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40 acres and a mule

40 acres and a mule

To understand the daunting challenge of achieving racial justice — and shed a modicum of light on police racial brutality and killing — one might begin with the promise of 40 acres and a mule to freed blacks, a promise made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman at the end of the Civil War. 400,000 acres was to be confiscated from plantation owners, who were enslavers, and a contiguous Black land grant made in the Southeast.

That reparations of sorts to Blacks, who as the enslaved had no private property, was dashed when President Andrew Johnson nullified the promise (that was actually detailed in a military act written by Sherman) and left Blacks without land or much of regular employment outside of share cropping during Reconstruction. Johnson, a southern Republican with a heart that belonged to Dixie, was vice-president and succeeded Lincoln upon his assassination. He was against federal forces occupying the vanquished South and protecting rights and safety of Blacks.

To start to understand the ongoing police murders of Blacks and brutal treatment at their hands today, it is important to remember that the slave trade in the United States was based on enslaved Blacks being of value as property.

To start to understand the ongoing police murders of Blacks and brutal treatment at their hands today, it is important to remember that the slave trade in the United States was based on enslaved Blacks being of value as property. In fact, the enslaved, as “property,” were worth billions of dollars, perhaps the most valuable single commodity in the United States prior to the Civil War. After the conclusion of the conflict, the oligarchical enslavers, who only represented about 6-7% of the Southern population, lost their most valuable “commodity,” as Blacks were liberated. The oligarchs were forced to hire labor to till the fields.

Blacks in the South were in a precarious position in terms of safety and livelihood. The white sharecroppers and destitute white workers still hated Blacks as “an inferior race” and now were in competition with them for work. Remember that Blacks went from not being considered human and only valued as a monetary commodity to being an excess labor force. Once the enslaved Black no longer had economic value, the freed Black was regarded both as inferior competition and as a disposable body.

As I wrote in a June 11 commentary,

Thom Hartmann has frequently written that urban police today are the descendants of slave-patrols from the pre-Civil War era. They are the thin blue line that protects the oligarchy and the white working and middle class, then and now, from any possible mass political uprisings of those still oppressed, racially stereotyped and suffering from increasing income inequality. Meanwhile, as the slave patrols often represented a white working class that was often poor (because, as noted above only a small percentage of Southerners were wealthy due to enslavement), the modern urban police force represents the same use of racial division that protects the oligarchs and white oligarchy and working class of today, with cops keeping exploited minority communities from exploding politically through arrests, imprisonment and brutality.

It is fine with structural racism to tolerate Black gang drug trade, for instance, because it feeds into the carceral system that means a Black male has a one in three chance in ending up in prison, as noted in a 2016 Washington Post article, “America has locked up so many black people it has warped our sense of reality.”

Now remember, formerly enslaved Blacks went to being free citizens without any economic income. They went from being a multi-billion dollar “commodity” of the body to being individuals in competition with down-on-their-heels white red neck southerners. The racist whites didn’t take to it kindly, so the only protector for the Blacks was the Union forces who continued to occupy the South during Reconstruction.

However, Southern white obstruction to Reconstruction freedoms for Blacks, including the right to vote (granted by the 15th Amendment, passed in 1870), resulted in increasing limitations on the freed Black population. Many whites flagrantly flouted the Union troops and suppressed, terrorized and killed Blacks. Finally, a disputed election in 1876 between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democratic Samuel Tilden ended with the beginning of the Jim Crow era that is in many ways the antecedent to today’s racist police conduct in many cities. Without getting into details, Tilden (now remember, at that time the Republicans were ironically the emancipationist party) won the popular vote but fell one electoral vote short of victory.

The Republicans, as they do today, vigorously contested the election results. A panel was set up and a deal was struck: Hayes would be declared President if he would pull federal troops out of the South, end Reconstruction, and allow the South to become fully Democratic again (which at that time meant racist and segregationist, vote suppressing and free to terrorize and lynch Blacks) It’s hard to think that the South remained primarily Democratic pretty much until Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The Republicans, seeing an opening after Johnson took steps to guarantee equal rights (in principle), became the anti-Black racist party of the Neo-Confederacy, exemplified today by Trump’s incendiary racism and dog-whistling.

Furthermore, the not infrequent deadly racism of the South has been present in many parts of the North, with more subtlety. For instance, not too long ago, there were many towns where Blacks could not be present at night. They were known as sundown towns. More importantly, there was a federal plan implemented throughout the nation to implement segregation in housing and unequal education and economic opportunity. Furthermore, there was, as there still is today, rampant job discrimination, as well as ingrained negative stereotypes of Black males in particular and continued segregation and large swaths of destitute Black economic and educational zones..

We are also seeing racist micro-aggressions, symbols of a larger racist pathology, in abundance now, recorded on video and posted on Twitter. Again, this is not a new trend. It is just being optically corroborated and shared on social media, which makes it visible. Trump’s inflammatory racial incitement has also given such hateful racist behavior license throughout America.

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During World War II, there was a large exodus of Blacks from the South to northern industrial cities, where there were plenty of jobs in the war industries. However, after the war was over, many blacks found themselves in segregated communities and running up against a more subtle racism than in the South. Vast zones of impoverishment developed, and the white powers-that-be tasked police forces to ruthlessly patrol Black communities, given that there was no plan for the surplus labor that wasn’t white. In addition, whites abandoned city life for the Suburbs, further entrenching de facto segregation.

Thus, the brutal thin blue line was developed not by self-generation within police departments, but by economic structural racism in almost every area of the nation. Instead of jobs and reparations (remember Blacks in Reconstruction were rather quickly denied 40 acres and a mule), Blacks with limited means became cogs in “The New Jim Crow” mass incarceration pipeline, as described by Michelle Alexander in her seminal book of the same name.

The Black Lives Matter protests have been going on for weeks, with hundreds of thousands of participants braving the pandemic. At the same time, many police forces have been engaged in a police riot of brutalizing protesters, while police mistreatment and killing of Blacks seems to be proceeding at an alarming rate. What we can speculate is that this is nothing new, but rather we are now able to visually document the brutality through hi-tech easily available cameras, particularly on phones and when made available from officer cameras.

As Michelle Alexander details in “The New Jim Crow,” the mass incarceration industry is another way of asserting control over the Black body, which is, in structural racism, viewed as disposable. It also offers a horrifying alternative to investing in achieving economic and racial justice. Many police may be brutal thugs who get off on violence, but their thin blue line is only the battle front of the embedded racism that tolerates such behavior as necessary to maintaining white privelege social (racist) order.

A description of “The New Jim Crow” amplifies why urban police see themselves at “war” with the black body:

The majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote; the right to serve on juries; and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil-rights-lawyer-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.

Indeed, the legacy of slavery and racism is still powerfully embedded in society. Police “reform” will stop some of the heinous and deadly cop behavior, but it doesn’t resolve the racism that exists openly in much of the South and in a more nuanced way in the North and West. It won’t end the oligarchical and white grievance support for suppression of Blacks as full citizens. It won’t guarantee justice to Blacks nor transform the blighted zones of impoverishment.

Most significantly, it won’t end the racist belief that white skin color has a greater human value than Black or Brown skin color. It won’t stop Republicans from suppressing the Black votes as though they are not entitled to full citizenship. And it still won’t give every Black in need the modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule.


For that, for full justice for Blacks, we need a transformation in our society. We need an intersectional examination of race, class, economic structures and gender. We need to address what Martin Luther King called the “triplets”: race, militarism and capitalism.

Police “reform” is just one part of a vast societal reckoning.

It will be painful, but we will all breathe freer in the end.

Mark Karlin