Race to the Bottom: An Examination of the United States’s Historical Treatment of Power and Race

by Shaun Terry

Conceptions of freedom are often framed in terms of negative freedoms and positive freedoms, with negative freedoms representing people’s freedoms from various injuries and positive freedoms representing people’s capacities1. For African-Americans, nominal liberations have been easy to criticize in the framework of the black experience relative to the white experience, especially as to (albeit not limited to) how they relate to opportunities. Slavery was protected in America’s founding documents, and when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, African-Americans’ freedoms were constrained by Jim Crow laws and systemic racism2,3,4,5,6. Even the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, allowed for people to be enslaved on the basis of their criminal conviction, leading to disproportionate conviction of African-Americans and the re-slavery of so many of them7.

There is an unfortunate pattern in history by which power is asserted, checked, and reasserted. That is to say that, typically, power finds ways to circumvent laws and conventions in order to find new means of oppression, necessitating new social movements, new laws, and new conventions. Throughout American history, the African-American experience reflects this reality.

Our nation’s founders grappled with fumbled the morality of slavery. While arguments on moral bases were made for and against slavery, ultimately, the question was resolved with economics and power in mind—African-Americans not being considered full humans in the founding documents8,9,10. Logistically, it can be presumed that the freeing of slaves in earnest would have meant a reconstruction of America’s economy such that some money and, therefore, some power in the hands of powerful slave owners would have had to have been distributed among former slaves. The American South represented an economic powerhouse, producing goods at a highly efficient clip, helping to protect the burgeoning nation from outside threat11. But redistribution of power is always complicated for those who are power holders.

To look back on history, arguments for equity seem to generally met by power with irrational, forceful resistance. Even today, All Lives Matter is a blinded response to the Power Elite’s disregard for the lives of black men, in particular. There is a paradox in All Lives Matters’s position in that they vociferously argue against themselves: if all lives matter, then why are they not on the side of Black Lives Matter? The truth is that privilege often breeds oblivion, as in the founding documents’ assertions that all men are created equal, ignoring black men altogether (to say nothing of the obvious misogyny)12,13. When faced with inequity, the privileged few have a tendency to deny reality out of fear of having something—in this case, privilege itself—taken from them.

The founding of our nation was no different. Was there ever a moral claim to slavery? Of course there was not, but for many of the founders who benefitted by slavery, the thought of paying blacks for their labor meant giving up too much. Great African-American thinkers like Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois pointed out the hypocrisies in American conceptions of and actualizations of freedom, but in reality, these hypocrisies were likely unnecessary to point out to the founders, even if the rhetoric of such African-American intellectuals succeeded in stirring up discourse14,15. The fact is that the founding fathers were not morally conflicted; simply, they had economic interests that they held above moral ones. While the founding fathers did enough to emancipate Americans from colonial rule, they did not show the same reverence for the liberation of slaves as they did for themselves and those whom they considered to be more like themselves.

What the founders might have known, and ought to have known, is that the nation’s tenuous hold on the abominable institution of slavery would lead to greater violence and more extreme means of subjugating blacks. Unfortunately, as in the cases of the foundation of the republic, All Lives Matter, and all points before, between, and to come, it seems it is generally not enough for the Power Elite to simply use their capacity to deny privilege; they often exert violence revolutionaries and would-be revolutionaries (essentially, those whom they oppress)16.

There is a legacy of systemic oppression against African-Americans that has gone unbroken since the founding of slavery. As previously noted, the dissolution of state-sanctioned slavery did not fully emancipate African-Americans. The verbiage used in the 13th amendment allowed for reenslavements of African-Americans, so long as those reenslaved were convicted of crimes17,18. This led to trumped up charges for countless African-Americans, in order that the convicted would provide free labor19. Conditions for imprisoned laborers were often worse than what had been experienced under slavery, much of that owed to the fact that the labor was further commodified20. The labor in this case were not owned by the elites exploiting the labor; there was nothing to lose for the capital class if African-American prison laborers died or fell ill, since the capital class had not paid for them, had nothing to gain by maintaining their lives, and, through commodification, were further removed from them as humans20.

The arbitrary treatment of African-Americans as criminals has followed the African-American community since this period through today. Even since the Civil Rights Era, the wars on crime and drugs have had an explicit, intentional racial basis, of which even today’s presidential candidates have partaken. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in 1968, running as the law and order candidate. He emphasized reducing crime and reducing the influence of drugs. In a recent article in Harper’s magazine, Nixon adviser John Ehrlichmann was quoted,

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did21.”

Lee Atwater, a Reagan adviser, was quoted having said,

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites22.”

