Apartheid in America

Classifying By Race - Twice the Work of Free Labor
November 29, 1996

In one of Charles Wheeler's excellent BBC2 documentaries on the United States, the viewer was invited to contemplate the future of American penal policy from the vantage point of a Georgia state penitentiary for elderly and geriatric prisoners. A pathetic image of elderly, disproportionately African-American, uniformed prisoners shuffling around on walking sticks or confined to wheelchairs confronted the viewer. This vision, the programme implied, was the probable future of American prisons with the tougher three-strike sentencing regime. The chain gang is also enjoying a populist return.

Appropriately, Alex Lichtenstein's study of convict labour in the 60 years after 1870 is mostly a case study of Georgia. Lichtenstein's thesis, pursued somewhat relentlessly, is to explain how Georgia's penal policy served economic development. There are two main examples, each corresponding to a phase of penal policy. First, the post-1870s exploitation of Georgia's natural resources, in furnace and ore mines, or turpentine camps, depended on the use of cheap convict labour from the state's convict leasing scheme. Convicts provided industrialists with a cheap and consistent labour force. In its most perverse version, the use of African-American leased convicts was sometimes even celebrated as a form of progress for them. In 1897, the manager of a state-run convict coal mine egregiously told the National Prison Association that "the occupation of mining has been opened up to the negro, although his entry into the craft has been principally through the rugged gates of the penitentiary". Such cruel cynicism imbued Georgia's penal regime, and exposed its intimate relationship to the racist social order.

Second, as the need for roads in the early 20th century became essential for industrial progress, the decision to replace the lease convict system with chain gangs provided the perfect source of labour for this backbreaking work. The indictment of the lease system -whereby punishment and control was handed over to private contractors, each with their own, usually malevolent "whipping boss" - was not simply in terms of its mistreatment of convicts but also in its failure rigorously to enforce segregated race relations. The chain gang, it was contended, could more successfully protect segregation. Within the penal camps and penitentiaries there were no doubts about the black American's place, exemplified by the sobriquet "negro regulator" for the leather strap used to punish convicts failing to meet the work pace set by the contractors. The traveller on New South roads should spare a thought for their enchained builders.

Twice the Work of Free Labor is an impressively researched and worthwhile book. It provides a thorough account of a crucial stage in southern penal history. However, in his determination to demonstrate the linkage between penal policy and elite interests, Lichtenstein sacrifices any sense of the daily experience of the hundreds of unfortunate Georgians exposed to the brutal leasing and chain gang regimes, which diminishes the racial context of Georgia's penitentaries. Photographs depicting pernicious punishments or groups of pitifully emaciated convicts convey far more vividly the grinding misery of penal servitude than does the author's often elliptical prose.

Lichtenstein's study is rooted in the late 19th century, as are the topics addressed by the contributors to Classifying by Race. It is with the tenacious consequences of the US Supreme Court's decision in 1896 (rescinded only in 1954) to permit segregated race relations that all scholars of race necessarily contend. The book deals with legislative redistricting aimed at advantaging African-American voters, the racial aspects of welfare and urban policies, and the role of race in elections.

In an incisive essay, Richard Valelly analyses how the disengagement of the Republican party from southern politics after Reconstruction elementally affected the voting rights of southern black Americans. It permitted the Democrats to attain their adamantine hold on these southern states. Segregated race relations were not confined to the South. Robert Lieberman's chapter shows how the racial implications of the Social Security Act of 1935 were exploited by state administrators: "Rules regulating access to Aid to Dependent Children were applied differently to blacks, especially in the South." In a more positive piece, Frederick Harris documents the black churches' role since 1965 in mobilising newly enfranchised southern African-American voters. James Alt, in an excellent chapter, examines trends in black American and white voter registration in the South since 1965. Alt finds that though black Americans registered at a higher rate than whites, it is only since the late 1980s that "for the first time blacks were regularly able to form a majority of the registered electorate in those counties where they formed a majority of the eligible voting-age population".

In his introduction to Classifying by Race, Paul Peterson examines the need to address historic inequities visited upon African-Americans and other minorities. Residential segregation by race remains intense. Far fewer schools are integrated than was implied by the seminal 1954 Supreme Court decision instructing such desegregation. In electoral representation, the benefits for black Americans of the 1965 Voting Rights Act have been disappointing, partly for old-fashioned reasons: "To avoid sharing power with African Americans and Latinos, whites in many cities and counties changed the jurisdictional boundaries of candidates running for public office". Such gerrymandering is the background to the racial redistricting debates now salient in the US: should constituency boundaries for election to the Congress be drawn so that African Americans and other minorities are guaranteed a majority of the electorate?

Both books illustrate the centrality of race in the US and the assumption among some politicians that past inequalities have been eradicated. Without an appreciation of the historical legacy, documented in these texts, debates about the appropriate role of the federal government in redressing past grievances will be both incomprehensible and specious.

Desmond King is professor of politics, St John's College, Oxford.

Classifying By Race

Editor - Paul E. Peterson
ISBN - 0 691 03796 5 and 00176 6
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 422

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented