America was and will be great
Understanding slavery and racism in historical and global context
In reaction to the slogan Make America Great Again, some maintain that America never was great. I side with the MAGA folks on this. America was great nation. It reached its height in the 1950s, when in the aftermath of the allied victory over fascism in World War II, the United States possessed unrivaled economic and military power and enjoyed great prestige internationally.
To be sure, the USA attained its greatness on the basis of conquest, slavery, and imperialism. But social sin does not nullify greatness. Indeed, throughout human history, great civilizations and world powers have paved their road with conquest of neighboring peoples, far and wide. If the people of the United States can overcome our current confusions and divisions to recognize both our historic greatness and social sins, we would be able to become a great nation again, but this time on a foundation of social justice.
I have expressed in various commentaries in this column the factors that explain the spectacular U.S. ascent from its founding until 1965. To remind, they include: a lucrative trading relation with the slaveholders of the West Indies, to be discussed below; the lucrative domestic trade involving emerging northeastern industry and the slave South, also discussed below; territorial expansion through the conquest of the West and indigenous nations; the concentration of industry and banking via the amoral practices of the Robber Barons; imperialist policies in Latin America and the Caribbean, involving continuous interference in the affairs of the nations of the region, seeking to advance U.S. economic interests; and profits from two world wars, culminating in the development of a military-industrial complex.
However, to abstract these historical facts and social sins from a larger evolving organic whole is to indulge in a superficial form of thinking that distorts reality. Superficial distortions should be avoided with respect to any question, but this obligation especially applies to one’s nation, toward which there exists the duty of responsible citizenship.
The history and function of slavery in the U.S. South
Many of those troubled by America’s historic social sins are especially disturbed by its acceptance of slavery before and after the founding of the American Republic. I would like to address this concern by placing the question of slavery in a larger historical and global context; and by reviewing the nation’s political, constitutional, and legal response to slavery and its sequel, the Jim Crow sharecropping system.
In the sixteenth century, stimulated by the Spanish conquest of vast regions of the Americas, the modern world-economy began to take shape, characterized by a geographical division of labor between core and peripheral zones. Initially, in the sixteenth century, the periphery consisted of Latin America and Eastern Europe. However, during the nineteenth century, the European-centered world-economy underwent a great economic and geographical expansion, stimulated by the conquest of vast regions of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East by England, France, and other European powers. From the sixteenth century to approximately 1980, the function of the periphery in the modern world-economy was to provide minerals and cheap raw materials and agricultural products for the Western European manufacturing center, through the use of forced labor.
The worldwide process of peripheralization came to Virginia during the seventeenth century, when tobacco was exported to Europe using white indentured servants, who were replaced by African slaves beginning in 1670. In addition, rice was produced as an export crop in the area of Charleston, South Carolina, using African slave labor, beginning in the early years of the eighteenth century. Thus, at the time of the founding of the American Republic, only two of the thirteen colonies had black slavery in an extensive form as a central dynamic of their economies, and the phenomenon was fully consistent with global dynamics that had been unfolding for three centuries.
It was after 1800 that slavery was developed as a general pattern in the U.S. South. Central to the expansion of slavery was the production of cotton for export to Great Britain, produced on large plantations and small farms utilizing black slaves and also white small farmers. The phenomenon was based on the great expansion of the world-economy during the period, due as noted above to the European conquest of vast regions of the planet; as well as on the invention of the cotton gin, which made possible the mechanized separation of seeds from the cotton fiber. In addition, the great expansion of the world economy drove the spread of tobacco production beyond Virginia to North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, utilizing black slaves and free white farmers; the continued production of rice in Charleston; and the production of sugar for the U.S. market in southern Louisiana, utilizing black slaves. By 1860, slave plantations were central to the economies of twelve Southern states.
