Most Americans think that slavery was abolished with the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln almost a century and a half ago. Unfortunately, that’s not the truth. The United States Constitution actually states in the 13th Amendment that slavery is legal for those who’ve been convicted of a crime.
It is no coincidence that African Americans, those who were enslaved over 150 years ago, are also those who are most likely to be incarcerated today. According to the Department of Justice, although African-Americans account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, an estimated 38.9 percent of all prisoners in the United States are black. Blacks were nearly 5 times more likely than whites, nearly 3 times more likely than Hispanics to have been in jail.
When prisons are full of black men, fathers are being taken away from their children and potential husbands are being taken away from black women. Making matters worse is the fact that those incarcerated are marginalized from society for life after doing time, even if they committed their crimes at an early age: they can’t vote in most states, they have a difficult time getting access to an education, and they can’t find jobs. So, by thinking that we are tough on crime, we are actually making crime worse by increasing the risk of recidivism.
The number of African-Americans incarcerated right now is numerically equal to one-half of the entire antebellum male slave population in 1860. African-American males in 2010, with infinitely greater educational opportunities, were 337 times more likely to be in prison than African-Americans in the antebellum South. African-Americans in the modern U.S. correctional population, including those on probation and parole, exceed the total number of American slaves in 1850! The factors of low employment, poor discipline and the destruction of the modern family best explain these terrible statistics. Well over half of released prisoners wind up behind bars again, often within three years of their release date. It’s a revolving door.
In 1910, Emma Goldman wrote: “…the gates of prison hells return to the world an emaciated, deformed, will-less, shipwrecked crew of humanity, with the Cain mark on their foreheads, their hopes crushed, all their natural inclinations thwarted. With nothing but hunger and inhumanity to greet them, these victims soon sink back into crime…” It seems nothing has changed in 100 years. The mark of Cain today is the “felon” label, a stigma that disqualifies ex-offenders of public assistance, subsidized housing, food stamps and most jobs. Today, the felon stigma is called the New Jim Crow, after a book written by Michelle Alexander. Angela Y. Davis has called modern mass incarceration “New Age Slavery.”
It is high time for our community to launch an all out campaign to get rid of the laws that continue to punish black males long after that have paid their debt to society. We must also take control of our children’s education and work to reduce the negative influence of things, which foster the thug culture and cultivate misogyny and thuggery. Black men must also play a more active role in their children’s lives and we must create employment opportunities for our community. While there is no easy way to accomplish this, the alternative is to see a future society fueled by black male slave labor.