A Book Review by Karyn Pomerantz of : The Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert. London, Penguin Books 2014.
The cultivation of cotton and the production of cotton materials, made profitable by racist slavery and genocide, birthed capitalism. The Empire of Cotton describes the history of cotton production from before the Christian era through present day outsourcing to Asian sweat shops heavily staffed by impoverished women and children. Mexico, Brazil, India, China and Egypt also grew cotton yet never developed any new economic structures to maximize its value as England did.
In the 19th Century, England’s cotton trade and manufacturing transformed British feudalism into a capitalist system using violence, governmental interventions, and economic coercion to create a working class employed by a class of land and factory owners, and their financiers. Beckert graphically depicts the inhumane labor practices of chattel and wage slavery. Enslaved people were whipped heavily to increase production (vividly described in in Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told). British workers turned cotton grown in the US South by African people into garments for the growing middle and ruling classes. In more modern times, people in Bangladesh and New York work in confined spaces enveloped in dust and noise, often killed by fires and building collapses, and paid unlivable wages.
Berkert characterizes the genocidal displacement of Native Americans to secure land for cotton plantations and the brutal enslavement of Africans for free labor as “war capitalism” and government interventions, such as criminalizing and jailing workers for mistakes or absences, as “industrial capitalism.”
Government interventions and policies, such as labor laws and trade agreements, that supported the class of growers
A financial system that provided credit and insurance
While other countries used violence and coercion to force people into cotton production, they didn’t have the roads to take the cotton and clothes to the ports for shipment to England. People grew cotton (and food) to supply their own needs, farming the shared land adjacent to their homes, “the commons.”
In England, the feudal lords abolished “the commons” with the Enclosure Laws that made it illegal to use these collectively farmed lands, resulting in the loss of income, pushing 1000s of families into newly developing cities. Living and working conditions were squalid with open sewers, scant medical care and food, and no leisure time. Children as young as 8 worked over 12 hours each day performing rapid, repetitive movements and physically punished for any infractions.
Meanwhile, Native Americans lost their lands and lives, and enslaved Africans lost their liberty and families. Harsher whippings increased productivity as the demand for cotton increased. Without enslaved labor, the US would not have generated the wealth that made it a superpower. Capitalism required their labor, enriching plantation owners, textile manufacturers, shipping magnates, insurers, and bankers in the North and South. (Farrow A, Lang J, Frank J. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. NY, Ballantine, 2005).
The same class of plantation and factory owners exploited the labor of white and black adults and children in England and the US. They suffered atrocious conditions that led to rebellions through slave revolts, sabotage, and strikes. Unfortunately, white and black cotton workers rarely united in their common interests.
“Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of Southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy. It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders….Until the last quarter of [that century}, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live….The policy was so systematic and forceful that is effects endure to the present time.” These quotes are from the preface to The Color of Law, a new book by Richard Rothstein, that presents a wealth of evidence in support of his thesis. The general ignorance of the history of de jure (by law) segregation is so profound that Chief Justice John Roberts could get away with saying that since residential segregation “is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.” Such ideas inhibit legal remedies for the consequences of housing segregation, such as segregated education. The author also shows how racist housing laws contributed to income differentials, the large differences in wealth between blacks and whites, and prevented interracial cohesion.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, freed slaves enjoyed new rights during the Reconstructionist period, enforced by federal troops. But in 1877, Republican Rutherford Hayes was elected president by agreeing to withdraw these troops in order to gain the support of southern Democrats. An epidemic of racist violence, Jim Crow laws, denial of voting rights, racist incarceration, and sharecropping was then unleashed. Meanwhile local communities throughout the country implemented policies expelling black residents who had newly migrated there.
The federal government remained an oasis of equal opportunity until the diehard racist Woodrow Wilson was elected in in 1912. He oversaw total segregation in every area of work, from bathrooms to cafeterias, and forbade any African American holding a supervisory position. The first federal housing for civilians was built for defense workers during World War I, exclusively for white families numbering 170,000. Any black workers were forced into segregated slums often far from the areas of production. In 1917, the Supreme Court overruled a Kentucky segregation ordinance, not on the grounds that it was racist, but only because it interfered with the business right to make a free contract.
