Archive for November, 2011
~ This is the last post of our three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry.
“The prison is like a rather disciplined barracks, a strict school, a dark workshop, but not qualitatively different” – Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (p. 233)
Prisons have long served to keep individuals labeled “deviant” in America under constant surveillance. It is no secret that those labeled “deviant” are those that society keeps at the bottom: racial minorities. Today, that “deviant” label has increasingly been applied to immigrants from Central and South America. Thus, we can see that these groups are especially vulnerable to the detainment and abuse by private prisons in the US today. How have private prisons capitalized on the criminalization of immigrants?
First, the passage and enforcement of anti-immigration laws (such as Operation Streamline [pdf]) have correlated with the expansion of private prisons. These results can especially be seen in the state of Texas. According to the Grassroots Leadership report, “Operation Streamline: Drowning Justice and Draining Dollars along the Rio Grande,” the number of immigrants sentenced to prison for crossing the Mexico/Texas border without authorization in two districts grew from 2,770 in 2002 to 44,517 in 2009.
“The expanded criminal and civil immigration detention system has been a huge financial boon to private prison corporations, such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut) and Management and Training Corporation (MTC)” according to the report. Texas is not alone in criminalizing and incarcerating immigrants, the state of Arizona (on the heels of its controversial SB1070 anti-immigrant legislation) announced in early 2011 a request for proposals for a 5000-bed private prison. It should come then as no surprise that CCA was a key architect and proponent of SB1070, as NPR and Racism Review reported on earlier this year. Private prison corporations stand to gain hundreds of millions of dollars from laws such as this.
A private prison serves as a third party contracted by government agencies to detain prisoners. Private prison corporations enter contractual agreements with governments that commit prisoners and pay private prison corporations a per diem or monthly rate for each prisoner confined in the facility. Private prison corporations profit from mass incarceration that targets racial and ethnic minorities, and increasingly, undocumented immigrants. In addition to being paid by the state to hold prisoners, private prisons profit from using those prisoners in turn as laborers.
While work is not a mandatory discipline within all private prisons, it is a discipline that is highly incentivized. Private prisons use discipline to control, manipulate and subject their prisoners and turning them into machines or “docile bodies” that will give them cheap labor. Every day, these prisoners work to process food, produce brooms, sew clothing, wire technical items, etc. Prisoners are paid between $0.23 and $4.73 per day while at the same time, it costs these inmates $5 A MINUTE to make a phone call in private prisons (see also, Think Progress article on this).
Labor within private prisons is clearly not used for the transformation and rehabilitation of these inmates into constructive members of society. Mass incarceration, that has expanded with the passing of anti-immigrant laws, increased with the development of private prisons has resulted in the incarceration of over 2.3 million people, who are now working for a twisted and corrupt economy. Those familiar with Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow book can certainly help argue that these inmates are essentially modern-day slaves of the 21st century; they are being exploited and used by a system that not only refuses to help them, but aims to keep them incarcerated for the purpose of creating a profit.
- How has anti-immigrant legislation helped shape the face of state-sanctioned private prison “modern” slavery or indentured servitude?
- How can we work to end private prisons’ ability to exploit anti-immigration sentiment and legislation for profit?
~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying critical theories of race and racism in Danielle Dirks’ “Contemporary Sociological Theory” undergraduate course at Occidental College. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!
~ This is the second post of a three-part blog series on the criminalization of people of color and the private prison industry by students at Occidental College.
Society’s View on Privatizing Juvenile Facilities
Whether the industry explicitly says it benefits from the school-to-prison pipeline or not, its recent development of juvenile facilities speaks to its motives. By creating juvenile facilities, the industry has a wide range of ages to fill their facilities. Many do not recognize the implications of privatizing juvenile facilities, mainly because mainstream media does not provide viewers with this information. In the “Kids for Cash” scandal, the media hardly addressed the thousands of lives destroyed by privatization; instead, it focused on the judges’ actions and their impending prison sentences. In addition, it did not at all address the owners of the private juvenile facilities who initially bribed the judges. Not surprisingly, the facilities involved are still fully operating.
Society’s View of Youth of Color and their Respective Marginalization
When pushing children into the school-to-prison pipeline, many are aware of the pipeline’s racial disparities, yet are oblivious to the damaging effects it has on youth and their families. Many do not recognize that these children are reacting to the “shame” they feel from being labeled as “criminal.” Instead, people view these youth as “criminals” and endorse their harsh punishment. The private prison industry uses this knowledge to its advantage, realizing that youth are vulnerable and do not have the power to voice their disadvantage.
