Racial Capitalism

The Master Still Owns the Keys to the Plantation

How corporations should pay for reparations and why it’s unlikely to happen.

Kiese Hansen

March 16, 2023

Reparations for Black Americans have long been an interest of mine. This interest grew from a parallel interest in the racial wealth gap. Today, White households have a net worth over seven times that of Black Americans. The more I learned about this disparity and how it came to be, the more my interest in reparations grew.

The thing is, the ways in which Black Americans have been subjugated, exploited, and effectively shut out from meaningful wealth accumulation are many, they are complex – and they have compounded.

This is a story about American Capitalism and corporate profits. It is a story about unpaid Black labor. And it is a story about an improbable remedy.

I set out to explore if corporations should play a role in paying for reparations. In doing so, I learned that like many reparations proposals, the potential role of corporations in contributing to a remedy is limited by greed and prevented by law.

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American Capitalism as we know it is a product of slavery. It emerged from cotton and sugar plantations. It is a system intrinsically tied to the continued oppression of Black Americans. 

Cotton production “gave us” the industrial revolution. The slave trade provided the labor and capital used to fuel the growth of Wall Street and build our most prestigious academic institutions.

Aetna, New York Life, Tiffany and Company, Brooks Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Harvard College, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill – this list is just a small sampling of the many corporations and institutions with origin stories rooted in slavery. 

Aetna and New York Life provided insurance coverage for slave ships. Brooks Brothers tailored clothing for slave owners. Lehman Brothers, now infamous for succumbing to the 2008 financial crisis, prospered as one of the biggest hedge funds in the world for decades prior to its collapse, despite the bank’s more infamous history of earning seed capital in the 1850s as a cotton brokerage in Montgomery, Alabama.

The federal government has an unending trend of allowing the use of slave labor for corporate profits. At this point, it may as well be an American tradition. 200 years ago, corporations profited from slavery. This remains true. Under the Thirteenth Amendment, corporations continue to profit from slavery. Today, over 300 corporations either directly use or participate in supply chains that support prison labor.

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“Except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted.” 

This clause, more commonly known as the Thirteenth Amendment’s exception clause, allowed slavery to persist as punishment. When ratified in 1865, it led to “the nation’s first prison boom.”

In the first 40 years post emancipation, this clause took shape in the form of convict leasing. Black Codes were structured to establish a system that mimicked slavery. Petty crimes like loitering and vagrancy would result in convictions where punishment took the form of forced labor.

Michelle Alexander details an example in her book The New Jim Crow, “One vagrancy act specifically provided that ‘all free negroes and mulattoes over the age of eighteen’ must have written proof of a job at the beginning of every year. Those found with no lawful employment were deemed vagrants and convicted.” 

“Except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted.” 

The convicted were often “disappeared” into labor camps. Families and friends were rarely notified. 

Convict leasing was notorious for its disregard for human life. As Bryan Stevenson writes in the book 1619, “…unlike slavery, in which enslavers at least had a financial interest in keeping enslaved people alive and functional, convict leasing stripped imprisoned people of any protection and made them completely replaceable and easily discarded.” Many convicts died well before their sentences were up. 

The horrors of convict leasing continue to be unearthed. In 2018, a mass grave site of 95 African Americans who died as convict leasing laborers harvesting sugarcane was uncovered in Sugar Land, Texas. The remains found showed that the men who died had endured tremendous sufferingdisease, malnourishment, injuries from exposure and overwork, and gunshot wounds.

Chain gangs also carried through this era. Convict laborers would be chained together so that they could be left unguarded, which would minimize supervision costs

The chaining of incarcerated people is not a relic of the past. As recently as 2002, the Supreme Court heard a case in which an incarcerated person was placed in leg irons as punishment.Convict leasing faded in the late 20th century and early 21st century as states “abolished” its use – abolished in name only. Take this example from Louisiana. A plantation along the Mississippi River became a privately run prison. In 1901, that prison’s last lease for convict labor expired. Management of the prison transferred to the state. Today, that former lease remains as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known by its former plantation name, “Angola.”