The notion of human races is a lie. There was a “genetic bottleneck” 70,000 years ago when the human population was catastrophically reduced to 5,000. All humans alive today descended from those 5,000 survivors. We’re one family.
Even with common ancestry, the divine commandment, “love thy neighbour as thyself,” and the U.S. Declaration of Independence self-evident truth: all people are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights, discrimination based on skin colour continues.
In The Abolitionists (2013) the writers explain that in the 50 years following American independence, all northern states had outlawed slavery and southern states were close behind, not because slavery was immoral, rather, it was unprofitable.
Slavery became profitable in 1793 with the cotton gin, a machine that allowed cotton to be processed profitably, although it remained labour intensive to grow. Between 1790 and 1861, the start of the American Civil War, the number of African slaves in America more than quadrupled from 700,000 to four million as American cotton production expanded to supply two-thirds of the global market.
Cotton created unimaginable profits that stimulated demand for farm and textile machinery, shipping, warehousing and distribution throughout the U.S. and Great Britain. Slavery was the foundation of the global cotton industry and the American economy. Slaves were the single most valuable asset in the U.S. economy, worth more than all American manufacturing, railroad, steamships and other transportation combined.
Cotton wasn’t the first global commodity built on slave labour. As described by Adam Hochschild in Bury the Chains (2005), by 1660, Barbados, a very small island, generated more revenue from sugar than all commodities from all other British colonies, including the 13 American colonies, the rest of British North America and India.
By the late 1600s, Caribbean sugar plantations had devoured Barbados’s Indigenous people who were replaced with African slaves to keep profits flowing. At the expense of millions of black lives, many, many fortunes were generated, and remain, for British landlords. From their posh country estates, noble ladies and gentlemen oversaw the accumulation of blood profits extracted from black lives that mattered only to their bottom line. The profiteers did their heartless math. It was more lucrative to work African slaves to an early death and purchase replacements than treat their workers humanely.
Following the U.S. Civil War “40 acres and a mule” compensation for freed slaves was promised, but never delivered. This broken promise contrasted Lincoln’s Homestead Act gift of 160 acres to white settlers of the Great Plains. Instead of free land, freed slaves received Jim Crow which perpetuated cruelty and exploitation into the 21st century.
In The New Jim Crow (2010), Michelle Alexander explains how the majority of contemporary, urban, African-American men are denied legal rights and face legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. African-American men are targeted and far more likely to be convicted of offences that for whites result in warnings or dropped charges. Once labelled “criminal,” even after prison, records cling, disadvantaging African-Americans disproportionately and for life.
There is an uninterrupted history in America of mercilessly bludgeoning those who peacefully seek civil rights. In Red Summer (2011) Cameron McWhirter describes how African-American soldiers returning from WWI aspired for the equality they witnessed in France; equality they felt was their entitlement in exchange for their military service. The response, the American Red Summer of 1919, was exceptionally violent, anti-black riots and a spike in torturous lynchings that went unpunished, erased from popular history and omitted from school curricula.
Opposition to Jim Crow in the 1950s inspired by Medgar Evers and Fannie Lou Hamer was swift and cruel: beatings, lynchings, assassinations.
More familiar is the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with more beatings, lynchings, assassinations, but also with paper changes.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964) chronicles the life of an African-American who survives a hard childhood, poverty, early parental loss, little education, crime, imprisonment, religious conversion, to become an advocate for civil rights, and who suffered a violent death. Ironically, Malcolm X confidently prophesized justice for African-Americans by 2000.
In an essay written before his death last July, civil rights leader and U.S. congressman John R. Lewis wrote: “We must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others. Stand up for what you truly believe. Demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and non-violence is the more excellent way. Let freedom ring.
“When historians write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate, and peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. Walk with the wind and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Robert M. Macrae is an Environmental Technology Instructor from Castlegar, B.C.