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In light of the recent report that shows that during this current recession the already-wide racial wealth gap has grown even more wide, I thought it would be appropriate to post a series I wrote in 2007 when I was a contributing editor for the Black Agenda Report. Regrettably, the information is just as prescient now as it was then.

"An oppressed people without total recall of their history of exploitation cannot craft a new history of liberation." - Manning Marable

Even a cursory view of American history (current events as well) will yield numerous examples that attest to the injustices visited upon the daughters and sons of Africa. The present administration has, through its policies, shown indifference and contempt for its most vulnerable citizens (the poor and people of color).  

The Supreme Court seems poised to rollback the already-meager gains made a generation ago, thus making the already-precarious position of the vast majority of Blacks even more unstable. However, we should have seen this coming; we should have been better students of history. If we were, we would have known that whenever any ground is gained, or perceived to be gained, there is a societal resistance by the dominant culture. We would have also known that our "rights," historically and presently, have never been all that secure.

Whenever any ground is gained, or perceived to be gained, there is a societal resistance by the dominant culture.

In this writing I will be outlining and detailing America's history as it relates to white privilege and Black progress. The sections that address Jamestown, Reconstruction and Plessy vs. Ferguson are directly excerpted from my book When Racism Is Law & Prejudice is Policy. Particular attention should be paid to (what I call) the "triple p" paradigm. In the maintenance of injustice and inequality there are three interdependent dynamics that work in a seemingly never-ending circle.

Individual perception(s) generates public opinion which creates and supports governmental policies. The longer the inequitable policies stay in place, the more they create conditions which seem to justify the prejudicial perceptions (these perceptions, by and large, are created by another "p": propaganda).  For example:  the poor quality and lack of resources of inner-city public education=students lose interest in education and fail or drop out=Blacks don't value education.

Most people believe that one has to be bitter (or bordering on it) in order to contemplate and detail the history of injustices visited upon Black folk in this country. Let me assure you that I am not. However, I do intend to be uncompromising in my critique of the mechanisms, methods and institutions that perpetuate and fortify racism and white privilege. I further contend that a sustained and exhaustive effort has never been made to rectify the fetters of institutional and systemic racism and its impact on Blacks. Additionally, every effort in American history was met with widespread resistance or experienced, as a consequence, a significant backlash by the dominant culture.

A sustained and exhaustive effort has never been made to rectify the fetters of institutional and systemic racism and its impact on Blacks.  

Randall Robinson in his manifesto The Debt had this to say: "America has covered itself with a heavy wet material that soaks up annoying complaints like mine. It listens to nothing it does not want to hear and wraps its unread citizens, white and black, in the airless garment of circumambient denial; swathing it all in a lace of fine, sweet lies that further blur everyone's understanding of why black people are like they are."

I echo this sentiment as well. The cry of "we've given you this" or "we've given you that," does not track with American history and is an insult to the dignity and humanity of America's Black citizens. So as we have this moment in time (courtesy of the race for the White House) where agendas are being crafted and courses are being charted, let us take a critical look at what we as Black folks have been promised and what we have been denied.

In The Beginning

We sometimes imagine that such oppressive laws concerning slavery were put quickly into full force by greedy landowners. But that's not the way slavery was established in colonial America. It happened gradually - one person at a time, one law at a time, even one colony at a time (in 1619, a group of 20 Africans arrive on the shores of what is know called America and they were indentured servants).

One of the places we have the clearest views of this reality, is the colony of Virginia. In the early years of the colony, many Africans and poor whites - most of the laborers came from the English working class - stood on the same ground. Black and white women worked side-by-side in the fields. Black and white men who broke their servant contract were equally punished.

All were indentured servants. During their time as servants, they were fed and housed.

The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as ‘white' or use that word to describe themselves.  

Afterwards, they would be given what were known as "freedom dues," which usually included a piece of land and supplies, including a gun. Black-skinned or white-skinned, they became free.  Historically, the English only enslaved "non-Christians," and not, in particular, Africans. And the status of the slave (Europeans had African slaves prior to the colonization of the Americas) was not one that was life-long. A slave could become free by converting to Christianity. The first Virginia colonists did not even think of themselves as "white" or use that word to describe themselves. They saw themselves as Christians or Englishmen, or in terms of their social class. They were nobility, gentry, artisans, or servants.

In the early years of the English colonies, the landowning and elite English colonists in Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere relied on indentured servants; who contracted their services for a limited term of years-for their labor supply. In 1619 the first Africans arrived in Virginia aboard a Dutch ship. The Virginia colonists treated these Africans as indentured servants, and some eventually gained their freedom. Throughout the 1620's the legal system in Virginia seems not to have discriminated against blacks. For example, a record from 1624 notes that "John Phillip, A Negro" was allowed to testify in a lawsuit involving two whites (a right that would later be rescinded for blacks).

