Racism & slavery

Slavery needs to be examined together with human trafficking (see that webpage). Racism is a whole additional issue in urbanism. Here I am posting just a few key readings as I gather them.

Frederick Douglass, 1855. My Bondage My Freedom. A firsthand account of slavery; a detailed history of life in Maryland; an adventure tale; and a profound analysis of the passage from a condition of bondage to a condition of freedom. What more can you ask of a text, or its author? Douglass attended the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, arguing for the rights of women. Compassionate? Read how he sees the harm that slavery does to his own white masters in Baltimore (Chapters X and XI). Badass? Read his account of how he fought his slave-master and beat the man without hurting him (Chapter XVII, “The last flogging,” p.180).

Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886). Of course, racism in the United States is not confined to African-Americans. In California from 1850-1950, the worst discrimination was against Asian-Americans, especially Chinese and then Japanese. The federal government was very concerned about anti-Chinese violence and legislation after 1868, when it was trying to stitch the Confederate states back into the Union. Thus, the combined Yick Wo / Wo Lee cases were one of the first major applications of the 14th Amendment. The 13th Amendment banned slavery; but the 14th extended Constitutional rights down to every subordinate jurisdiction within the U.S. With the 14th Amendment can you argue that a state, county, or municipal law is ‘unconstitutional.’ Before that, the argument would have been irrelevant because the U.S. Constitution did not pertain to local laws. (Note that some TEA Partisans want to repeal the 14th Amendment, which is one meaning of the term “originalist.”)
Note also that urban planning and the political power of unions can both be traced to anti-Asian racism. Whatever we may think of unions today, the California Workingman’s Party of the 1870s and 1880s was avowedly and explicitly racist.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). This is the U.S. Supreme Court decision that established the ‘separate but equal’ principle in American law from 1896 to 1954. In the history of U.S. jurisprudence it is only slightly less shameful than the Dred Scott case; even the dissenting judge sensed this at the time. Note that this decision disregards the Yick Wo precedent and the intention of the 14th Amendment. In the majority opinion, the justices express a real fear of imminent race war, along the lines of what John Brown had proposed. The judges believed that if whites and blacks were kept apart, perhaps such a war could be avoided. This attempt at a “spatial fix” was the model for South Africa’s apartheid legislation in the 20th century.
Note that the Court burdens private companies with task of implementing segregation. Railroad companies had to provide two passenger cars, or one divided car with two entrances. Restaurants had to provide a “colored persons” door and two water-fountains. Today we categorically condemn segregation; and there is ample documentation that separate facilities were not at all equal. But we need to be careful, with our current convictions, not to disregard some of the weird implications of this case: the Supreme Court felt justified in burdening white business-owners with much of the cost of implementing segregation, “to keep the peace” between the races.
The Plessy decision is especially important in the history of planning because of its overtly spatial rationality. It is worth noting that the Ambler v. Euclid decision, which established land use planning, was also based on the idea of segregation. Furthermore, Ambler was decided in 1926, in a segregated America–20 years after Plessy, and 28 years before Brown v. Board invalidated the idea of “separate but equal.” Sadly, “segregation” is still an acceptable term in land-use planning, and yet it promotes yet another destructive practice: low-density, auto-dependent urban development.

W.E.B. DuBois, 1903. Souls of Black Folk. A half-century after Douglass, and the Civil War, and the failure of Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois examined the internal and material condition of African-Americans. Du Bois wrote in a lyrical, poetic style; so this text is a pleasure to read–even though it deals with many of the appalling aspects of racism towards African-Americans in the United States. The book is now 110 years old, but in so many disturbing ways it remains relevant for our present day.

Eric Williams, 1944. Capitalism and slavery. Eric Williams makes the argument that the Europeans who sought to make a profit from New World ventures lacked labor. This sharp and sustained demand for labor–as a productive commodity–was the driving engine behind the creation of the chattel-slave system of the 1600s through 1800s. Therefore, the far greater brutality of this system, compared to the many other practices of slavery recorded over human history, is that it was the capitalist form of slavery. In this system, the slave does not just lose her liberty: she is completely dehumanized as the economic factor known as ‘labor’ or metonymically as ‘hands.’ (metonym is a symbolic substitution of one thing–usually an object or place–for another, more complex entity or process).

Michelle Alexander, 2011. The new Jim Crow. Beginning with research in Oakland, CA, Alexander’s book is provoking a national discussion about continued intense and systematic discrimination against African-Americans in an age when an African-American is President of the United States.

[Note: I have removed the open link to The new Jim Crow because it is under copyright. All of the other books above are “Pietro’s Press” editions, where I took a public-domain text from Justia, Project Gutenberg, or the Internet Archive and formatted it into a PDF that can be read on your smart-phone. If you can, please support these organizations that provide key texts to us for free.]

May 2, 2014: Check out this news-item about ongoing challenges for faculty in white-majority communities.


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