The United States hosts 5% of the entire world’s population, yet the U.S. is also the home to 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. The documentary 13th explores the effects of slavery and the supposed abolition of slavery through the 13th Amendment. This documentary highlights the loophole woven into the 1865 freedoms granted to all people- all people, except for criminals. This created an infrastructure so the state could use criminals as free labor since criminals are considered to be menaces to society who deserve punishment. This led to blacks being targeted for prison life almost as soon as their freedom was granted.
This attitude only magnified with the release of the film “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 with overt racism characterizing black men as murders, rapists of white women, and as the most significant danger to society. This placed the criminal label onto one particular group of people- black or “negro” men. This film is often credited for a resurgence in the Klu Klux Klan since it depicted “heroic” white men dressed in white robes on horseback saving the white world from black criminals.
Furthermore, slavery was an economic institution in which people were property to be bought and sold; to settle debts; to provide labor; and ultimately make white landowners wealthier. When this critical and central part of the economic structure was removed white men in power needed to find a way to continue this economic structure, but repackage it to disguise their efforts. The ideology they instilled in people to fear and condemn black people assisted this end goal of using them as free labor.
The documentary continues down the American history timeline to the 1950s in which the Jim Crow laws not only segregated blacks from whites, but created a slew of laws that made it easier to charge black Americans with more offenses. Jim Crow laws did not officially end until 1965 after the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, the Baby Boomer generation of Post-WWII were older now and as the largest generation in American history were creating a climate in which crime was on the rise- which is to be expected when there is a significant increase in the number of people living in an area it is likely crime will increase with it. However, politicians began their modern crusade against blacks citing the increase in crime as they receive more of their rights as a sign that the black population should not be granted all the same rights as whites.
As the documentary continued into a discussion of how the modern War on Drugs and focus on “Law and Order” that began in the 1970s to today, I was forced to embrace the reality of just how deeply systematic the mass incarceration of black men is. The fact that there were political strategists that were genius in their systematic discrimination and persecution of a singular group of people in way that not only gained the country’s support but also fooled members in society of its true intention is astounding. From small differences like crack cocaine sentences compared to lighter powdered cocaine sentences because crack was used by inner-city (usually black and Latino) people to Bill Clinton’s revamping of the entire criminal justice system in his 1994 Federal Crime Bill- the message was clear: blacks will not be tolerated here.
Additionally, one of the most impactful arguments made during this entire documentary was the clear line of leadership white America followed over the years while black American leadership had been murdered, assassinated, exiled, and imprisoned. Whenever there was organized leadership, the white men in control of the government found a systematic way to annihilate it. This made me realize how imperative leadership and organization has been to create these social institutions structured around patriarchy and white supremacy- providing white men with a lot of power and prestige. It only makes sense that an organized, motivated, intelligent movement could be the downfall of this white supremacy. Suddenly, it made sense how this could happen.
There is an intersectional problem of race, class and gender that permeates the Criminal Justice System and American government. This intersectional problem creates racial segregation of schools, overrepresentation of certain racial groups in prisons, and blockades multiple groups of people from maintaining the right to vote and have jobs.
One of the speakers of the panel answered bravely when discussing how we as a nation can unite and work to humanize “criminals.” She said, “do it afraid.” She implored the audience to know that it is OK to be afraid of what you do not know, or better yet what you think you know about people in prison. Prison is scary and dehumanizes the people that live there, but if America can remember that those locked up are children, parents, human beings- that will help to shift the ideology that accepts poor treatment of prisoners and the ability of the system to mass incarcerate people.