On MLK Holiday, Much Work to be Done as Structural Racism Persists

Today is the annual Martin Luther King Day celebration.  In the U.S., this is a federal holiday and means that government offices and many schools (including my own) are closed in honor of Dr. King.  Even this modest commemoration was a hard won victory over a racist resistance to the holiday by those who oppose civil rights.  As we reflect on Dr.King’s legacy, it’s important to recognize there is much unfinished business in achieving racial justice.  This infographic from the  Economic Policy Institute illustrates the work still to be done.

Structural Racism Infographic-final

(Source: Economic Policy Institute)

Labor Day: Considering the Legacy of Stolen Labor

On this Labor Day, I’m thinking about the legacy of stolen labor.  While Labor Movement-created-holiday is meant to commemorate the “social and economic achievements of American workers,” a post from a friend, Son of Baldwin, has me thinking about labor that was not freely given, but rather was taken from people and for which they were not compensated.

(Facebook post from Son of Baldwin)

What does that legacy of stolen labor look like today?  If it were a bar graph, it might look something like this:

(Graph from Demos – Stats from 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances)

As you can see, black and Latino families have much less wealth than white families, even when you compare  within the same income groups.  Matt Bruenig, writing at Demos, asks, “why is this the case?” and then answers his own question with the following:

“There are many factors, but one in particular looms large. It turns out that three centuries of enslavement followed by another bonus century of explicit racial apartheid was hell on black wealth accumulation. Wealth accumulation opportunities haven’t exactly been evenly distributed in the last half century either. Because wealth is the sort of thing you transmit across generations and down family lines (e.g. through inheritance, gifts, and so on), racial wealth disparities remain quite massive.”

And, indeed, if we look at the wealth accrued to those who enslaved others, just in the U.S., the estimates from economists put those numbers in the trillions, in 2011 dollars.

(Source: Measuring Worth.com)

In their understated, scholarly language, the creators of the chart  – Williamson and Cain – write:

Slavery in the United States was an institution that had a large impact on the economic, political and social fabric on the country. This paper gives an idea of its economic magnitude in today’s values. As noted in the introduction, they can be conservatively described as large.”

So, the impact of slavery in the US was large?  Got it. But slavery ended in 1865.  Everything’s been fine since then, hasn’t it?

Not really.

Profiting from Stolen Labor Now

Deadria Farmer-Paellmann is researcher who is documenting the way contemporary corporations benefit from slavery. Many of the companies we use today initially established those profitable entities by profiting from stolen labor. For example, many of the current insurance companies began by insuring slaves, as with an 1854 Aetna policy insuring three slaves owned by Thomas Murphy of New Orleans. Farmer-Paellmann has located evidence of connections to slavery from a number of other corporations, including:

In 2000, Aetna expressed “regret for any involvement” it “may have” had in insuring slaves. Today, the company stands by that statement and says it has been able to locate “only” seven policies insuring 18 slaves. “We stood up; we apologized; we tried to do the right thing,” said Aetna spokesman Fred Laberge.

That was all a long, long time ago. Aetna apologized.  Besides, what’s all this got to do with now, today? These companies built their wealth, either partially or in whole, on labor that was stolen from people who didn’t have a choice and who were never compensated for that labor.

These corporations with legacy-connections to slavery are not the only ones profiting from stolen labor now. For-profit corporations are making millions off of locking people up. CCA, which I’ve written about here before, and The Geo Group are among the worst offenders here.


Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, is a US-owned government corporation created in 1934 that uses penal labor from the Federal Bureau of Prisons to produce goods and services (UNICOR has no access to the commercial market but sells products and services to federal government agencies). The statistics about UNICOR’s use of prison labor, perhaps the quintessence of contemporary stolen labor, are staggering.

These U.S. federal prison labor statistics are from Prison Policy (pulled from UNICOR Annual Reports):

These wages at federal prison are criminal, and the ones at state facilities are even worse. Nevada, for example, pays inmates just .13 cents/hour for their labor.

There’s no possibility of organizing these workers, however, since the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld a North Carolina warden’s ban on prisoners’ right to form a labor union.


Addressing the Legacy of Stolen Labor & the Contemporary Racial Wealth Gap

To address this legacy of stolen labor, some have called for reparations.

US Rep. John Conyers has introduced H.B.40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, into every session of Congress since 1989, and vows to keep doing so until it is passed into law.

In 2002, a group of U.S. legal scholars led by Charles Ogletree (Harvard) started litigating the legacy of slavery to get redress from some of the corporations that benefited. A number of people, mostly political conservatives, oppose reparations.

