This past Black History Month, millions of students were told the story of how America abolished slavery 150 years ago with ratification of the 13th Amendment. The story draws an upward trajectory of racial equality in America from the abolition of slavery to Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act to the election of President Obama.
The problem is the story isn’t true. We never actually abolished slavery. The 13th Amendment states:
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.
“…except as a punishment for crime…” This phrase gets ignored in America’s telling of its slavery story. The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery but rather moved it from the plantation to the prison. In 2015, the 2 million (largely Black) people incarcerated in America are legally considered slaves under the Constitution. As a result, they can and are forced to work for pennies an hour with the profits going to counties, states and private corporations including Target, Revlon and Whole Foods. In fact, there are more Black people enslaved today than in 1800.
This is no accident. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander lays out how a system of Jim Crow replaced slavery and later how a system of mass incarceration rose to replace Jim Crow. During Reconstruction, Southern states quickly took advantage of the 13th Amendment’s slavery loophole by arresting Black people for minor crimes such as unemployment, loitering or gambling, and selling them to private employers through the convict lease system. Today, the majority of Black people enslaved in prisons were arrested for drug crimes. Even though Black people use drugs at the same rate as White people, they are incarcerated for drug crimes at 20 to 50 times the rate of White people in some states.
This is not to say that we have not made progress since 1865. Through acts of courage and solidarity, African-Americans have fought back against white supremacy for the past 150 years. Incarcerated people have not been hapless victims but rather have organized and actively resisted for decades. Last week, immigrants at a private prison in Raymondville, Texas engaged in direct actions over a two-day period protesting inhumane conditions, forcing a shutdown of part of the prison. The protests build on a tradition of prison activism from the Angola Three in Louisiana to the tragic Attica Prison takeover in 1971.
It is critical that immigrants have joined in resistance to the prison industrial complex. Detention of immigrants facing deportation in jails and private prisons and immigrants prosecuted for attempting to enter the United States are the fastest growing segment of the prison system. Every year, over 400,000 immigrants are detained in an immigration detention system where many work long days sometimes being paid nothing or if they are lucky, 12 cents per hour. Other immigrants work for basic necessities like food, blankets or a few minutes of extra sunlight. This is true even though the 13th Amendment does not permit slavery for people being held for immigration violations, which are considered civil not criminal offenses. In two states, immigrants have sued demanding fair pay and safe working conditions.
Although the prison industrial complex was seemingly designed for the wholesale incarceration of Black communities, Asian Pacific Islanders and other non-Black people of color are trapped in the same system. Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and Latino/s are all incarcerated at disproportionate rates. However, we cannot achieve liberation until we address anti-black racism in our own communities and build connections between our struggles, those of African-Americans, and slavery.
This year, the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, it is time to truly abolish slavery in America.
This post was co-authored with Anoop Prasad and and Winnie Kao.