However, by 1640 the legal system had begun to single out Africans for distinctly different treatment. In that year a Virginia court sentenced a black indentured servant named John Punch to "serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere." No white indentured servant in Virginia ever received such a sentence. At about this time court records and wills indicate that other blacks were being treated as slaves. The legal system was not uniformly hostile to blacks in the 17th century. For example, as late as 1672 a Virginia court freed Edward Mozingo, ruling that he had been brought to the colony as an indentured servant, had served his full term of years, and was entitled to his freedom. A year later the court ruled in favor of a freedom claim by "Andrew Moore, A Servant Negro."

In 1659 and 1660 the Virginia legislature recognized the existence of slaves in the colony by providing an import tax for "foreigners [who] shall import Negro slaves." Two years later the legislature provided that if white servants ran away with slaves, the whites would have to serve extra time to make up for the time that the slaves were absent because the slaves could not have any more time added to their service. This law had the practical effect of separating white indentured servants (who still made up the majority of agricultural workers in the English colonies) from black slaves. White workers, who frequently ran away, could no longer afford to share their plans or their hopes of liberty with their black coworkers. This was the beginning of a conscious attempt by the leaders of Virginia and other colonies to drive a wedge between black and white workers.

Another compelling event in colonial America and the enslavement of Africans in America was Bacon's Rebellion. Bacon's Rebellion demonstrated beyond question the lack of a sufficient intermediate stratum to stand between the ruling plantation elite and the mass of the European-American and African-American laboring people, free and bond. It began in April 1676 as a difference between the elite and the sub-elite planters over "Indian policy," but by September it had become a civil war against the social order established by the plantation ruling class. When Bacon's forces besieged, captured, and burned the colonial capital city of Jamestown and sent Governor Berkeley, scurrying into exile across Chesapeake Bay, the rebel army was composed mainly of European-American and African-American bond-laborers and freedmen recently "out of their time."

Although Bacon's rebellion failed, it exposed the growing power of the colony's lower classes. The colony's elite devised a divide and conquer strategy which made the white lower classes the intermediate stratum and effectively regulated the African American to slavery. So we see that the African in America initially enjoyed a modicum of liberty only to have it snatched away by landowner greed and by using fear as a means of control (these forces, by the way, are still at work today).

The Uncivil War

The first notion of reparations for slavery came in the form of land. During the final months of the Civil War, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman marched victoriously through Georgia to the sea, nearly unopposed by Confederate forces. Thousands of freed slaves (called freedmen) accompanied Sherman's forces.

The former owners of the land, who were pardoned after the war, began to pressure President Andrew Johnson

General Sherman, with the approval of the War Department, issued Special Field Order No. 15 on January 16, 1865. The order stated that "the islands of Charleston south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering St. Johns River, Florida are reserved and set apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States." Furthermore, Sherman's order specified freedmen would be offered assistance "to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement."

The land was divided into 40-acre tracts and Sherman distributed land titles to the head of each family of freedmen. He also ordered animals that were no longer useful to the military (mules and horses) to be distributed to each of the households. This is the origin of the phrase forty acres and a mule, which was promised to each freedman's family. By the summer of 1865, 40,000 freedmen had received 400,000 acres of abandoned Confederate land.

The Freedman's Bureau was established by Congress in March 1865 and one of its many functions was to supervise and manage all abandoned and confiscated land in the south and continue to assign tracts of land to former slaves. But the former owners of the land, who were pardoned after the war, began to pressure President Andrew Johnson. They wanted their land returned to them and were afraid that black landowners and farmers would start to accumulate wealth and power in the South.

On February 5, 1866, Congress defeated that portion of the Freedmen's Bureau Act that gave it the authority to assign land to former slaves. Then President Johnson ordered all land titles rescinded. The freedmen were forced off the land, and it was returned to the former white plantation owners.

Over the next few years, many plans were presented to Congress and the President in an effort to secure land for freedmen. One proposal suggested transporting former slaves out west where there was plenty of free land. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 acres of land to each person or family, provided they stayed and worked the land for at least five years (a sort of affirmative action program for white settlers).

President Johnson vetoed every proposal that provided land to former slaves. Under the Southern Homestead Act, freedmen could purchase land at low prices, but few had any money after years of unpaid labor on the plantations.

