In 2012, the Tarzeen Fire in Bangladesh killed 112 workers. It’s been slightly forgotten in the aftermath of the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that killed over 1100, but was certainly horrible in its own right–remember, Triangle killed 146 so Tarzeen was nearly as deadly. Of course, it’s hardly coincidental that all three of these incidents were in the apparel industry, which has long thrived on an extremely exploitative model that sought to protect department stores from responsibility for production. Such was the case at Triangle and such is the case at Tarzeen. Of the 16 clothing firms linked to production at Tarzeen at the time, only 2 have paid any compensation to the survivors or the families of the dead. Neither are American firms. The American firms contracting to have apparel made at Tarzeen: Dickey’s, Wal-Mart, Disney, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent. They continue to profit off the long-established system of apparel worker exploitation and dead workers are an acceptable cost for those profits. Only with mandatory compensation and legal recompense for the affected will these companies be held to account. And that is what we need to be fighting for, as I argue in Out of Sight.
On November 25, 1865, Mississippi created the first of the Black Codes. Designed to recreate slavery in all but name, this signified the white South’s massive resistance to the freeing of their labor force and the lengths to which it would go to tie workers to a place under white control.
The impact of slavery’s end is hard to overestimate. But the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves immediately and the ratification of the 13th Amendment did not take place until well after the war’s end. The federal government was woefully unprepared, both in manpower and ideas, for ensuring that the rights of ex-slaves were respected after the war. Sure, slavery might be effectively dead as of April 14, 1865, when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, but was the U.S. military there to enforce freedom on the plantations? Largely, no. The immediate months after the war were filled with violence as whites killed newly freed people in the countryside, especially as they began to flee for cities like Memphis and New Orleans. For cotton planters, this black flight was a real threat. They prospered on owning black labor. If they couldn’t own that labor, planters at least needed to keep it on the land to pick the cotton that might allow them to rebuild their economic base.
The Black Codes thus intended to trap black labor in place. The plantation elite’s top goal immediately upon emancipation was to corral black labor, whose core goal was to avoid the plantation labor system, preferably replacing it with small farms they owned. The Black Codes intended to prevent this. Building upon the slave codes regulating black behavior, and especially black movement, before the war, the Black Codes was the South’s statement to the North that the end of the war did not mean the end of white supremacy. Blacks would have to show a written contract of employment at the start of each year, ensuring they were laboring for a white employer. At the core of the Mississippi code and copied around the South was the vagrancy provision. “Vagrancy” was a term long used in the United States to crack down on workers not doing what employers or the police wanted them to do. In this case, it meant not working for a white person.
Mississippi did not allow blacks to rent land for themselves. Rather, all blacks in rural areas must labor for a white under 1-year contracts. They did not have the option to quit working for that white person. If a black person in the countryside was found not working for a white person, the state would contract that worker out to a private landowner and receive a portion of their wages. If a black person could not pay high taxes levied on them by the state, they would be charged the vagrancy and the same process would result. As during slavery, any white person could legally arrest any black person. A Fugitive Slave Act-like provision was included that made it illegal to assist a black person from leaving their landowner with real punishments for whites who did so. That provision also stated that blacks caught running away would lose their wages for the year. Children whose parents could not take care of them, as defined by the whites of Mississippi, would be bonded to their former owners. Other forms of black behavior were also criminalized, such as preaching without a license or “insulting” language toward whites. Interracial marriage, it goes without saying, was banned as well.
In other words, Mississippi reinstituted slavery.
Other southern states quickly built on Mississippi’s black codes. South Carolina barred blacks from any occupation other than farmer or servant unless they played a very steep annual tax that sought to pauperize the large free black community in Charleston. Virginia included in its vagrancy law anyone who refused to work for the “usual and common wages given to other laborers” in order to eliminate whites competing for black labor. Florida’s Black Code allowed whites to whip those who broke their labor contract and then be sold for a year. Texas and Louisiana mandated that women and children who could work be working in the fields.
