Updated: Aug 17
Let me start by dispelling any questions about my perspective. I am a white, American woman raised in rural, white America in an Anabaptist church (two steps from Amish) who grew up to become an attorney advocate for minority rights. If you're wondering how that happened, it's been a wild journey which I'd love to share another time. When I was a child, certain white folks would tell me they were sick and tired of hearing black folks complain about ongoing oppression. Defending their white position, they emphatically explained, "slavery ended with the civil war and the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution." As I grew older though, like most products of Generation X, I was introduced to a bit of black American history, and I learned that slavery most certainly did not end with the civil war, nor was it abolished by the 13th Amendment.
To provide a bit of contextual background, in the midst of the brutal enslavement of kidnapped Africans, the Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 at the Pennsylvania Statehouse now called Independence Hall. A relatively short document, it contained only seven Articles that provided a general outline for how to organize Congress and govern the new nation. Notably, it did not set forth requirements for the right to vote. Consequently, only white, male property-owners could vote at that time. African Americans were not citizens; all women were excluded, and Native Americans were not recognized, either. Only two years later, in September 1789, 12 amendments were proposed to the Constitution, ten of which became what we now recognize as the Bill of Rights that were ratified in December of 1791.
During the epoch of the American slave trade, according to the most comprehensive analysis of shipping records called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, best estimates report that between 1525 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World, with 10.7 million surviving the trip, of which approximately 388,000 were delivered to North America.(1) Additional slaves fueling American productivity were locally bred and sold. Slave owners justified their brutal treatment of black slaves as beasts of burden by their barbaric belief in white male supremacy. Meanwhile, slavery abolitionists, growing in their ranks and justified by moral right, refused to let slavery continue unchallenged. The Nothern states moved to abolish slavery which motivated slaves to escape northward from the Southern states who ferociously defended their way of life.
In 1850, with growing hostilities between abolitionists and slave owners from the North and South, the Missouri Compromise was reached. This geographic line dividing the North from the South, demarcating free states from slaves states, is often referred to as the Mason-Dixon line. However, in the end, the Compromise of 1850 proved insufficient to quell increasing unrest, and the country broke out in Civil War in 1861, which ended with the purported abolition of all slavery in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
It is at this point in our sordid American history classes that public education has failed us, for the abolition of slavery contains a loophole. Proposed on January 31, 1865 and ratified later that year on December 6, the 13th Amendment states:
"Section 1: Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
And there it is. Thirteen (bolded) words to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution are the root of the continued enslavement of all black people in this nation. People convicted of crimes may be enslaved or forced into indentured servitude, and as I'll explain, this is precisely why black men are disproportionately attacked and imprisoned by American law enforcement today.
Continuing, shortly after the war, as the South was rebuilding, Southern state legislatures passed a series of laws requiring the separation of "persons of colour" (POC) from white people. Anyone suspected of even a small bit of black ancestry was considered a POC, and was therefore deserving of subhuman treatment in comparison to whites. These black codes, often referred to as Jim Crow laws for reasons beyond the scope of this short piece, strictly detailed where and how formerly enslaved people could work and how much they could be compensated. Operating to put black people back into indentured servitude, violations of black codes gave white law enforcement the ability to take away the citizenship and voting rights later granted to black Americans by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. Extended even to permit black children to be seized for labor, these vicious practices were eventually codified into federal law in 1896 by the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, ruling that as long as provisions were equal, the races could be legally separated. However, the separation of the races resulted in anything but equality. Violations of black codes resulted in criminal convictions punishable by brutal prison sentences and even death. Today, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama commemorates the more than 4,400 victims of lynching motivated by race.
The legally enforced dehumanization and criminalization of black Americans continued for nearly another hundred years until the Civil Rights Movement was initiated in the mid-20th century under the herioc leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although Dr. King was ultimately assassinated for his message of peaceful advocacy for the removal of black codes and the full, equal treatment of blacks alongside whites, the Civil Rights Movement proved successful. In the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down the former separate but equal ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, and in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act that ended all the segregation that had been previously institutionalized by Jim Crow black code laws. Soon after, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act followed to enforce black voting rights and eliminate discrimination in housing.
And while that sounds like that might be the end of the issue, sadly, it's far from it. As our legacy of growing prison systems demonstrate, while we waited for the legal system to recognize the full and equal citizenship of blacks, black men were specifically targeted, criminalized, arrested and incarcerated by the tens of thousands under the authority of black codes. This is of essential importance because this activity specifically broke-down and eliminated the very fabric of black families, and because it produced generations of black, incarcerated men that continues until today.
Let me spell this out:
Black men imprisoned by Jim Crow black codes are the fathers of black men in prison today.
If that doesn't slap you in the face, then absolutely nothing ever will.
In the short few decades that have elapsed since the Civil Rights Movements, a time that happens to coincide with my own personal lifetime, America (the "land of the free") has embarked on a campaign resulting in the imprisonment of more individuals by all counts than any other country on earth, a staggeringly disproportionate number of whom are black men. Furthermore, our public prison systems have been taken over by private, for-profit coprorations whose growing prison populations are funded by American tax dollars. And because prisons are funded according to their populations, the more prisoners there are, the more money the private corporations make. If that doesn't send sirens and lights off in your head, you're in a coma! Moreover, these privately-operated, for-profit prison systems now house manufacturing operations that produce cheaps goods, flooding the American economy using prison labor compensated at less than one dollar per hour. Is it any coincidence this development happened about the same time that well-paid American manufacturing jobs declined? I think not!
I could go on. I could talk about the post-Jim Crow black codes currently targeting blacks like the Tennessee hair braid license that requires 300 hours of natural hair styling at a cosmetology school before one can charge money to braid hair. Or I could cite all-too frequent events targeting black entrepreneurs like the enterprising teenage boy in Shaker Heights, OH who was detained by police for shoveling snow-covered driveways without a business license while all the white boys doing the same were ignored. The ugly truth of America is that despite Constitutional Amendments, despite the Civil Rights Movement and despite Affirmative Action (which I did not cover today), institutionalized racism in America is alive, well and kicking. It attacks black people, and it kills black people. Whether they are resting peacefully in their bed like Breonna Taylor, going for a run like Ahmaud Arbery, walking home in a gated community like Trayvon Martin, or even when in peaceful compliance with police like George Floyd, black people are murdered in cold blood throughout America with zero repercussions to their assailants, or to those in the legal system who failed their ethical duty to enforce the equal application of the law.
Black Americans are justifiably furious, and if you don't share in their outrage, then I question your humanity.