George H. W. Bush used Michael Dukakis’s debate response on the death penalty by making an ad featuring African-American Willie Horton to not-so-subtly pander to racist whites. Donald Drumpf would foreshadow the tone of his ongoing presidential campaign when he took out ads in New York newspapers to advocate for killing four young African-American men and one young Hispanic man accused of having raped a white woman23. It would later be found that another man had committed the crime24. But it is not only Republicans who have been guilty of using racism for political benefit. Hillary Clinton is now infamous for having referred to young black men as “superpredators,” when speaking about Bill Clinton’s crime legislation that ushered in an incredible era of mass incarceration that resulted in the devastations of many African-American lives25,26.

While African-American men have been victims of racist formations of crime policy, African-American women have also been harmed a good deal by these policies27. In fact, freedom has been especially complicated for African-American women, as they have had to deal with oppression for their race, their gender, and their class, as Melissa Harris-Perry has put it28. Since America’s founding, African-American women have faced at least a double jeopardy. Put in very practical terms, neither African-Americans nor women could vote at the onset of the republic, so African-American women had to wait for both the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act before they achieved full suffrage29,30. These multiple forms of oppression follow African-American women throughout their history on this continent, and in many forms. African-American women’s roles tend to speak to pronounced imbalances in power, as African-American women are often asked to be lots of different—even contradictory—things to lots of people, including sexual objects, diligent laborers, mothers, partners, breadwinners, counselors, and sanctified, to boot31. Depictions of African-American women in media, from America’s founding through today, tend to caricaturize and diminish them32. The Combahee River Collective was a direct response to the outcomes of social movements that came up short of what was necessary for African-American women, speaking to the problems in being treated as less-than, based on their intersecting identities of underprivilege33.

The implications of the African-American experience are many. I recently discovered an idea by Saskia Sassen on how climate change has led to disastrous results for children sent to migrate illegally from Latin America to the United States, and I find a parallel34. Sassen asserts that climate change has led to crowding of large Latin American cities and extreme urban violence; in turn, some families elect to send their youngest members for a better life in the United States, sometimes ending in devastating results for these children and their families35. Perhaps similarly, institutional racism, particularly in the American South, led to migration away from the South, only for jobs in the North and West to be displaced while mass incarceration took root; the result of all this has often been broken African-American families, lowering wages relative to whites’, lowering employment figures, and murders of African-Americans by police36. Power seems to find means of getting what it intends to get.

If one observes rainwater in nature, it could be noticed that water seeks the lowest point, eventually etching out the most efficient path it can find. Similarly, what seems to happen with power—and to be more specific, what the American Power Elite seem to have done with race—is that it does everything it can think to do in order to reverse those pesky proletarian measures taken to redistribute wealth and power. When revolutions (big and small) occur, reforms are undertaken and equity is created. The Power Elite then work to reconcentrate their wealth and power in whatever ways they possibly can. It seems that they always eventually find the most efficient path they can to the lowest possible point. Our founding fathers may not have intended to brutalize African-Americans for the foreseeable future, just as it may be the case that today’s leaders do not intend harm. For so many people still dealing with grave inequities, though, the intentions of the oppressor are hardly worth considering.

  1. Conceptions of freedom have long been framed in terms of negativity and positivity. For further explanation, see Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty.
  2. The Declaration of Independence
  3. The Constitution of the United States of America.
  4. The Emancipation Proclamation.
  5. Jim Crow Laws were laws that segregated blacks and whites in the American South between the Civil War and the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
  6. Systemic racism is the force by which institutions discriminate on the basis of race.
  7. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
  8. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XIV.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII.
  10. The Constitution of the United States of America.
  11. Taken from lecture notes.
  12. Ibid.
  1. The Declaration of Independence.
  2. The Constitution of the United States of America.
  3. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
  4. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk.
  5. The Civil War and backlash against the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter serve as obvious examples.
  6. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.
  7. Douglas Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Dan Baum, “Legalize It All: How to Win the War on Drugs,” Harper’s Magazine.
  11. Bob Herbert, “Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant,” The New York Times.
  12. Donald Drumpf took out ads in the four major New York newspapers at the time.
  13. Matias Reyes admitted to the crime and gave a full, corroborated account.
  14. Hillary Clinton made the infamous statement at a speech in Keene, New Hampshire, on January 25th, 1996.
  15. Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.
  16. To illustrate the point, African-American mothers have been left without coparents, and the loss of African-American men has resulted in the loss of breadwinners, as examples.
  17. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.
  18. The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution gave white women the right to vote.
  19. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped to protect African-Americans’ rights to vote.
  20. Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.
  21. If we consider the roles of African-American women throughout history, they are often portrayed as overly sexualized, unintelligent, devoid of power, and generally dehumanized.
  22. The Combahee River Collective, “A Black Feminist Statement.”
  23. Saskia Sassen, “Three Emergent Migrations: An Epochal Change.”
  24. Ibid.
  25. Michael Dawson, Behind the Mule.