A Few Words About Slavery on the Fourth of July

By: William McGuire


On July 4th, Americans will commemorate the signing of the Declaration of Independence which, 241 years ago in this very city, affirmed the Thirteen Colonies’ demand for political independence and the inalienable rights of all human beings to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was a direct challenge to the foundational structures of European society which had been in place for a millennium, and an outline of the ideals of revolutions that would follow in France, Haiti, and Belgium in the next fifty years.

        Seventy-six years later, the great abolitionist and intellectual Frederick Douglass gave a speech on the Fourth of July in which he challenged his audience to consider the hypocrisy of a nation founded on ideals of fundamental equality, but continually buttressed by the work of slaves:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham…a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

        Douglass did not stand on ceremony in decrying the evils of chattel slavery, or calling his audience to action against it and we, from our comfortable perch almost two centuries later, can let our chests swell and take pride in the nobility and honesty of Douglass’ words. The evils of the slave trade may take their place as just one more speed bump on the road to true equality that our forefathers defeated.

        We would be lying to ourselves, just as many in Douglass’ audience were.

        America is still a nation supported by slavery and though it is not as brazen as the chattel form that built the 19th century American cotton industry, it is far more ubiquitous: it has reached every corner of American society as an invisible atrocity that all of us eat, wear, drive, plug charger cables into, and type on. The truth is we in the West are far more dependent on slavery than those who heard Douglass firsthand ever were. Consider only a few brief examples:

       Per a 2015 Salon.com investigation: Fashion brands like Gap, Adidas, and H+M use Cambodian labor, 1 out of 3 are children, who are paid starvation wages and shot by their own government when they strike for basic safety concerns and a living wage. The factories are known to fire any seamstress who is visibly pregnant, and workers allege that they are docked for using the toilet, or sometimes just not paid at all. 

       In 2015, CNN published a report detailing how McDonald’s and Wal-Mart had been routinely buying their stock from farms under investigation for enslaving migrant workers. Workers have gone on record to CNN about abuses that range from wage theft to sexual abuse by overseers. In one case, migrant farmers were locked into pick up trucks overnight to ensure they’d still be there the next morning. Now tomato farms from New Jersey to Florida must regularly receive federal investigators to ensure that labor is not being impressed against its will.

       Silicon Valley, the jewel of America’s entrepreneurial development, is totally dependent on literal slave labor. From Congolese children working to mine essential minerals for component construction, to southeast Asian factories in special “Free Market Zones” with no safety or environmental regulation where conditions have degenerated to the point where overseers are installing nets around the building to dissuade their workforce from taking their own life.

       America’s unseen prisoner labor force (accounting for 22% of the world’s incarcerated population) work at rates far below minimum wage, making on average between .12 and .40 cents per hour with no labor rights and little oversight. Incarceration in America is vastly profitable industry with at least 583 million in declared profits. 

        This is the nature of capitalism: it cannot abide a barrier to profit, no matter how immoral, it must expand to the detriment of every other consideration. It seeks to impress the entire Global South into a network of modern day plantations and sweatshops, in order to subsidize the cost of cheeseburgers and laptops to a base of consumers who can afford to buy more merchandise and keep the vicious cycle growing. It will, as it has in places like Mali and Cote de Ivorie, steal the food from starving subsistence farmers in order make sure our stores are stocked with enough chocolate and coffee this holiday season.

        So, enjoy the time with your family and friends, by all means. Just make sure to spread the word to those you care about that slavery is not a distant and unpleasant memory. It is to this day, the heartbeat of the global economy, the natural result of capital with access to all the world’s labor and the means to transport goods across continents with ease. The plantations were not erased by the Emancipation Proclamation, simply retooled and moved out of easy access. Just as Frederick Douglass saw that hypocrisy at the center of the nation he lived in, we too, need to find the courage to speak up for those who have no means of speaking for themselves. To empower them, in solidarity, to build with us a world where everyone really is entitled to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

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