Research Projects

The Plunder of Black America
How the Racial Wealth Gap was Made and Why It’s Growing

Why has a yawning racial disparity in wealth been so persistent over such a long time? This book attempts to answer that question by exploring how racial economic disadvantages have reproduced from colonial American history to the near future. It tells the stories of how economic white supremacy remained resilient despite change. In today’s America, Black people are getting poorer while whites are getting wealthier. The typical African American family owns 1/13th the wealth as their typical white neighbor. Instead of a dip on the path to greater equality, the current trend is the latest iteration of a plunder that began in colonial America and recurred in good economic times and in bad.

Racially-geared policies and economic practices have stripped Black wealth from families while seeding disadvantages for future generations. That process has persisted for three and a half centuries, nimbly adapting to changing economic contexts. Today, African American families are on the road to zero wealth, and a confluence of natural crises and deliberate policy choices will bring that about much more quickly than projected. The Plunder of Black America: How the Racial Wealth Gap was Made and Why It’s Growing explains how a country built on the theft of Black wealth never gave up stealing. Race and income inequality have been mutually reinforcing over the last 400 years for reasons that have largely escaped notice. In 120,000 words, The Plunder of Black America tells the stories of how white supremacy replicated in the national economic DNA.

Instead of a narrative of people breaking chains and seizing freedom and civil rights, The Plunder of Black America presents a compelling story of how Black families have struggled to earn and keep the fruits of their toils against processes calculated to rob them of it and keep their children from achieving it. That process was foundational in the economic growth of the colonies and new United States, but plundering Black families of their wealth and income became the cadence of the forward march of the American economy in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. It blended political expediency with significant gains to industries that relied on predatory practices and underemployment. The extractive economy of slavery had its sequels in Jim Crow and the gig economy of today that nevertheless holds Black workers as essential. African-descended families faced a twenty-generation struggle against “a quiet plunder” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, which is persistent because it is elemental. Economic white supremacy infused historical economic structures that changed over time, adjusting to accommodate liberation and enfranchisement without ceasing to strip Black people of wealth and income.

 


Writing Slavery:  Race, Bondage, and Narrative in Nineteenth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, under contract) contends that literature, including novels, autobiographies, and other stories shaped a narrative of slavery that emerged before the American Civil War. Within that narrative were conflicting scripts. Pro-slavery plantation romancers contributed a portrait of happy slaves in an idylic setting. African-descended Americans disputed that paternalist account, writing vehement denunciations of slavery as a landscape of terror and violence. Anti-slavery novelists drew from both scripts, accepting some of the plantation romance’s racism while using its aesthetics to argue that slavery took unfair advantage of African-descended people. That narrative came to life again after the Civil War as Americans argued about what the war meant and whether Black Americans deserved anything but freedom. Writing Slavery traces the strands of those narratives through time, from plantation romances of the 1820s to racial realism of the 1890s.

African American novels emerged in the 1850s as a powerful counter-punch to a prevailing narrative of white masculinity and white femininity that emasculated Black men and set about erasing or warping Black femininity. African American authors rehearsed realism while taking back voices that white writers appropriated to aid the political cause of antislavery and proslavery, forming their aesthetic vision of American slavery and citizenship. White antislavery authors, most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emily Catherine Pierson, and Sarah J. Hale argued against slavery but also against African American equality, sentimentalizing racialism while legitimizing racial paternalism. A robust argument for colonization developed within their romantic racialist script. Audiences that wept and wrung their hands at slavery’s wrongs also bid farewell to blacks who might fare better in an imagined African homeland. In response, novelized ex-slave narratives, like those of Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass, asserted masculine defiance and refused to mute slavery’s violence or concede anything to colonization schemes. The heroic fugitive became the pensive fugitive, denouncing slavery’s evils and insisting he was an American. But Uncle Tom mania washed over black autobiography, leaving the first African American novelists William Wells Brown, Martin R. Delany, Frank J. Webb, and Harriet E. Wilson, the challenge of responding to the chained sentiment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its imitators and building an imaginative argument that charted a way out of the chained sentiment of antislavery novelists and proslavery apologists.

White southern novelists responded to Uncle Tom mania by softening slavery’s features and hardening a proslavery argument’s core. Writers such as William Gilmore Simms, Charles Jacobs Peterson, Baynard Hall, and J. W. Page used Black voices to argue for slavery ever more stridently. Female proslavery novelists advanced that strategy most productively, and Caroline Gilman, Mary Henderson Eastman, Caroline Lee Hentz, G. M. Flanders, and V. G. Cowdin domesticated and sexualized that script, shrewdly indicting abolitionists as immoral hypocrites. Some like Hentz were northern natives and adherents of patriarchy, and she and Maria J. McIntosh developed proslavery paternalism into an elaborate national theme. In a deluge of artful and commercially successful pro- and antislavery novels, ex-slave autobiographers struggled to grab back their voices but reached the genre’s limits.

The stakes of slavery’s narrative were exceedingly high as the geopolitics of slavery roiled the republic during the 1850s, and during Reconstruction the memories and meanings of slavery tested the limits of how far a nation would go to address historical injustices and come to terms with the bitter legacy of slavery.


The Slaves We Eat is book and exhibit project exploring a 350-year history of slavery and coerced labor in sugar, cotton, and shrimp focusing on the making of global supply chains, how slavery is hidden at their base, and how they reveal slavery’s continuities. By SlavesWeEatlinking the pedestrian acts of buying a bag of sugar, cotton blouse, or tray of shrimp to the chains that create value while forcing down labor costs, we can see how slavery survived emancipation.

Nearly three centuries ago a Philadelphia abolitionist condemned those who ate “the flesh and blood of slaves instead of Christ.” It was a potent contention linking slaves’ distant toil and the substance of what we consume.  This book takes that metaphor as a starting point to examine three and a half centuries of slavery through the supply chains of sugar, cotton, and shrimp. It argues that slavery survived its legal termination and that slave-made goods and services are present in much of what we consume.
            The Slaves We Eat is a human history of managers and forced laborers focusing on the developments linking consumers’ pedestrian acts of buying a bag of sugar, a cotton blouse, or a tray of shrimp to the violence that make those commodities affordable for so many. It links regimes of slave labor over time using supply chain management, historicizing a central focus of business studies today and pinpointing how slavery was baked into early modern supply chains and why those linkages persisted through eras of emancipation. The central historical claim is that the 25 million people enslaved today are legatees of a process responsible for 12 million captives embarked in the transatlantic slave trade and millions more forced toil in slave labor camps in the Americas and beyond. More here: www.theslavesweeat.com

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