In his book, Youth in a Suspect Society, Henry Giroux states:
The disparaging view of young people has promulgated the rise of a punishing and (in) security industry whose discourses, technologies, and practices have become visible across a wide range of spaces and institutions (p. 73).
This view of young people is reflected in both the motives and the actions of the private prison industry. As exemplified in the “Kids for Cash” scandal, children are being seen as commodities. And these actions are being justified by a society who is exposed to racialized and criminalized images of minority youth presented by the media, making some fear these youth, believing their “misbehavior” is dangerous and that harsh “punishment” is the only solution. This fear is thus reflected in laws intended to marginalize youth of color. Rios explains that these children are being “systematically denied” their “positive rite,” which is defined as the “universal human need to be perceived by others in a positive light, with consideration instead of degradation” (p. 58). Although it may be difficult for youth to achieve this recognition in today’s racialized social system, reflecting on the connection between the school-to-prison pipeline and private juvenile facilities should make people question the knowledge and motives of the corporations behind their construction.
- Is the private prison industry capitalizing on society’s “fear” of minority youth? In other words, how does the media’s presentation of racialized images directly benefit the private prison industry?
- What would the prison system look like if these youth were granted their “positive rite?” How can you help them achieve this consideration?
~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying critical theories of race and racism in Danielle Dirks’ “Contemporary Sociological Theory” undergraduate course at Occidental College. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!
If the notion of punishment as a source of potentially stupendous profits is disturbing by itself, then the strategic dependence on racist structures and ideologies to render mass punishment palatable and profitable is even more troubling. – Angela Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex”
There are many ways for the private prison industry to create a profit. To maintain this profit, this industry relies on continuous mass incarceration. Recently, the industry has developed for-profit juvenile facilities that target vulnerable youth, especially youth of color, in an effort to expand their business. This question arose when researching the development of these juvenile facilities: what does privatization look like with the school-to-prison pipeline? In other words, could the private prison industry be directly or indirectly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline?
Kids for Cash
The “Kids for Cash” scandal serves as a perfect example of the industry directly benefiting from the school-to-prison pipeline, as children were directly routed from their schools into privatized facilities. In 2009, two corrupt judges from Pennsylvania were charged with accepting over $2.6 million in “kickbacks” from private juvenile facilities. From 2003 to 2008, these judges found over 4,000 juveniles guilty, many of whom did not have legal representation, and were sent to one or both of the facilities that were involved in the scandal. This scheme exemplifies how privatizing prisons, specifically juvenile detention centers, plays a direct role in pushing children into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Judges Conahan and Ciavarella
School-to-Prison Pipeline: Racializing “Misbehavior” and “Punishment” in Schools
The private prison industry could also indirectly benefit from policies and practices created to drive youth, specifically youth of color, into the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline begins mostly in inner-city schools, when children are harshly punished for “misbehavior.” In this context, the word “misbehavior” has been socially constructed as a “racialized” term, meaning youth of color receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. According to the ACLU, for example, “African-American students are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school.” In addition, the “punishment” in response to this misbehavior has been socially constructed and “racialized.” For example, “In 2003, African-American youth made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests,” even though, “there is no evidence that students of color misbehave to a greater degree than white students.” The punishment for this misbehavior is often expulsion, leaving these youth on the streets, usually without supervision and structure.
School-to-Prison Pipeline: Criminalizing Youth of Color in the Streets
Exposure in the streets and being criminalized by the police is the next phase of the school-to-prison pipeline. In his book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios argues that in these circumstances, youth of color become engaged in “play”—“the seeking of personal enjoyment despite their detrimental circumstances”—rather than work, which has since been criminalized and used as a tool to mass incarcerate youth of color (p. 76). When labeled as “criminals” by school faculty, the police, and even their own families, these youths begin to internalize this label and act upon it. Rios reinforces this concept in his presentation of juvenile crime research: “Being shamed and feeling stigmatized often leads young people into crime” (p. 58). The racialized constructions of misbehavior and punishment and the resulting criminalization indirectly benefit the private prison industry, as these juveniles may be sent to private facilities. The populations of these facilities have also been racialized: in Mississippi’s Walnut Grove facility, for example, 90% of its inhabitants are African American men. Although there is no research that directly connects the school-to-prison pipeline and the private prison industry, the deconstruction of the pipeline shows how the industry could be benefiting from these disciplinary actions, which are mainly targeted toward youth of color.
