America made Dylann Storm Roof.
His act of terrorism didn’t happen in isolation. He is the physical and present-day manifestation of a deeply-ingrained mindset that says white Americans are superior and black Americans are – and should remain – at the bottom of America’s social strata. That blacks can be put down. That blacks can be killed. That blacks should be terrorized. It is an ideology that has its roots in white supremacy and slavery, and that we as a nation have failed to address.
This is a reality America needs to face.
Roof’s actions are symptomatic of a generational legacy of violence against black Americans. However, what will go unspoken, what will get lost in all the fruitless attempts to explain Roof’s actions is this singular truth: a powerful few profit when black people are terrorized.
The roots of terror for profit in the USA run deep and wide. And more of us are standing up and calling it into question. More of us are saying, “Enough,” as Rev. Clementa Pinckney and each of the other eight victims of this terrible tragedy are laid to rest.
In his book, The Half That Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Cornell University history professor Edward Baptist details how the violence against black people fueled staggering profits for slave owners, land holders, banks, manufacturing companies, and other global traders.
Innovations in machinery, credit markets and other financial products no doubt contributed to the country’s economic momentum during the 245 years of slavery in America. These gains, however, paled in comparison to the exponential increases in productivity at the hands of the enslaved. Baptist says in his book that in the years between 1801 and 1860, the cotton picking yield for a slave increased by 361%. What drove this increase? The slave driver’s whip and other instruments of violence, torture, and coercion.
This violence and the fear that it provoked caused an evolutionary shift toward ambidexterity amongst the enslaved. In other words, the trauma of violence and fear literally rewired their brains to the point that they used both their dominant and weaker hands to effectively pick cotton and till the land.
The making of profit by terrorizing the black community has continued to play out. After the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation, the country transitioned from a system of legalized slavery to legalized incarceration and forced labor. In an attempt to preserve and extend the institution of slavery and the relatively free labor it afforded, an entirely new structure of laws and kangaroo courts emerged in the South. This system, dubbed by Douglas A. Blackmon as “slavery by another name,” indicted and convicted free blacks on trumped up charges and petty crimes for the purpose of placing them in prison labor camps. These labor camps exploited workers in the cotton, mining and railroad industries.
The violence and terrorization continues even today in our system of incarceration. Sadly, but not surprisingly, black people are disproportionately profiled, monitored, charged, convicted and incarcerated by the country’s criminal injustice system. The problem is epidemic, and is sustained by racist ideologies and an insatiable quest for production and profitability.
At least 37 states have legalized the use of prison labor by private corporations. The Left Business Observer reports the following:
“U.S. companies using prison labor include: IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more.
The news site also reported that prison labor has accounted for:
“100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, and medical supplies.”
It’s hard to believe isn’t it?
Who are the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against black humanity?
Corporate CEOs and political elites have set the tone for economic violence directed against black people. Their actions have resulted in generations of no or low wage work, diminished benefits, busted up unions, unfair housing practices, forced removal from central cities as a consequence of gentrification, mortgage market exploitation, education disparities, a criminal justice system whose business model continues to be built on the incarceration of black people and a police state concerned with preserving the status quo.
All the while, the top 1% of earners in our country have increased their income by 240 %.
But all is not lost. More Americans, black, brown and white, are making the connections between terror and profit; more of us are calling attention to issues of mass incarceration and economic, racial and gender injustice; and more of us are recognizing we need to balance the economic scales so that the 1% doesn’t continue to profit at the expense of the rest of us.
More of us are fighting for livable wages and better benefits. More of us are demanding massive investments in communities that have been devastated by this kind of economic violence, including communities such as Baltimore and Ferguson. More of us are pushing for green jobs that clean up our communities and make them more sustainable.
And more of us are calling on the 1% to pay their fair share.
Lastly, none of this works unless we candidly acknowledge America’s history of violence against black people. As hard as it is to accept, America’s past produced Dylann Storm Roof. It justified in his mind his attack on black life at Mother Emanuel Church.
If we unlock the potential in all of our communities, especially those historically disinvested in decade after decade, we can build an economy that allows all Americans to profit.