“there was no end to the need for control” (A People’s History… Ch. 2)

“Drawing the Color Line” examines the reality of slavery as America’s organizing political and social…principle? I’m not sure what word to use here, especially given how easy it is to capture historical horror in a euphemistic utterance (like that bit of rhetorical flourish right there). I don’t know how to reconcile this startling (even though not new to me) truth: “it is roughly estimated that Africa lost 50 million human beings to death and slavery in those centuries we call the beginnings of modern Western civilization.” Add to this: “two elements…made American slavery the most cruel form of slavery in history: the frenzy for limitless profit that comes from capitalistic agriculture; the reduction of the slave to less than human status by the use of racial hatred.”

I experienced a knee-jerk, decidedly American response to the casual claim that American slavery is the most cruel in history. I mean, it was bad and all, but do we really have all those more “primitive” civilizations trailing us in cruelty? That’s just me not wanting to own up to American historical reality, to temper it with rationalizations of “it wasn’t that bad (see: for people like me)” or “yeah, but look at all the good/progress that came out of it,” as if present comfort (see: for people like me) is an excuse for past injustice. America’s utilitarian ethical impulses (and, by inheritance and then by choice, my ethical impulses) are pathetic. But such bland condemnation gets us nowhere. Let’s just admit this – as Ta-Nehisi Coates urged was the first step in the path toward reparations: America has never been the land of the free, home of the brave. The sooner we confront our dark DNA, the sooner we can reconcile and truly progress. Our current political climate should remind us how stagnant we’ve remained. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve yet to enter a post-colonial era.

Zinn spends most of the chapter arguing what is now taken-for-granted among intellectual elites; “if racism can’t be shown to be natural, then it is the result of certain conditions, and we are impelled to eliminate those conditions.” Race – and its weaponized by-product (or its engine), racism – are social constructs. Hegemonic forces that benefit the few at the expense of the many, sold to the many as the normal, natural, and necessary order of things. Speaking of benefitting the few at the expense of the many: slavery. Zinn points out how resistance to this governing institution was the norm of the day. Although conditions accumulated to ultimate subjugation, black slaves (and white indentured servants, and stamped-out Indians) never accepted their plight in stride. There was always resistance, the will to freedom. In fact, it was this will, a threat to those in power and grasping for ways to maintain it, that generated the fear which drove public policy and social/cultural imposition. The few were afraid, and they projected their fears onto the many with desperate resolve: “it was an intricate and powerful system of control that the slaveowners developed to maintain their labor supply and their way of life, a system both subtle and crude, involving every device that social orders employ for keeping power and wealth where it is.”

How best to control the many? Ensure that they don’t feel the incredible strength of their size. Fracture the many into isolated pockets of the few. Sow discontent among those by-design separated groups and make it so their negative energy is directed at Other groups. Destroy any opportunity, any thought of Unity by breeding petty unity; smaller, weaker allegiances that are bound by clear social markers. Social markers so clear that they feel natural and right.

As we look back with regret, however, let us recognize “that there is a possibility of something else, under historical conditions not yet realized. And one of these conditions would be the elimination of that class exploitation which has made poor whites desperate for small gifts of status, and has prevented that unity of black and white necessary for joint rebellion and reconstruction.” Sound familiar?

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