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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
As I said in part 1, I used to interpret this parable differently than I do today. I used to see this parable as “olly olly oxen free,” a story where everyone gets let in, penalty-free. But when we read this parable from the perspective of those oppressed, subjugated, or pushed to the margins of society, certain things begin to stand out.
First, this is a mixed group from a lower class of society than would normally be invited as guests at a royal wedding, and that class includes divisions as well. In a classist society, the lower class is not a monolith.
Michelle Alexander explains this when she describes the history of Bacon’s rebellion in YEAR. It failed because social elites created racial divisions among the lower classes to prevent them from threatening the economic structure that privileged those at the top.
“Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty . . . The events in Jamestown [the failed Bacon’s rebellion] were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed. In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance . . . Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p. 24-25.)
Throughout U.S. history, the elites have repeatedly fanned the flames of racially charged bigotry to divide the lower class. During Reconstruction, after the Civil War, they did it again, and that led to the era of Jim Crow.
“Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people. By the turn of the twentieth century, every state in the South had laws on the books that disenfranchised blacks and discriminated against them in virtually every sphere of life, lending sanction to racial ostracism that extended to schools, churches, housing, jobs, restrooms, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, orphanages, prisons, funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries. Politicians competed with each other by proposing and passing ever more stringent, oppressive, and downright ridiculous legislation (such as laws specifically prohibiting blacks and whites from playing chess together). The public symbols and constant reminders of black subjugation were supported by whites across the political spectrum, though the plight of poor whites remained largely unchanged. For them, the racial bribe was primarily psychological.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, pp. 34-35.)
Right now in the U.S., we are witnessing a new set of racial bribes being offered to the lower class White population in exchange for November election results.
We’ll continue considering contemporary applications in our next and final segment.