In my quest to shed light on racial injustice in our country, I will be doing a five part series on the issues that breathe life into White Privilege. While there are many variables to this systemic inequality, I will be focusing on 5 main contributors; Slavery, Mass Incarceration, Police Brutality, Public Housing Developments, and Cultural Appropriation. In order to understand and accept our white privilege and to be able to see, with open eyes, our continued oppression of people of color in America, we have to be able to examine our history. Systemic racism has been an evolutionary process of adaptable forms of oppression.
“We are able to live in the absence of historical context. It is as if we are not forgetting our history, but acting as if it never happened. Or, if it did, it has nothing to do with us today. For most of us who are white, our picture of the United States, both past and present, is sanitized to leave out or downplay any atrocities we might have committed. Our Disneyland version of history is that our white ancestors came here, had a hard time traveling west, finally conquered those terrible savages and settled our country, just as we were supposed to do” − Manifest Destiny
In this article I will be examining the history of slavery, its abolition, and the continued criminalization of people of color, specifically, black men in America. I realize that examining this part of our country’s history may seem like an arbitrary point to make because typically one can look at this and understand that it was an atrocity. However, the events that followed are vital in understanding the beginning of the racially injustice system in which white people have continued to benefit.
No doubt everyone in this country understands, or at least has a basic understanding, of the history of slavery in America. Learning about the American slave trade was a part of every curriculum for children in the United States. Unfortunately, it is typically taught that while slavery is seen as a dark mark on our history, because of the abolition, we’ve remedied this atrocity. The slaves that were once unable to have any control over what happened to their bodies, are now free. End of story. This is what a lot of people refer to as a “whitewashed” version of our history. We like to believe that because we can’t legally own black bodies anymore, that they are no longer suffering from the injustice of our predecessors doing so. We like to believe that they have since then been afforded every opportunity white people have. This is a fallacy.
At the end of the civil war came the abolition of slavery: the 13th amendment. Many know that this amendment brought an end to slavery but few remember this short clause in full text.
“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, 1864)
The amendment brought an end to slavery, but with it, came a loophole. No longer could you be kept as a slave forced into servitude, unless you were duly convicted of a crime. This is a mutated form of slavery. This is the prison industrial complex in it’s infancy.
The southern economy was in steep decline once the Civil War had come to a close and the abolishment of slavery was in effect. However, thanks to this new loophole, white supremacy quickly took advantage of a new means of control: black men were charged with crimes (at an alarming rate and for frivolous offenses), and states began to pass what were known as “Black Codes” that were used specifically to force black people into the labor force. Under these new codes, black people were required to have proof of employment each year and if they did not provide such proof, they were subject to arrest.
States also considered people who were not working or could not find sufficient work to be vagrants and felt that the deliverance from slavery had made them lazy due to the elimination of the master to slave relationship. In an another attempt to regain control, states like North Carolina taxed black people $10-$100 to work in any position other than as farmers or servants. African Americans were again without a voice or any means around the social and economic systems that enveloped them.
“Blacks who broke labor contracts were subject to arrest, beating and forced labor, and apprenticeship laws forced many minors (either orphans or those whose parents were deemed unable to support them by a judge) into unpaid labor for white planters. Passed by a political system in which blacks effectively had no voice, the black codes were enforced by all-white police and state militia forces“ (History.com, 2010)
Now that states had laws implemented to extract free labor out of newly freed slaves, so began the era of convict leasing. Convict labor leases were bought and sold by proprietors seeking cheap labor. With this came little to no incentive for proper treatment and at the same time, high profitability for entrepreneurs who paid for such labor. “Initially, some states paid private contractors to house and feed the prisoners. Within a few years states realized they could lease out their convicts to local planters or industrialists who would pay minimal rates for the workers and be responsible for their housing and feeding — thereby eliminating costs and increasing revenue.” (PBS, 2012)
As one can surmise from this, convicts were minimally provided for and were kept in dismal conditions while the country continued to build itself on their backs. Images of black convicts linked in what were referred to as “chain gangs” were not uncommon at the time.
Criminalization of Black Men in Early Media
“Before emancipation slaves might not have been a part of “society, but Reconstruction endowed the freedmen with the status of citizenship. Post-Reconstruction legislatures expressed bewilderment and rage at this status by in effect criminalizing Negro behavior. Some illegal behavior patterns identified specifically “Black” were removed from misdemeanor status and reclassified as felonies” (Mancini, 1996)
Prior to emancipation, black people were depicted as docile, obedient and faithful in their servitude. Films such as Song of the South, a Disney film from 1946, featured characters like Uncle Remus who spent his time on a plantation teaching life lessons to a white boy. Gone with the Wind featured the character “Mammy” who throughout the film staunchly defended the delusional main character “Scarlett” who got by in life solely on her feminine wiles. Mammy even came to defend against the freedmen in that film going against everything one would expect from an indentured servant.
This positive image of blackness was short lived. An ever growing threat to white power and wealth became a looming insecurity and white supremacy needed to snuff out the idea of the friendly and loyal black man. A perfect example of this fear coming to life in early media was the release of Birth of a Nation in 1915. It was a highly anticipated silent film at the time and based on the book titled The Clansmen, chronicling the Civil War and Post-Reconstruction era. In the film a white man dressed in black face plays the character Gus. Gus is then shown attempting to rape a white woman who, rather than be captured and sexually assaulted by this man, throws herself off of a cliff. The film then depicts the KKK coming to avenge the woman by capturing this animalistic black man and killing him. The film reignited the Ku Klux Klan ideology and it has been said to even have served as a recruiting mechanism for the Klan. The ideology in this film permeated in society and cemented the savage, animalistic black man for a century thereafter.
As aforementioned, this was the prison industrial complex in its infancy. The criminalization of black people had begun and nothing was going to stop it: it has only continued to grow and adapt to its surroundings. Like a shape shifter choosing it’s next form, Mass Incarceration would be its next manifestation.
One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928 – By Matthew J. Mancini