I'm currently in the middle of Gilbert King's Devil in the Grove, a book focusing on Thurgood Marshall's involvement in a case of the alleged rape of a White woman by four Black men in Groveland, Florida in 1949 and the ensuing terrorism by White people of the local Black community. I highly recommend it. In addition to providing an eye-opening narrative about racial terror in America, the book also provides incredible details on the life and career of Marshall and his work at the NAACP.
Prevalent in the narrative is Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall, whom readers will remember from Isabel Wilkerson's brilliant The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration. McCall, known as "the big hat man," served in large part as a tool of the powerful citrus industry.
With McCall's ruthless tactics, he and the citrus industry effectively implemented a modern-day form of slavery in Florida. By enforcing dated "work or fight" laws, they essentially made it illegal for Black men to ever be not working. King tells the story of a man being picked up and arrested because he was found not working during the day--on a Saturday.
In addition to being arrested for "vagrancy," Black workers were also fined. And because their pay was low, they generally couldn't afford the fines, and found themselves in an endless cycle of being forced to work for citrus owners to pay off the fines they incurred for not working for the citrus owners, who controlled enforcement of those laws in the first place. This is known as debt peonage.
McCall is infamous for the way he terrorized Black people in Florida and for the system of forced labor he oversaw. And this peonage isn't 19th-Century or even turn-of-the 20th Century history. This is smack in the middle of the 20th Century near what's now "the happiest place on earth."
When I consider current systems of power and oppression, I try not to think of myself as living in some modern, enlightened time. Thinking our current times enlightened inevitably clouds our judgment and muddies our views of current injustices.
Instead, I try to imagine myself living in some future's past. And I try to imagine what the clarity of time will have the people of the future saying about those of us living in the history of today.
Ta-Nehisi Coates long ago persuaded me of the folly of trying to identify any absolute "good" or "evil," or of attempting to "know a man's heart." And I know that I will never be able to see myself or my time outside of myself or my own experience in my time. But I also think it is critical to strive for as much clarity and truth as we can about how our systems function, and specifically how people exert power over one another.
The citrus owners and White folks of Lake County in the 1940s surely did not think themselves evil. Nor did those generations earlier who advocated bondage as a "positive good" for the Black people whom White people enslaved. Nor did residents of Levittown who, in the 1950s while trying to prevent integration of their town, proclaimed, without irony, "As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community."
Nor do we modern White people think ourselves evil for our insistent protection of our enclaves of privilege and power.
With the perspective that comes with decades passed, it can seem obvious that those who defended slavery or peonage or segregation were on shaky moral ground. Their defenses of the oppressive realities of their day can seem downright bizarre.
Our charge is to try to see, with that same clarity, the bizarreness of our own defenses of the oppressive realities of today.
Today we live in an age of continued peonage. It doesn't take the form of a cartoonish sheriff in a big hat forcing Black workers into the citrus fields. But it's not that far off.
Today, rich and powerful people still control the operation of government. And they assure us that paying fair wages to low-income people is actually terrible for those low-income people because doing so will kill jobs. Those low-income people, disproportionately people of color, are extremely limited in where they can choose to live. And since we've effectively tied the quality of your education to where you're able to choose to live, they're condemned to a subpar education. Which means they disproportionately end up in low-wage jobs, struggling to provide for their families. And when people organize to try to do something about the fact that, say, people of color disproportionately lack living wages or access to family necessities like paid sick days, well-compensated newspaper writers (who have paid sick days) decry that addressing these issues is an "ill-conceived, anti-business agenda." And we're back to the start of the graf.
Our peonage systems today may involve different tactics than those of Sheriff McCall. But they are no less effective at trapping people in an almost unbreakable cycle. These systems of peonage will be obvious decades from now. We need to fight to name them clearly, and to dismantle them now, in that future's history.