The peripheralization of the South in the first half of the nineteenth century profoundly affected the economy of the North. The New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies had accumulated capital for two centuries through a lucrative West Indian trade, involving the sale of agricultural and animal products to slaveholders in the Caribbean Islands. With the peripheralization of the South, the northeastern region of the United States converted its accumulated capital into the development of manufacturing. In the period 1815 to 1860, the northeastern United States increased its manufacturing capacity through core-peripheral trade with the South, in which the South provided the North with the raw materials for its growing textile industry, and the South provided a market for the manufactured goods of northern industries. It was a classic core-peripheral relation that promoted the economic development of the North and the underdevelopment of the South. Therefore, it can be said that the North benefitted from slavery in the South more than the South itself. With structures similar to those that were evolving in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the fruits of labor and natural resources of the South went to a small elite and to others outside the region.
At the same time, slavery in the U.S. South in its natural evolution had the full capacity to dissolve itself, without the intervention of states or political movements. African slavery in the U.S. South had a serious structural defect, namely, that the slaveholders supported the livelihood and the reproductive growth of the slaves. This was a costly undertaking, standing in contrast to systems of low-waged labor in which wages were less than what was necessary to live, and workers were let go during low seasons. This defect suggested the unsustainability of slavery in the U.S. South in the long term. And it raised the possibility of a transition to a system of low-waged free labor, occurring gradually by virtue of the economic motives of the landholders. Recognizing this, some slaveholders called for the gradual and compensated abolition of slavery.
William Lloyd Garrison and the New England Anti-Slavery Society viewed this possibility with disdain. They demanded the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all slaves, a moral proclamation that existed alongside the constant negotiations and compromises between northern and southern representatives in the federal government, with respect to the interests of northern industrialists in erecting protective tariffs to develop its young industry and the interests of southern planters in cost-effective free trade with British manufacturers.
The radical abolitionists created political problems. Most southerners were prepared to live with higher costs due to tariffs, but they considered the radical abolitionists to be a threat to their vital interests, and they were concerned with the growing influence of the radical abolitionists during the 1850s. When the Republican Party, a party with virtually no southern support and in which the radical abolitionists had influence, won the presidential elections of 1860, seven southern states seceded to form the Confederacy before Abraham Lincoln took office, and they were soon joined by four others. It is perhaps the first instance of a morally righteous and idealist left wreaking havoc on the social order.
Although the tragically destructive Civil War could have been avoided with more realistic approaches and less moral righteousness, the political conflict between the North and South was inevitable and unavoidable. The two regions fulfilled different roles in the worldwide geographical division of labor between core and periphery. Therefore, the elites in their respective regions were seeking to channel the state toward policies that promoted their interests, as elites universally do. But being the masters of economic systems with fundamentally different roles in the world-economy, the two elites had different and opposed interests with respect to the appropriate role of the state. For the one, the state should support national industry, commerce, and urbanization; for the other, the state ought to support the small agricultural elite, repress the black population, and limit the rights and opportunities of the white population. Yet there was only one state for the two elites, a contradiction that the southern elite tried to correct through secession.
Following the Civil War, the northern elite attempted to impose its vision on the South through a reconstruction program. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments established a constitutional foundation by abolishing slavery, ensuring citizenship rights and equal protection under the law, and prohibiting discrimination in voting rights. On this foundation, the Republican Party became a force among the people of the South for the first time, forged by an alliance of freed blacks, lower-class whites, and urban business leaders who had an interest in breaking the control of the planter class. Attaining power through elections, Republicans dominated Reconstruction state governments across the South, with black and white legislators enacting social programs consisted with the interests of the lower class and small farmers, black and white. Biracial public education, for example, was established in places where no public schools previously had existed; and state hospitals were created.
But the Reconstruction program was incomplete. It did not include a necessary land redistribution and land reform program, which would have converted the freed slaves into independent farmers.
The problem here was that the protection of the political and civil rights of the freed slaves could not be constructed on a peripheral economic foundation. It could only by attained on the foundation of a structural transformation that ended the peripheral role of the South in the world economy. That is to say, the protection of the political and civil rights of blacks would require the distribution of land to sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and small farmers; combined with a plan to promote the commercial and economic development of the region, ending the region’s economic dependency on the exportation of cheap cotton to the North and to Great Britain. The political will and understanding for such a structural transformation were not present, neither in the region nor the nation.
