Wealthy elites have relied on the allegiance of the white underclass to retain their affluence and political power.
Apr 1, 2016
From the time of slavery (yes, slavery) to the rise of Donald Trump, wealthy elites have relied on the allegiance of the white underclass to retain their affluence and political power. To understand this dynamic, to see through the eyes of poor and working class whites as they chant, “Trump, Trump, Trump,” let’s look back at a few unsavory slices of America’s capitalist pie.
Until the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, wealthy plantation owners relied on indentured servants for cheap labor. These white servants were mostly poor Europeans who traded their freedom for passage to the American colonies. They were given room and board, and, after four to seven years of grueling servitude, freedom.
About 40 percent lived long enough to see the end of their contract. Colonial law provided “freedom dues,” which usually included 100 acres of land, a small sum of money, and a new suit of clothes. Yet some freed servants didn’t know what was due them, and they were swindled out of their land grants. With no resources and nowhere to go, many walked to regions where land could still be homesteaded, and settled in remote areas such as the Appalachian Mountains.
As the British labor market improved in the 1680s, the idea of indentured servitude lost its appeal to many would-be immigrants. Increasing demand for indentured servants, many of whom were skilled laborers, soon bumped up against a dwindling supply, and the cost of white indentured servants rose sharply. Plantation owners kept skilled white servants, of course, often making them plantation managers and supervisors of slaves. This introduced the first racial divide between skilled and unskilled workers.
Still, African slaves were cheaper, and the supply was plentiful. Seeing an opportunity to realize a higher return on investment, elite colonial landowners began to favor African slaves over white indentured servants, and shifted their business models accordingly. They trained slaves to take over the skilled jobs of white servants.
An investment in African slaves also ensured a cost-effective, long-term workforce. Female slaves were often raped by their white owners or forced to breed with male slaves, and children born into slavery remained slaves for life. In contrast, white female servants who became pregnant were often punished with extended contracts, because a pregnancy meant months of lost work time. From a business perspective, a white baby was a liability, but African children were permanent assets.
As the number of African slaves grew, landowners realized they had a problem on their hands. Slave owners saw white servants living, working, socializing, and even having babies with African slaves. Sometimes they tried to escape together. What’s more, freed white servants who received land as part of their freedom dues had begun to complain about its poor quality. This created a potentially explosive situation for landowners, as oppressed workers quickly outnumbered the upper classes. What was to prevent freed whites, indentured servants, and African slaves from joining forces against the tyranny of their masters?
As Edmund S. Morgan says in his book American Slavery, American Freedom, “The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism, to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt.”
Many slave owners in both the North and South were also political leaders. Soon, they began to pass laws that stipulated different treatment of white indentured servants, newly freed white men, and African slaves. No white indentured servant could be beaten while naked, but an African slave could. Any free white man could whip a Black slave, and most important, poor whites could “police” Black slaves. These new laws gave poor whites another elevation in status over their Black peers. It was a slow but effective process, and with the passing of a few generations, any bond that indentured servants shared with African slaves was permanently severed.
As slavery expanded in the South and indentured servitude declined, the wealthy elite offered poor whites the earliest version of the American Dream: if they worked hard enough, they could achieve prosperity, success, and upward social mobility — if not for themselves, then perhaps for future generations.
But few realized that dream. In “The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy,” the Rev. Dr. Thandeka notes:
Not surprisingly, however, poor whites never became the economic equals of the elite. Though both groups’ economic status rose, the gap between the wealthy and poor widened as a result of slave productivity. Thus, poor whites’ belief that they now shared status and dignity with their social betters was largely illusory.
With whites and Blacks divided, the wealthy elite prospered enormously for the next two hundred years while poor whites remained locked in poverty. With the potential election of Abraham Lincoln, however, the upper class began to worry they would lose their most valuable commodity: slave labor. The numbers were not on their side — not the financial numbers, but the number of bodies it would take to wage war should Lincoln try to abolish slavery. And it was white male bodies they needed. (Poor women were of little value to the rich, since they couldn’t vote or fight in a war.) So how did wealthy plantation owners convince poor white males to fight for a “peculiar institution” that did not benefit them?
… every Negro in South Carolina and every other Southern state will be his own master; nay, more than that, will be the equal of every one of you. If you are tame enough to submit, abolition preachers will be at hand to consummate the marriage of your daughters to black husbands.
Another warning from Georgia Commissioner Henry Benning to the Virginia legislature predicted,
War will break out everywhere like hidden fire from the earth. We will be overpowered and our men will be compelled to wander like vagabonds all over the earth, and as for our women, the horrors of their state we cannot contemplate in imagination. We will be completely exterminated and the land will be left in the possession of the blacks, and then it will go back to a wilderness and become another Africa or Saint Domingo.
Wealthy plantation owners had succeeded in separating the two races, and they now planted a fear of Blacks in the minds of poor and working white men. Enslaved Blacks were an asset to the wealthy, but freed Blacks were portrayed as a danger to all. By creating this common enemy among rich and poor alike, the wealthy elite sent a clear message: fight with us against abolitionists and you will remain safe.
It worked. Poor and working class whites signed up by the hundreds of thousands to fight for what they believed was their way of life. Meanwhile, many of the wealthy planters who benefitted economically from slavery were granted exemptions from military service and avoided the horrors of battle. On both sides of the Mason-Dixon line, wealthy elites were allowed to pay other men to take their place on the bloody battlefields. As the war lingered on, poor whites in the North and South began to realize the rich had waged the war, but it was the poor who were dying in it.
I’m just a poor white trash motherfucker. No one cares about me.
With more than 650,000 deaths, the end of the Civil War eventually brought freedom for African-Americans. But after the war, ex-slaves were left to linger and die in a world created by those in the North who no longer cared and those in the South who now resented their existence. Poor whites didn’t fare much better. Without land, property, or hope for economic gains, many freed Blacks and returning white soldiers turned to sharecropping and found themselves once again working side by side, dependent on wealthy landowners.
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During the Reconstruction Era, the press continued to spread “black men raping white women” propaganda. Again, this was intended to prevent poor whites and poor Blacks from joining forces. As Ida B. Wells wrote in her 1892 pamphlet, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases:
The editorial in question was prompted by the many inhuman and fiendish lynchings of Afro-Americans which have recently taken place and was meant as a warning. Eight lynched in one week and five of them charged with rape! The thinking public will not easily believe freedom and education more brutalizing than slavery, and the world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of civil war when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one.
This fear and mistrust continued for decades, not just in the South, but throughout all of America. From the factories of industrialized cities in the North to rural farmlands in the Midwest, from the Statue of Liberty in the East to the filmmakers in the West, racism had replaced classism as the most blatant form of oppression. But classism lingered, despite what wealthy elites would have Americans believe.