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Black Labor, White Wealth

Author and Humanities Washington speaker Clyde W. Ford on the troubling foundations of American prosperity.

“I didn’t see eye to eye with my dad about a lot of things.” 

In his memoir Think Black, Clyde Ford explored his and his father’s relationship through America’s tumultuous Civil Rights era. From his father’s first day at IBM, to his own first day at the same company, Ford traced the history of how technology has been used, and continues to be used, as a force of oppression. 

“My dad, to his credit, was of the Greatest Generation. He and his brother fought in World War II. They really were of a generation which felt that America could do no wrong, even though they were in the midst of being wronged in so many ways by America as Black men.” 

Ford is now back with another book, Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives and the Making of White Power and Wealth, which reveals “how Black labor helped to create and sustain the wealth of the white one percent throughout American history,” he explains. 

“Coming up in the generation after him,” he continued, “the Civil Rights generation and the Black struggle for freedom, I didn’t feel the way he did. I felt that we should be holding America to the highest standards of what the country proclaimed in its great founding documents, and of liberty and equality and justice for all, regardless of color.” 

Ford is currently giving a talk for Humanities Washington called, “Biased Code: Technology and Human Rights.” We sat down with Ford to discuss both books, as well as issues surrounding reparations and critical race theory. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

 

Humanities Washington: Can you give us a peek into what your new book is about? What are the connections between Think Black and Blood and Sweat? 

Asia Lara: The idea for Of Blood and Sweat really emerged, in part, out of the work I did in the historical aspects of Think Black, when I looked back and considered the relationship between technology and the history of racism in the United States, as well as in Europe. The premise for Think Black is that all of the major institutions of power and wealth in Europe and America have at their core this idea that people of color, people of African descent, either helped to build those institutions or those institutions were built to control people of color, people of African descent. In either case, some folks benefit from those institutions by accumulating power and wealth. But the people who helped build them, particularly the enslaved individuals, people of African descent, never got anything for their efforts.  

In Of Blood and Sweat, I started in West Africa with the Portuguese in the middle to late 1500s, because I thought there was more of a story there that I wanted to know about. Instead of writing a dry history of events and facts and dates, I wanted to find individuals who had lived that history—if those records had survived. In an almost amazing way, I was able to find the stories of individuals who lived in pre-colonial Africa and what their experience was like—Africans who were enslaved and came over to this country, like a man and a woman named Anthony and Isabel, who were on that first ship of Africans that docked in 1619 off of Point Comfort in Virginia, who later got married and had the first African American child in 1625. I took all of the major epics in American history, from 1619 through the end of the Civil War, and tried to identify several individuals who might represent the essence of what was taking place during that time, and then tell the story through their eyes, often through their words—if I could find those words.  

For example, I tell the story of the slaveholding South through the words, actions, and deeds of men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. I don’t have to put words in their mouth. They wrote them, they said them. Jefferson wrote a mortgage out to his creditors in England and Amsterdam in which he said, “Look, I know I owe you thousands of dollars. What I want to do is, I’m going to pay you back, but I want to give you as collateral the slaves that I have enslaved on my plantation.” Human beings used as collateral for debt. That began a process in which the banks in this country and the farmers, the white farmers in the South, saw an incredible way to get funds to expand their business to make money. They simply said to banks, “Look, I want money, and I don’t have anything but my slaves.” And the bank said, “Fine, that’s great. We’ll take your slaves as collateral for your debt.” That became a whole way of debt financing and mortgage financing, which wound up generating wealth not only for banks, but for Wall Street as well. They packaged all these slave-backed mortgages. People around the world bought parcels of them or portions of the slave-backed mortgages. Now you’ve got this system, which is ultimately tied to a human life, that forms the basis for a lot of the financial system that we know today. 

“From beginning to end, the technology we use—in concept, in design, and in manifestation—is exploitive of both human and natural resources. It has always been that way.”

Your memoir Think Black contests this general opinion that technology is inherently value free. If it’s not inherently value free, what are those values that are being put into it? Is it dependent on the creator or the user of that technology? 

The notion that technology is not value free is really an idea that goes back to Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher in the post-World War II 1950s, whom many people discard because of his relationship with the Third Reich. Certainly, that is a stain on any person to have a relationship with such a heinous organization at that time in Germany. But Heidegger—and I certainly would recommend his essays on technology to anyone—said that one of the great misunderstandings of modern life is that technology is value free. I’m paraphrasing him here, but Heidegger would say technology is inherently exploitive of natural resources, to which I would also add it’s exploitive of human resources as well. Heidegger really would look at any piece of technology and say, you’re taking all these various resources, some of them extractive. We certainly see that with high tech. You’re extracting precious metals and other material from the ground in order to make these objects that we then use.  

In terms of modern technology, just think of where your cell phone is being made, by whom that cell phone is being made, and what happens to that cell phone after you dispose of it. There are huge piles of used technology, literally, in corners of the world. I can tell you: those corners of the world are not the corners of the world populated by wealthy, Western, mostly white nations. They are in Africa; they are in Asia. From beginning to end, the technology we use—in concept, in design, and in manifestation—is exploitive of both human and natural resources. It has always been that way. That was quite a revelation for me. 

