The people's voice of reason

Economic Development in the Black Belt

In the past several columns we have discussed problems with the criminal justice system and incarceration. Our exploration of problems concerning the corrections system concluded with a discussion of the fact that 400 years of slavery and segregation created a cultural system that understandably put distance between itself and the legal system. We pointed out that a self-help system evolved and that street justice in a self-help cultural system may be one of the causes for disproportionate incarceration of black citizens and pointed out that a program called “Probation Sponsorship” might help bridge the cultural divide. The division between the black culture and the legal system also has implication for economic development in predominantly black areas, such as Alabama’s Black Belt. These implications have not been carefully considered and it is time that we take a look.

First we should underscore the fact that slavery and segregation created a strong cultural barrier between the black population and the white culture and its legal system. The separation was reinforced by laws and the legal system itself. Inevitably a separate black cultural system evolved. The black cultural system has its own customs and ways of dealing with life. Cultural differences are reflected in church life, family life, musical taste, art, language and in numerous other ways. The removal of the legal barriers by the Civil Rights movement did not erase the cultural differences. Although it is important to recognize and preserve many aspects of black culture, it is also important that the cultural system itself not stand in the way of full participation in the mainstream of society, including the economic system.

The events of the 1960’s did not erase a way of life that had evolved over 400 years. The black culture has been understandably slow to turn to the mainstream of law for the solution to problems. The different cultural attitudes toward law are not limited to the criminal law. Remedies that have been adopted to create equal rights took the form of creation of individual rights and little, if any, attention given to the cultural aspects of the problem. Any factors related to the culture that would have adversely affected progress for that group before the Civil Rights movement may still be in place. The system simply continued to evolve under the influence of changes wrought by the Civil Rights Movement.

Any textbook for any introductory course to economics will clearly indicate that a prerequisite for an economy to function and create wealth is a legal system. The legal system must recognize and enforce property rights. The legal system must recognize and enforce contracts. It is important to distinguish between the function of the judiciary, and the actual function of law in society. The difference in legal results between predominately black counties and predominately white counties is quite obvious, but differences in the actual function of law in society are much more difficult to assess. The high verdicts in civil cases in Macon, Bullock, Lowndes and other Black Belt counties as opposed to low verdicts Elmore and Lee counties, is obvious. In fact that is just the problem. Statistically, the “run-away” verdicts that transformed the Alabama legal system and brought an extreme right wing reaction in the entire state occurred mainly in the areas of predominantly black populations. These results and the more subtle differences in the role of law in everyday activities tend to perpetuate the cultural distance between the black subculture and the mainstream.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher in the early ages of enlightenment, pointed out that it is a strange justice that changes with the crossing of a river. The different expectations that exist based on whether an automobile accident happens in Macon County or in Lee or Elmore County cannot be justified. That is not to say that the extremely conservative position taken by juries in the predominantly white counties is ideal. Unfortunately the difference, and the attitudes that reinforce the difference, are strongly charged with emotions and feeling. Verdicts everywhere should be fair.

The point is that the function of law, both in the actions of courts and in the behavior of society, significantly impacts economic development. The attitude toward law that currently predominates in Alabama’s Black Belt counties adversely impacts on economic development in those counties. This column is written in the belief that honest, open discussions of cultural differences can help to alleviate the obstacles to progress created by those differences. The open discussion is an important step toward economic progress for everyone.


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