To understand today’s protests, you have to look at yesterday’s racial inequities, historians say. And you have to realize that, as famously noted by William Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
America’s long history of racial inequality explains much about the intense, sometimes violent protests around the country that lately have cast a spotlight on issues of police brutality and lingering vestiges of the segregated past. It goes beyond Confederate monuments and beyond a single killing of an unarmed black man.
“Even though the George Floyd murder was horrendous and absolutely impossible to watch, it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that racial violence has been with us and our country since its inception,” said John Giggie, an associate professor of history and director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South at the University of Alabama.
“For me, any conversation about George Floyd doesn’t begin yesterday, it doesn’t begin with the civil rights movement. It goes all the way back to when we know at least 17 enslaved Africans arrived at Jamestown in August of 1619. And there we began really an American tradition of unfreedom that has persisted in some vein all the way to the present moment as seen by the recent killings of unarmed black citizens,” Giggie said.
He’s not the only one to connect present day problems with past discrimination.
The issues thread through society.
Schools with high minority populations often are poorer than majority-white schools; buying houses can be more difficult for blacks because of lending practices; health care is not as readily available in some majority black areas; black men are incarcerated in prisons at higher rates than are white men.
“The protests we see across the country are about more than the recent death of George Floyd and police brutality. Racism, segregation, income disparity, lack of investment in communities, education inequality and racial redlining have contributed to poverty, and poor health outcomes, and have communicated for centuries that black lives do not matter as much as white lives,” Diana Diaz Granados, a social worker and public health advocate, wrote in a column in the June 10 edition of the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Tribune.
The view that some lives are worth less is at the root of what people are protesting now, said historian Barry McNealy, the education programs consultant for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and a teacher at Parker High School in Birmingham.
Social Darwinism, he said, “advocated that certain people just were not worthy for full inclusion into society in an equitable basis, and those ideas have been transferred to today. And what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks — it’s historic because of its size and scope, but it should not be surprising.
“At some point you have to reckon with the unfulfilled potential and dreams that people have that are caught up in what Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) referred to as being in an airtight situation. Airtight means that you can’t escape it. It’s all around you. And that frustration is going to build up,” McNealy said.
McNealy said that, in American history, there is a sort of “blood pact,” which, in his usage, means that great social change usually happens after or during violent conflict. From the half million who died in the Civil War to the murderous terror of the Klan and similar groups, to the killings of voting rights and civil rights protestors and the four little girls killed by a Klan bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, he said, “People have to see that ugliness before they’re willing to make a change.”
“Every time we are moved to change, it has to be a Trayvon Martin or it has to be an Eric Garner or George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or an Ahmaud Arbery. Change shouldn’t have to require the blood of people to make that possible. At a certain point, the frustration with that is going to cause unrest, and it’s going to cause protest, and it’s going to cause people to vent their frustration.
“So anybody that is shocked by what’s going on in the streets of Minneapolis or Washington, D.C., or New York City or London or in Germany — anybody that’s shocked with any of that is sadly just not someone who is a decent student of United States history.”
Is it really possible to draw a line so clearly from present to past? How do historical events — slavery, segregation, discriminatory practices, things that happened so long ago — still have substantial ripple effects in the 21st century? What do those now mostly illegal constructs of the past have to do with crime, policing, mass incarceration, as well as race-based inequality in health, education and welfare today? The answer is long and complex, but the links can be seen in history.
The first story in BirminghamWatch’s Legacy of Race series will start to consider aspects of those big questions, using a few examples showing how racial policy of the past still promotes inequality today.
From Convict Leasing to Mass Incarceration
Convict leasing is one example of a historical artifact that still impacts policy today, Giggie contends.
“That’s a specific piece of American history that came into being in the late 19th century,” he said. “And it’s fundamentally an effort to create a modern system of slavery for many poor, particularly poor black men and women who were frequently imprisoned on very small, often trumped-up charges of larceny or burglary or some type of trespassing. Not major crimes in almost every case.
“But once they were in prison, they were rented out by the state to various private industries or even to the government itself, to perform hard labor at the most puny of wages — pennies on the dollar.
“So, if you were driving across Alabama in the 1930s, you might well see a crew of people who were part of this convict lease system. Black men who were building a road or constructing a bridge. Black men who were performing some type of … cutting of an agricultural crop. They were trapped in a system in which they were forced to labor for pennies as a way to pay off punishment, as a way to pay off a small crime. It became very lucrative for both private industry and the state because they were able to use black labor inexpensively for what the state would often call ‘the public good’ — building roads or bridges or harvesting crops for some governmental agency.”
