The Troubling Legacies of Racism and Crony Capitalism
Conservatives and liberals had entirely different reactions to the recent confrontation between Attorney General Eric Holder and Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert. After the event, Holder expressed his view that no previous attorney general or president had ever had to deal with such treatment and that the reason had to do with race. Gohmert, on the other hand, said he was just performing congressional oversight because he didn’t think Holder was doing his job.
This is the latest episode in an American tragedy that has been unfolding since the English first settled colonies in North America. In July 1619, the first colonial representative assembly was seated in Jamestown, Va. Of the 22 members who took office that day, 15 were elected by the colonists. The first legislature had limited power, but it established the concept of representative government that we now accept as the norm.
Tragically, less than a month later, pirates attacked a Portuguese slave ship and brought 20 slaves to Jamestown for sale. Thus, the noble traditions of representative government and individual liberty were almost instantly tarnished by the sickening tradition of racism and slavery. Both legacies have been part of the American experiment from the beginning.
However, things could have turned out differently because the slavery of 1619 in Jamestown was nothing like the slavery we know of from history. It was more like being an indentured servant, where people had a debt to work off and then could earn their freedom. Both white and black indentured servants took this route. They were allowed to buy land, marry and lead free lives. Had this practice continued in a colorblind manner, America’s racial history would be much different.
Unfortunately, another evil took hold in 17th-century America — crony capitalism. It corrupted both politics and a free society, creating the lasting racial divide we are still struggling with today.
The crony capitalism of the 17th century involved wealthy planters and friendly politicians using the power of government to restrict the freedom of black colonists. Laws were passed in the 1660s that tied slavery specifically to one race and made it far more vicious. By 1670, free blacks could no longer have white people as indentured servants, and masters could legally kill their slaves. The captive labor force increased the planters’ wealth.
For the next 200 years, our nation maintained a harsh form of racially based slavery. After that, Jim Crow laws maintained legal racism for another century. It’s only been in the last generation or two that our laws have begun to share the blessings of liberty and equality with Americans of all colors. It will take several more generations of hard work before the ideal of a truly colorblind society can be reached.
That’s a goal worthy of the effort required.
As we pursue that goal, it’s important to remember that crony capitalism created the horror of American slavery. Crony capitalism takes different forms today, but it is still corrupting our politics and free society. It, too, must be overcome. Whenever an entrenched political class uses government power to restrict the freedoms of others, the nation is at risk.
Representative democracy, individual liberty, racism and crony capitalism all arrived in 17th-century Virginia. Only the commitment to freedom and representative government deserve to survive.