Martin Luther King's birthday might serve as an occasion to ask an important question about our contemporary politics. Why more than a century and a half after the end of slavery does the politics of race remain so highly charged? From the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 presidential campaign to controversies surrounding Howard Dean's comments about drivers of pickup trucks with Confederate decals, one could infer that the Civil War was a recent memory.
The ideals of individual liberty that inspired the American Revolution led many national leaders, including some prominent Southern slaveholders, to believe that slavery was an anachronism that would eventually be ended voluntarily in the South. In a famous letter to her husband, Abigail Adams commented on the irony of Southerners fighting so hard for liberty from the Crown at the same time as they enslaved other human beings. For John Adams, however, the greater concern was that if emancipation were pushed, the unity of the emerging nation in its struggles with Britain would be damaged.''
John Adams' views prevailed. The Constitution sanctioned continuing importation of slaves and infamously treated slaves as three-fifths persons, thereby increasing the political power of slaveholders. Slavery was never as economically significant in the North and was abolished in the first three decades after the revolution. Nonetheless, it became even more entrenched in the South. The cotton gin helped make cotton an ever more valuable export crop, and the mills of the industrializing North provided a growing market for textiles.
But North and South were locked in increasingly bitter battles over economic issues. Southerners favored free trade to aid their export crops and the North demanded tariffs to help emerging manufacturing. Northerners fought the expansion of slavery to the territories in order to blunt Southern political power. Slavery became identified with the Southern way of life and was increasingly defended by all Southerners. Peter Kolchin's American Slavery, a powerful synthesis of contemporary scholarship on the era, points out that although non slaveholding whites did not have a direct stake in slavery, they increasingly defined themselves by reference to black slaves. After the Revolution Southern states enacted laws limiting the property, marriage and political rights of blacks. Small farmers and working-class whites could feel that if they weren't rich, at least they weren't blacks.
Abolitionism, inspired in part by the religious revivals, emerged in the North. Abolitionism, however, was never a majority position in the North before the Civil War. Even many abolitionists did not support full political and social rights for blacks. Here in my home state of Maine, freed slaves enjoyed the right to vote from early statehood on, but interracial marriage was prevented until 1920.
War and defeat of the South pushed the country to abolish slavery and was a major accomplishment. These events, however, left many slaves wondering what freedom really meant and the war imposed crushing economic devastation on most of the South. Freed slaves were given no land and many soon became disappointed. As Felix Haywood, a freed slave being interviewed in the 1930s at age 88, suggested: "we thought we were going to get richer than the white folks because we knew how to work, but it did not turn out that way. Freedom made us proud, but it did not make us rich."
The war was bitterly unpopular among many Irish Catholic immigrants in Northern cities. Subjected to fierce discrimination, they feared competition for the few unskilled jobs on which they depended. The anti-draft riots in New York City in 1863 still stand as among the most violent urban riot in our history. Ironically, war and abolition of slavery even intensified racism in the South, as lower class whites were also thrown into competition with newly freed blacks.
Clearly, freeing blacks was a major gain, but it did not resolve deeply entrenched racial animosities. As a prolonged agricultural decline hit the South and depression and labor troubles dominated Northern politics, the country lost interest in Reconstruction. Southern whites imposed harsh black codes limiting the movements of blacks and systematically stripped them of political rights.
Discussions of slavery are often dismissed as that was then and this is now. But slavery's bitter residue has long lingered. Full voting rights in the South are only a generation old, equal access to credit and to housing remains contested terrain. The black codes are history, but racial profiling is a fact of life in many urban areas. Our drug laws are hardly color blind in their content and enforcement. And the climate in which these issues play themselves out is one in which many of the best manufacturing jobs have been lost and white working class Americans are economically insecure.
The politics of class and race are deeply intertwined in our history. Racism can easily fester in a climate of economic insecurity, but these racial animosities themselves often blunt the push for economic reform and lend legitimacy to such vast and costly diversions as the drug wars.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subscribe to The Progressive Populist