- Is it correct to build private juvenile detention facilities, as they will likely always target vulnerable youth to maintain their populations and to create a profit?
- If there were no for-profit juvenile facilities, would there still be incentive to mass incarcerate youth of color?
- Who else, aside from the prison industrial complex, is benefiting from incarcerating youth of color? (We will begin to address this question in our next blog post)
The standard Thanksgiving narrative in the U.S. is that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, it was the Wampanoag of Southern Massachusetts who met them and helped the settlers survive. Yet beyond that dominant Thanksgiving narrative, few know much about the Wampanoag (h/t to Minal via FB and Colorlines). There is a new film“We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân” target=”_blank”, that documents the incredible effort of the Wampanoag cultural revival through language. Beginning in the 1990s, the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wompanoag communities initiated the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project after uncovering a trove of documents from the sixteenth century. The documents were written in their native language, which hasn’t been spoken in over a century and a half. Here’s a short clip (4:15) from the film:
The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, an intrepid, 30-something Wampanoag social worker, began having recurring dreams: familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie was perplexed and a little annoyed — why couldn’t they speak English? Later, she realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century.
These events sent her and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities on an odyssey that would uncover hundreds of documents written in their ancestral language, lead Jessie to a earn herself a masters degree in linguistics at MIT, and result in something that had never been done before – bringing a language alive again in an American Indian community after many generations with no native speakers. With commitment, study groups, classes, and communitywide effort, many are approaching fluency. Jessie’s young daughter Mae is the first native speaker in more than a hundred years.
Recently, I was in an academic setting with several people and the “holidays” came up, a particularly sensitive race scholar noted that I do not celebrate “Thanksgiving.” The observation itself was noteworthy for its rarity. There is absolutely no reason for a Native American to celebrate Thanksgiving. It is an event which celebrates the survival of a people who would go on to perpetrate possibly the most far reaching genocide in human history. This post began as a historical retelling, and if you are looking for corrections to the historic record Jessie has excellent ones here and here and Joe does a wonderful job here. An interesting note on Thanksgiving is that the turkey is known as the giveaway bird because he is willing to sacrifice everything to help the people live. Whereas, many outsiders see the turkey as a silly bird, he embodies a fundamental concept about sacrifice and survival in Indian country.
Thanksgiving creates interesting reactions in Indian Country and in my household. On the one hand, it is very Native. All special times and ceremonies are celebrated with the inclusion of a feast and a giveaway. So, any ceremonial occasion could be Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving, we take time to remember that if we were a less trusting or less honorable culture, we would not have Thanksgiving. We would also not have stone carvings of genocidal men carved in the Sacred Black Hills and drilling set to commence at the foot of Bear Butte. We fill a pipe and make prayers, with small hope, that Leonard Peltier will see the Black Hills again before he dies. We sing songs in languages that are barely surviving and teach our children to sing it as well so that it may survive one more generation. We are grateful to have our children since for so many generations they were stolen away to missionary boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language and sexually assaulted with regularity while being indoctrinated with “Christian” principles those Pilgrims brought over.
We make prayers for the elderly and the children on reservations with no heat and inadequate housing. We hope that we will not be attending the celebrations of their life as they succumb to death by exposure as so many do each winter. In my household, we bring out choke cherries saved from the summer picking up North and a bit of buffalo to keep us connected to home. We set out the gifts received from others in the many ceremonies through the year and make prayers for them and smile in appreciation of them. We do all of these things before we put on the turkey and dressing and get ourselves ready to join in the dominant pastimes of food excess and football. Because we too have become a part of that colonizing culture in so many ways. Some years we duck those traditions and spend the entire day remembering our ancestors and relatives in ceremonies more in keeping with our culture and take a moment to be thankful because we are still here against all odds.
~ This post is from the archive, originally posted November, 2010.
During the 2008 presidential race, countless political observers argued that Obama’s ascent proved that the U.S. had become a “colorblind” nation. Voters did not “see” Obama’s color, we were told, they saw only Obama the man. But, as I found in doing research for my recent book this was hardly the case. Obama did not run a “raceless” campaign, he did not “transcend” race, and he was elected not in spite of his race, but in significant measure because of it.
