Demand the Impossible! is available now from Haymarket Books:
“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.”
—Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (1865), Section 1
Say what? Slavery and involuntary servitude were abolished in 1865 “except as a punishment for crime?” So if a person has been legally convicted of crime, he or she could again be enslaved or forced into involuntary servitude, according to the US Constitution. That helps to explain the creepy feeling I’ve always had whenever I’m in or even near a prison: the stench of the slave market in the air, and the specter of the plantation hovering every- where. In many places the prison/plantations didn’t even bother changing their names: Angola Plantation in Louisiana became Angola Prison, Parchman Farm is still Parchman Farm. The language remained intact, and so did the deeper political structure.
We begin to see clearly the tough bond of white supremacy over changing times and reorganized systems, the thick white glob of Elmer’s glue binding slavery to Jim Crow and then to prisons, bondage, and mass incarceration. The slave system and the mass incarceration system each violently subordinate subjugated persons to the will of their masters; each insists that subjects follow strict routines dictated by the rulers; each reduces subjects to dependency for everything including food and shelter; each isolates their subjects from normal human contact or intercourse; and each forces subjects to work for minimal compensation.
For the oppressors and the exploiting class there’s a ready rationale in every age: from the start white supremacy was promoted to justify aggression, theft, occupation, kidnapping, and murder—it was never based on inferiority, real or imagined. Racism has been aggressively employed in the service of cheap labor and in the suppression of wages and the precariousness of workers’ status and racism justified colonial plunder from the start. As the US Empire began its long and dangerous decline and the indus- trial heartland collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century creating, excess labor became a fearsome predicament for the rulers. The Black freedom movement pushed forward at the same time, demanding access, recognition, and equality. But the counterrevolution pushed back—the gains of African Americans were nominally accepted as an accomplished fact, but in reality they were challenged, halted, and reversed wherever possible. When overt bigotry became socially unacceptable to many, coded markers—crime, drugs, violence—took its place. With African Americans on the march and revolution in the air, with unemployment soaring and jobs disappearing, prison became a central strategy to address multiple crises.
All of this is racism in operation, and it’s worth noting here that the word “racism” has multiple meanings: in popular usage it means bigotry, often manifest in ignorant comments, stereotyped views, and backward language. For example, Cliven Bundy, the cattle rancher from Nevada, is a racist—just listen to him and you know he’s an offensive bigot. And since you and I aren’t bigots, we can glibly claim the high moral ground. But there’s a problem: “racism” is also the structures of white supremacy and the institutional practices of oppression based on race. The examples above are instances of the execution of institutional racism. And so the question for antiracists isn’t, Are you a bigot?, but What are you doing to attack the institutional expressions of white supremacy? The mayor of Chicago shuttered more than fifty public schools in predominantly Black communities and never used the N-word; a slick, sophisticated, and “charming” president pushed harsh legislation that resulted in mass incarceration and the overrepresentation of Black people in prisons. This is white supremacy, and racist practice on the ground and in the world. Call its name.