2016-12-26 – I just finished watching the 2016 Netflix documentary 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay. The thesis of this documentary is that the “criminal justice system” in this country had been used to continue slavery. It is named after the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted at the conclusion of the Civil War, which states:
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.
The highlighted text is seen as the loophole that allowed continued enslavement of at least some of the African American population in this country. Much of our history of racial strife in this country is depicted as a concerted effort to criminalize African Americans so that they could still be enslaved—through the prison system.
It is a powerful documentary.
The Thirteenth Amendment is not the only Civil War Amendment that was perverted in operation. The so-called “Radical Republicans” of the 1860s backed the Fourteenth Amendment to give newly freed slaves equal rights as citizens. This aim was quickly defeated after ratification and Fourteenth Amendment rights were applied to the advantage of corporations rather than individuals for nearly 100 years (until the 1954 school desegregation case of Brown v. Board of Education). The Fifteenth Amendment gave newly freed slaves the right to vote, but this, too, was quickly defeated. The tide began to turn in the 1960s with the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964, prohibiting poll taxes, and the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
There has been a tug of war over these issued since the Civil War—and really since the beginning of our country.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” Right?
There is a tendency to assess more moral blame on bystanders than on perpetrators. The documentary focuses on policies of three presidents during my lifetime: Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. I voted against two of these and for one. Although I voted for one of them, I was opposed to the specific policy the documentary discusses.
Am I to blame? I could have done more.
Will those who voted against Donald Trump this year be morally responsible for what he does?
I think there is a spectrum of blame. It is not black and white. Some people are good to their neighbors and totally apolitical. Some people are political but not leaders. Some people are leaders. Of these, some are on the wrong side, some are on the right side, and some are somewhere in between.
We have a tendency to vilify those who are closest to us.
This documentary depicts business interest who sought profits from free labor provided by prisoners. These folks manipulated fear of others and fear of violence to create a class of criminals who could legally be exploited for free labor.
If I fear violence, am I the same as those who fan the flames of fear?
My son Nat watched this documentary in his college political science class. He had a classmate who regularly spouted white supremacy ideas. The kid was stunned, however, when he saw the documentary and was up in arms about the injustice. Now, I don’t expect people to have a sudden conversion if you talk to them about your views. Maybe this kid didn’t either. But we tend to treat these people as the enemy and don’t even try to get along.