The response in the North to these laws was largely one of outrage. After all, what had they just fought this war over? While at the beginning of the war, northern whites could legitimately argue the war was about restoring the union and not slavery, no one could make that argument by the end of the war, for so it was so clearly about both. When word of this got out, the North, unclear what path toward Reconstruction it would take and still reeling from the death of Abraham Lincoln six months earlier and the ascendance of his successor, Andrew Johnson, was finally moved to take more decisive action against increasingly recalcitrant ex-Confederates.
Quickly after its passage, General O.O. Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, declared the Black Code invalid. Congress met just a few weeks later for the first time since the end of the war. At this Congress, the South also sent ex-Confederate leaders such as former vice-president Alexander Stephens to represent them. Taken together, this led to the rise of Congressional Reconstruction and the war between Congress and Johnson. As the Southern elite did during the 15 years before the Civil War, its aggressive overreach created northern white backlash that then led to a significant commitment to black rights. That might not have lasted very long, but it did ensure that as unfair as postwar labor relations would become, they would look nothing like slavery. Congressional Reconstruction would void the black codes and put off the violent suppression of southern black labor for several years, opening at least the possibility of a future that provided the freed slaves dignity, although it was not to be.
In the end, it was sharecropping that would define the postwar southern agricultural labor force, not bonded black labor. There are a number of reasons for these complex arrangements that would still strongly exploit African-American labor, but it still provided ex-slaves more control over their lives than desired by the white plantation elite, who would largely be unable to recreate their economic dominance after the war.
As with all things Reconstruction, the work of Eric Foner is a great place to start, and some of this post is borrowed from his books.
This is the 125th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.
Least surprising development ever.
It’s inevitable. Someone makes a comment/post about misogynists and someone comes along to say that said misogynists are probably ugly, sad, lonely, loser virgins. Aside from the fact that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a virgin (at any age), this stereotype of misogynists does a disservice to everyone who’s concerned about combatting misogyny.
There are plenty of people out there who are not conventionally attractive who manage to have exciting, fulfilling romantic lives. That’s because people who are not conventionally attractive can also be sexy and interesting and there are plenty of people out there who understand this. Conversely, the idea that all misogynists are ugly, friendless virgins needs to die in a fire because it’s simply untrue. Do I think there is a sizable contingent of #GamerGaters who are…let’s say…lacking? Yes. But not everyone who hopped dick-first into #GamerGate fray is some pitiable shut-in. In fact, some of them are probably serviceable-looking and successful with women. (For values of “successful” I’m saying “able to trick a woman into the sack.”) Let’s stop with the “ugly virgin” trope. It’s not just problematic, it’s inaccurate.
I mean, look, King Caesar is a giant, pantsless cat-dragon and he does just fine.
Security policy HOT TAKES from Max Boot:
The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.
I dunno, I think I preferred the Boot who was a poor man’s Mark Levin to the one who’s a poor man’s Charles Krauthammer…
I suppose I should visit Glacier National Park and Glacier Bay National Park before the glaciers become one of our starkest memorials to human-caused climate change. The loss of these glaciers will have widespread negative impacts on the humans and ecosystems in entire region, as they will around the world, including in China and Bolivia.
One small consolation is that turkey skin is delicious—no more so than the skin of other birds, but still, it gives you something to look forward to. Peel it off the bird, press it between two baking sheets, and bake it at 350 for twenty to thirty minutes, by which time it will crisp up like delicious crackers made out of meat.
It’s what to do with the white meat that’s the real ball-breaker. I would say feed it to your dog, but maybe your dog knows better than your friends and family? Ideally you’ll use this holiday to judge whether your family members are good people or not. Will they trust you to make Thanksgiving a way better holiday by dispensing with the Rockwell painting once and for all? Put them to the test.
One time I tried to go all Korean Pilgrim Hero, and I turned a gigantic stupid turkey into a couple of roulades, which is French for “delicious meat logs.” It went like this: I splayed the skin out. I pounded the breast meat into cutlets and laid them over the skin. Braised leg meat, stuffing (with lots of thyme and mirepoix), and some super-gelatinous turkey stock went in the middle. I used plastic wrap to torque these assemblages into roulades. Then I roasted them low and browned them in butter and bird fat to crisp the skin before serving. They were good, sure. But you know what I should have done? Gone to KFC and bought a shitload of chicken, mashed potatoes, coleslaw, gravy, and corn. I can’t imagine any turkey tasting as good as KFC.