According to the book “One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866 to 1928,” Alabama was the state that practiced convict leasing the longest.
“Certainly, the control of black labor was a leading motivation behind every significant effort to establish and maintain convict leasing for fifty years. Just as plain is the similarity between the brutal hardships of convict life and the oppression of slavery times,” author Matthew J. Mancini wrote. “In short, convict leasing was partially a response to the demise of slavery.”
Nevertheless, Mancini wrote that convict leasing was not exactly slavery or even a one-to-one substitute. He noted that, among other things, convict leasing was not a lifelong condition. It lasted as long as a jail term, assuming the convict survived it. And, he said, it began in a period after the Civil War when blacks were granted citizenship.
And then Mancini wrote this: “Reconstruction endowed the freedmen with the status of citizenship. Post-Reconstruction legislatures expressed their bewilderment and rage at this status by in effect criminalizing Negro behavior. Some illegal behavior patterns identified as specifically ‘black’ were removed from misdemeanor status and reclassified as felonies.”
Mancini’s book notes that, in 1928, 13 years before convict leasing was truly abolished, then Alabama Gov. Charles Henderson denied that the state was still following the practice because he claimed the lessees —those companies such as Tennessee Coal and Iron that worked the convicts as laborers — merely paid Alabama for the labor.
In practice, Giggie said, convict leasing often consigned young black men “to years behind bars, years of hard labor, preventing them from being successful citizens or brothers or husbands or sons or uncles to play positive role models in their communities, in our communities.”
McNealy, of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, described the practice in even starker terms. “The 13th Amendment allowed for the convict leasing system to literally kill thousands of people in our country,” he said. Under the 13th Amendment, it was possible to force people to labor as long as they had been convicted of a crime.
Those allowances left room for abuse which often turned toward blacks, McNealy said, “People … were arrested for trumped-up charges … and they were forced to work unto death,” he said.
“That criminal justice system didn’t with a snap of a finger change or go away overnight,” he said. “We see a progression of leaving the convict lease system to mass incarceration and a part of that mass incarceration is the criminalization of black and brown people that occurred during segregation.
“It was a way to allow for cheap labor, and that idea of cheap labor just moved from the steel mills and coal mines and county highways to the inside of penal institutions, where people are forced to work there today. Those things are very much connected.”
Giggie said that the convict lease system has left several legacies in the modern era. “One is a fundamental racial disparity in the adjudication of justice in Alabama, in the South and across America. That blacks are incarcerated at a rate much higher than whites or Hispanics, that today, a young black man being born has a 1 in 3 chance in facing time behind bars — that’s part of the legacy,” he said.
“Now we see a criminal justice system that’s often feared by African Americans. That’s a legacy. Now we see a police state in which every black mother today has to have that talk with her son and her daughter about what to do when you’re pulled over. It’s not if; it’s when. That’s an intergenerational trauma and legacy that emerges out of the convict lease system.”
Housing: Where You Live Makes a Difference
Another example of racial segregation that still can be easily seen is in housing. While American and Alabama neighborhoods are not all as segregated as they once were, the fact is that many people still have to leave their communities to see someone with a different ethnic background.
“Most white people in this country live in all-white communities, attend all-white churches, and do not know a single black person well,” noted an article by a team of scholars, James W. Loewen, PhD; Fran Kaplan, EdD; and Robert Smith, PhD.
In their article on the America’s Black Holocaust Museum website, they say that where you live does make a difference, and residential housing patterns today are not always a matter of choice, at least not for everyone. There are long-term consequences, they wrote:
Residential segregation still makes it hard for even middle-class black people to escape the ghetto. When the white working and middle classes fled to the suburbs and exurbs, most industries and businesses moved there too. The bus systems used by the inner city residents do not go to these communities. This has left many African Americans unable to get family-supporting jobs.
This pattern of racial segregation in America has serious consequences for the well-being of millions of children. Most schools are still racially segregated, and those serving primarily black children are often underfunded. These schools struggle to educate many children stressed by the racism and poverty their families have suffered over generations.
These super-stressed children often receive harsh punishments for petty misbehaviors, like throwing a lollipop (“battery”), tapping a pencil on a desk (“destruction of property”), and talking back (“disturbing the peace”). Students of color are punished more frequently and more harshly. For every white student suspended from school, four black students are pushed out.
