It is almost surprising that the concept of slavery is very foreign to those living in the developed world, especially the U.S., since it was extensively practiced as recently as 70 years ago. What’s more disturbing about this ignorance is the fact that the system of post-Civil War slavery in the U.S. was not so different than the systems of slavery many Americans and Europeans will be experiencing in upcoming years. Indeed, I’m sure many people will probably take offense to such a comparison even being made, as they feel it demeans the atrocious acts committed in the past.
I would argue, however, that we demean history by failing to understand it and learn from it. Many people refer to debt slavery when referencing current policies of the West, especially in Greece right now where the concept has become very real, but they perhaps still under-estimate how bad it can get. These systems of slavery are primarily borne out of deeply-rooted economic structures which foster high levels of dependency, greed and malice by those with unchecked levels of political power. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these powerful groups consisted of wealthy Southern agricultural and industrial elites.
In his book “Slavery By Another Name” [documentary here], Douglas A. Blackmon documents how very few of the 4 million slaves that existed at the end of the Civil War were actually allowed to realize their freedom until decades later. As the white middle class of the South grew from 1870-1950 (with the exception of some years encompassing the Great Depression), due in no small part to the success of Southern industry, the blacks were kept in their chains through various mechanisms, such as convict leasing and debt peonage, over and above the outright discrimination and violence that they also suffered.