Dark meat chicken from KFC for me. I can make better mac and cheese though so that can be the homemade part of the meal.
Why do Wal-Mart workers keep using one-day strikes as a protest tool? Largely because they don’t have any other tools that are likely to work:
One-day strikes don’t shut down the workplace like iconic strikes of yore did (and some workers, like Chicago teachers, still can). But if done right, they can accomplish some of what those walkouts did: Embarrass companies, estrange them from their customers, and engage fellow workers and the broader public by disrupting business as usual and creating a public spectacle. Instead of halting production, they anchor broader campaigns of political, media, legal, and consumer pressure aimed at getting management to budge. “It’s showing them that enough is enough,” says Venanzi Luna, one of about 60 employees who joined a Nov. 13 California walkout backed by OUR Walmart, the non-union workers group closely tied to the United Food & Commercial Workers union. OUR Walmart insists its protests are paying off, pointing to a series of announcements by the retailer that address policies—from minimum-wage pay, to part-time scheduling, to accommodations for pregnant workers—that have been rallying cries for the campaign.
It’s entirely possible (I’d say probable) that this pressure is what is causing Wal-Mart to slightly move the dial toward a dignified life for its workers. But the end game is really hard to see for this movement. A wide-scale strike is really not possible without 100 times more active support for Wal-Mart workers than it presently has, in no small part because there are so many locations and workplaces. Even if everyone in one store went on strike, if the other nearby stores didn’t follow, Walmart would easily swat it away. Given this situation, the 1-day strike makes a lot of sense with continued pressure throughout the year that keeps the Wal-Mart workers’ situation in our consciousness and hopefully leads to some sort of eventual larger transformation of workers’ lives. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when Wal-Mart embarrasses itself.
In other words, these actions are indicative of both the problems American workers face in 2014 and the potential organizing actions to alleviate those problems.
Man of principle Andrew Cuomo refuses to say that human-caused climate change exists, wants to avoid “political debate” on the issue.
Not quite, Spike — I just wrote an Internet Film School column about the Thanksgiving episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer for the AV Club.
Thanksgiving is a holiday that allows filmmakers to get back to the medium’s theatrical roots. No elaborate sets are required — just a table and some people who know each other so well they decided to come together once a year rather than interact regularly. It is a chance for film to scale back its visual ambitions and look like a play without stumbling into the stodgy stage direction of an old episode of Masterpiece Theatre. Only unlike those film adaptations of dramatic works, there is a natural quality to the limitations placed upon a film that happens on Thanksgiving. Everyone looks like they’re in the same place not because the theater couldn’t afford better sets, but because everyone is trapped in the same confined spaces by strained familial bonds. Because if ever there were a time and a place for families to fall apart, it’s Thanksgiving.
Families fall apart all the time — I consider “families falling apart” to be a genre, and Noah Baumbach the current king of it — but never as spectacularly as they do during Thanksgiving. Perhaps as alluded to above, it is because of the artificially pressurized atmosphere the holiday creates. People who don’t particularly like each other are yet again forced to make extended displays of false joviality in order to please the one family member who actually cares about everyone. Sometimes that character is a doting mother, sometimes a dying father, or in the case of the “Pangs” episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, an empty-nested Chosen One whose surrogate family is on the brink of collapse…
My latest at the National Interest:
In 1991, Chinese military officers watched as the United States dismantled the Iraqi Army, a force with more battle experience and somewhat greater technical sophistication than the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The Americans won with casualties that were trivial by historical standards.
This led to some soul searching. The PLA hadn’t quite been on autopilot in the 1980s, but the pace of reform in the military sector had not matched that of social and economic life in China. Given the grim performance of the PLA in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, something was bound to change. The Gulf War provided a catalyst and direction for that change.