When Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts, took the oath of office earlier this month on the Bible of a slave, it was an occasion for celebration. The celebration, however, hid a deeper question: Nearly a century and a half after the end of slavery, why does the politics of race remain so charged? From the Willie Horton ads in the 1988 campaign to controversies surrounding Howard Dean’s comments about drivers of pickup trucks with Confederate decals, one could infer that the Civil War was a recent memory.
The ideals of individual liberty that inspired the American Revolution led even many prominent Southern slaveholders to believe that slavery was an anachronism that would soon end voluntarily in the South. In a famous letter to her husband, Abigail Adams commented on the irony of Southerners fighting so hard for liberty from England at the same time as they enslaved other human beings.
For John Adams, however, the greater concern was that if emancipation were pushed, unity in ongoing struggles with Britain would be damaged. John Adams’ views prevailed. The Constitution sanctioned continuing importation of slaves and infamously treated them as three-fifths persons, thereby increasing the power of slaveholders. Slavery was never as economically significant in the North and was abolished in the first three decades after the Revolution. Nonetheless, it became even more entrenched in the South. The cotton gin made cotton an ever more valuable export, and the mills of the industrializing North provided a growing market for textiles.
But North and South were locked in increasingly bitter battles over economic issues. Southerners favored free trade to aid their export crops and the North demanded tariffs to help emerging manufacturing. Northerners fought the expansion of slavery to the territories in order to blunt Southern political power. Slavery became identified with the Southern way of life and was increasingly defended by all Southerners. Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery, a powerful synthesis of contemporary scholarship on the era, points out that although non-slaveholding whites did not have a direct stake in slavery, they increasingly defined themselves by reference to black slaves. After the Revolution, Southern states enacted laws limiting the property, marriage and political rights of blacks. Small farmers and working class whites could feel that if they weren’t rich, at least they weren’t blacks.
Abolitionism, inspired in part by the religious revivals, was never a majority position even in the North before the Civil War. Many abolitionists also did not support full political and social rights for blacks. In Maine’s Visible Black History, H.H. Price and Gerald Talbot point out that although freed slaves in Maine enjoyed the right to vote from early statehood on, interracial marriage was outlawed until 1920.
War and defeat of the South pushed the country to abolish slavery. Emancipation, however, left many slaves wondering what freedom really meant. The war also devastated most of the South. Freed slaves were given no land and many soon became disappointed. As Felix Haywood, a freed slave interviewed in the 1930s at age 88 suggested: “We thought we were going to get richer than the white folks because we knew how to work, but it did not turn out that way. Freedom made us proud, but it did not make us rich.”
The war was bitterly unpopular among many Irish Catholic immigrants in Northern cities. Subjected to fierce discrimination, they feared competition for the few unskilled jobs on which they depended. The anti-draft riots in New York City in 1863 still stand as among the most violent in our history. Ironically, war and abolition of slavery even intensified racism in the South, as lower-class whites were also thrown into competition with newly freed blacks.
Freeing blacks was a major gain, but it did not resolve deeply entrenched racial animosities. As a prolonged agricultural decline hit the South and depression and labor troubles dominated northern politics, the country lost interest in Reconstruction. Southern whites imposed harsh black codes limiting the movements of blacks and systematically stripped them of political rights.
Discussions of slavery are often dismissed as that was then and this is now. But slavery’s bitter residue has long lingered. Full voting rights in the South are only a generation old, and equal access to credit and to housing remain contested terrain. The black codes are history, but racial profiling is a fact of life in many urban areas. Our drug laws are hardly color blind in their content and enforcement. And the climate in which these issues play themselves out is one in which many of the best manufacturing jobs have been lost and white working class Americans are economically insecure.
The politics of class and race are deeply intertwined in our history. Racism can easily fester in a climate of economic insecurity, but these racial animosities themselves often blunt the push for economic reform and lend legitimacy to such vast and costly diversions as the drug wars.
John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers may contact him at email@example.com.