In 2007/2008 the public sphere was literally saturated with “race talk” – as the pundits furiously debated the nature of Obama’s blackness, if he was “black enough,”, what kind of black man he was, if he would make whites feel guilty about racism, and just how great a nation the U.S. would be if we succeeded in electing a black man as president.
Obama was roundly praised for the degree to which he was not a “traditional” black public figure, like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and other blacks with whom the wider white public had grown increasingly impatient. The candidate also won major points among his supporters for his willingness to repudiate the supposed lifestyles and choices of the black poor. Consider his repeated calls for “Cousin Ray Ray,” “Uncle Pookie,”and other mythical poor black men to “get up off the couch,” “pull up their pants,” and take “personal responsibility” for their own lives.
As a post-racial black candidate, —i.e. through his “magical” blackness, Obama could reconcile Americans of all colors and creeds, grant whites absolution for the racial sins of the past, and redeem the nation, by demonstrating the U.S. to be again a place of open opportunity and tolerance. Thus, we heard again and again, in 2007-2008, his ascent heralded the dawn of a “new politics race.”
But while Obama played the new politics of race to win, he certainly did not establish the rules of the game himself. In the few instances in which Obama has been seen as crossing over into “old” race politics– by speaking too openly about racism, or evidencing too much color consciousness– he has been rebuked by the mainstream media and the general public.
On the other hand, President Obama has also recently been strongly criticized by high-profile African Americans (most notably Tavis Smiley, Cornel West and Representative Maxine Waters for refusing to directly address the needs of the black community. Thus while the “new politics of race” elevated Obama to the White House in 2008, they may cause many black voters—whose overwhelming support was key to his victory—sit out the race entirely in 2012.
Department of Sociology
University of Minnesota
There have been a lot of nasty-ass rumors embraced by philosophers and your run of the mill academicians surrounding the material substantiations of time as “histories,” and the meta-physical “flow of time,” as linear continuum towards progress and development. It is assumed without provocation that the variety of “histories” offered by racialized oppressed peoples enclosed within [H]istory—understood as a universal account of white civilization—emerges as continuities that further the evolution of not only our American society, but the edifice of the West. In short, we are told to believe that the multiple histories that now emerge at this moment are in fact the inevitable result of the genius of the Dialectical Hemi-(spherical engine) driving the expression of multiple subjectivities. But time need not revolve around such a mythical perspective; a perspective that demands from colonized people that they cherish their past enslavement and historical debasement by racism, and accept that their contemporary suffering, their present dehumanization, and their ongoing exploitation by the political economics of the university, blessed them with the post-colonial discourses to be shared with a now attentive white audience waiting to take stock of their critiques. The dominant schema of America’s liberal democratic order suggests that history be read and time be gauged by the falling away of the organized oppressive structures of the past, where the present is known by the remnants the last fading vestiges of racism, and the future will be identified by the absence of the barriers and attitudes of the past and present filled with only enlightened white folks who are adamantly against racism. This progressive teleology—the idea solidified by integration which suggests racism and the political economics of white supremacy will simply disappear over time—is the largely accepted political dogma of not only our social life, but the unquestioned paradigm of our academic lives as well.
As a function of its unique specialization, academic education determines for us what figures and categories are synonymous with knowledge. As such, even the most creative scholar who aims to be “radical,” forges their weapons from the formal templates of criticality outlined within disciplinarity, where the newly acquired linguistic armaments of race, class, and gender do little more than justify the revisions made to already bourgeois Black women’s thought like Anna Julia Cooper so that they may be copyrighted as canonical figures and made into Black feminists who truly supported the pluralist democratic ethos realized by America’s civil rights era. While intersectionality, popularly referred to the study of “Race, Class, and Gender,” what I have called the “trinity of bulls**t,” in previous writings, remain the three stooges of any inquiry into racist oppression, this rhetorical trope does little to tell the reader anything about the actual methods and/or concepts needed to understand the complicated nexus between racism, political economics and sexual exploitation.