By keeping Blacks ‘landless,' it also kept them powerless  

Compare this systemic and governmental denial of the economic and material means that would have helped to bring stability to the American Black with Lincoln's thoughts concerning compensation for slave owners. In a letter written by President Lincoln in 1862, addressed to Senator James A. McDougal, Lincoln makes a bold suggestion: the Civil War could be ended if slave owners were compensated monetarily. It has to be understood that at the heart of the creation of America and its capitalist system, was land ownership.  Land ownership and control was the foundation upon which the whole system rested (and still does). So by keeping Blacks "landless," it also kept them powerless and made them vulnerable to exploitation; regulating the vast majority of Blacks in a perpetual state of poverty.


Although the U.S. Congress was responsible for the passing of the: 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments; The Freedman Bureau Acts (1865-66), Civil Rights Act (1866), Reconstruction Act (1867), Enforcement Act (1870), Civil Rights Act (1875), it would buckle under the pressure of the social, economic and political realities of the 1870's.

As the Supreme Court rejected Reconstruction policies in the 1870's, Northern voters grew indifferent to events in the South. Tired of the "Negro question" many Northern voters shifted their attention to such national concerns as the Panic of 1873 and the corruption of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration. In addition, a desire for reconciliation between the regions spread through the North. Although political violence continued in the South and African Americans were denied civil and political rights, anti-Reconstruction sentiment steadily increased in the North. In time, Republicans began to slowly retreat from the policies of Reconstruction.

Anti-Reconstruction sentiment steadily increased in the North  

Between 1869 and 1875, Democrats recaptured the state governments of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The Southern Democrats called their return to power "Redemption." However, the virtual abandonment by Congress of Reconstruction policies and the cause of equality for African Americans occurred in 1876.

Both major political parties were influenced by the Grant era corruption and sought to nominate candidates who could win the public trust.

The Democrats turned to Samuel J. Tilden, who had established an enviable record as the reform-minded governor of New York. Tilden was on record as favoring the removal of the remaining federal occupation soldiers from the South, a position regarded favorably by his supporters in that region.

The Republicans passed over the front-runner, James G. Blaine, because of his participation in some questionable dealings. The nomination was eventually given to the respected governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes. While the platform called for taking steps to assure black equality, Hayes was skeptical at best. Attacks were made on Tilden's questionable health and his ties to the railroads.

The election results left the nation in suspense. All agreed that Tilden had won the majority of the popular vote, but there was little agreement on what the electoral results should be. In order to win, a candidate needed 185 electoral votes. Tilden controlled 184 votes and Hayes 165; 20 votes, however, were in dispute in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida where Reconstruction Republican governments were still in control. (A single elector was challenged in Oregon) - can anyone say Florida 2000?

Each of the states with disputed votes submitted two sets of electoral ballots, one favoring Tilden, the other Hayes. The Constitution had not foreseen this event and offered no remedy. Loose talk was heard in some quarters about the possibility of war breaking out. In the end, Congress opted to appoint an Electoral Commission to find a solution.

An informal agreement between the two parties, sometimes called the "Compromise of 1877," convinced the Democrats that they should accept the Commission's 8-7 vote, which made Hayes the new President.

In the months following the Election of 1876, but prior to the inauguration in March 1877, Republican and Democratic leaders secretly hammered out a compromise to resolve the election impasse and address other outstanding issues.

Under the terms of this agreement, the Democrats agreed to accept the Republican presidential electors (thus assuring that Rutherford B. Hayes would become the next President), provided the Republicans would agree to the following:

*To withdraw federal soldiers from their remaining positions in the South;

*To enact federal legislation that would spur industrialization in the South;

*To appoint Democrats to patronage positions in the South;

*To appoint a Democrat to the president's cabinet.

Once the parties had agreed to these terms, the Electoral Commission performed its duty. The Hayes' electors were selected and Hayes was named President two days before the inauguration.

To the four million former slaves in the South (and Blacks as a whole), the Compromise of 1877 was the "Great Betrayal." Republican efforts to assure civil rights for Blacks were totally abandoned. The white population of the country was anxious to get on with making money. No serious move to restore the rights of Black citizens would surface again until the 1950's.

Here we see how some whites, even those who are perceived as radical and progressive, can suffer from "social justice-burnout" or "civil rights-exhaustion." The fight for the rights of Blacks became too burdensome and thus the Republican Party of old, like Pontius Pilate, washed their hands of Black folk and consequently left us out to dry. It is also important to note that during Reconstruction approximately 20,000 Blacks were killed as a means of intimidation and retaliation.