The political-economic system of Jim Crow sharecropping
The limited and structurally unsound Reconstruction program fell to a counterattack spearheaded by a revitalized southern planter class. In reasserting themselves, the southern planter class forged a racial alliance by appealing to lower-class whites with an ideology of white supremacy, which was reinforced by tactics of violent intimidation, economic sanctions, and election fraud. As a result, the Democratic Party was able to return to power throughout the South from 1869 to 1879, repealing the social programs enacted by the Republican Reconstruction governments.
In the absence of a land reform program, the large plantations beginning in 1867 were divided into tenancies of thirty to fifty acres, with each farm run by a family with a sharecropping or tenant farming contract with the landholder. Thus, great majority of the freed slaves became sharecroppers or tenant farmers on land they did not own. In 1880, only 9% of cultivated land was owned by blacks.
The sharecropping system constituted a significant improvement over slave plantations with respect to the standard of living, with considerably more freedom of movement, especially in relation to work activities. Nevertheless, it was a social system characterized by low income, a low standard of living, economic dependency, and few citizenship rights, consistent with the peripheral role of the region in the world-economy. Moreover, the sharecroppers and tenant farmers had to obtain seed, livestock, and animal feed on terms set by landlords or local merchants, such that they increasingly fell into debt. In essence, it was a system designed to produce cotton for export, utilizing superexploited and coerced black labor, as in slavery times. It continued through the second half of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth.
In the 1880s and 1890s, new efforts were made to form coalitions of blacks and lower-class whites, riding the wave of the nationwide populist movement. Southern populism constituted a significant political force in the South in the 1890s. However, the planter-dominated Democratic Party was able to beat back the threat, again using the tactics of racist ideology, violence, and election fraud.
In the aftermath of the populist threat and its containment, the planter class sought to establish a more systematic control over the black population, including a variety of procedures that were utilized to disenfranchise blacks altogether. Beginning in 1900, a social and legal structure of racial segregation was established and implemented across the South, in travel, restrooms, state institutions, recreation, sports, and housing. What came to be known as Jim Crow was born.
The great majority of whites went along. Some found gratification in a racist ideology that gave them a status their economic resources did not. Some went along because people everywhere tend to go along with the dictates of the powerful. Those who were ill-at-ease or opposed were intimidated into submission.
The industrialization of the South and the overcoming of Jim Crow
The political-economic system of Jim Crow sharecropping collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1920s, cotton production in the South confronted competition from producers in California, Arizona, China, India, Brazil, and Egypt. The South could not effectively compete, because the sharecropping system presented obstacles to technological innovation. The Great Depression of the 1930s delivered a devastating blow to an already struggling southern economy.
In response to this situation, federal government policies promoted the industrialization of the South. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created, which provided cheap electricity for industry. During World War II, new factories for war production as well as military camps were established in the South. In 1945, uniform freight rates ended the policy of high rates for the transport of raw materials from North to South and of manufactured goods from South to North, which had been disadvantageous to southern industry. By the 1950s, the attractiveness of the South as a region for industrial investment was apparent, taking into account its reliable and relatively cheap labor supply and cheap electricity and its access by railroad to Northern markets. Between 1939 and 1954, southern industrial output rose more than fivefold; in the 1950s, southern manufacturing employment rose 31%; and between 1956 and 1959, 5,000 new plants were built in the South.
As a result of the industrialization of the South, black urbanization increased, thereby strengthening black organizations, black colleges, and black churches, thus increasing the capacity of southern black society to protest and change the economically outdated political-economic structures of Jim Crow. In addition, the southern white urban commercial class grew in size and strength, a class that had no economic interest in the preservation of Jim Crow. Moreover, with the world-system in transition to neocolonialism, the U.S. government was now in a situation in which its strategic international economic interests would be damaged by the continuation of Jim Crow.
