Systems of Oppression

By Elijah Bean, Albion College

 Sharecropping and the Crop Lien System

After the Civil War during the Reconstruction era black Americans faced many forms of oppression; enforced poverty served as one of the most effective tools.  Sharecropping was implemented by white southerners as a labor system to perpetuate the economic conditions of slavery. White Americans created laws to guarantee the labor force remained cheap. If black people did try to resist sharecropping, vagrancy laws and pig laws pushed them into the system in which they were forced to work.

Share cropping is a system where a land owner would hire a laborer to farm his land. Most sharecroppers were former slaves, and had no way of providing themselves with the supply they needed to farm the land.  This caused them to rely on the crop lien system [1].  Under this system a store owner provided the poor sharecroppers with the supplies, but the supplier would take a lien against their future crops.  Meaning the supplier receives the first cut on the laborer’s future crop. The land owner and the worker would split the crop, then the store owner would take his share, leaving the sharecropper with very little. This kept black people poor and indebted to whites.

Vagrancy and Pig Laws

Another form of oppression during this time would be vagrancy laws.  These laws were put into place to target black people and get them in jail.  These laws would say that it was illegal for a man to not have a job, or certain jobs weren’t allowed for certain people (blacks).  This made it very easy for the white people to then arrest and jail many black people whether they weren’t working or stealing food they could be jailed.

Similarly, Pig laws were created to fill the jails with black people.  While they do not directly state about race, they clearly targeted black people.  Pig laws were laws set in place saying anyone caught stealing a farm animal could be jailed.  When you read that law the first thing that may come to mind is that doesn’t seem to be very oppressive or it doesn’t seem to be targeting a race.  However that could not be more far from the truth.  Back in these times many black people had just been freed from slavery or where decedents of slaves and worked as sharecroppers.  Most of these black people were not making enough money to sustain a family and so they had to overcome that.  To feed their families black people would sometimes steal farm animals. These laws were put into place to target those black people. Whites might also steal farm animals, but the law enforcement wasn’t focused on whites it was the black people they wanted to control.

Convict Leasing

The reason the white people wanted black people in jail was to gain a cheap labor force through the working of convict leasing.  Convict leasing was a form of oppression where jails hired out their inmates to companies for a cheap rate.  In many cases this was worse than slavery because prisons weren’t charging much for the convicts so their lives had little value.  Meaning that the white people would work their convicts to death and not worry simply because they could hire another.  This caused black people to be arrested for no real reason, a white man would just claim a pig law or vagrancy law was broken and then another laborer would be sent to prison. [2]

Watch the full documentary “Slavery By Another Name” (2012) on here


Crack vs. Powder Cocaine

Most shockingly Jim Crow and oppression of black people is still around today in just a different form.  The new Jim Crow set in place would be the mass incarceration of black people.  Our jail houses are filled with blacks and minorities, but this does not mean white people do not commit crimes.  Just as there were vagrancy and pig laws before, there are laws set in place today that don’t directly state they are targeting black people, but that indeed is the intent: for instance, if we look at crack versus powder cocaine. The punishment for crack cocaine is more severe than the punishment for powder cocaine even though crack is cooked from powder cocaine, and powder cocaine is the more pure form of crack.  This law “unfairly targets crack users, who are more likely to be black, low-income and less educated.” [3] In the black communities crack cocaine is far more popular than powder, and to target these communities white law makers created these policies to jail the black community [4][5].  Mass incarceration is used to keep the black community in poverty, uneducated and in debt.  Without black males around the family structure is hurt and many father figures are lost.  This is leaving a lot of black homes broken and unable to make gains in their lives.

In his autobiography All God’s Dangers, Nate Shaw states, “it weren’t no use in climbin’ too fast; weren’t no use in climbin’ slow, neither, when they was goin’ to take everything you worked for when you go too high” [6].  No matter what black people did they knew they were going to lose anyway.  These mindsets were established into black people; they felt there was no way to win. Work hard or not, you will end up with nothing so why work at all?

Book cover for 1st Edition, "All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw" (1974)
Book cover for 1st Edition, “All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw” (1974)





[1] Rosengarten, Theodore. (1974). All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. 1st Edition, Alfred A. Knopf.

[2] “Slavery By Another Name” (2012). Documentary. PBS. Based off the book by Douglas Blackmon.

[3] “How Crack Vs. Coke Sentencing Unfairly Targets Poor People.” Vocativ. (Not Dated). (accessed…)

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

[5] “Summary of the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.” The Center for Law and Justice. (Not Dated). (accessed…)

[6] Rosengarten, Theodore. (1974). All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw. 1st Edition, Alfred A. Knopf. Page 27