Nearly a century and a half after the American Civil War ended slavery in 1865, and more than a generation after the “triumph” of the civil rights movement, African Americans remain locked at the bottom of society.
They suffer poverty at twice the national average, are more likely to be unemployed or in jail, and are less likely to live long and healthy lives or see the inside of a university classroom than whites.
When they are not busy denying all of this, defenders of the status quo occupy themselves with trying to prove that all of this is rooted in biological or cultural inferiority peculiar to an urban “underclass”.
Whole forests have been laid waste by academics such as the authors of the bestselling Bell Curve peddling the myth that African Americans are somehow innately less intelligent than whites, and that social inequality merely reflects natural differences between the races.
But the answer to why it is that racism outlived slavery in the US is to be found, not in biology, but in the outcome of the profound social upheaval that accompanied the American Civil War.
In 1860, on the verge of war, four million black slaves were held in bondage across the South.
Their labour had created colossal wealth for an extravagant master class, but very little of it ever made its way back to the slaves themselves, or even to non-slaveholding whites. They were banished to the poorest land and their children seldom saw the inside of a schoolhouse.
The Southern ruling class seceded from the US in early 1861 to defend a social system built on the backs of destitute slaves.
Northern victory over the southern Confederacy opened up the most important chapter in US history and one of the most profound social upheavals in the nineteenth century world.
Northern capitalist “Radicals”, led by men like Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner, and concentrated in the ranks of the Republican Party, proposed to reconstruct the South on democratic and bi-racial foundations.
Freed slaves, already mobilised to fight for their freedom during the war itself, needed little prodding from the Radicals and seized the opportunity to carve out new lives beyond the reach of their former masters.
Looking back in 1911, an ex-Confederate general conceded that it was “difficult for this generation to conceive… the change wrought by the Civil War.
“No such metamorphosis [has been] produced in so brief a period,” he wrote, “none recorded in modern history, unless it be that accomplished in France by the great revolution.”
Northern officials sent south to survey conditions reported back that the ex-slaveholders were so “despondent” over their defeat that “readmission [into the Union] at some future time under whatever conditions… would have been looked upon as a favour”. Northern newspaperman Whitelaw Reid found the South “like clay” which the “Washington potters could mould… to their liking.”
The victorious North “could at that time have prescribed no conditions which white Southerners would not have promptly accepted.
“They expected nothing; were prepared for the worst; would have been thankful for anything.” Southern whites, he wrote, “were stung by the disgrace of being guarded by Negro soldiers; but they made no complaints, for they felt they had forfeited the right of complaint.
“They were shocked at the suggestion of Negro suffrage; but if the government required it, they were ready to submit… The whole body politic was as wax. It needed but a firm hand to apply the seal… But if the plastic moment were allowed to pass!”
One thing is clear in any reading of the early aftermath of emancipation — if it were up to the ex-slaves, that “plastic moment” would not pass. The paralysis that gripped the South’s former ruling class found its opposite in the boundless determination and assertiveness of their ex-slaves.
Through every corner of the South freed men and women propelled onto the stage of history challenged the old order “in both profound and trivial ways”, scrutinising every aspect of their relations with the master class and rejecting anything that carried the stench of the old order.
Freed men and women, who had endured a lifetime of being addressed as “boy” and “auntie”, insisted on formal titles.
Whites everywhere complained that blacks traded their rough work gear for bright, colourful attire, or that they refused to step off the pavement to let whites pass. Women and children traded field drudgery for the book and the classroom.
In some areas blacks divided up the plantations that they had worked for generations, taking possession of the “big house”.
It was a moment unparalleled in US history when, briefly, the “bottom rail” was “on top”.
Above all, freed slaves showed a remarkable capacity for organisation. Across the South, they organised under the banner of the Union Leagues to demand political and civil equality and to press their demands for land redistribution and better terms of labour.
In Louisiana’s sugar cane fields, in the rice swamps of South Carolina, in the cotton-growing black belt that stretched from Georgia across Alabama and Mississippi, black labourers launched a series of remarkable strikes aimed at giving some substance to their new freedom.
The Union Leagues armed themselves, escorting field hands to the polls and punishing white employers who continued to use the whip as an instrument of labour discipline.
In emancipating the slaves, one Northern official wrote in 1866, Radicals had “commenced a great social revolution in the South,” but they had “as yet, not completed it”.
Encouraged by the leniency of President Abraham Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, propertied whites were biding their time, awaiting the opportunity to crush the experiment in Reconstruction.
Planters and ex-Confederate officers organised the shock troops of counter-revolution into the Ku Klux Klan. They initiated a terror campaign directed at the Republican grassroots.
Freed people were prepared to defend the new order with their lives, if necessary, but without the military and political support of the Northern government they could not stand up to the superior firepower of their ex-masters.
By the early 1870s there was little room left for manoeuvre.
Either Reconstruction would go forward to disarm propertied whites and redistribute the land they had amassed during slavery or the counter-revolution would shoot its way back into power. This would reverse the gains won at such heavy cost and push the “bottom rail” back into its place.
In this crisis, the attitude of northern Republicans became critical. From the outset the party had held together two very different constituencies.
The Republicans were led by men of wealth in the North. The party’s only reliable constituency in the South was among destitute ex-slaves. They had a shared interest during the war in abolishing slavery, but beyond that had little in common.
When serious economic crisis hit the North in 1873, the Radicals who had briefly held the reins of Republican power were in decline. Moderates, stung by a wave of fierce confrontations with white northern labourers, began to see in the ex-slave’s militancy as a threat to property everywhere.
Industrialists leading the Republican machine now sounded a retreat from the defence of black equality and — in the very midst of a wave of paramilitary terror — began to seek an accommodation with Southern white conservatives.
One by one the state governments set up under Reconstruction collapsed, pummelled by paramilitary violence and abandoned by US authorities.
The final act came in 1876 when, after a controversial election, Republicans cut a deal that left their candidate in the White House in return for withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the restoration of “white supremacy” across the region.
The heavy price for this defeat would be paid for by the slaves’ descendants in the grim years ahead. It is being paid even to this day by those black and white Americans trapped in poverty and crushed by a government that worships profit at the expense of freedom and democracy.
Yet Reconstruction demonstrates also the incredible revolutionary potential of working people in the very heart of world capitalism.
Brian Kelly is a senior lecturer in history at Queen’s University Belfast and is the author of the award-winning Race, Class and Power in the Alabama Coalfield.