Excerpted From: Ann C. McGinley, Never Equals: Slavery, White Masculinities, and the Legacy of Law in Today's Workplaces, 56 Creighton Law Review 177(March 2023)(55 Footnotes)(Full Document)


Ann McGinley2Teri McMurtry-Chubb begins her excellent book, Race Unequals: Overseer Contracts, White Masculinities, and the Formation of Managerial Identity in the Plantation Economy, with a description of a scene from Solomon Northup's narrative, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup, born a Freeman, describes his kidnapping and enslavement for twelve years in the Old South. McMurtry-Chubb focuses on a scene in which yeoman/carpenter Tibeats binds Northup's feet and hands and places a noose around his neck in preparation to hang him for using the wrong nails on a building project in which Tibeats and Northrup were engaged on Ford's plantation. Northup was originally owned by Ford, but because Ford had financial difficulties, he had sold Northup to Tibeats, the yeoman/carpenter; Ford continued to hold, however, a $400 mortgage on the enslaved Northup. Chapin, the overseer of Ford's plantation who witnessed the noosing, ordered Tibeats off Ford's property and prevented Northup's hanging, claiming that Tibeats had no right to hang Northup because Ford still held a mortgage on Northup. Oddly, however, Chapin did not cut Northup down. Northup stood motionless all day in the hot sun with his hands and feet bound and the noose around his neck until Ford returned to cut Northup's noose.

This story demonstrates the complicated relationships among the different classes of White men--from the planter to the overseer to the yeoman--regarding their power over and treatment of enslaved workers. Race Unequals focuses on White masculinities and how they governed relationships between elite planters--White cotton plantation owners with at least twenty enslaved individuals--and overseers--White managers who governed not only the production of cotton on large plantations but also the daily lives of the enslaved workers.

McMurtry-Chubb ends Race Unequals with a reference to current conditions of Black workers in corporate and factory settings in the United States. She notes that present day managers often fit the “overseer” mold, evoking in Black workers “fear of violence, surveillance, and degradation.” The legacy of slavery lives on, the author argues, in the White masculinities that have imprinted on “managerial identity that pervades our workplaces in the modern world.”

This essay discusses two themes of Race Unequals:(1) the role of law in creating and reinforcing gendered, classed, and raced identities on plantations in the Antebellum South; and(2) the existence of slavery's legacy today in workplaces and the law's frequent failure to remedy its damaging tentacles. Part II describes masculinities studies from the social sciences and Multidimensional Masculinities Theory in law and applies the theory to analyze the first theme. Part III considers slavery's legacy in today's workplaces and analyzes employment discrimination law's shortcomings in eliminating racism in workplaces. The essay concludes that White masculinities, established in the Old South, were created and maintained by law, and that the stain of slavery continues to exist today despite the efforts of the civil rights movement to ban racial discrimination in employment. Moreover, the courts have played a role in perpetuating racial discrimination in workplaces through their interpretation of the anti-discrimination laws.


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Race Unequals is an excellent treatment of the power differentials among White men of different classes in the Old South and how those differentials, lionized by the law, harmed enslaved people. These structures of White masculinities continue to exist and to be reinforced by law in contemporary workplaces despite the anti-discrimination statutes whose purpose is to eliminate discrimination in employment. In fact, in their interpretation of the anti-discrimination statutes, federal courts, perhaps unconsciously, continue to reinforce structural racism through their procedural and substantive rulings.

When deciding whether racially hostile behavior at work is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms or conditions of a Black employee's job, courts should be especially careful not to permit implicit acceptance of the structures of White masculinities to influence their decision making. This means that judges should grant motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment rarely and judiciously, because it is likely that at least some members of a jury of the plaintiff's peers may see the evidence differently. Only with this restraint and a deep understanding of our racial history can judges assure that our civil rights statutes reach their full purpose of guaranteeing equal economic and dignity rights of all workers.

William S. Boyd Professor of Law, Boyd School of Law, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. J.D. 1982, University of Pennsylvania Law School.