Policing Black Bodies: A tool for extracting and exploiting free labor

The system of chattel slavery that enslaved millions and millions of people of African descent for the first 250 years of United States history is the story of policing Black bodies.

The very definition of people of African descent as “chattel” sets the system of slavery in the United States apart from all other forms of slavery past or present and it sets the table for race relations today and particularly the story of policing Black bodies.  By defining enslaved Africans brought to the United States as chattel, in the same category as life stock, meant that human beings could be (and were) bought and sold often on an auction block, routinely ripping apart families. The status of a chattel slave, unlike any other category of slave past or present, meant that the status was biological and thus the status could not be shed—one could not buy or work one’s way out of slavery—and the status was inherited.  In 1787, the Constitutional Congress of the newly forming United States enacted the 3/5th compromise which dictated that enslaved people would be counted as 3/5th of a human.  The 3/5ths Compromise along with the definition of enslaved people of African descent as chattel provided the ideological justification for the ultimate in policing of Black bodies, both literally and symbolically.

Slave owners employed policing tactics in order to restrict the movement of their property, enslaved men and women, including when they attempted to run away. But they also controlled literally every aspect of the enslaved body, deciding what work the enslaved person would do, what the enslaved person would eat, and how much, even if and when the enslaved girl or woman would have a child, which was accomplished both by raping enslaved women and by forcing enslaved men and women to engage in sexual intercourse for the singular purpose of increasing property for the slave owners at the exclusion of the enslaved people’s “right” to enjoy raising a family.

David Blackmon, author of Slavery by Another Name, traces the development of a set of policies and practices that allowed the southern plantation economy to continue on the backs of exploited, often “free” Black labor.  In an interview with Bill Moyers he notes: “…that the southern economy, and in a way, the American economy, was addicted to slavery, was addicted to forced labor. And the South could not resurrect itself…” Thus, after the formal end of slavery in 1865, Black Codes were quickly put into place to restrict the movement of the newly freed, formerly enslaved people.  Blacks were subjected, for example, to curfews and could be arrested for merely hanging out and enjoying their freedom or “loitering.”  And, whereas Black Codes became a tool for the literal policing of Black bodies, Jim Crow segregation, which lasted another hundred years after the formal end of slavery, was a set of tools and strategies coordinated to provide both literal and symbolic policing of Black bodies; controlling where Blacks could live, which schools they could attend, and even the days of the week they were allowed to swim in the community pool, if they were allowed to swim at all.  The maintenance of Nation’s integrity requires constant vigilance.

In his 1997 book Worse than Slavery, David Oshinsky writes about the origins of “plantation prisons” that popped up across the deep south shortly after the Civil War, including Angola in Louisiana and Parchman in Mississippi.  Prisons like Angola and Parchman were constructed explicitly to continue to enslave Blacks and exploit their labor in a deeply rooted agricultural economy.  Oshinsky notes that there were laws that allowed the police to arrest Black men for status offenses, like loitering, and incarcerate them, specifically at plantation prisons, during planting and harvesting seasons when the demand for this “free” Black labor increased dramatically.  These same men were released, conveniently, after the planting or harvesting seasons ended, their labor extracted at no cost, because the state no longer wanted to pay to house and feed them.

Prisons didn’t only make money by extracting the “free labor” of incarcerated men, they also “loaned out” inmates to local businesses for a fee, a system referred to convict leasing.   Inmates might be loaned out for manual labor in local business, or, they might be sent to forced labor camps or sentenced to chain gangs where they were forced to do dangerous, highly intensive physical labor under conditions similar to the work camps we typically associate with Russia and China.  There were forced labor camps in places like rural Georgia, where incarcerated Blacks worked in turpentine camps and lumber camps where they were chained to machines, whipped and provided meager rations, just like they had been on the plantations of the antebellum South. In North Carolina, inmates were forced in chain gangs to build roads. They were “housed” in train cars that were used to transport livestock and circus animals, they had limited toileting and were fed meager rations.

At the end of the Civil War and at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, most Blacks in the United States lived in the south, it’s economy, as noted by Blackmon, deeply embedded in agriculture.  As a result, most Blacks who were emancipated continued to farm, often as sharecroppers on the same plantations where they had been enslaved.  Not eager to give over even a fraction of their wealth to freed Blacks nor pay them fairly for their labor, many White plantation owners set up complex systems, including sharecropping loans and company stores that quickly led to freed Blacks being deeply indebted to the plantation owner.  The debt peonage system allowed the police to arrest Blacks who were over a certain debt limit and return them to the plantation owner where they were enslaved and required to work until the point at which their debt was paid off.  As Blackmon argues, less than a generation after Emancipation, Blacks in the south were once again engaged in slave labor.  And, though all of this may seem like ancient history, plantation prisons like Parchman continue to rely on incarcerated labor to produce all of the food consumed by the inmates.  Parchman also continues to participate in the convict lease system.  A walk or drive through the downtown of many Delta towns will reveal inmates from Parchman cutting grass for municipalities or cleaning the windows of local businesses.  All of this begs the question of whether Blacks have been truly emancipated  more than 150 years after the official end of slavery.

Though some readers might take offense to the comparison between slavery and the planation prison system, the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States that “freed the slaves” retained a clause that allowed for the confinement and exploitation of incarcerated people.  It reads, in part

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Today, as we argue strongly in this book, the labor of inmates continues to be exploited vis-a-vis the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), a system in which inmates are engaged in every kind of labor from agricultural to factory work to high end electronics and computer monitoring, for which they receive very little compensation. The profits of their labor are reaped by states and private, multinational corporations.

To Read More, Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change is available at Amazon.

Recent Posts