Americans tend to believe that slavery ended in 1865. However the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of The United States of America reads in part, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States." (Emphasis added).
Slavery was actually legalized by this amendment and later reinstituted over and over again by the force of law. Americans should not be surprised that slavery did not end. In fact, President Lincoln stated clearly in a letter dated August 22, 1862 to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley,
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. (The African-American Odyssey 234).
This pseudo-abolition of slavery was actually a legislative compromise to placate the pathology of those few slave states that did not secede from the union (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri) and allow them to criminalize the practice of dominating and peddling the flesh of human-black-bodies for economic gain. To ignore the dehumanizing legacy of chattel slavery is to erase the truth of a past that gave birth to American culture.
Post-Thirteenth-Amendment slavery is somehow morally acceptable, deliberate, camouflaged, and systematically organized with a coolness that its predecessor would envy. Making slaves of criminals is akin to racism in that it is a practice controlled by white men and tailor-made for maximum economic gain with political support and approval from a majority of religious institutions, specifically the Christian church. Without substantial Christian co-operation, post-Thirteenth-Amendment slavery would not exist as it does today.
Prior to the abolitionist movement against chattel slavery, Christian proponenets utilized biblical authority and racial hermeneutics to theologize African enslavement. Supporters of slavery used interpretations of the story of Noah to claim the curse of Ca’naan applied to Africans in America: "Ham, the father of Ca’naan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without." (Genesis 9:22). "And [Noah] said, 'Cursed be Ca’naan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.'" (Genesis 9:25).
Sanctified dehumanization justified the old slavery. Religious approval always makes it easier to violate an unwanted group of people. For example, the religious tone of Manifest Destiny made it okay to exterminate Native Americans and pursue economic progress by expanding the boundaries of the United States in the 1840’s under the banner of God’s alleged approval.
As it was with the old version of slavery, so it is with the new: someone has to gain and someone has to lose. The difference between the two, aside from the forms of brutality, is legality. Africans did not do anything to warrant enslavement, whereas individuals like myself and others who are incarcerated committed crimes or so-called crimes, the sole justification for Post-Thirteenth-Amendment slavery.
But who gets to define what crime is? According to The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison, "The fact is that the label 'crime' is not used in America to name all or the worst of actions that cause misery and suffering to Americans. It is reserved primarily for the dangerous actions of the poor." (Reiman, Leighton, p. 66).
When it comes to crime and judgment, most Americans simply look at the act (actus reus or "guilty act") and from there cast judgment. Occasionally we look into the state of mind (mens rea or "guilty mind") of the person committing the most serious acts in order to distinguish between crimes such as premeditated murder and lesser degrees of homicide. But by focusing on the individual through the lens of such legal definitions in practice denies justice because it can ignore the wider context of the behavior in question. Laura Magnani and Harmon L. Wray begin their discussion of crime in Beyond Prisons with a quote from Yazzie: "A crime is evidence that there is something wrong with relationships. An event must be seen in the context of what created it." (p. 8). Our criminal justice policy ignores the context of the crimes of the poor and denies the greater threats posed to society.
We know that elected officials are influenced by powerful lobbying groups, political action committees, individual campaign contributors, and so on. Therefore, crime defined by legislators does not necessarily reflect what is in the best interest of society. Rather, it may reflect the best interests of those who can afford to influence the development of policy at the expense of taxpayers and the poor. Lawmakers not only define the meaning of crime, but they decide who becomes a slave. "Crime" is a word which can be used to mean "legal slavery" for the purposes of my argument.
A slave by definition is a human being who is owned as property by, and is absolutely subject to the will of, another. A slave is one who is divested of personal rights. Post-Thirteenth-Amendment slavery is not a complete replication of its former practice. My focus is on the control of human bodies under the guise of criminal justice. Michelle Alexander reveals the cold truth of today's slavery when she identifies mass incarceration as The New Jim Crow, stating that "more African-Americans are under correctional control today — in prison or jail, or on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began." (p. 175). Alexander traces the roots of the criminal justice system, the New Jim Crow, back to slavery, Black codes and the convict leasing system.
Who can the new slaves turn to for help? Is this style of slavery a problem?
With the next part of this two-part series, I will explore who actually benefits from Post-Thirteenth-Amendment slavery.
25 years a slave and counting,