“Thuggin” in Baltimore City: Capitalism and the Political Economy of “Breaking Slaves”

Asha Layne, PhD

Thuggin verb; adj.

1. Either living or pretending to live a criminalistic lifestyle,

2. The behavior of a thug (violent criminal).

As violence hit the streets of Baltimore City following the funeral services of Freddie Gray it became impossible to ignore the barrage of media coverage. From local Baltimore news outlets like Channel 13and FOX 45 to eponymous CNN, the world saw protests and riots throughout West Baltimore as citizens responded to the racial and social injustices that are too common for American cities. At the forefront were the voices and actions of young individuals who showed the world through action that they were going to be heard by any means – love it or hate it. In the wake of these riots, many interpretations circulated of these actions and were condensed into one word: ‘thugs.’ By definition, a thug is a violent criminal, and when used as a form of action, ‘thuggin’ becomes a behavior that mimics a criminal lifestyle.

Beyond the definition, as one examines the landscape of West Baltimore, it becomes evident that the reality of poor neighborhoods was created by a greater and powerful system that is the most violent – capitalism. The earliest form of capitalism can be traced back to Western Europe as early as the Middle Ages through merchant capitalism or long-distance profit seeking, but changed rapidly as towns and states became centralized. Mercantile capitalism declined and gave way to industrial capitalism in the 1800s, which was supported by the economic gains appropriated by mercantile capitalism. Industrial capitalism brought about a new division of labor which stratified members of society. First described in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, division of labor was seen as being cost effective to capitalists as people worked with machines in factories. In essence, division of labor and economic progress went hand in hand, and created a system of social control. Karl Marx would later describe that social control as the function of stratification which is inherently tied to class and hierarchy. As this principle evolved, the effects of it were seen through various forms of mass production by laborers and mass surplus in markets.

The stages of capitalism have, and will always have, an economic base. Although Marx wrote primarily about English capitalism, Das Capital helped introduce principles of economics in which American capitalism would be eponymously known for its major characteristics: free enterprise, private property and wage labor (among other things). In looking at the historical discourse, slavery embodied these characteristics of capitalism as it helped finance the Industrial Revolution in England and America alike. Perhaps the most durable and notable fact is the link between modern capitalism and slavery. Historian Eric Williams explains that the West Indian slave trade gave an impetus to British industries as slave plantations were dominated by the English colonial system. The global commerce of slaves assisted in the production of an integrated system of commerce as slave capital improved the manufacturing industry. The expanding cotton frontier of the global mercantile commerce of slaves helped to offer support for British colonies not only in the Caribbean but also in colonial British America.

In North America, the commercialization of enslaved Blacks did not yield the maltreatment of Black men and women as cash crops continued to fill the coffers of slave owners and the industry. Some would describe that racialized chattel slavery as a struggle between the colonial elites and the popular classes of Virginia over the cultivation of tobacco. Colonists would later seize the land from the indigenous people of Virginia and would turn to African slavery for labor after failed attempts of exploiting the Native Americans and indentured servants. Many Americans infused with the idea of the pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and justice were juxtaposed by the reality of chattel slavery as slaves adopted the status of alienable rights despite the words of Virginia leaders Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison. The spirit of the revolution was authored by men who defended freedom but were also slaveholders. As a result, slavery and liberty would be incompatible as chattel slavery superseded the ideals of freedom.

Chattel slavery allowed plantation slave-owners more aggressive and inhumane ways to protect their livelihoods as slaves were viewed as mere products. Eponymous to chattel slavery is William Lynch, a slave owner in the West Indies during the 1800s whose manifesto and reputation of “how to break a slave” would create psychological and physical control strategies that would impose negative effects on African Americans for generations to come. The Willie Lynch Letters of Making a Slave 1712explains the following six basic principles of making a Negro slave:

1. Both horse and nigger are no good to the economy in the wild or natural state.

2. Both must be broken and tied together for orderly production.

3. For the orderly futures, special and particular attention must be paid to the female and the young offspring.

4. Both must be crossbred to produce a variety and division of labor.

5. Both must be taught to respond to a particular new language.

6. Psychological and physical instruction are created for both.

We hold the above six cardinal principles as truths to be self-evident based on the following discourse concerning the economics of breaking and tying the horse and the nigger together – all inclusive of the six principles above. Note: Neither principle alone will suffice for good economics (Lynch 1712/1992, pg.12).

The effects of chattel slavery are seen throughout every modern inner-city, in which the pathology of inner-city violence can be traced to its economic base. Slavery, a primitive form of labor exploitation, was a criminal enterprise in which slaveholders and advocates of slavery perpetrated acts of criminal behavior protected by the ethos of capitalism. The aftermath of centuries of chattel slavery and its multi-generational effects has crippled the identity of Blacks in America as racial and self-identity is becoming more and more difficult to locate among the stigmas associated with the Black race. From the cotton fields to the concrete jungles, African Americans are subjected to the chronic acute environmental stressors that make up their social realities, all stemming from this still-recent historical path.

Poverty, unemployment, violence, single-parent female-headed households, poor access to healthcare, and poor school systems have become the normal etchings for inner-city neighborhoods across America. Baltimore City is no different. A once bustling and promising economy during Industrialization, Baltimore City is in stark comparison to its once gilded days. With a population of 622,793, of whom 63 percent are Black, Baltimore City has a 24 percent poverty rate compared to 10 percent for the state of Maryland (U.S. Census, 2014). Substantial contrasts are seen comparatively between the richest and poorest communities. For example, 66 percent of Upton/Druid Heights households (compared to 9 percent of Canton households) earned less than $25,000 in 2013 (Baltimore Neighborhood Indicator Alliance). Furthermore, during that same year, Baltimore City unemployment rate was 10 percent while the Upton/Druid Heights community of West Baltimore was 29 percent.

Amidst the social upheaval witnessed in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray murder, we must not forget the key realms of social stratification as identified by Max Weber: power (political power), wealth (economic power), and prestige (social status) under capitalism. These three tenets outline the critical indices by which we as a society subscribe to analyze and hierarchically place members of society. Moreover, our youth in parts of Upton, Druid Heights, Coppin Heights, Penn North, Walbrook and other West Baltimore neighborhoods are very aware of these indices through the social allegory of hip-hop lyrics. As versed in Wu Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M,” and The Lox’s “Money, Power, Respect,” the world of formal education meets the streets in which Weber, Marx, and Smith can be understood through the melodic beats of authors that resemble the struggles and plights of inner-city Black males.

On April 27, 2015, descendants of chattel slavery, only a few generations removed, took the streets to protest against the racial and social injustices brought upon by the effects of capitalism, the most onerous and criminal enterprise known to the African Diaspora. The locus of thugs lies in the heart of a political economy born from a contradiction of rhetorical freedom and the reality of enslavement for Blacks and the indigenous peoples of this country. The psychological and physical deterioration of Blacks in America speaks to that macabre appendage of capitalism called slavery. In1712, William Lynch stated that a ‘nigger is no good to the economy’ in their wild/natural state; and in 2015, Mayor Rawlings Blake blamed ‘thugs’ for the riots and destruction that ensued after Gray’s funeral. The acts witnessed that day were a response to being reared under an oppressive political economy that has blighted sections of West Baltimore like the Upton/Druid Heights area, which sits as a stark contrast to the gentrified Canton area on Southeast Baltimore. Market and global capitalism have used violence and criminal behavior to widen the gap between the rich and poor, so why are we calling those who rise against it ‘thugs?’

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