Outcast and Impoverished: Living in a White America

By Michael Harvey, Albion College

Black Codes

African Americans have been held back by whites for years in America. Many people tend to think that African Americans were fully free after slavery was abolished in 1865, but that is not the case. Although slavery was abolished; white people have implemented laws in America’s system to contain blacks, and keep a system where white people are the most dominate.  An example of this is black codes. Many people from the past to present tend to think that these laws were made to affect everyone of every color; and African Americans were irresponsible and didn’t take advantage of their opportunities; but respectable news internet sites such as New York Times and Center History News Media prove that our government system has produced these laws to keep African Americans imprisoned and producing the white man’s profit. [1]

One black code was vagrancy laws  was a law that stated any man that was 15 and older, and able body had to work and provide for his family. It was restricted for a man not to work, and if you were caught then you were sent to jail. According to Center News History Media,  the state of Mississippi came up with the Mississippi black codes stating that free African Americans, freedmen, and mulattoes over the age of eighteen years discovered on the second Monday in January 1866, or after, had to have some sort of written evidence to prove that you were lawfully employed. [2] This left African Americans to be arrested by the law enforcement. Keeping African Americans incarcerated, the constitution states that when you are in jail, you are basically stripped of your rights and are subjected to work your time off. With this in mind many African Americans were forced into sharecropping  working for low pay and in harsh conditions. Since African Americans were working for low pay, the money they did make went towards clothes, food, and other expenses. Notice that theses expenses will not even balance out with what African Americans were getting payed. Which leaves us with the question, how were blacks paying for the expenses that they had no money for?  African Americans payed for their other expenses through a credit system. This credit system kept African Americans in debts. This whole continuous cycle kept almost every African American living everyday just to make a penny, and then turn around and give their earnings and human rights, to the white man. The way that this system was set up, was clearly made to compare with slavery the closest White America could make it. This law was made specifically for the black man. T vagrancy law was made to dehumanize African Americans and keep them under the white man’s control.

A pig law was a law that enhanced a misdemeanor crime to a felony. This law made it possible so that African Americans could be arrested for petty reasons, such as walking on the same sidewalk that a white woman was, speaking to a white woman, spitting, and other non existent crimes. The law also stated that any farm animal or any property valued at 10 dollars or more would be consider larceny, which was a sentencing of five years. A lot of African Americans were found guilty of this because of how poor they were during this time due to the racism and inequality America brought to African Americans.  Once a police officer caught an African American committing one of these crimes, they were arrested and the court would then find the convict guilty; giving him a longer sentence than what he was supposed to get.  Mississippi made a whole new system with this law to make profit off the black man. This system was called convict leasing. Convict leasing is the “leasing of a criminal (black man) to a private contractor (white man), the contractor agrees to feed, clothe, and shelter the convicts during their term of punishment.” Once the contractor paid the fine to lease the “criminal”, the contractor would take the convict to their business to work the sentence off.   Just like the vagrancy laws, this took place so that the white man could produce a system just like slavery and have free money from the blacks. The working conditions for African Americans during this time were horrible. Many African Americans died while working from sickness and being overworked. Convict leasing and pig laws affected more than 4 million African Americans. In fact the death rate among convicts in just the state of Mississippi during 1880’s ranged from 9 to 16 percent annually. And not one leased convict serving a sentence of 10 years or more, lived. Pig laws and convict leasing made African Americans working conditions and treatment worse than slavery. Convict leasing was not only practiced in Mississippi, but also in many other states.

The New Jim Crow

White people have portrayed blacks as the lazy ones for years, when in reality African Americans were not the lazy ones, the white man was. Everyday African Americans got up from before sunrise and went to down at sunrise just to work for free. While the white man got up just to watch African American’s working down to their last breath, making the white man free profit.    This thought process is still displayed today. There are so many laws that are implemented today by the judicial system, that resemble past American history, that keeps blacks incarcerated, oppressed, and poor in America. For example in the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, points out a key part that keeps African Americans oppressed through the legal representation in the court system. [3] Alexander states that an estimated 80 percent of criminal defendants, are impoverished and unable to afford a lawyer. When a convict cannot afford a lawyer, they are given one. The lawyers that are given out to a criminal almost always have large caseloads, and never have time to thoroughly sit down with the client and discuss the case. Once the lawyer is appointed, the prisoner has to pay a fee to the court for the lawyer. Since 80 percent  of the criminal defendants are poor they are not able to afford the fees. Keeping African Americans incarcerated for not being able to afford their fines. The New Jim Crow also pointed out that in the state of Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people are in court without a lawyer. In that state people who earn 3,000 dollars or more are seen by the court as able to afford a lawyer. [4] All of these examples given in the book show that in the country we call the land of the free, we are still producing laws that keeps black people impoverished, incarcerated, and an outcast of America’s society.

This is why the Black Lives matter movement is such an important movement. The Black Lives Matters Movement wants to shed light on the past and present, unjust and violent system that the government and law enforcement have displayed towards the African American community. The Black Lives Matter Movement will demand the respect and equality that African Americans deserve. Making America be about what the country preaches, which is equality for all.





[1] “Parchman’s Plantation”. (4/28/96) James M. McPherson. New York Times. www.nytimes.com/1996/04/28/books/parchman-s-plantation.html?pagewanted=all & “Mississippi Black Codes.” (No Date). Laws of the State of Mississippi. Center History News Media. www.chnm.gmu.edu/courses/122/recon/code.html

[2] “Mississippi Black Codes.” (No Date). Laws of the State of Mississippi. Center History News Media. www.chnm.gmu.edu/courses/122/recon/code.html

[3] Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, United States of America.

[4] Alexander, Michelle. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, United States of America.