Last night I watched the documentary the “13th” on Netflix. I had heard about it by several people but my sister insisted I watch it. All I knew was it was it had to do with the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. It was about so much more than that. Growing up, I was taught that the 13th amendment abolished slavery. The award winning movie “Lincoln” details the background of how President Lincoln lobbied Congress to get it passed. But there is some wording in the 13th amendment that most of us don’t really think about.
The 13th Amendment
“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.”
This is the focus of the film. I could go into what it means but you should really just watch the film, which does a much better job of explaining it than I ever could. But as I watched it, I thought a lot about the history of our nation. When slavery was abolished, the southern economy was in major distress. I think most of us assume after slavery ended the plantation owners just had to start paying people to do the work. The reality is this was the beginning of mass incarceration in the United States.
This is the premise of the film, mass incarceration. I have been interested in this topic for years. I wish more people realized that while the United States has only 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of its prisoners. The United States also has the highest incarceration rate in the world. More of us need to realize the hypocrisy of this while we claim to be “The Land of the Free.” The film does a great job in showing how the black experience in America has been shaped since the adoption of the 13th amendment. One of the statements that most struck me was one by Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House:
“The objective reality is that virtually no one who is white understands the challenge of being black in America.”
I always respected the intellect and thoughtfulness of Newt Gingrich. What he said is not only true, but also something that more people in the United States need to understand. I would be lying if I said I don’t feel different when I see a black man in a hoodie compared to a white man in a hoodie. I think the vast majority of people in America, when really pressed to tell the truth, would agree with that. Yes, on the surface many would deny that, but the truth is we have been taught to fear black people in America. Many people who read this will think I’m wrong and will say things like we elected a black president or slavery ended 150 years ago to show racism in America is over. But the truth is it is much more complex than that and the sooner we all begin to accept that, the sooner we can begin to solve this horrible problem. Another quote that struck me was that of Kevin Gannon, Professor of History at Grandview University:
“History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the products of the history that our ancestors choose, if we’re white. If we are black we are products of the history that our ancestors, most likely, did not choose. Yet here we are all together, the products of that set of choices and we have to understand that in order to escape from it.”
The film also illustrates that the problem of mass incarceration in America is not a partisan one. Presidents Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and many other Democrats and Republicans all contributed to this problem. Many Americans blame Republicans for racial division and champion Democrats for trying to solve the problem. The truth is both parties have contributed to this problem, not necessarily individuals, but our elected leaders.
It is no secret that the vast majority of Americans charged with a crime, 97%, do not go to trial, they plea out. Why is that? There is no way the court system could deal with trying all these people. So the result is the poor, and more often than not people of color, are coerced to plea out rather than go to trial. Plea to 3 years or go to trial and face 30, easy choice, right? In many cases the charges against these individuals are weak. What happens when someone decides not to plea and go to trial? The film addresses that as well, and it may be one of the most disturbing stories you ever hear.
Kalief Browder was arrested when he was 16 on false charges. He refused to take a plea bargain, yet he could not afford the $10,000 bail. He sat in Rikers Island for nearly 3 years. In the end, they dropped the charges and he was set free. Two years later, Kalief hanged himself, he was 22. All because he would not plead to a crime he did not commit. Imagine how many people are convinced to plead to crimes they did not commit? Would a just society allow this to happen?
As I watched the film I thought about slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and segregation. A question was raised at the end, how did people tolerate those things? Today, almost all of us wonder that. The reality is we are tolerating the logical progression of an oppressive system, police brutality and mass incarceration. I think in 40 years people will look back on police brutality against people of color and ask the same things we ask today about Jim Crow and segregation, how did we tolerate it? A black man in America has a 1 in 3 chance of being jailed in his life, a white man has a 1 in 17 chance. This is not because black people are inherently more violent than white people, it is because of systemic racism in our criminal justice system. The only way we can begin to solve this is to collectively admit that the problem exists.
Whether you agree or disagree with my takeaway from the film, I hope that everyone watches it. We must all understand these problems, and the history of them. Only then can we begin to solve them. If we don’t, we are doomed to go down the same path.