is incumbent upon black liberation. But with its “in-your-face” style, its message demands whites respond affirmatively, and with much more effort than verbally expressing “support.” It is not enough to condemn police killings of young African American men: yes, we have to do this, but we have to also address the use of white supremacy and racism in social control; we have to force our leaders to actively confront the poverty that is devastating both our inner cities and our rural country side; and we have to reject the lies and obfuscation that have been used to ignore or marginalize the role of slavery in the development of this country. We whites have to make people of color full citizens of this country, both in reality and in our hearts and minds. If we are going to address the economic inequality and resulting by-products that are literally tearing apart our country, only a full understanding of how white supremacy has worked against the large majority of us must be placed at the center of the table, and we cannot avert our eyes.

This article originally ran in Logos Journal.

Kim Scipes is a long-time political activist and trade unionist.  He teaches sociology at Purdue University Northwest in Westville, Indiana.  His latest book is an edited collection titled Building Global Labor Solidarity in a Time of Accelerating Globalization.  (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2016.)

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