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The emancipation of slaves did not lead to the dismantling of the underlying structures of slavery. Its most formidable social, economic, and political institutions persisted in spite of federal legislation following the end of the Civil War. Limp federal legislation enabled the racist social and political climate in the American South to fester, depriving all Americans of the opportunity to experience a "more perfect union." The PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name examines the perpetuation of slavery under the guise of the peonage system. The peonage system represents one of the great failures of Reconstruction. PBS bases its Slavery by Another Name documentary on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by the same name. The documentary adds a visual dimension to the harrowing imagery Douglas A. Blackmon writes about in his book. Slavery by Another Name raises some difficult, important, and often embarrassing questions about the failure of the United States to live up to its promise of "liberty and justice for all," even when that promise had been enshrined in Constitutional Law. Peonage exhibits the role of racism in American society, reveals the systematic ways racism was used to perpetuate white hegemony, and explains the impact on generations of African-Americans. An examination of peonage in particular demonstrates the deep racial, cultural, and geographic divide that characterizes the United States of America.
What peonage did was to appease the South, in its time of greatest humility. Akin to offering sanctuary for Nazi war criminals after World War Two, the appeasement of Southern lawmakers and landowners might have been good politics for President Johnson in the wake of the Lincoln assassination. After all, Johnson was a Southern Democrat with cultural and political ties to the region. Blackmon refers to the situation as "re-enslavement," and that is precisely what peonage was. Peonage is also referred to as debt-slavery, or debt servitude. Under this system, whites would fabricate crimes (or exaggerate actual ones for a white-dominated court system), accusing newly freed African-Americans. The courts would fine the citizens, who, because they had just been freed slaves, could not afford to pay. Complicit in the conspiracy would be local businessmen pretending to help, by offering to cover the fine by loaning the African-American citizen money. In order to pay off the loan, the person was forced into a contract "to work for him without pay until the debt was paid off," (Wagner, 2012, p. 3). The same situation played itself out in a number of different ways including sharecropping schemes. The scams seem obvious in retrospect, and it is unfathomable that racism would be so completely and inextricably embedded in the American political system. This was not a matter of the South acting in a rogue way; this represented the absolute complicity of the federal government in allowing the system of peonage to continue.
At the time peonage and other "slavery by another name" phenomena were happening, commentators looked on with shock and awe; but neither the federal government nor local citizens did anything about it. Chestnut (1904) was already keenly aware that peony was slavery by another name: "Under the renting system, the crop mortgage laws leave the laborer but little more than a slave to the soil, while at the worst the Southern labor system presents peonage, or the new slavery." It is not just obvious in terms of 20/20 hindsight historical vision; the problem was immediately apparent to all who cared to see. This shows that like German citizens during the Nazi era, many Americans stood by and watched while their neighbors were tortured, beaten, killed, and oppressed.
Writing in 1904, Chestnutt points out the problem with the slow eradication of slavery: "nothing is slower than social movements. A form of government may be radically changed and laws easily enacted without modifying for a long period thereafter the social customs, the habits of thought, the feelings, in other words the genius, of a people." In other words, the emancipation of the slaves and a few constitutional amendments were not going to cut it. Racist Americans clung to the old social order like they would to their trusty guns.
Thus, peonage had a long list of lingering effects, most of which are evident still in the 21st century. Effectively, peonage prevented the integration of African-Americans into mainstream society, by throwing up insurmountable barriers to social, economic, and political progress. Self-empowerment was a long, hard-fought battle attained by very few, most of whom had abandoned the hard memories of plantation life for a new start up north. In reality, the majority of African-Americans remained enslaved in order to pay off false debts. Their debts were passed on to their children, perpetuating the economic, social, and political oppression of African-Americans. Peonage impacted the ways otherwise well-meaning whites viewed blacks. Because they were put through the criminal justice system, African-Americans were collectively viewed as being dangerous criminals.
Therefore, the sociological component of peonage created a vast underclass of people labeled as "criminal." Sociological and criminological labeling theory implies that individuals or whole groups are "tagged" with the designation of being criminal, and that once those tags are in place, they are difficult to remove because "the stigma that accompanies the deviant 'tag' causes a person fall into deeper nonconformity," ("Becker," n.d.). The label creates a personal identity, and a sense of belonging to a deviant subculture. When the dominant culture (of presumably law-abiding citizens) refuses to welcome the outsider or Other, the subculture strengthens and flourishes. Before long, the "criminal" label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Furthermore, the entire structure of a white-topped hierarchy with a black "deviant" subordinate culture created long-lasting resentments. African-Americans understandably did not trust whites. Just as the Native Americans had been lied to and schemed into moving to Oklahoma, the African-Americans were promised liberty and given none. Having had enough deception, the African-American community evolved into an oppositional culture by nature. America developed its own deep cultural rifts. The chasm between in-group dominant culture and out-group deviant subculture grew larger and larger throughout the 20th century.
However, one important vestige of peony was that the system inherently prevented African-Americans from organizing and creating a cohesive community. Slavery did a super job of divesting African-Americans from family and community ties, as mothers and children were ripped apart, as were husbands and wives. African-Americans had few role models or community leaders to help them organize in order to overcome. W.E.B. DuBois and other early 20th century thinkers helped to provide a framework for change, but it would take generations to those changes to manifest. The vestiges of peony are visible every day in the fact that poverty and race are entwined in nearly every part of the United States. Inner city ghettos remind us of the legacy of slavery by another name.
One vestige of the peonage system was the Black Codes, which delimited the social, economic, and political behaviors of African-Americans. When we talk about institutionalized racism, we need only to look at Black Codes and the peonage system that preceded them to understand how racism becomes embedded in a dysfunctional culture. Peonage evolved into a Jim Crow culture in the South, which would be challenged in the middle of the 20th century. It was as if the only way to extricate slavery from the system was all-out revolution. The Black Nationalism movement was a cohesive response to systematic oppression, and negative responses to Black Nationalism and Black Power prove that whites had no idea of the extent to which they had created a chasm in America. Calls for continued subjugation were met by the sensitive, sane, and spiritually patient response of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We have overcome a lot. Yet in spite of the great strides, vestiges of peonage remain in concrete and highly visible ways. As Cutler (2012) points out by citing the producer of the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name, "vestiges remain, the industrial prison complex…even when you go to the South today, you go down to Alabama and Mississippi…it's apparent." The American penal system seems to be set up in the same way it was during the time of peonage. We still have convict leasing by another name. Convict leasing in the days of peonage was a way Southern states and counties officially leased their convicts "to save money on prison construction and later to actually generate revenue," (Wagner, 2012, p. 2). Convict leasing cut costs on construction of prisons, as well as on the housing of prisoners because the local plantations and industries agreed to provide room and board for the convicts they leased. As Wagner (2012) points out, "Soon, markets for convict laborers developed, with entrepreneurs buying and selling convict labor leases. From county courthouses and jails, men were leased to local plantations, lumber camps, factories and railroads," (p. 2). The privatization of the American prison system is one of the most obvious vestiges of convict leasing as being part of peonage.
Given the problems associated with peonage, Black Codes, convict leasing, and other…[continue]
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