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Civil Rights

Racism in our Prison Industry
The Normalization of Slavery

Written by:

Ateret Goldman, 1 Act a Day member


Racism in the United States, while some may think this is a thing of the past, is alive and well. When talking about racism, it is important to understand the historical setting as well as the underlying motives and narratives that have been constructed to influence our experience. The eye opening documentary, “13th” , breaks down the systematic oppression of black Americans from the year 1865 to the current day. By understanding the reality of these systems, we are able to reflect on the views we have been taught and stereotypes we believe and become a more educated populace of the United States and better members of the human race.

In the 1850’s and 60’s, the civil rights movement set out to establish recognition that every human deserves to be treated with basic rights. On December 6th of the year 1865, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed which stated “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 any place subject to their jurisdiction.”  This was established as a recognition and distinction of what we can clearly view as right and wrong in the year of 2016. But at the time there were over three million people being enslaved in the South. So the economy being the priority, the loophole “except as a punishment for crime”, was immediately exploited at the expense of the newly freed black slaves. Immediately after this shift, black people were being “rounded up in the masses”, for petty or no offences, and were thrown into prisons. They were, again, forced into free labor, but now with a constitutional statement backing their treatment. Along with the 13th amendment a new, more devious form of racism became the pattern in the U.S. .

There were many tactics that were used and are still being used to excuse this new slavery system. By separating black Americans into a separate category of people and using language to instill the thought that they are dangerous “super criminals”, not only is this loophole to the 13th amendment a continued source of workers for the American economy, but it affects an important piece of the American thought process. By using language to describe a racially targeted process of imprisonment and slavery in a implicit and socially acceptable way it gained the ability to become a system, perceived as a system of justice, that is still happening today.

Because a base of what made this system successful was using words that hold an underlying, coded meaning, people engaged with this in a positive way. Who would want to stand up against “law and order”?! The problem is that because this new industry profits from the free labor of prisoners it’s in their best interest to have Americans think that by supporting them they are doing a good deed, for the safety of their children and the well-being of the country. While once a “war on drugs” may not have entailed mass incarceration to the point of stripping targeted communities of their populace and devastating families, that is the result of the widely successful Nancy Reagan campaign, originally introduced by Richard Nixon.

Furthermore, laws have been put in place to establish an impenetrable structure of corruption. An example of this is the enactment of “mandatory minimums”, which state the minimum sentencing for “criminal” offenses. This has shown to result in “tying the judge’s hands”—ideally the most unbiased individual in the court-- and interfering with their power of discretion. In addition, the “Truth in Sentencing” law guarantees that a convicted criminal serves at least 85% of their appointed time in prison. These laws combined create so much fear for the accused, where court is seen as too much risk, and cause them to resort to a plea bargain even when they are innocent, rather than being subject to these mandatory rules. In these cases, which are all too common, our “justice system” is failing us.

If there is any doubt that these laws have led to the subjugation of black people, consider this:

  • 30% of black males in the state of Alabama have lost the right to vote because of a “criminal” offense.

  • The likelihood of a white man going to prison in his life time is 1 in 17

  • The likelihood of a black man going to prison in his life time is 1 in 3

  • The population of black men in the United States makes up 6.5%

  • The population of black men in the United States prisons makes up 40.2%

  • In Ferguson Missouri, where 67.4% of the city's population is black, there is an average of 3 warrants per household

The situation we now have leads to the inescapable conclusion that slavery has become normalized in our society. This system is deeply rooted against the people and on the side of greed. By learning about why and how this is occurring, we are able to expose these motives and question what we have been taught to believe as the truth.

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