Yes America doesn’t sell black people at auctions anymore, but our policies are still racist.
7 minutes
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez. Source: The Nation.

It was at the university when I learned about slave auctions in America. Mark Thompson, my teacher of colonial America shared with us a website with images and pictures from 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. Beside the visuals of white men bringing the lash upon the so-called negro, I saw them for the first time, in suits and puffing on cigarettes, buying black families like cattle.

The negro paced up and down the room to show that he was sound on his legs. The buyers turned his head to the light, and lifted the corners of his eyes, to ascertain whether they were free from indications of disease; in the same way they examined his teeth.

G.H. Andrews on slave auctions he witnessed in Richmond, Virginia in 1861. He wrote his accounts in The Illustrated London News after seeing several white men buying black people for as much as $1200.
G.H. Andrews’s illustration from the aforementioned auction room in Richmond.

But why am I telling you this? This destruction of black families, my friends, is ongoing: yes indeed. Of course, like the nazi salute, we made the word negro and its associations taboo. Of course, we don’t have slave auctions on the main streets of Virginia anymore. Of course, the black man doesn’t model in front of white buyers who appraise him. And of course, we don’t separate black families by selling their children to unknown locations on eBay. Of course not. We are decent people, not monsters right? Hmm. Even so—even so, my friends—30% of black families are headed by unmarried women, compared with 13% across US households.

And as they happened not to bound at the first sound, they were soon raised from their knees by the sound of the lash, and the rattle of the chains, in which they were soon taken off by their respective masters,—husbands from wives, and children from parents, never expecting to meet until the judgment of the great.

Henry Bibb wrote this in 1842 (p. 202), recalling the hypocrisy of so-called Christians who bought black family members inside of an auction room in Kentucky.
Henry Bibb‘s sketch of what he saw inside an auction room in Kentucky.

What’s that about? It’s about the spike of African-Americans who are 6 times as many in prisons as whites. Why? Why does this happen when black folks comprise but 12% of the US population?

Instead of uplifting black communities from poverty—something the US has an obligation to do—since the 80s the War on Drugs put 400,000 black people, most of whom men, in jail for nonviolent drug offenses. That’s so racist my friends. For anyone who had read a book tracing the everyday life of black folks living in the projects at the end of the 20th century, knows how luring the streets are when people are poor. And knows about the drug gangs protecting their turf, and whose violence and stray bullets black families wanted to escape, but poverty prevented them.

“But the racial disparity remains so vast that it’s pretty hard to celebrate. How exactly do you talk about ‘less horrific?’

Wrote John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University for The Marshall Project in 2017.

And it’s even insulting when the number of black inmates has decreased an inconsiderable bit since 2007, but politicians can’t explain why. It’s like they stuck their heads in the sand when they ought to have a sharp clarity in the work they do–or fail to do–to obliterate mass incarceration. After all, America has by far the world’s most incarcerated people.

The US has failed to show the sympathy we so need for our African-American brothers. (So much so that the author Michelle Alexander calls this mass incarceration the new Jim Craw.) Instead, private prisons seized this dirty opportunity to make a profit on the surge of black men behind jail. How is that different form the white man who made a profit on cotton while his slaves toiled daylong in the fields for free?

Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination- employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the rights to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits and exclusion from jury service- are suddenly legal… we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

Michelle Alexander wrote in her 2010 book The New Jim Craw. (I’m not getting any commission for mentioning the book. I’m quoting her because it drives home my point.)

The difference is that now we have shareholders, instead of white men inside slave auction rooms. But each shareholder, my friends, is complicit to racism and, like during slavery, the profits are too important for them to self-annihilate. Like the South before the Civil War, the prison industrial complex won’t abolish its racist business model without a war. Yet, this time a war that we ought to fight by pouring into the streets, and electing politicians who refuse corporate money. No wonder private prisons have donated over 1 million this year already—and many more since 1998—to republicans. Private prisons have been doing that to assuage an existential angst.

It’s no surprise black families suffer. In fact, it’s black families that feel the true existential angst. But the least we want is to victimize them more as if the state hasn’t already done enough damage. That’s why I love Dani McClain’s adapted article for The Nation. She recognizes the reality of single black mothers and congratulates them for the incredible resilience they have shown since slavery. When she mentioned 400 years of family disruption, I thought about slave auctions.

McClain seeks in herself a sense of pride for who she is, and by extension who all black mothers are: courageous women who, inspire of stigma, are capable of rearing children as good as any other so-called and so much glorified nuclear family.

One particular fact struck me in her article: single mothers in Denmark live a stable life as those married. Instead of destroying the social welfare that should be fixing its racist past and present, America must be promoting nationwide parental leave, universal healthcare and childcare. And of course, America must pay its people a fair wage above $15. These, and others I overlooked, are the systemic changes we ought to seek, not a racist war on drugs that has enriched amoral corporations.

The question shouldn’t be whether we can put together two measly paychecks, but whether we as individuals can get paid a fair wage.

Dani McClain wrote in We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood.

But that doesn’t mean we should relax knowing that black mothers are strong. Or that they use an efficient village-oriented approach to raise children, which is tune with how people functioned through most world’s history. The desire for a complete marriage is humane and shouldn’t be out of reach for African-Americans. That’s what a free America promises us after all.

The War on Drugs and the people behind it are the culprits; they claim their righteousness behind institutions that promote racism. McClain is right to acknowledge that black mothers can’t afford to overlook talking with their children about race, something 75% of white families fail to do. Black mothers can’t afford that when police is free to stop and frisk their children without any evidence. We ought to look no further when between 2002 and 2012 90% of the people the police stopped in New York were black and latino. That’s when 88% of stops proved to be useless and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

Black mothers haven’t had the luxury of sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that our children learn about race and power as they go.

Dani McClain.

That’s what happened with Nicholas K. Peart whom the police stopped 5 times without one reason. The injustice and the fear of police afterwards pushed him to write a letter to The New York Times. In it, Peart is thankful to the advice of his mother not to panic, to always carry an ID, and to never run away least the police shoots him. We live in a world where along black mothers, nonprofits teach black youth how to interact with the police too. For Peart and others in his community this is a rite of passage, albeit an unnecessary one. It’s a rite of passage that overcomes unnecessary fear.

But fear, my friends, is how the white men controlled his slaves, and these couldn’t afford to stand up for themselves. In All God’s Dangers, a biography of an illiterate black man named Nate Shaw from the east-central Alabama of the 1900s, that’s exactly the case. Shaw recalls with frustration how his dad lacked the courage to stand up to a white man whose cattle had been eating his corn. This fear, my friends, has persisted. Today it’s a a source of energy for African-Americans: it’s a legitimate anger toward a system that goes against them. Yet, it’s critical that black families acknowledge and channel it into racial justice.

Reading Imani Perry’s article about a racist America that “hammers us down”, I came across a conclusion she makes, and that I find true.

In America, there’s an infrastructure of racial violence that can be executed with no spectacle, while keeping the killer’s hands unstained.

Imani Perry wrote for the Progressive in February 2019.