It only contends that we should make “discursive space” to hear from the subjects many have agreed to believe come to embody this allusive trinity. As Peter Kwan has argued in a series of articles entitled “Jeffery Dahmer and the Cosynthesis of Categories,”“Complicity and Complexity: Cosynthesis and Praxis,” and “After Intersectionality,” intersectionality (specifically the idea of race and gender) has been used primarily as a tool to center an identity politics that justifies defining race and gender as Black women, rather than on the systemic dynamics of racist sexual exploitation. In short, the rhetorical tropes of race, class, and gender are thought to be evidence of something like rigor and interdisciplinarity, but in reality they announce categories that disciplinary consensus has decided are represented by specific antebellum women authors compatible with integrationism, feminism, and the revisions to and selective reading of their thought along these lines.
Similarly, I have argued in previous works like “Concerning the Under-specialization of Race Theory in American Philosophy: How the Exclusion of Black Sources Affects the Field,” that disciplines reward scholarship dealing with race that abide by the correct ethics of disdain,—
those ethics that outline the proper rules of engaging racism and colonial oppression—so that the resulting engagements of non-European peoples against their oppression can qualify as philosophy is of the utmost concern(Curry 2010, p.50).
These ethics de-radicalize analyses of racism, because an actual investigation into racism in the discipline of philosophy would begin with institutional criticisms that attack the organizational integrity of philosophical organizations like the American Philosophy Association (APA), the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy (SAAP), and the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP), the largely white philosophy departments with histories of racial discrimination, and the work of white philosophers contributing to the erasure of Black, Latin American, and Indigenous peoples in an effort to solidify white thinkers authority on racism and colonialism over and against the reading of authors who are part of the groups that actually suffered under oppression. In philosophy, this is largely done by explaining away the racism of white scholars like John Dewey (who supported segregated education, assimilation, and the naturalness of racial antipathy) and Josiah Royce (who advocated the United States take up the “white man’s burden,” and British colonial administration in the South) , and revising the theories of European thinkers like Immanuel Kant (a figure Emmanuel Eze demonstrated was not only racist, but responsible for racial taxonomy), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (who supported slavery and argued Africans were outside of history and civilization) and Michel Foucault (who not only steals his analysis of prisons from the Black Panthers, but dismisses the persistence of racism based on skin color), so that what the discipline says counts as their (now revised and inclusive) “non-racist ideas,” amounting to little more than proclamations that Americans should strive toward democratic progress, and that (white) individuals are moral and rational, take priority over the highly developed racist associations (think Josiah Royce’s idolization of Joseph LeConte), anthropologies (think of Kant’s founding of physical geography and pragmatic anthropology), and actual thoughts of these historic white thinkers. Failure to abide by this disciplinary etiquette results in being labeled as “ideological,” “political,” and “anachronistic”—a nasty ad hominem intended to suggest that the scholar in question has no grasp of history despite the deliberate ahistorical nature of reading American and European authors of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century as being in line with sixties’ brand Kingian integrationism.
These aforementioned propagandas are meant to deter the young Black philosopher from questioning the institutional legitimacy of philosophy’s disciplinarity. The initial strategy pursued by many departments is usually positive and involves offering the young Black philosopher evidence of inclusion and progress in the field. This is usually done by showing the Black graduate student/s that the department either has people who write on W.E.B. DuBois and/or Frantz Fanon or people who are sympathetic to these authors’ work. This is usually combined with introducing the student/s to one or more of the Black philosophers who comprise less than 1% of the discipline in an effort to show the student that there are people who look like them doing work in philosophy. Mind you, very rarely are these gestures followed with actual curricula changes, like classes and/or dissertation support aiming to cultivate a comprehensive specialization in DuBois and Fanon equal to that of white figures like Kant, Hegel, or Dewey, or followed by the hiring of Black faculty (even in the cases with one professor—it is usually just that one expected to teach all of Africana philosophy and European traditions as well) with specializations on these figures once the deficiency in Africana philosophy is recognized. As dissatisfaction grows with the inculcated chimeras of pluralism and diversity in philosophy, the Black graduate student is warned that their “growing anger,” and “radicality,” not only threatens their careers, but their matriculation. This repressive apparatus (the doctorate) is used to wed the Black philosopher to their duty as a philosophical thinker on race—which is to gradually change (by moral appeal) how whites think about Blacks. In other words, the Black philosopher is recognized not as race theorist, but racial therapist by sanction.