Thus, by the 1950s, there were significant structural and ideological forces supporting the elimination of systemic racism and the ideology of white supremacy. And so it came to be, highlighted by the 1954 Brown decision of the Supreme Court, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. With these decisive steps taken by the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, a new constitutional and legal foundation was established, as President John F. Kennedy expressed in a televised special address on May 21, 1963, on “the proposition that race has no place in American life or law.” This was not merely political rhetoric or political posturing. It reflected the fact that the United States had built the economic and ideological foundation for the taking of decisive steps toward the fulfillment of the American promise of democracy with respect to race, in accordance with worldwide tendencies, in which the United States itself was playing a leading role.
The future greatness of America
The response of the African-American movement to segregation and racism from 1917 to 1965; combined with the essentially supportive responses of the federal government, the southern white commercial class, and northern white liberals to the demands of the movement; demonstrates the necessary road out of slavery and racism. Namely, using the structures established by the American Constitution to work toward the fulfillment of the American promise of democracy. This implies that we look beyond the tolerance of slavery and racism at the founding of the American Republic in order to affirm and appreciate the fact that the founders established the structures for the abolition of slavery and racism.
We see here the key ingredients of a responsible American narrative that affirms the establishment of the American Republic as a progressive step for its time, in that it forged a constitution based in a balance of powers among the branches of the federal government and a division of authority between the federal and state governments, bolstered with a Bill of Rights. Even though blacks and women were excluded, they were able to use the republican structures established by the Constitution to forge sustained movements seeking fulfillment of the American promise of democracy, changing the laws, rules, and norms that had excluded them.
This is not to say that the task of constructing a democratic nation was completed in 1965. It is only to say that the terms of the American struggle for democracy were completely transformed by the elimination of exclusions that existed at the time of the nation’s founding, utilizing structures established at the founding. If today we are not satisfied with the results, the explanation is much more complex than simply pointing to white racists, an issue that I will discuss further in my next commentary.
I learned during the 1970s and the 1980s of the foundation of the spectacular U.S. economic ascent in conquest, slavery, and imperialism. And as I learned it, I attempted to teach it to my students and colleagues. But I did so not for the purpose of singling out certain individuals and nations for being guilty of crimes and social sins. I did so with the intention of enhancing understanding of present realities and future possibilities. In the first place, so that we would understand that many of today’s existing economic structures were established during colonial processes, and that they are the root of the persistence of inequalities today, independent of the attitudes of yesterday or today held by this or that individual, party, or social group. The creation of a more just world for today and tomorrow requires structural transformation of neocolonial structures, not personal attacks on individuals, past or present.
And in the second place, so that we would be able to understand that the historic human form of development on the basis of conquest is no longer sustainable, because the world-system has reached and overextended the territorial and ecological limits of the earth. So we have to figure out the basis for an alternative road to socioeconomic development.
This alternative road to development is being developed in theory and practice. China and certain nations of the Third World have declared themselves to be constructing socialism, and they are showing the way to finding the necessary alternative road to development.
And here we arrive to the key to future American greatness. The United States continues to have a large economy. If it were to be able to resolve its internal contradictions in a constructive way, it would have the possibility of participating, as one of the more important world powers, in the construction of an alternative world-system that expands of the basis cooperation, collaboration, and mutually beneficial trade.
Our future greatness of course will be of a different kind than our past greatness. It will be a better kind of greatness, providing us with pride and purpose, as in the past, but a pride and purpose based in solidarity with the peoples of the world. A greatness that has nothing to hide, and therefore no reason to lie.
A free subscription option is available, with capacity to read, send, and share all posts. A paid subscription ($5 per month or $40 per year) enables you to make comments and to support the costs of the column; paid subscribers also receive a free PDF copy of my book on Cuba and the world-system.
Follow me on Twitter: Charles McKelvey@CharlesMcKelv14