To insure their ability to continue racially segregated housing, municipalities began to develop zoning laws that required areas to have only single family homes with certain sized lots that would make them unaffordable to most black families. Herbert Hoover’s administration of the 1920s advised every city to develop a zoning plan. One advisor was Frederick Olmsted, Jr, the designer of Rock Creek Park in Washington, DC, who stated that “ in any housing developments which are to succeed,…racial divisions…have to be taken into account”. However, zoning laws took care not to specifically mention race, even if that was their reason for being, and the Supreme Court found them constitutional in 1926.
Zoning laws, however, did not completely solve the problem of how to exclude middle or higher income African Americans, which was tackled by exclusionary lending practices. Since the Russian revolution of 1917, Washington was terrified of the attraction that communism might hold and sought to encourage single home ownerships as a way to give white families a stake in capitalism. But homeownership remained too expensive for most until the government instituted favorable loan terms. In 1933, The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation(HOLC) began purchasing threatened mortgages and offering 15-25 year repayment schedules, which also allowed for the accumulation of equity. In order to reduce the risks and assure the exclusion of blacks, HOLC drew color-coded maps of every urban area to define areas of “risk”, which were colored red and included all African American areas. This is the origin of the term redlining.
The Depression of the 1930s and the later deflection of building materials to the war effort for World War II caused a general housing shortage addressed by President Roosevelt’s New Deal. However, all this housing was segregated by race or excluded African Americans altogether. The New Deal jobs programs, like the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps also had segregated camps, if they didn’t completely exclude African Americans.
The New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA) strove to increase housing for middle and working class families and was unique in providing one-third of its segregated units to black tenants, but its housing was required to follow “neighborhood composition,” thereby maintaining patterns of separation. In 1937, the PWA was replaced by the U.S. Housing Authority, which continued the same policies; in 1940 The Lanham Act created defense-worker housing only for whites.
The Federal Housing Authority(FHA)was created by Roosevelt in 1934. It insured bank mortgages up to 80% of the purchase price of a home and required absolute racial segregation. The FHA also discouraged loans in urban neighborhoods and encouraged them in newly built suburbs, overtly wishing to prevent school desegregation. African Americans could only get private home loans, with higher interest rates and structured so as to prevent accumulating equity.
Post WW II another crisis of deficient housing loomed, and the 1949 federal Housing Act permitted local authorities to continue building segregated public housing. VA loan appraisers relied on FHA standards and were financing most housing by 1948, all in segregated developments. Only 2% of purchasers were black GIs, the rest being forced into inner city housing and schools. At the end of the Truman administration in 1952, the administration enacted a formula requiring that housing for African Americans be built in proportion to need, but in 1954 the Eisenhower administration declared that the invalidation of “separate but equal” in education did not apply to housing. As late as 1984, 10 million federally funded housing tenants in 47 metropolitan areas were almost all segregated by race and every predominantly white project had superior facilities, amenities, and services. Inner city public housing had emptied of whites as they were enabled to move into suburban homes, and the projects became home to poor minorities. In 1973, the U.S. Commission on Civil rights concluded that the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing.”
In 1976, the Supreme Court finally found, in a Chicago Housing Authority case, that federal housing agencies had purposefully perpetuated segregation. However, by this time, housing segregation was firmly established. Inner city areas were largely black and most whites had moved into homes in the suburbs.
The author also discusses how African American neighborhoods were nearer to industrial and polluted areas, and had inferior schools and transportation. Wealth was limited by lower wages and the inability to gain equity in a home. Rothstein decries the long term segregation and inequality that has been created, seeing it both as a moral evil and a loss of harmony, creativity and productivity for the society as a whole. He proposes various possible solutions, such as tax credits for integration, or raising rent subsidies to levels able to buy entry into higher income areas, but acknowledges they are unlikely to be enacted.
What the author fails to consider is that the American economic system depends on racism, as it has since its inception. Not only do lower wages and services save huge amounts of money, but segregation insures that blacks and whites will live and be educated apart, keeping racism alive. Racism is main factor that divides and weakens working people from each other. When there are double standards for schools or hospitals, the standards for all are brought down. When African Americans earn lower wages and have higher unemployment, wages and working conditions for all suffer. When separated from each other, whites and blacks can be won to blaming their problems on each other and fail to analyze their situations correctly. Thus we call again for multiracial unity as the most important tactic to be able to fight for a good life for all in America, or anywhere in the world.