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Monday, April 16, 2012

Slavery By Another Name

(Video: 'Slavery By Another Name') 
There is a direct lineage between 19th century slavery, turn-of-the-century prison 'chain gangs,' and the modern 'War on Drugs.' Their strategies and justifications are strikingly similar, and their consequences long lasting.

After the Civil War, the southern economy was left in shambles. Compounding the issue was the sudden loss of free labor that resulted from the abolition of slavery. Southern land owners and businessmen faced severe loss of wealth, and so they embarked on the systematic re-enslavement of black Americans.

These former slave-holders were in luck. The newly ratified 13th Amendment clearly stated that "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." Thus came into being a system by which people of color could be disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, convicted, and imprisoned for the benefit of those in power (see post: Incarceration: The New Jim Crow).

Thereafter, states saw a massive expansion of racially-slanted criminal laws (not unlike modern racialized drug laws). Black folk were increasingly detained by law enforcement and rounded-up for trivial offences (reminiscent of modern stop and frisk practices).

According to Douglas Blackmon, "laws were passed to criminalize everyday African-American life. It was a crime for a black man to walk beside a railroad, to speak loudly in the company of white women, to do someone’s laundry without a license, to sell cotton after dark.” The slightest offense, real or fictional, was grounds for imprisonment and forced labor.

As a result of these practices, the incarceration rates soared for black folk, particularly black men. Prisons then initiated policies by which they could lease out convicts as forced labor for local businesses to use as they saw fit. Thus, states and counties participated in the buying and selling of human beings, gaining tremendous profits in the process and maintaining the status-quo for white landowners.

These government-sanctioned institutionalized racial policies resulted in thousands of recently-freed slaves being "forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture." The motivation was profit, but since the laborers were no longer considered personal property, any residual motivation to care for the investment was lost.

As a result of this abundant source of cheap labor, industries such as coal mining and railroad construction  flourished. Moreover, arrest rates fluctuated with the labor needs of local businesses. White families recovered from the crippling effects of Reconstruction-era policies, grew with the developing middle-class, and passed on their wealth to future generations.

In the meantime, black families, having yet to recover from generations of bondage, were losing thousands of their sons, bothers, husbands, and fathers to this 'neoslavery.' Those that remained free were faced with share-cropping schemes, anti-voting laws, peonage, and the early manifestations of Jim Crow (both in the north and the south). While the foundations were being laid for the white middle-class through the use of stolen labor, eight decades of stability, upward mobility, and wealth were lost to black families.

It wouldn't be until the 1940's that federal investigations would begin to intervene in such policies. There existed "a constitutional limbo in which slavery as a legal concept was prohibited by the Constitution, but no statute made an act of enslavement explicitly illegal." Perpetrators remained protected, and legislation continued to prove too politically costly to pursue.

It wasn't until 1951 that Congress finally passes a law explicitly banning any form of slavery. The disparities that had already been established by then would prove to be long-lasting. Compounding the situation would be the post-WWII mortgage redlining, academic segregation, and employment discrimination (see post: Academic Admissions). Thus, even white families that immigrated to the United States a century after the end of slavery still benefited from the racialized system that had become so well entrenched.

These policies also left a legacy of association between criminality and race that still exists today. We continue to see selective racialized targeting for arrests, and heightened incarceration rates for people of color, all while prisons and communities profit. Ironically, we tend to attribute these phenomena to some sort of 'black pathology,' rather than understanding the history out of which such policies and attitudes were birthed.

To help restore this context, watch Sam Pollard's documentary 'Slavery By Another Name.' Toward the end of the film, an interviewee states "we want to think of some of these atrocities as things that happened occasionally," but she reminds us to imagine "how it would impact a whole segment of people...Imagine if your child could be picked up, never to be seen again." Sound familiar?

The subjects explored in Pollard's documentary are almost never discussed today, let alone taught in the classroom. On the rare occasion that black history is taught in schools, it typically centers around two periods of time: slavery and the civil-rights movement. Pollard's films bridges the gap, and fills in the blanks as to the foundations of our current disparity.

Watch Pollard's film 'Slavery By Another Name'. What did you learn? How does it affect your life today?


  1. I thought this documentary was very powerful, and it is no mistake that we don't learn about things like this in school. 

  2. Not only have I viewed this documentary I purchased it. I want others to be exposed to it. Most of our children are college age and have been educated in the mixed society in which the attitude of slavery is veiled and not readily recognized or openly acknowledged. Slavery By Another Name definitely evokes thought and challenges current behaviors and the activity associated toward minorities and criminal behavior. It is insulting to realize that, comparatively, persons who commit felony "white collar' crimes can become employed sooner and with a higher wage than most, if not all, minority persons with or without misdemeanor charges. Humanly my response supports the incarceration the leadership responsible for allowing this concept of targeting and criminalizing minority life. This disparity in this behavior is evident. Christianity teaches me to exhibit love toward them and apply the principles of love to the situation.
    Galatians 6:1
    Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

  3. Glad to hear of your support for the film! Also for sharing your thoughts. Good stuff!

  4. There a reason for everything, follow the cash is usually the answer. Slavery was about greed and then the incarceration of so many Blacks to do hard labor. Why couldn't I have drawn the same parallel between the two actions, Thanks.

  5. "follow the cash" indeed! Profit on the exploited labor of others. At the root of so much

  6. Not only work rendered for pennies on the dollar, but also handling hazardous materials. Things that would never pass the OSHA test. Both slavery and violation of basic health and safety. I wish they would stop, but they won't.

  7. Important point about hazardous conditions. Absolutely right!


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