Some Thoughts on Modern Indentured Servitude

Hello, everyone! Congratulations on making it almost to the end of the semester. I’ve been thinking a lot about sharecropping, company towns, and other methods of debt slavery-esque practices in recent history. More specifically, I’m thinking about these concepts in the context of property theft and alternative labor markets like the drug trade, especially in the context of Parable of the Sower and episodes of This Old House.

The process of indebting one’s labor force to capitalist overlords (forgive my dramatic terminology) has largely been ignored or even supported in American history. The film Slavery by Another Name, for example, documents how debt slavery and the criminalization of black people were used to help finance government projects that were contracted out to individual companies and replace the money lost as a result of abolition. When a case of debt slavery was brought to trial in the early 1900s, the culprits were given only a few months in jail, and the judge who colluded with them to enslave black people was not prosecuted at all.

Private contracting itself has a darker past than I think most people realize. Construction work in Detroit in the mid-20th century, for example, had numerous structural barriers to entry for black Americans (Here I source my information once again from Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis). Apprenticeships were usually a prerequisite for any kind of skilled labor, such as plumbing or electric work, and they were largely determined by personal connections. Since blacks were barred from living peacefully and amicably in predominately white neighborhoods, there were almost no opportunities for them to build the connections necessary to gain access to numerous components of the professional job market.

As a result, black workers began to line up on street corners to be hired on a day-to-day basis by licensed contractors, particularly in the construction industry. Contractors would then choose the strongest-looking workers and encourage them to attempt to underbid each other for a few coveted spots, leaving the majority behind to look for other sources of income. It was here that many historians believe that some of the street corner cultures of Detroit’s major gangs were formed, and I feel like I am better able to understand why since our in-class activity in which we were forced to find shelter outdoors. These men were laid off from factory work and didn’t have the social access to their white counterparts to get jobs in all-white industries. Simply put, there was no place for them in the legitimate labor market. If I were in the same situation, I don’t think it would take me very long to reconsider my stance on property rights and the drug trade. I realize now more than ever that drug trade is often driven not by greed or some nefarious outside force, but rather by a desire to survive and provide for one’s family outside of a system that never supported or accepted them.

In relation to Parable of the Sower, I think Butler tackles the realities of modern slavery and indentured servitude with exceptional nuance. Lauren’s narration does not condemn looters who steal to survive. It even shows a bit of sympathy for the drug addicts who ruined her village when a scavenger woman remarks that the dead green-faced woman died for all of them. Butler never lets the audience forget about the extra obstacles Lauren has to face as a black woman, especially with regards to spaces that Lauren couldn’t safely access. So I guess if all of this historical background has led me to a specific question, it is: Should it ever be okay to steal or sell drugs under the eye of the law? If so, under what circumstances? I find myself wanting to see the law reflect the structural inequalities that it has perpetrated for centuries (cliche, I know) now more than ever. I hope to hear your thoughts on the subject as well.

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