The Legal Legacy of Slavery

On March 15, 2015, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family had an excellent opinion piece in the “New York Times” in which he discusses the enduring legacy of slavery. He wrote:

In popular memory – in white memory – the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land.”

Certainly this is the popular conception promulgated by the widely-read book and widely-seen movie “Gone With the Wind.” But as Ball clarifies:

In reality, they were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned. Their inhabitants, slaves, were very much survivors, in the Holocaust sense of that word.”

But, he notes, people claim that was in the distant past, and everything has changed. He proposes a thought experiment:

If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of [any] plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people, we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.”

Importantly, he brings up the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation of Ferguson, Missouri.

As the “New York Times” reported:

Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

The racial disparity in those statistics was so stark that the Justice Department has concluded in a report scheduled for release on Wednesday that there was only one explanation: The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.”

As Slate captioned this picture:  "The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth."  Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Slate captioned this picture: “The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth.” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

And although blacks were twice as likely to be searched as white citizens, blacks were 26 percent less likely to have actual contraband.

Ball adds:

…according to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the courts of the largely black and yet white-run town use arrests and fines against African-Americans to raise revenue and keep the city budget from falling into deficit.”

He emphasizes that it is hard to imagine Ferguson is alone in its discriminatory practices.

Even if such behavior is more widespread, is this the same as antebellum treatment of blacks? No, Ball answers, that would be an overstatement. Nevertheless:

…lying behind such recent events is a mentality that originates during the slave period, and provides police action with an unconscious foundation. A mentality that might be called part of the legacy of slavery.”

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