Freedom from Slavery in 21st Century

I am re-watching the first episode of Ken Burn’s Civil War documentary on PBS. The documented history is composed of still pictures, historical quotes, letters written to family by combatants, all accompanied with haunting music and voices heavy with pathos. It takes us to a time a century and a half ago when families and friends fought one another for a cause.

Just before the Civil War, some 4 million men, women and children were owned, comprising nearly one-seventh of the total population. We fought a savage civil war for four years, the cause initially for the union, with the issue of slavery predominating by the end of 1862. In the twenty-first century, we are experiencing a more visceral, less brutish form of slavery but one which in many ways carries its own oppression and cruelty.

We are not speaking of actual ownership of people as chattels which slavery entailed, but we are speaking of a certain depravity that a managed economic and social system has helped to fashion. How many, in effect, are owned today, maybe not in the same respect as slaves, but what we might call virtual ownership – the weak under the control of all manners of authority around them.

In 2015, a different kind of slavery impacts the poor, distressed, and vulnerable, many of them non-white. Those stricken are living in a state of extreme oppression; for well over 46 million Americans, men, women and children, are living in poverty in the United States today. Curiously, like pre-Civil-War slavery, that hapless legion also amounts to about one-seventh of the total population.

Poverty has its own flavor of a modern slavery, involving a state of deprivation, or a lack of the usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions, this with the denial, scarcity and societal dispossession that accompanies it, socially and politically. Accordingly, if your mind and body are not captive, your hope and your prospects are.

The poverty threshold set by the U.S. government depends on family size but was set at an average of $23,850 (in the 48 contiguous states) last year for a family of four, the equivalent of a 55 hour-a-week minimum-wage job. The vast majority are food insecure (often not having enough food), live in below-standard housing with higher environmental pollution – or are homeless, and live in resource-poor, gang-infested areas. Many work one or several minimum-wage jobs, and have inferior or no health-care coverage.

All experience higher levels of harassment at home or work, whether coming from employers, landlords, or public authorities who exist to protect property, something the impoverished do not own. Their children suffer from learning deficiencies, wrought by substandard schools, food deprivation, or environmental scourges of various kinds. Their offspring often languish in prison.

Many small cities dependent on fines for revenue are traps for the poor. The impoverished live in places like Ferguson, Missouri where the little money they have is forfeited to fines from white police traffic stops for things such as broken tail lights which often mushroom into heavy fines. Blacks proportionally were stopped and searched much more often than whites, Ferguson black disparity is 1.37, while statewide it is 1.59.

In some southern towns minor civic offenses can turn into a “debtor prison” scenario where privatized contracted collectors have authority to incarcerate for payment, often leading to doubling unpaid fines when interest and penalties are applied.

And if you happen to be homeless, you can be arrested for any reason, simply because you have no home address. Being homeless is illegal in many cities, thus giving license to arrest you for loitering.

Racial profiling is still common even in northern states. The killing of a twelve-year-old with an air gun in a Cleveland park only seconds after police arrived at the scene, obviously shows profiling even young black boys is too often deadly.

Poverty numbers don’t even include the over 2.2 million adults incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons and county jails. Then add 7 million adults under correctional supervision and over 50,000 under juvenile detention, and you get some idea of institutionalized restrictions on freedom.

Some would say that the incarcerated lost their freedom through their own fault. But if you consider that since the 1980s, the “war on drugs” has flooded our jails and prisons with non-violent offenders, and that we are a country with a higher incarceration rate than even Communist China, both speak against that argument for many.

Even in the middle class realm of the young, student loan debt is staggering, totaling $1.2 trillion in 2014 with the average class of 2015 graduate saddled with $35,000 in debts. One in seven is delaying marriage; one in three can’t buy homes; one in five is putting off plans to start a business.  Often bankruptcy cannot discharge student debt, as businesses can through generous bankruptcy laws.

All this is not to diminish the enslavement of humans before the Civil War and civil rights violations after. It does pose the bitter irony that we fought a tragic civil war to combat the ills of slavery, but our current tolerance of other forms of human enslavement seems quite odious, especially considering a twenty-first century standard of living and one-hundred and fifty years of assumed human progress.

After a short period of enlightenment in the 1960s when the “War on Poverty” did start to take hold, we let political demagoguery, fear-baiting and intolerance, practiced by both political parties, rule our lives. Conditions of civil war we experienced have the nuance of racism and fear, with the bogeyman of crime and drugs taking the form of lawless non-whites.

The principle engineers of this civil war, the conservatives, advanced their cause through debasement of the vulnerable and elevation of crony capitalists, thus, in effect, not rooting out virtual slavery, but securing it.

It is an overall bloodless war fought with conservative money negotiating a fear-mongered state. What was the means? Gradually big money began to control the media and the message, which helped to push wrongheaded decisions like the War in Iraq. Therefore, after 9/11, vested interests profited from two wars in Bush’s war on terrorism.

The two sides were — and still are — polarized, a sort of conservative-managed, bloodless civil war: generally, the conservative South and non-urban states on one side and densely populated urban areas on the other. As the high state of fear fed by war and jingoism dissipated, and privatized prisons were gorged with drug offenders, many on the progressive side saw a fight that conservatives were creating. The victors were often corporate special interests given lucrative contracts in education, penal systems, and conventional war.

That war of polarization is still being won by the South and by states captured by the GOP and conservative money. Distinct features of conservative gains are Republican-controlled states, which are gerrymandered, minority votes disenfranchised, unions thrashed and the vulnerable forgotten and vilified, a disgraceful wave of control the national corporate media helped build.

History can be instructive, but only if its lessons are noted and applied to present times. Instead, our would-be masters seemed to have changed. Plantation rules have spread to government, factories, and corporate board rooms. They are even present in churches where guns mean to enforce standards of slavery.

By the end of 1862, Lincoln freed the slaves with a proclamation. One-hundred and fifty-three years later, where is our Emancipation Proclamation?

James Hoover is a recently retired systems engineer. He has advanced degrees in Economics and English. Prior to his aerospace career, he taught high school, and he has also taught college courses. He recently published a science fiction novel called Extraordinary Visitors and writes political columns on several websites. Read other articles by James.