More recently, representatives from more than a dozen Caribbean nations are uniting in an effort to get reparations for slavery from three former colonial powers: Britain, France and the Netherlands. Leaders from The Caribbean Community (Caricom)  are launching a united effort to seek compensation for the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.

A much more modest proposal, as Bruenig of Demos suggests, is a steep, progressive inheritance tax in the U.S.  If the proceeds of such a tax were directed to a full-fledged sovereign wealth fund that pays out social dividends, we could address a number of social ills at once.

It’s actually not hard to think of ways to address the legacy of stolen labor and stolen wealth. It simply involves the transfer of capital. And, there is precedent for it in the U.S.

The federal government reached a consent decree with a class of over 20,000 black farmers to compensate for years of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture. Previously, the government also approved significant compensation for Japanese-Americans interned during World War II and paid reparations to black survivors of the Rosewood, FL [pdf], massacre.

What we lack to address the legacy of stolen labor and the contemporary reality of a racial wealth gap is the collective political will to do the right thing.

Mapping Racism Through Digital Media

With the re-election of President Obama, white people who rooted for the other guy took to various forms of digital media and unleashed their disappointment. Some white folks went a good deal farther than disappointment into overt racism, like this white woman from California who posted her racism on Facebook.  Jezebel pulled together a rogues’ gallery of racist tweets.

The gallery at Jezebel prompted some geographers to create a map of all the racist tweets.

The enterprising folks at Floating Sheep used software they created called DOLLY to collect geocoded tweets for the week beginning November 1. In other words, it’s possible to search Twitter by both location and key word (some other examples here). If I understand it correctly, the DOLLY software allows this search process to be further refined to get data at a more granular level.

What they came up with is a map that allows us to understand, at a glance, how these everyday acts of overt racism are spatially distributed in the U.S.

(Map from Floating Sheep; Interactive Map here.)

This is valuable work and just the kind of thing that I’d think sociologists would be interested in doing (but I digress, slightly). The methodology here, buried in the footnotes on the original post, is a worth exploring a little further.

The research questions they pose are: “Are racist tweets relatively evenly distributed?  Or, do some states have higher specializations in racist tweets?”

To answer these questions, they sampled the universe of tweets.  Specifically, they: “collected tweets that contained the text ‘monkey’ or ‘nigger’ AND also contain the text ‘Obama’ OR ‘reelected’ OR ‘won.’ A quick, and very unsettling, examination of the search results revealed that this indeed was a good match for our target of election-related hate speech. We end up with a total of 395 of some of the nastiest tweets you might possibly imagine.  And given that we’re talking about the Internet, that is really saying something.”

Following that, they took the number of “hate tweets” by state and divided by the total number in the U.S., that became the numerator. Then, they got their denominator by doing the same for all the tweets in the state, divided by all the tweets in the U.S., which is easier to understand expressed as a formula:

(# of Hate Tweets in State / # of Hate Tweets in USA)

(# of ALL Tweets in State / # of ALL Tweets in USA)

Based on this, they assign a number, or a Location Quotient (LQ), for “Post Election Racist Tweets.”  They then rank order states based on their LQ’s.

The results they end up with (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia end up with 3 highest LQ scores) are less interesting than their map and clever methodology. In their analysis, the writers do well to note that the “prevalence of post-election racist tweets is not strictly a southern phenomenon,” but the ranking of the LQ scores by states makes the opposite case.

I want to suggest here that the problem is two-fold: 1) the way the research question is posed and 2) the state-level of analysis.

The researchers here frame their question in terms of state boundaries and posit something of a false dichotomy between “even distribution” of racist tweets on the one hand, and, “states that specialize” in racist tweets on the other hand.  As anyone who has taken an undergraduate methods class can tell you, this research question shapes the kind of data collection you do, and the analysis you come up with at the end.

The state-level of analysis here is something of a distraction. I understand that since we just went through a presidential election, people are thinking in terms of “states” – swing states, blue states, red states, who carried the state – but here, it makes less sense.

What I see when I look at this map are population centers. Take my home state, of Texas.  The red dots there are clustered around places where there’s population density – Houston, Dallas, and more along the I-35 corridor.  And, compare that to where I live now, on the East Coast. There are red dots all along the Northeast corridor of I-95. At a glance, it looks like racist tweets are not evenly distributed across the U.S. but are concentrated where white people live.

Again, let me say, I appreciate this work immensely, but I think that the state-level questions are the least interesting, and ultimately least revealing set of questions for mapping racism through digital media. Instead, I’d be interested in seeing some other basic demographic info about percentage of white people in the population and the proportion of racist tweets. My guess is that the LQ is highest where there is the highest proportion of white people, but that, as academics are so fond of saying, is an empirical question worth investigating.

More in posts to come on calling out racism in digital media, and the growing backlash against it.