Home Free Lab ReportsThe pressing issue that American society recognizes but refuses to acknowledge is that black people have and continue to be excluded from basic human rights

The pressing issue that American society recognizes but refuses to acknowledge is that black people have and continue to be excluded from basic human rights

The pressing issue that American society recognizes but refuses to acknowledge is that black people have and continue to be excluded from basic human rights. One out of four African-American males will serve prison time at one point or another in their lives. (13th, Duvernay). The 13th amendment left an ineffaceable impression on the racial fabric of American society. There is a historical and hegemonic idea that America prides itself on equality and justice. Though some could argue that the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 reflect the racial progression of the US, I would argue that these same laws that were supposed to include black people as humans actually translate into white America’s answer to the abolishment of slavery. In addition, these amendments have also constituted the struggle of black people’s journey to becoming “human” in America. In Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, the use of storytelling is used to explain the reality that the after effects of 13th amendment and slavery are still very much visible in black communities. DuVernay’s documentary 13th is used to illustrate the legacy of slavery and the 13th amendment.
There have been primeval forces from history that have contributed to the racial inequalities and criminal injustices we have of these current times. Many Americans assume the 13th amendment as one of the most significant points in the history of Americas foundation. Though the 13th amendment, former slaves were acknowledged as human beings. However, there was a caveat in the ‘fine print’: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or place subject to their jurisdiction” (DuVernay, 2016). In simpler terms, slavery was abolished; except for those who committed a criminal offense, which meant a black person could be re-enslaved under the term “convict”. Interestingly, before the 13th Amendment, most convicts in prisons were white people; black people were still considered property. The Auburn prison was a prototype for what system was to come; contractual penal servitude. This practice spread through the North as convict leasing not only defrayed the costs of incarceration but also generated fortunes for industrialists like Samuel Buckmaster (McLennan, p. 68). This exploitation was stabilizing and by the 1840s most states implies several years of labor imprison if you were convicted of a felony. But after the 13th amendment of 1865, most prisoners shifted to being black people. Convict leasing was crucial to post Civil War South; due to the previous free labor was no more. It “became one of the greatest single sources of personal wealth to some of Souths leading businessmen and politicians” (Mancini, p 339). These former slaves that were now freedmen were imprisoned and fined for petty theft, vagrancy and lack of keeping a steady job (DuVernay). If black people could not pay the fines, some were sold to private mining companies whilst others were sold back into slavery as if it was before the passing of the 13th Amendment. Under the convict lease program, prisoners were forced to work in disreputable conditions and many prisoners died from disease and extensive abuse. Throughout this time Nd into the early 1900s brutal treatment became the norm of the system. This view was vindicated by the catalyzed number of convicts who were increasingly younger (aka stronger) and imprisoned for longer sentences. This ensured long term labor and “maximum productivity in the work camps” (Mancini, p 343) Over time, the convict lease program produced chain gangs, in which black convicts were chained together as they underwent seriously physical but unskilled labor work, perpetrating the same workflow as slavery. The poverty and structural inequality in black communities from urban settings such as the south side of Chicago, Illinois, East Orange, New Jersey, or Compton, California do not reap the benefits of this prominent industry. In 1907 at the peak of the highest contract cost and depression, Jim Crow laws were established therefore beginning the next adaptation of oppression to satisfy the white supremacy agenda. This economical system had translated to be racially motivated, similar to the likes of slavery. (“Slavery by Another Name,” PBS). During the 1950’s, American society gradually illegalized chain gangs therefore allowing American society to forget the criminal injustices of the past.
According to the documentary, during Nixon’s time as president (1969-1974) the war on drugs was just a statement although government and the police force had become focused on inner city ghettos where young colored men committed petty crimes of necessity due to lack of employment or support. Nixon created a system that targeted black people and their communities without explicitly expressing the underlying motivations of the unjust criminal system. As prison exceeded capacity, the move to private prisons arises. Mass incarceration spurred the private prison sector. However, crime had been stagnant or declining during the previous three decades. The majority of new convicts were nonviolent offenders and race, class, and sex all contributed to determining the chances of imprisonment.
During Regan’s presidency (1981-1989) the war on drugs was declared. Throughout time, ‘this war on drugs’ was gradually becoming more treacherous. The spike in murders from 1985-1993 primarily involved “unemployed young black men in poor neighborhoods of big cities, both as perpetrators and as victims” (Wacquant, p 147) Over the years the sentencing was “with a zeal inversely proportional to the seriousness of the offense” (Wacquant p 147) which meant the ‘crime didn’t match the time’. On the whole, exponential growth in inmates coincided with the decline in violent crimes. The rise in incarceration rates came from the hegemonic attitude by society and responses by authority to control street delinquency and poverty. State and federal government used the war on drugs to imprison black people; black people’s imprisonment was essentially a private venture. However, this is not a random occurrence. Lee Atwater, a politician apart of the Reagan campaign was interviewed stating: “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” (13th, Duvernay). This is one proof of point to show that the prison system’s new purpose was to maintain a social, racial and economic order thru punitive regulations through authorities.
Duvernay then explains how Bill Clinton was elected (1993-2001); although he was a Democrat, he had to match the Republicans with being “tough on crime”, by further aiding to the propaganda of the drug war and effectively sentencing and imprisoning the most drug offenders during his presidency. ALEC, a private group represented by various successful capitalists had great influence in politics although never being politicians; they lobbied for laws that increased incarceration in hopes it would benefit their prison labor contracts (Shelden, p 8). Bill Clinton then created the 1994 Crime Bill, which made many changes to U.S. crime and law enforcement legislation for the long term. Under this bill drug related offenses were felonious acts. It expanded the death penalty to include crimes that didn’t result in death, such as running a drug business. Certain provisions directly affected black people and their families for generations like the ‘Three Strikes Law’ which imprisoned a convict for life after the third conviction and the Federal Death Penalty Act which added numerous offenses, violent and non-violent to the list of convictions eligible for the death sentence. According to the documentary, the imprisonment sentence for the possession of crack cocaine is approximately 100 times more grievous than the sentence for the possession of powdered cocaine. Yes, they were essentially the same drug; however powdered cocaine was known to be an upper-class recreational drug contrary to crack cocaine’s image as a deathly violent drug used by poor people. (13th, Duvernay) Wacquant concludes that prison is no longer supposed to “avert criminal activity nor to reintegrate offenders into society… but merely to isolate populations viewed as posing a threat to the sociomoral order…” (p 158). There was an equation of blackness with criminality; causing preferential enforcement of drug laws in poor African American communities.
Through the documentary, Duvernay seeks to re-educate American society, and challenge white America’s conception of democracy, justice and equality. It is used to complement the reality that the legacies of the 13th amendment and slavery are still very visible in black communities. In both the content provided and form it was told, Duvernay aimed to educate, challenge, and expose the history of the 13th amendment in hopes that white American society will begin to identify the causes and effects of its actions. Not only does the documentary reveal the lineage of the 13th amendment, from convict leasing and chain gangs, to the ultimate present-day epidemic of the prison industrial complex, but it also reveals that the effects of slavery and the 13th amendment are still very visible in black communities today. Duvernay, McLennan, Mancini, Wacquant, and Shelden effectively link mass incarceration to decades of racial discrimination from the end of slavery to prison labor, Jim Crow laws, and the never-ending oppression against African Americans.