What we are about to witness in Tampa will put to rest any notion that somehow since 2008 we have been living in a “post-racial” America. It is appropriate, therefore, that this Republican Party National Convention is taking place in the most geographically southern of all states, Florida.
Florida’s history of oppression of black people is very long and very deep. It is the state where for centuries the enslavement of black people was most harshly exercised. It is the state where, immediately following chattel slavery’s demise, revised forms of neo-slavery were instituted and made part and parcel of the state’s socio-economic and political infrastructure. Share cropping, convict leasing, tenant farming, vagrancy laws, “Black Codes” (which replaced “Slave Codes”) – all found supreme expression here.
For more than 100 years, following slavery’s end, right up to 1965, these “new and improved” forms of black oppression rendered black Floridians invisible politically, socially, and especially economically. Racial separation and segregation of Florida’s politics and money insured that black people had absolutely no voice whatever in the state’s collection and distribution of tax dollars, and that blacks “earned” fewer of those dollars than anyone else.
During slavery, for example, black people were not paid “wages.” Black slaves were, however, provided with rudimentary “room and board” and clothing of a sort. The selfsame system occurred post-slavery as blacks “worked” for just enough to keep them alive, ill-housed, ill-clothed, and uneducated. In short, they were “provided” with just enough to keep them healthy enough to continue working.
These conditions obtained throughout the South (and in certain northern states as well. (See the Indiana, Illinois and Ohio “Black Codes"), but were particularly egregious in Florida.
Who set up, and who enforced these conditions? Descendants of former wealthy, large plantation owners and slaveholders set up this new peonage system and employed as its enforcers working class and poor whites. These were/are people who had been convinced since the beginning, since the 1600s, that their economic, political and social self-interests were based most fundamentally on their whiteness, their non-blackness. They believed, and still believe, that “race” was and remains a tangible, present, and real biological and genetic fact of American (read human) life.
But working class whites’ most fundamental belief and understanding was/is that if black people come “up,” they must necessarily go “down.” For them it has always been a zero-sum situation. That is, they “identified” with the rich, wealthy white planters and slaveholders in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, just as their descendants so identified with the capitalists of the 20th and now the 21st centuries.
And that is what we will see in Florida this coming week. For those who have problems grasping, appreciating, understanding or believing that “racism” and white supremacy are still the most important arbiters of life in these United States, just tune in, for the real American is about to reveal him- and herself.
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