Perhaps the direst consequence of philosophy’s racism on the Black mind is the Black philosopher’s obsessive hope in the redemptive character of white innocence; or what Joe Feagin has described in our conversations as “white virtue.” Because racism is understood to be a “mistaken idea” held by ignorance, academic philosophy maintains that Black philosophers arguing with and talking to whites, even dead whites through their scholarship, uncovers the virtuous purity and innocence of white reason. Accepting that whites can and have changed as a result of integration and the desegregation of the academy is made into a professional prerequisite. Almost a decade before Derrick Bell introduced what would come to be known as his racial realist thesis, Robert F. Williams, author of Negroes with Guns, argued in that work that:
The stranglehold of oppression cannot be loosened by a plea to the oppressor’s conscience… We have come to comprehend the nature of racism. It is a mass psychosis…the logical inventions of a thoroughly diseased mind. The racist is a man crazed by hysteria at the idea of coming into equal human contact with Negroes. And this mass mental illness called racism is very much a part of the “American way of life (p.110-111).
A rigorous study of American racism marks history through the endurance of epochs, not differences between generations, where the conscious realization of America’s history of slavery, Jim Crow and domestic colonization stems from the civilizational motif solidified by the teleological continuity of empire, not the idealized hope that white colonizers instilled in their progeny the ideas to overthrow their own economic, political, and military superiority over the world. In other words, the descendants of whites carry with them the aspirations for, not the aversion to, the legacies of their colonial parents.
Given the criticisms of and interest in my last post on capitalism and systemic racism (notice, as Seattle points out in a comment to that last post, this is systemic racism I am talking about not just individual racism), let me elaborate a bit by condensing some arguments I make in The White Racial Frame book.
Recall the specifics of Karl Marx’s analysis of the world-shattering significance of this European imperialism:
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. . . . Capital comes dripping from head to foot from every pore with blood and dirt.
Clearly, the early rise of Western capitalism on the world scene is very rooted in the global seizing of the land, resources, and labor of people of color by violent means. That is, this global oppression was soon systemic and fully racialized in a white racial framing of superior whites and inferior people of color (i.e., in systemic racism). This global theft of Native American and African labor by state-sanctioned capitalistic enterprises did not end after the first century of European wealth generation, but lasted for centuries, to the present.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries the European colonial invaders forced a political-economic and demographic reorganization of a large part of the globe at the expense of many indigenous peoples of color. The Spanish nation state was the first to plunder on a large scale indigenous societies in the Americas for land, mineral, and labor resources, but its growing wealth was soon countered by imperial expansion of English, Dutch, and French nation-states and private companies seeking wealth from overseas exploitation. European nation-states and private companies, such as English firms operating in the Caribbean and North America, discovered huge profits were to be made from overseas agricultural plantations using enslaved African labor on indigenous lands. Researchers have shown (see sources here) that by the end of the 18th century the lion’s share of profits coming into British coffers came from overseas slave plantations producing agricultural products.
In North America, English colonies were often state enterprises created under auspices of the king or state-fostered enterprises developed by entrepreneurs, plantation owners, and merchants. English joint stock companies were formed by merchants under the auspices of James I. Employees of the Southern Company settled Jamestown, the English colony that brought in the first enslaved African laborers. A principal objective of colonization was to secure land and raw materials and develop markets. Once land was taken, the Europeans’ search for labor led to the extensive use of the African slave trade, critical to exploitation of land and other resources of the Americas. The private-sector and state-sector collaborated in global exploitation and enslavement, soon rationalized in a white racial framing. (See the evidence in, for example, Eric Williams Capitalism and Slavery.)
Celebrated social scientist Max Weber wrote famously of the “Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism” in assessing the fostering conditions before and around modern capitalism. However, in this European economic expansion one sees what might more accurately be termed the “predatory ethic” of Western capitalism. Central to European colonialism and capitalism was a predatory ethic that asserted the right of Europeans to take the land and labor of others by violence for their own individual and collective gain.
We should underscore a key dimension of this European colonialism, one that critical analysts of capitalism have seldom emphasized: the highly racialized reality of this European colonization and early capitalism. Marxist analysts and numerous other critical analysts have ignored or downplayed the racist architecture of centuries of Western colonialism. Most major groups that were central to both early and later European accumulation of wealth in this global colonizing system were non-European, and each of these groups was soon denigrated (the word literally means “blackened”) in an increasingly developed Eurocentric white framing of colonialism and the colonial societies thereby created.
