Saturday, July 25, 2015

Value of Black Lives

This is a delicate subject and one I'm reluctant to broach. But if there is one thing that white Americans have been doing since the beginning of the nation it is putting a price on African-American lives.

Slave Market
Before he was a Confederate war hero and leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest made a lucrative living buying and selling slaves.
 In 1850, the average slave sold for $800. A strong, young field-hand cost more, over $1,000. An elderly house slave cost less. Accounting for inflation, owning one black life cost $25,000 in 2015 dollars. The 500 slaves N. B. Forrest was shopping for were worth over $12 million. In 1860, 20% of the white people in the South owned slaves. The four million humans held as slaves at the start of the Civil War were worth $100 billion, almost half the net wealth of the South.

North Carolina sharecroppers circa 1935.
After the Civil War, Southern plantation owners established a feudal economy called sharecropping.  Black families would work the white owner's land giving up to two-thirds of their crop to the owner in payment. Additional charges, equipment rental and overpriced supplies, would insure that the sharecropper would be deeper in debt every year. Debt tied people to the plantations a strongly as the slavers chains had. The noose of the Klan replaced the lash of the overseer to enforce subservience. In the early 1940's a sharecropper family would earn about 65 cents a day (less than $9 in today's money).

Prison Labor
Black child prisoner chain gang, 1903
In 1871, the Virginia State Supreme Court declared that prisoners were "slaves of the state." Forty percent of the US prison population is African-American, nearly one million blacks. In the Deep South (Louisiana through South Carolina) there are four black prisoners for every white one. All prisoners, by law, are required to work (unless you are a psychotic killer who, oddly, they don't want working as telemarketers) and the work is cheap.

UNICOR, the Federal Prison Industry, pays prisoners 23 cents a hour. A forty hour week will earn the prisoner the same as a 1940's sharecropper got in just one day.  But that's generous compared to elsewhere. In Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia prisoners are used as slaves and paid nothing for their labor and will be punished if they refuse to work.

Then there are the many private corporations that contract with states for exceptionally cheap prison labor. Companies from British Petroleum to Victoria's Secret use American prisoner workers to maximize profits. Chances are the telemarketer bothering you during dinner is calling from an American prison.

My inelegant point is that America has always seen black lives as a commodity. Antebellum they were property to be bought and sold but always black lives have been seen valuable only as beasts of burden. When possible, and with our current judicial system that is all to often possible, black lives can still be used as near slaves to increase their master's wealth.

Police shoot blacks for the same reason the Klan lynched them and overseers whipped them. As an object lesson to a class of workers lest they rebel.

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