Southern Justice

Protest sign from an Immigration Policy rally. Sign reads "No Human Being is Illegal"Historical analogies can enhance our understanding of both past and present, provided we take care to distinguish between superficial similarities and fundamental sameness. Contrary to what you may have heard, history doesn’t repeat itself. (Would only that the same could be said for those who presume to interpret it.) An excellent case in point involves critics of Georgia’s Draconian new immigration laws who have dubbed them the “Brown Codes,” in an effort to link them to the “Black Codes” passed by Georgia and other former Confederate states in 1865-66 to redefine and codify the subordinate status of newly freed blacks. This comparison works fine if we are talking only about the discriminatory aspects of both sets of legislation. If we look at the overall thrust and intent of the discrimination, however, the differences are actually quite striking.

The principal aim of Black Codes was to restore white control or supervision over black life, especially black labor, which of course, was critical to the resurrection of southern agriculture. Hence, the Black Codes provided for apprenticing black children to white “masters” on terms largely set by the masters themselves. Tightly drawn vagrancy laws were aimed at forcing “free people of color” to bind themselves to white employers or face lengthy prison or jail terms. Since the citizenship rights of former slaves or their descendents were not constitutionally confirmed until the Reconstruction-era ratification of the Fourteenth amendment in 1868, in 1866 Georgia’s “free persons of color” were assigned to what was intended to be a permanently separate and racially circumscribed civil category. The idea here was to regain control of black labor, however, not to create a climate so utterly repressive that the former slaves opted to take their labor elsewhere. Accordingly, there were some concessions to their newfound status. Their stable, monogamous marriages and their parental rights and responsibilities were recognized by law and they could testify in civil or criminal proceedings involving other free persons of color, although public officials were forbidden to marry or issue marriage licenses to couples where one party was deemed to be of at least one-eighth African descent. This determination was not as easy to accomplish with the naked eye as it might seem, but it was obviously easier than making visual distinctions between legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants. Therein lies the rub with Georgia’s new anti-illegal immigration laws (which, let’s face it, are essentially anti-immigration, period) because what were once deemed lawful protections for documented immigrants, not to mention naturalized citizens, against peremptory searches or interrogations are now put aside in the cases of all persons of either Hispanic origin or the mere appearance thereof.

It is true enough that under both Georgia’s black codes of 1866 and it’s immigration legislation of 2011, people were/are subject to having their rights violated simply on the basis of their racial appearance. Yet the Black Codes were aimed at controlling blacks and thereby assuring an ample supply of cheap labor, while the new immigration statutes effectively seek to expel or repel immigrant workers and thus threaten to leave millions of dollars worth of Georgia’s crops rotting in the fields this year.

This thoroughly predictable outcome seemed to escape the comprehension of some traditionally business-friendly politicians who have built their careers on keeping labor cheap and abundant. Rather than offer a constructive response to legitimate concerns about illegal immigration, they simply could not resist the chance to pander to anti-Hispanic sentiment by pushing through laws that are clearly over the top even by Georgia standards. Their efforts to extricate themselves from the increasingly narrow crevice between rock and hard place on the farm labor issue pose some interesting historical parallels. Enforced with great vigor in Georgia and elsewhere after Reconstruction was overthrown, exceedingly stringent vagrancy laws aimed at insuring a large supply of farm labor quickly gave rise to a surplus convict population whose maintenance costs amounted to a huge drain on state coffers. This in turn gave rise to the heinous practice of leasing convicts, typically at a few pennies per convict per day, to private employers (including Georgia governor Joseph E. Brown) who had no stake whatsoever in seeing to their health or providing even minimally humane treatment in general.

Flash ahead 135 years and we have governor Nathan [“Let’s Make A”] Deal, the architect of Georgia’s new iron-fisted immigration policies, calling for the state’s unemployed ex-convict population (most of whom are required to seek work while on probation) to be pressed into service in order to alleviate an estimated shortage of 11,000 workers in the state’s agricultural sector, said shortage, of course, having been exacerbated in the first place by Deal’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation. A similar small-scale effort with probationers fizzled a few years back when, consistent with a region-wide pattern, an I.N.S. crackdown decimated the workforce at a poultry plant at Stillmore, Georgia, and judging from this early report on how Deal’s plan is actually working out there in the vegetable patches so far, the outcome of this more ambitious experiment promises to be about the same this time around:

The first batch of probationers started work last week at a farm owned by Dick Minor, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. In the coming days, more farmers could join the program.

So far, the experiment at Minor’s farm is yielding mixed results. On the first two days, all the probationers quit by mid-afternoon, said [crew leader Benito] Mendez, one of two crew leaders at Minor’s farm.

“Those guys out here weren’t out there thirty minutes and they got the buckets and just threw them in the air and say, ‘Bonk this, I ain’t with this, I can’t do this,’” said Jermond Powell, a thirty-three-year-old probationer. “They just left, took off across the field walking.”

Mendez put the probationers to the test last Wednesday, assigning them to fill one truck and a Latino crew to a second truck. The Latinos picked six truckloads of cucumbers compared to one truckload and four bins for the probationers.

Conditions in the field are bruising, and the probationers didn’t seem to know what to expect. Cucumber plants hug the ground, forcing the workers to bend over, push aside the large leaves and pull them from the vine. Unlike the Mexican and Guatemalan workers, the probationers didn’t wear gloves to protect their hands from the small but prickly thorns on the vines and sandpaper-rough leaves.

The harvesters carried filled buckets on their shoulders to a nearby flatbed truck and hoisted them up to a dumper, who tossed the vegetables into a bin.

Temperatures hovered in the low 90s with heavy humidity Thursday, but taking off a shirt to relieve the heat invited a blistering sunburn. Tiny gnats flew into workers’ eyes and ears. One experienced Latino worker carried a machete that he used to dispatch a rattlesnake found in the fields.

By law, each worker must earn minimum wage, or $7.25 an hour. But there’s an incentive system. Harvesters get a green ticket worth 50 cents every time they dump a bucket of cucumbers. If they collect more than 15 tickets an hour, they can beat minimum wage…

The Latino workers moved furiously Thursday for the extra pay.

None of the probationers could keep pace. Pay records showed the best filled only 134 buckets a day, and some as little as 20. They lingered at the water cooler behind the truck, sat on overturned red buckets for smoke breaks, and stopped working to take cell phone calls.

While they hardly merit commendation, the proponents of the Black Codes at least recognized their dependence on maintaining a pool of cheap, docile black labor. Latter-day boosters of Georgia’s Brown Codes appear to have overlooked a comparable dependence among Georgia farmers, not to mention poultry processors and doubtless quite a few contractors, landscapers, etc. as well, on cheap, docile Hispanic labor. In the months to come, a great many Georgia employers, agricultural or industrial, corporate or individual, who find themselves hard-pressed to secure the labor they need at anything like the cost they’ve become accustomed to paying may well conclude that Governor Deal’s “final solution” to the illegal immigration problem is infinitely worse than the problem itself.

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb

Jim Cobb teaches history at the University of Georgia, where he is B. Phinizy Spalding Distinguished Professor in the History of the American South. His most recent book is the South and America Since World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010) He has been known to blog at