Right or Wrong

Yonatan Zunger retweeted Lamont Lilly and adds, Let me tell you a bit of the history behind "court costs." twitter

In the post-Civil War South, a system came up when plantations, factories, or mines needed workers.

It was based on that clever little exception in the 13th Amendment:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist"

Note that it doesn't say what kind of crime you have to be convicted of.

So localities passed laws against "vagrancy" – defined as "being unemployed" – or "carrying a concealed weapon" like a pocketknife.

When there was a need for people, local police would sweep up Black men and charge them with something.

Sometimes it was one of these laws, sometimes it was another; in the early 1900's they often didn't even bother filing a formal charge.

The men would be held in jail, and a Justice of the Peace would hear the case. They would be convicted, fined $5 plus "court costs."

That typically meant a total of around $120 in 1880 money – about $2,700 in today's money.

If your family could come up with that money within a few minutes, you were set free.

Of course, that wasn't common. Fortunately, there would be a kindly white gentleman there who would offer to pay the prisoners' fees...

And they would pay him back in labor.

The JP would get paid the fine, the court costs, as well as a kickback for running the operation. He would split that part with the cops.

(This came to 50-75% of the income for most JP's, and was the main reason most people took that job.)

The prisoners, in the meantime, would be loaded onto trucks and taken off to the labor camp.

They would be housed in barracks, given rags to wear and slops for food, disobedience was punished with whips, and escapees chased by dogs.

Prisoners were, of course, charged for their food and housing, so it was quite possible to never be able to get out.

If a good worker ever did get out, a special request would typically be made to the local JP so they could be brought back within days.

Conditions were almost indistinguishable from pre-War slavery – with one significant exception.

In 1860, a typical cost of a slave was around $800. (About $22k in today's money) That made them capital investments.

The new system effectively dropped the price of a slave by over 80%. Slaves moved from being capital investments to bulk goods.

Or a little more precisely: slaves went from $800 for life (plus all children), to $120 per 3-5 years, a flexible operating expense.

As there was no refund for returning them intact, there was no reason to take particular care that they even survived their imprisonment.

This opex-based slavery was extremely profitable not just for plantations, but mines and factories – which meant it worked in the North.

As a result, post-war slavery was intensely profitable not just for Southern crop growers, but for Northern factory operators.

Some other side consequences of this business:

(1) "Farming" local Black populations for "court costs" was an intensely profitable local business, and remains so to this day.

(2) The structure of this pipeline was that Black men, as soon as they were big enough to work, were off to prison.

This was literally the main thing to prepare them for in childhood. The segregated school system had that in mind.

(3) Another consequence is that Black women were there to raise children, and generally *had* to do so without men present.

The culture of strength and fierce independence which so defines Black women today has many of its roots in this period

Perhaps even more than in the pre-War slavery period, where men and women were allowed slightly *more* family life.

(4) When deployed in Northern factories, this had the effect of depressing wages for white factory workers.

Starting in the late 19th century, those white workers started to organize – like workers were starting to do around the world.

The fear of Communism became a huge matter in the US, especially after 1917. Employers used tremendous violence to quash strikes.

This continued to escalate into the 1930's, when pretending that labor issues could be ignored really fell apart.

The white workers of 1870-1930 didn't generally see black workers as having common cause with them; instead, they saw them as competitors.

The fact that they were often *involuntary* competitors didn't really enter into it.

But the type of racism which arose in the North during this time period was therefore different from Southern racism.

The themes of "they're naturally criminals," for example, or outright eliminationism – "send them back" – were much more prevalent.

So while Southern racism was about "knowing one's place," Northern racism was about "the insidious other."

From the 1930's to the early 1960's, a new social system was built in America – things like Social Security, Medicare, and so on.

From the very beginning, there was ironclad resistance to the idea that these things might benefit Black Americans.

FDR backed away from initial plans and built racial qualifications explicitly into a wide range of New Deal programs.

After WWII, this led to the building of the economic systems which created the modern middle class: the GI Bill, Fannie Mae, and also things like health insurance provided through employers and subsidized by the government.

The direct government programs had explicit racial qualifications like redlining;

The indirect ones, like health care and pensions, were more subtle. By making them available *through employers,* a few things happened:

The employers' own racial qualifications filtered them to only apply to white men.

They also only applied to people who worked for these employers, and were generally not transferable to a new job.

That meant that there was a huge range of social benefits available to the white American worker – *if* he stayed with his employer.

This was the system of "White Socialism," which effectively quashed broad support for (Red) Socialism in the 1950's-60's.

Built into it was the set of racial ideas inherited from Northern racism resulting from the post-Civil War slavery system.

(5) This slavery system was largely disassembled in the 1930's – just as the original "war on drugs" began.

The demon marijuana was one of the first drugs targeted.

Modern pot advocates talk about hemp's competition with synthetic fibers as a reason for its banning, but even more important was its association with Black people in the 1930's, and *their* competition with white laborers.

That involved orders of magnitude more money than the synthetic fiber and wood pulp industries ever did.

The criminalization of Blackness was racism deliberately created to back an economic program of slave labor.

This is a crucial thing to remember when you hear arguments that economics are real, but racism isn't. They're both real.

Racism was created to further economic ends; and once created, it continued to exist, independent of the original ends.

(6) One of the subjects I find very interesting, but which AFAIK is not yet deeply researched:

The conditions of post-Civil War slave camps were very familiar to me when I first read about them.

They sound exactly like the conditions in Nazi concentration (not extermination) camps.

In the 1920's and 1930's, there were close ties between German and American industrialists.

Henry Ford, a dedicated anti-Semite, was even awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle by the Nazis in 1938.

This brings up the question: To what extent were American slave practices from 1870-1930 the basis for Nazi slave practices 1938-1945?

Not merely in the sense of inspiration, but in the sense of direct instruction, collaboration, and involvement?

I suspect there's a really good research problem in here for some enterprising historians.

At any rate: This has been a long thread. For those who wish to know more, there are two good books to start with:

Douglas Blackmon's "Slavery By Another Name" (about ~1870-1930) and Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" (about ~1930-the present)

The core of all of this story is that "court costs," and other semi-official aspects of the legal system, do not plunge people into life-altering cycles of debt by accident. These have always been the design purpose of the systems.

While facially nondiscriminatory, they were always built for the specific purpose of ruining and enslaving people.

This is not a good system that was turned bad: it's a system that was rotten to the core from its very first day.

This system was particularly characteristic of the South and Industrial Midwest, but by no means limited to them.

It was no accident, for example, that #BlackLivesMatter started with a killing in Ferguson, MO.

Ferguson, and the entire St. Louis area, has long been infamous for this system being a basis of everything.

cf this classic article by @radleybalko for a sampling as to how. post

Or this business. post

Or this one post

But that's not to say that Ferguson is somehow the hub of all that's evil. It's become a highly visible example, is all.

This system has been a characteristic of the United States for nearly 150 years, and no part of the country has been exempt.

So that's why, when I hear about court costs being the cash cow of the US prison system, I know just how insidious that is.

Last footnote: This is far from a complete history of race in the US, and there are *loads* of other things as well.

This is one of those systems which is crucial to understand in order to understand US history, but there are plenty more where it came from.

And if we do not understand our own history, come face to face with it, and understand *why* the "things that have always been" have been, we have no hope of improving our country in the future.

Carl Schurz is often quoted saying "My country, right or wrong;" we forget the second part of that quote.

"My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."

We can never set our country right if we do not accept and understand how it came to be broken in the first place.

Never accept that something wrong "just is," in your country or in your life. //