Despite Joe Biden’s outlandish statements last summer, it is almost impossible to return to the old days of black slavery. To do this, white masters would have to truly believe their black slaves are subhuman. Even most white conservatives know that black people are fully human, and many have black friends. So if slavery comes back, it will not be racially based.
But slavery could come back. Here’s how.
Right now, banks have almost unlimited freedom to treat debtors as they like. Recent Democratic legislation has limited this ability, but a future Republican administration might very well sweep these limitations and regulations away. If you owe money to one or more banks, and if regulations were swept away, they could raise your interest rates or lower your credit limit singlehandedly for any reason or no reason. Bank of America lowered my credit limit even though I always paid more than the minimum, without exception. Okay, I got a payment in two days late back in 2003. But otherwise, my record is perfect. They lowered my credit limit (which I wasn’t going to actually use anyway) for no reason connected with me. But this did cause my credit score to go down—for no reason connected with me. Without regulation, banks can also invent new fees. For example, some banks suggested a minimum-balance fee for those of us who have paid down our debts; if you have less than $1500 balance, you may have to pay a fee. Only federal regulation now prevents this.
Banks could therefore, in the absence of regulation, manipulate people into a permanent state of debt. How can you ever pay them back? Before about 200 years ago, one way to do this was for the debtor to be sold into indentured servitude. That is, they would work for the creditor until the debt was paid off. However, the creditors manipulated the fees such that the debt could never actually be repaid. The indentured servant thus became a lifelong slave. The first black slaves were actually indentured servants, and by a process similar to what I have described, they turned into slaves. It could happen again, unless federal regulation prevents it. This time, the slaves would be a multiracial group of poor people, virtually (not legally) owned by a multiracial group of rich people. Black people would be disproportionately but not exclusively in the slave category.
There are even more recent historical precedents. You remember the song Sixteen Tons? It is about coal miners who work all day but can never repay their debts to the coal mining company. “You load sixteen tons, whaddaya get? Another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don’t ya call me ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.” Just substitute bank for mining company and you have a situation that could virtually (not legally) enslave millions of Americans.
And don’t think debtors would be offended by this. Many debtors really, really want a job; and if the creditor required them to work off their debts, this would be the equivalent of being given a job. Many of them would jump at the chance. When the alternative is economic ruin, indentured servitude might look pretty good. Right now, Mexicans risk death to cross the border into the USA mainly for economic reasons. Compared to the travail of the undocumented Mexicans, indentured servitude—even if it turns into a lifelong commitment—looks pretty easy. Requiring indentured servitude might also be a way of reducing or even eliminating welfare, something that conservative Republicans will stop at nothing to do.
Lincoln said that a nation cannot survive half slave and half free. He was wrong, I suspect. I suspect the USA may survive as a nation 90 percent indentured and 10 percent free.