Last post, I started writing about the ways that the wealthy work to divide and conquer by stoking false fears and false hopes in those below them, separating individuals from one another. Keri Leigh Merritt details how this game plan worked during the Antebellum period, and after Emancipation and the Civil War, she notes that while land access opened to poor whites, most of the wealthy landowners were able to keep their land even though they lost a lot of their wealth. She points out, “By maintaining ownership of most of the Deep South’s remaining capital, former slaveholders were able to adapt to the new economic structure of the region by earning their primary income as landholders.”
This move, of course, led to a new form of slavery, sharecropping, a system where Black laborers could not get out from underneath the heel of the landowner. I’ve written about this before. Through this system, the wealthy landowners could maintain control. Keep in mind that while General Granger’s Order No. 3 told the enslaved in Galveston and the rest of Texas they were “free” it also “advised” them to stay on the plantation where they worked.
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
The order, in essence, merely changed the name of the institution. It did not ensure that freed enslaved individuals would get a fair shake. They were still under the boot of the wealthy landowner who they served. This is what Brother Ali points out about poor whites not in power in his song “Before They Called You White.”
Brother Ali points out that they will never own the land, and that they are “identifying with the people in control” in the hopes of one day being at the top. This means that they worked to throw people in the bottom of a boat, whip people underneath the Southern son, reprimand workers for supporting Black Lives Matter at work, and on and on. The narrative of upward mobility and American Dream gets recycled, again and again, and people buy into it, believing and hoping they will benefit. However, when it gets down to it, the game is rigged in favor of the ancestors of those who gained that wealth and position decades and centuries before, those pushing those underneath them down to maintain their pedestals.
Along with Brother Ali’s song, Run the Jewels’ “walking in the snow” points out the ways that the powerful sever and the ways that the church perpetuates racism and oppression. For today, I’m only going to focus on the former. In both El-P’s and Killer Mike’s verses, they pinpoint the ways that the powerful use those beneath as an expendable army, pointing out that once they do their job the powerful will come for them. El-P raps,
Hungry for truth but you got screwed and drank the Kool-Aid, there’s a line
It end directly at the edge of a mass grave, that’s their design
Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too (oops)
Here, El-P breaks down the expendable army. Sonically, this point gets driven home with the beat and specifically with the whistle that appears on the second beat at points, almost like a drill sergeant whistle. The powerful get those beneath them to buy into the rhetoric, buy into the fear, buy into the hope that somehow they will succeed. This buying in places those individuals against others, specifically Black and Brown individuals. Once the powerful remove the first “threat” to their position, they’ll come after the group who did the dirty work. In this manner, they maintain control without getting their hands dirty. They work in the “smoky rooms,” working out ways to cage, divide, and conquer.
With his first verse, Killer Mike points out the ways that the system sets up Black children to fail from the outset, stating that school is where “you’re shipped away for your body to be stored” and that test scores “predictin’ prison population.” He then moves on to the media and our reactions to seeing Black men like him dying on television. We become numb and apathetic, rattling off Twitter rants and nothing more, not working to change the system.
This apathy, as Killer Mike points out, blinds whites to the fact that once the powerful finish attacking Black and Brown individuals they will come for the whites beneath them,
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin’ for me
This is the key. This is what W.E.B. Du Bois, Frank Yerby, Lillian Smith, Keri Leigh Merritt, Brother Ali, El-P, Killer Mike, and more point out. The wealthy and powerful use those beneath them as pawns. They maneuver them, not tactically on a map to cut off positions, but through rhetoric and misinformation. They see ways to divide and conquer. They see ways to sever. They do all of this to maintain their positions, not to work for equity and the betterment of society. This is the crux. People need to realize they’re being played. They’re being duped. They’re being manipulated. They need to dissect the information they receive. Until this happens, the machinery of divide of conquer will continue to plow ahead at full steam.
When I think of all of this, I cannot help but remind myself, as Stephen Salaita puts it, “The most deplorable acts of violence germinate in high society. Many genocides have been glorified (or planned) around dinner tables adorned with forks and knives, made from actual silver, without a single inappropriate speech act having occurred.”
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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