Commentary: Is Slavery Back in Effect?

Commentary: Is Slavery Back in Effect?

With so many Black men in prison, are we seeing a new form of slavery?

Published April 7, 2011

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an article that contained some disturbing information about African-American males. According to the article, there are more Black men under some form of correctional supervision (incarceration or probation) now than were enslaved prior to the Civil War.

My first reaction was that this couldn’t be accurate—not after all of the many struggles we’ve waged to make this country better, not just for African-Americans, but for all people. Slavery and segregation are relics of the past. We even have a Black president, for Pete’s sake. There is no way we could have backslid like this. I refused to believe it. But the historian in me knew better than relying on a gut reaction, so I did some investigation. Well, I was wrong. Not only is Jim Crow alive and well, it is likely living in an area near you.

According to legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, this disturbing fact is true, despite reports that violent crime is steadily decreasing. The mass incarceration of Black males is largely due to the tough drug laws implemented during the Reagan-Bush era. Under these laws, more poor people of color than whites were locked away on non-violent drug offenses. These laws were enacted in order to appeal to the largely white Southern voting base that makes up a significant portion of the Republican voting constituency. As a result of these discriminatory laws, nearly half of young Black males have been branded felons for life.

As felons, they are given permanent underclass status that prevents them from voting, gaining access to public housing and some forms of federal assistance that could help them get back on their feet and become productive members of society. Thus, the likelihood of these felons returning to prison becomes extremely high. All of this bodes well for the burgeoning prison industrial complex that profits off locking people up, but it has devastating effects on African-Americans. Add this to the fact that the 13th amendment of the Constitution outlawed any type of involuntary servitude except when the State is punishing an individual for a crime and the implications of this mass incarceration are outright frightening.

There’s an old saying that goes "the more things change, the more they remain the same." As an ardent student of history for the past 30 years or more, I have seen historical patterns that emulate some sort of eerie time warp. It’s high time we did something to break free from the chains of this pattern.


(Photo:  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/MCT/Landov)

Written by Charlie Braxton


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