“We are the 99 percent” – a message powerful in its simplicity and its call for renewed social justice. The Occupy movement took on new dimensions on Wednesday as protesters moved beyond marches and rallies to attempt to disrupt port operations in the nation’s fifth busiest port, while 100 military veterans marched in uniform in front of the New York Stock Exchange to express support for Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran injured in the Oakland protests.
The message of Occupy Wall Street that gave rise to this movement refers to the overwhelming majority of ordinary Americans who have lost economic ground in the recession while corporate profits have reached their highest point since 1950. In this regard, the Congressional Budget Office reports that between 1979 and 2007, income grew by 275 percent for the top one percent of households and just 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. In fact, the United States now has the highest poverty rate among developed countries with 46 million people living in poverty. The stories of lost ground are real, anguishing, and personal: stories of foreclosure, people in debt without health insurance, those who cannot afford to heat their homes, college graduates with student loan debt who cannot find work, and many others whose photos and stories can be found at here. We wonder if this is a new America.
In The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs, and Incomes (2011), Brown, Lauder and Ashton tell us that emerging economies have leapfrogged decades of industrial development and created a highly skilled, low wage workforce that provides cut-priced brain power. This “reverse auction” for jobs has weakened the trading position of American professionals in the effort to attain a comfortable standard of living. In support of their thesis, the unemployment rate for U.S. college graduates over the past year is 9.6 percent, while for high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. And corporations have unquestionably contributed to this reverse demand by outsourcing American jobs overseas. A Wall Street Journal study published on April 19, 2011, U.S. multinational corporations employed 21.1 million at home in 2009 and 10.3 million abroad, with increasing numbers of highly-skilled foreign employees.
The recession has unquestionably deepened the racial economic divide to the extent that some are even calling it a “race-cession.” A Pew Research Center analysis based on 2009 data reveals that the median wealth of white households is now 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. The report documents the differential impact of the recession upon minority families, with a decline in median wealth of 66% among Hispanic households and 53% among black households, compared with 16 % among white households. Nearly one quarter of black and Hispanic households had no assets other than a vehicle, compared to 6% among white households. And foreclosures have a disproportionate impact on minority borrowers in 2007-2009, with 8% percent of Hispanics and Blacks losing their homes to foreclosures compared to 4.5% of whites.
The statistics for minority unemployment are sobering. Black unemployment has been at 16% or above for several months, the highest level since 1984, with Hispanic unemployment at 11.3% and white unemployment at 8%. The underemployment rate is at least double the official employment rate, including those working part-time who want full-time work, those who work at minimum wage but seek higher wages, and those discouraged workers who have given up looking for work due to the job shortage. Furthermore, the duration of unemployment for minorities has exceeded the average duration of 40.5 weeks or more than nine months. For some minority groups, such as Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and some Asian American groups, at least one third are either unemployed or underemployed. As a case in point, take the startling report, “Only One in Four Young Black Men in New York City Has a Job” published by the Community Service Society that documents the disproportionately high rates of unemployment among young black men ages 16-24.
Given these stark employment realities, will troubled white workers begin to target minority workers more than they do now as the recession deepens? We have seen minority workers blamed for difficult economic times when white farmers and workers reacted to the large numbers of freed blacks during and after Reconstruction, or with the more recent backlash against migrant Mexican workers taking jobs in America even though Mexican immigration has actually declined over the last few years and few many Americans are not willing to work under the abysmal working conditions associated with the agricultural and non-agricultural jobs held by migrant workers.
As the base for the Occupy Wall Street movement expands, it promises to be a movement that returns us to our democratic ideals and unite us in the cause of social justice across the divides of race, gender, age, and class. A recent press release by Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP articulates this unity of purpose:
We are encouraged by the broad national support and by the great diversity of Americans who have been participating in the Occupy Wall Street campaign. The movement and the peaceful protesters who are a part of the campaign share many of the same goals as the NAACP.”
The NAACP shares the protesters’ concerns about the growing disparity in the access to wealth in America, and the decline of economic opportunity for poor and middle class Americans. For over 102 years we have supported the policies which create, preserve and expand living wage jobs, increase economic opportunity and protect the right of every American to build and retain wealth and equity.
And in poetic terms, Archibald MacLeish captures the importance of this new movement in his description of our living democracy:
Democracy is never a thing done. Democracy is always something that a nation must be doing. What is necessary now is one thing and one thing only that democracy become again democracy in action, not democracy accomplished and piled up in goods and gold.