It seems that a core underlying thread to your work is an analysis of critical race theory. How would you define critical race theory? What is your perspective on it? 

That’s a really important question, because critical race theory has become a cudgel by which the far-right attempts to beat down and quell any discussion of race, racism, and anti-racism in the schools and in the country. What I think is really important but lost on those who don’t think in a discriminating way, is the difference between theory and historical facts. Theory is a way you attempt to make sense of historical facts, but theory is not the same as historical facts. That has been so terribly confused by those who are opposed to something they can’t even define, which is critical race theory.  

Critical race theory is an idea that started at Harvard in the late Seventies by Derrick Bell and other lawyers who were trying to develop a theory that would explain why the legal system was so stacked against people of African descent. Remember, a theory is an attempt to understand facts. The facts are not in dispute— although a lot would like to think they are— the fact that African Americans are incarcerated more than white Americans, the fact that African Americans are stopped for minor crimes more than white Americans. How do you explain those? That’s what critical race theory attempted to do.  

My book is really a book about historical truths and not about critical race theory. That’s a distinction with a huge difference that our friends on the far right who are so diametrically opposed to critical race theory don’t have a clue about. No one teaches this level of theory to a young child in elementary school. This kind of theory is best taught and is taught in graduate school. So no, my book is not about critical race theory. Critical race theory is part of the current conversation. Now, does my book unearth historical truths that support the ideas of critical race theory? Absolutely. But there are a lot of other theories that I like to think I’ve incorporated in the book and that there are historical bases for as well.  

One of the theories that I mentioned quite regularly throughout the book is this notion that without bondage there could be no freedom. Without slavery, there would not have been the ideas of freedom we have in this country. Now, that’s a really contradictory theory that a lot of people first hear and say, “Oh, man, I don’t get that.” It’s not my theory; it’s a theory of a famous historian by the name of Edmund S. Morgan. When I got to the chapter in which I featured Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, I had a real opportunity to test out historically whether this idea of “without slavery or without bondage there is no freedom,” and here’s what I found: To grow tobacco—and I went into the actual details of how long and what it took to grow tobacco—is a time consuming, back breaking process. If Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and George Washington didn’t have enslaved people to grow their tobacco crops, they would have been in the fields working those so long each day that they would never have had the freedom or time to pontificate about the great ideas of liberty, eternity, and equality that found their ways into the founding documents of this country.  

Without slavery, there would not have been the ideas of freedom we have in this country.

Another pressing topic that you address in your book, and which has been at the forefront of some recent news, is on reparations. I think that the topic of reparations is especially salient given the recent California Task Force on Reparations vote, which said that reparations should only be given to genealogical descendants of enslaved Africans. They rejected the proposal to include all Black people, regardless of lineage. Is that correct? 

Yeah, the California Task Force said it should be genealogical descendants of enslaved people, and not just include anybody of dark skin color, even if they had been discriminated against in this culture. Personally, I think it’s the right decision. It was hotly contested and argued among the Task Force, but that’s the kind of argument that should take place. We can disagree, we don’t have to be disagreeable, and we need to have a forum within which to discuss that. I recently submitted an op-ed to The Seattle Times about reparations for slavery, and how I think something like what’s going on in California should also happen here in Washington State. I think Washington State should have a commission like California, a task force on reparations.  

Reparations were actually tried in this country. In 1865, right after the North won the Civil War, there was a major bill and institution, the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had the approval of President Abraham Lincoln, for land in the South to be taken from white slave owners and redistributed to African Americans. That order was called Special Field Order No. 15. It was created by General Sherman. A lot of people know it by its more popular name, “40 Acres and a Mule,” because the idea was that there were going to be a certain number of acres given to enslaved individuals who were now free, and along with that, the implements in order to farm that land. Once Lincoln was assassinated and President Andrew Johnson stepped into the White House, one of the first acts that Johnson did was to strip away every aspect of that reparations idea. 

Taking California’s Task Force on Reparations as an example, do you see that as the beginning of larger federal change? Looking forward, are you feeling hopeful? Are you feeling uneasy? Are you feeling cynical? 

Well, I’m not feeling cynical. I’m a big believer in truth and reconciliation. Now, South Africa is not a perfect society by any means, but the late Desmond Tutu headed their TRC, their Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Basically, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a way of bringing together some of the worst actors of Apartheid with the victims of those acts, of those actions, and finding a way to move forward. The Canadian government—again, not perfect in terms of their approach to First Nations individuals—but they also have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which tries to find a way forward based on some of the horrible things that were done to First Nations in Canada. So, I’m a really big believer that reconciliation should be the goal. I mean, it’s the kind of thing which Martin Luther King spoke to in almost every one of his great speeches, which was about the need and the goal and his aspiration for reconciliation. But it is called truth and reconciliation for a reason—you don’t get through the reconciliation until you get to the truth. Those of us who are authors and others who are really talking about these issues, we’re laying the groundwork for that truth, to make sure that the truth is out there, so we can get to the reconciliation. That’s what my books are about, that’s what’s important to me, and that’s why I’m hopeful for the future because I believe that as we confront the truth of the past, we can move forward to the reconciliation of the future. 

Check out Ford’s Speakers Bureau talk, Biased Code: Technology and Human Rights, online and in-person around the state.