Plessy, the 14th Amendment and Big Business

After the compromise of 1877, we were even more vulnerable than we were before.  In the 1860's and 1870's the duplicity towards Blacks was complete and total with the Presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court all showing either outright hostility to the interests and concerns of Black folk (i.e.  Andrew Johnson's policies in regard to newly freed slaves; the Supreme Court in decisions such as the Slaughterhouse cases of 1873, that decided that the Fourteenth Amendment protected only the rights people had by virtue of their citizenship in the United States, such as the right to federal protection when traveling on the high seas and abroad and in 1883. They also Court ruled that the Civil Rights act of 1875, forbidding discrimination in hotels, trains, and other public spaces, was unconstitutional and not authorized by the 13th or 14th Amendments of the Constitution) or indifference (i.e. the "negotiating" away of the rights and freedoms of Blacks by Congress in 1877).

The fourteenth amendment itself was both an opportunity and a quandary. Adopted in 1868, it seemed to guarantee equal rights for all.  

This all culminated in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1886. Plessy v. Ferguson came down to one question: How was the 14th amendment to be construed? The fourteenth amendment itself was both an opportunity and a quandary. Adopted in 1868, it seemed to guarantee equal rights for all: "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

The key phrase was "equal protection of the laws." Read broadly, it might mean that hereafter the Constitution would be color-blind: no state law could have the effect of treating whites and blacks differently. Thus a law segregating blacks and whites into separate schools or neighborhoods would be unconstitutional. Read narrowly, "equal protection" might mean only that blacks and whites had certain fundamental legal rights in common, such as the right to sign contracts, serve on juries, or buy and sell property, but otherwise be treated differently.

It has long been debated by historians which view Congress held when it proposed the Fourteenth Amendment. What forms of racial segregation, if any, were still permissible? Segregated trains? Hotels? Schools? Neighborhoods?

The Supreme Court took the narrow view (a side note: when GOP presidential candidates speak of "strict constructionists," this is what they are talking about). Though in 1880 it declared unconstitutional a West Virginia law requiring juries to be composed only of white males, it decided in 1883 that it was unconstitutional for Congress to prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations such as hotels. The difference between the two cases seemed, in the eyes of the Court, to be this: serving on a jury was an essential right of citizenship that the state could not deny to any person on racial grounds without violating the Fourteenth Amendment, but registering at a hotel was a convenience controlled by a private person (the hotel owner), who could treat blacks and whites differently if he or she wished.

In Plessy v. Ferguson the Court held that the Louisiana law treated both races equally even though it required them to be separate. The equal-protection clause guaranteed political, legal but not social equality. "Separate-but-equal" facilities were constitutional because (as stated in the decision of the court): "if one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane."

Ironically, while Blacks were being systematically deprived of their rights ("legally," no less), corporations were using the 14th amendment for their own gain and accumulation of wealth. Ten years prior to Plessy (in 1886) in the landmark case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, the Court, invoking the 14th Amendment, defined corporations as "persons" and ruled that California could not tax corporations differently than individuals. It followed that, as legal "persons," corporations had First Amendment rights as well. Using this definition of corporations as persons, the Court proceeded to strike down a whole range of state regulations.

While Blacks were being systematically deprived of their rights, corporations were using the 14th amendment for their own gain and accumulation of wealth

Justice Samuel Freeman Miller said in 1873 (in the aforementioned Slaughterhouse cases), "The one pervading purpose" [of the 14th Amendment] "was the freedom of the slave race, the security and firm establishment of that freedom, and the protection of the newly-made freeman and citizen from the oppression of those who had formerly exercised unlimited dominion over him."

This view was also voiced in Justice Hugo L. Black's dissent in Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. v. Johnson in 1938. "[W]hen the Fourteenth Amendment was submitted for approval, the people were not told that [they were ratifying] an amendment granting new and revolutionary rights to corporations," Justice Black wrote. "The history of the Amendment proves that the people were told that its purpose was to protect weak and helpless human beings and were not told that it was intended to remove corporations in any fashion from the control of state governments," he continued. "The Fourteenth Amendment followed the freedom of a race from slavery. Corporations have neither race nor color."  

Nevertheless, it didn't matter if the 14th Amendment was originally framed and passed with the intent of protecting newly-emancipated slaves.  Corporate lawyers and the Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to engage in an incestuous relationship that produced as its deformed offspring the corporation as a legally recognized person. Tragically, of the 309 cases involving the 14th Amendment from 1890 to 1910, 288 involved corporations; only 19 involved Blacks.


Allen, Theodore, The Invention of the White Race: The origin of racial oppression in Anglo-America; Verso Publishing; 1997

Bailyn, Bernard, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution; Cambridge, Massachusetts; 1967

Coombs, Norman
, The Black Experience in America; Project Gutenberg; 1990

Jackson, Luther Porter
, Free Negro Labor and Property Holding in Virginia, 1830–1860; Atheneum Publishing; 1969

Originally posted to Slavery in the United States - History on Mon Aug 08, 2011 at 12:15 PM PDT.

Also republished by White Privilege Working Group.

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