Chomsky: The Most Powerful Country in History Is Destroying the Earth and Human Rights as We Know Them
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The founders of course did not intend the term “person” to apply to all persons. Native Americans were not persons. Their rights were virtually nil. Women were scarcely persons. Wives were understood to be “covered” under the civil identity of their husbands in much the same way as children were subject to their parents. Blackstone’s principles held that “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.” Women are thus the property of their fathers or husbands. These principles remain up to very recent years. Until a Supreme Court decision of 1975, women did not even have a legal right to serve on juries. They were not peers. Just two weeks ago, Republican opposition blocked the Fairness Paycheck Act guaranteeing women equal pay for equal work. And it goes far beyond.
Slaves, of course, were not persons. They were in fact three-fifths humanunder the Constitution, so as to grant their owners greater voting power. Protection of slavery was no slight concern to the founders: it was one factor leading to the American revolution. In the 1772 Somerset case, Lord Mansfield determined that slavery is so “odious” that it cannot be tolerated in England, though it continued in British possessions for many years. American slave-owners could see the handwriting on the wall if the colonies remained under British rule. And it should be recalled that the slave states, including Virginia, had the greatest power and influence in the colonies. One can easily appreciate Dr. Johnson’s famous quip that “we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes.”
Post-Civil War amendments extended the concept person to African-Americans, ending slavery. In theory, at least. After about a decade of relative freedom, a condition akin to slavery was reintroduced by a North-South compact permitting the effective criminalization of black life. A black male standing on a street corner could be arrested for vagrancy, or for attempted rape if accused of looking at a white woman the wrong way. And once imprisoned he had few chances of ever escaping the system of “slavery by another name,” the term used by then- Wall Street Journal bureau chief Douglas Blackmon in an arresting study.
This new version of the “peculiar institution” provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution, with a perfect work force for the steel industry and mining, along with agricultural production in the famous chain gangs: docile, obedient, no strikes, and no need for employers even to sustain their workers, an improvement over slavery. The system lasted in large measure until World War II, when free labor was needed for war production.
The postwar boom offered employment. A black man could get a job in a unionized auto plant, earn a decent salary, buy a house, and maybe send his children to college. That lasted for about 20 years, until the 1970s, when the economy was radically redesigned on newly dominant neoliberal principles, with rapid growth of financialization and the offshoring of production. The black population, now largely superfluous, has been recriminalized.
Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, incarceration in the U.S. was within the spectrum of industrial societies. By now it is far beyond others. It targets primarily black males, increasingly also black women and Hispanics, largely guilty of victimless crimes under the fraudulent “drug wars.” Meanwhile, the wealth of African-American families has been virtually obliterated by the latest financial crisis, in no small measure thanks to criminal behavior of financial institutions, with impunity for the perpetrators, now richer than ever.