Despite what you may believe, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution never ended slavery. It simply morphed the institution into a more palatable reincarnation that continues to this day to profit off the labor of people of color.
That’s the argument deftly crafted by award-winning director Ava DuVernay in her new film 13th, available on Netflix.
Following the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, the South was left in shambles. Worse yet, it was now without the source of the free labor that had been key to its economic success.
“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.” – 13th Amendment to US Constitution
Yet, the South quickly took advantage of a loophole to gain access to free labor. The 13th Amendment allowed for the involuntary servitude of those convicted of crimes.
Quickly, an embittered white populace convicted former slaves on minor offenses. These often unsubstantiated charges led to the “legal” mass incarceration of thousands of newly freed slaves. And this population was leased by government entities to all varieties of industries, from cotton picking to mining. This convict leasing system persisted for a generation or more and paved the way for the modern prison industrial complex.
Throughout our history, DuVernay argues that society has created a subconscious characterization of black males as hyper-sexual criminals, which has provided psychological justification for a system that currently incarcerates one-fourth of the world’s prison population. When we are brainwashed to believe that black males are predators, we no longer question the morality of a prison system that overwhelming imprisons people of color.
And this indoctrination of black male criminality has been around for generations. DuVernay points out that the original The Birth of a Nation, a film which is considered the “Star Wars” of its day, blatantly portrayed black men as sex-starved savages. In one scene, a white woman throws herself off a cliff to avoid being raped by a pursuing black man.
Nixon’s war on drugs specifically targeted African Americans as revealed by Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs continued the persecution of blacks as criminals with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Under the law, those dealing crack were sentenced more harshly than those dealing cocaine. Crack was generally preferred by inner-city users while cocaine was preferred in the white suburbs. The law saw an explosion in the number of blacks sent to prison.
In the 1990’s, President Clinton’s Crime Bill added fuel to the fire. Its increased funding for prisons and “three strikes” mandatory life sentences served to shackle many non-violent offenders with lifetime sentences.
Today, the United States incarcerates more than 2.3 million people, the highest incarceration rate in the world. A black male now has a 1 in 3 lifetime chance of being incarcerated while a white male has just a 1 in 17 chance of being incarcerated.
All the while private companies are making substantial profits building and staffing prisons while companies from Victoria Secret to Boeing have taken advantage of prison laborers who make pennies an hour working in modern day sweat shops. Slavery is in fact still alive.
Du Vernay’s 13th is a riveting but sober look at the evolution of our mass incarceration movement, and an even more powerful indictment of a country that has so demonized black maleness that Americans have become immune to the plight of our prison populations. Catch 13th on Netflix today.
Catch the trailer below:
BMWK, did you see 13th yet? What were your thoughts?
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