Sunday, December 03, 2006

Act Three - Transformation

When biracials were forced onto the black side of the color line (i.e. the Jim Crow period) they brought with them the capital inherited from two centuries of prior middle class status, which propelled them into the black upper class and the black leadership of the 20th century. This prior middle class status was not the middle class we think of today, but the legal class of people who were literally in the middle. Not Africans with no legal rights to anything and not Europeans with legal rights to everything, but Afro-Europeans who depending on the colony they were from had different levels of legal rights.

In French Louisiana biracials could own slaves, hold real estate and be recognized in court. In Spanish Florida biracials could do all that and intermarry with whites. In the British colonies biracials had varying degrees of legal status at different periods until, for reasons unique to the British situation, miscegenation was outlawed and the color line was introduced.
French and Spanish biracials could teach themselves how to read and write, and along with British biracials learn skills as craftsmen and artisans. African slaves, on the other hand, were relegated to hard labor and denied education often times upon pain of death. Freed slaves quickly joined the ranks of their biracial cousins; however, in French Louisiana biracials resisted their entry into Creole society.

In the illuminating text Wealth And Democracy by lifelong Republican Kevin Phillips, the economic factors that led to the Civil War are laid out in detail. The Northern industrial machine outstripped the Southern slaveocracy in all economic indicators except for wealth itself. Slaves were worth $2-$4 billion to the Confederacy. The loss of slaves, and by extension the end of their agriculturally based economy, would mean financial ruin. The North, although quite wealthy from the budding industrial revolution, did not have the resources to compensate their ceding Southern cousins if they were to free their slaves. So war ensued.

Predictably, when the South lost it plunged into total economic collapse. The US govt. exacerbated the problem by imposing heavy taxes on the vanquished to pay off Northern war bonds and pensions for Union soldiers. Wars cost money and the victors usually don’t pay for it.

Followed by a postwar deflation that lined the pockets of bondholders, this wealth transfer according to Phillips “enabled the United States to achieve in four decades what had taken the United Kingdom nearly a century” – namely its position as the world’s leading industrial power. Over the next 80 years poor European immigrants flocked to the country’s industrial centers for a chance at a new life, and blacks and biracials migrated north in hopes of escaping the South’s economic depression.

The new capitalist industrial class now found themselves in the same position as their British colonial precursors, i.e. with a workforce comprised mostly of people of European descent – American whites, European immigrants and biracials. Taking a page out of the Virginian colonial playbook, a race-based divide and conquer strategy was legally imposed nationwide to control exploited workers who might otherwise form coalitions along class lines. American whites and European immigrants on one side, biracials and blacks on other. Jim Crow and its partner in crime One Drop Rule were born.

- These series of posts are dedicated to the ‘finest woman in East Elmhurst’ of her day, my mother Kathlean Elizabeth Barnes. I am bold because she could not be.

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