For hundreds of years, white parents and society taught white children that blacks had, by nature, an inferior intelligence and character. Sadly, this white supremacist view persists today. … Fortunately, with the rise of camera phone videos and social media, some white people are questioning the bias built into our criminal justice system.
How did it happen? Government policy.
“Two of the most important federally sponsored programs that led to home ownership were applied unequally to black citizens,” Giggie said. “The GI Bill on the one hand — access to loans, education — was applied unequally to black citizens. We also know the federal government aggressively practiced redlining, in which banks were allowed to ignore requests for loans from citizens who came from certain ZIP code areas. Those areas were ones populated by African Americans in particular and poor people overall.
“So banks … literally had a big map and they would draw lines around areas they would not loan to. That consigned African Americans to rent for much of their lives — to lack the capital in many cases to purchase a home. Owning a home is the most fundamental lever of personal wealth and the ability to transfer wealth across generations, from father to son or mother to daughter, and on and on,” Giggie said.
“At the same, we also know that federal policies on public housing tended to concentrate poor Americans in certain areas — urban areas. Those Americans were often African Americans. In those cases, we know the federal government, and local governments as well, had specific policies in place that made it very difficult at times to achieve vital day care. We know that those policies didn’t always include access to health care and education. So in the end, the federal government was often steering poor people, often black people, into certain areas of urban development and failed to give them the means to be successful sometimes.”
How did that apply to Birmingham? That’s explained in the 2013 report, “Place Matters for Health in Jefferson County, Alabama,” which documented the status of health equity in the community, partly by examining historical factors such as housing.
While the report — from The Jefferson County Place Matters Team, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in conjunction with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies — was focused on the disparities in health between whites and people of color in Jefferson County, it sheds light on how government policies helped create and exacerbate racial inequality here. The report states:
Birmingham’s longest-standing racial zoning law (1926-1951), the use of the federal urban renewal program in the 1950s to clear a 60-block predominantly black neighborhood, and the routing of the interstate highway system through black neighborhoods resulted in a concentration of blacks and lower-income residents in select areas of town that are readily apparent on maps presented in this report … . Because of our history of racial oppression and the resulting patterns of residential segregation, poor nonwhite families are far more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty than poor white families.
For example, negative racial stereotypes, which arose largely as a way to justify slavery and Jim Crow laws (state and local laws mandating segregation of public places) that tend to demonize all nonwhite Americans, have, in the minds of many white Americans, stamped nonwhites, particularly blacks and Hispanic Americans, as undesirable neighbors.
Further, blatant discriminatory mortgage underwriting policies of the Federal Housing Administration that denied mortgages to nonwhite families during the housing boom following World War II, augmented by the policy of “redlining” in predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods, institutionalized residential segregation by blocking nonwhite families from suburban home ownership and locking them into dilapidated rental apartments in government-created ghettos in the inner cities.
“As the law changed and redlining became no longer legal, federal housing now looks different than it did in the 1960s,” Giggie said. “Why haven’t things changed with it? Just because the law changed, that doesn’t correct for cultural wrongdoing that persisted for generations. If you have systematically … limited access to capital for a percentage of Americans for generations, how do you correct for that? You simply stop honoring that policy anymore? That’s not enough.
“Just because we stopped redlining didn’t necessarily address the generations of black citizens that were refused capital. It wasn’t the case that once the law changed that money flowed into poor communities.”
While rates of black homeownership have gone up, “it’s not enough,” Giggie said. “We have unfairly and illegally underfunded or completely blocked funding for black homeownership for many, many decades. It will take many, many decades to reverse the trend of limiting capital to the black community and limiting the ability to pass on this generational wealth.”
Threads to Untangle
Beyond these issues, there is substantial documentation showing the persistence of patterns of racial exclusion and enforced or government-supported unequal treatment going back for decades or hundreds of years that still impact the state of race relations today. Untangling those threads is much more complicated than pulling down Confederate statues or taking the names of white supremacists off buildings.
Coming to terms with the complicated racial history of the U.S. and moving forward requires engaging a long unfinished conversation, McNealy said.
“It’s an involved discussion and it’s a discussion that’s been going on for hundreds of years now, but I don’t think it’s been a very successful discussion because we haven’t always listened to each other,” he said.
“My hope and my prayer is that, with so much momentum around the current situation … we can have these discussions without people lining up on sides, but try to see where our commonality is. I think what we have in common is that we believe in a shared set of principles. It’s just that it’s time to take that belief to complete action.”
Companion Piece: Conversation Begins Over What White Privilege Means in Society Today