The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.
President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.
There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.
There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.
This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.
Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":
The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.
This is all good news.
And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.
Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.
More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.
And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:
[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.
Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:
Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.
The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:
Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.
What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.
Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.
The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,
the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.
As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.
The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:
At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.
The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.
The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.
One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.
African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?
These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.
Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.
I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.
In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”
With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.
This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).
Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.
Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.