I saw the new documentary “The 13th” recently. It is a good and powerful movie. The over-arching framework follows the experience of African Americans from the time of the 13th amendment (which prohibited slavery) to the present. That said, there are several sections of the documentary with respective themes. Not all of these are specifically about race.
The primary theme of the movie is that black Americans, though freed from overt slavery by the 13th amendment in 1865, have continued to experience oppression in until the present. The forms have changed but the experience has continued. Immediately after the Civil War, many blacks were arrested for minor offenses (such as loitering) and pressed into forced labor. Blacks were the targets of domestic terrorism (lynchings, shootings, burning crosses, bombings, etc.) which led to many fleeing to such places as Detroit and California. Along with this, blacks were of course segregated for many years. Overt segregation in the U.S. was ended in the 1960’s. However the “war on crime” and “war on drugs” from the late 60’s through the 1990’s led to a massive increase in prison population (approximately a 7-fold increase in 2-3 decades). This affected blacks, minorities, and the lower class at a much higher rate than the population.
There has been a narrative since the Civil War that blacks—especially black men—are dangerous criminals and rapists. According to the movie, 1 in 3 black men will be put in prison during their lifetime. The U.S. holds 25% of the world’s prisoners! In other words, we locked people up at a much much higher rate than most other countries. Why is this? Appearing to be tough on crime was politically advantageous for many years. The targets were primarily groups white conservatives felt were threatening the status quo: blacks (in part because of the stereotyping of blacks as criminals) and liberals such as the anti-war protesters.
The movie spends some time talking about ALEC, a lobbying organization which writes law and then encourages connected politicians to support their adoption. A private, for-profit company, CCA, which operates many of the nation’s prisons was a major supporter of ALEC. In short, ALEC pushed for tougher sentencing; it was very profitable for CCA to have the government locking up more people and locking them up for longer. (Now it seems like the powers that be may see immigrants as the next area of growth. And unfortunately it seems that the current administration supports for-profit prisons.)
The politics and business of incarceration may not have been specifically racially motivated. (This probably varied by person and group.) But it is a classic case of those in power exploiting the vulnerable, whether this was their intention or not. It is not difficult to believe that you are really worried about crime and just trying to protect yourself and others when neither you nor anyone you know are not affected by related policies but are rather benefiting from them. And regardless of the intent, these policies unquestionably have affected minorities much, much more than whites. One person in the documentary believed that this happened in part because a generation of black leaders during the civil rights movement were arrested, killed, and/or forced into exile.
Allow me to bring all this down from big picture theory to real life. A report on the Nashville Metro Police Department titled “Driving While Black” was recently released. It shows how the rate of stopping black drivers is higher than the black population, meaning that many black drivers are stopped multiple times per year (see page 9). Hearing a couple of local black pastors, otherwise upstanding men, share their stories recently brought this home.
An officer can choose to search a car for almost no reason. A person might be arrested for something as little as being in a public housing project neighborhood (trespassing). After arrested, a person can be held for an extended period of time (even if they are innocent and/or for a minor violation) if they are unable to post bail—something which many lower class people can not afford.
In Nashville, people who are detained are charged $44 for every day they are locked up before they are convicted. People are pressured into accepting plea deals—I believe it was over 90% of cases never go to court. They are told they can leave if they take the deal or perhaps serve only a few months in prison if they say they are guilty, whereas if they go to court, they are told they may be locked up for years.
However, now they have a criminal record, may struggle to get a job. Depending on the circumstances, may not be able to vote or own a gun. In fact, I believe the movie said something like a third of the black population in Alabama no longer has the right to vote for this reason. In Tennessee, a person has to pay back their jail tab which works out to roughly $1300 / month I believe. It can be huge challenge for someone in poverty to come up with potentially thousands of dollars. If they don’t pay this within a year, their license is suspended. Subsequently, according to the public defender’s office, 2/3rds of the cases in court every day are people driving with a suspended license. We have a system of injustice in America for blacks and the poor.
Note: Most of the information I shared here came from the documentary though I may not have recalled the figures exactly correctly. Beyond this, information came from a combination of the Nashville Public Defender who spoke at the movie screening, a couple of local pastors who spoke at an event recently, and articles I’ve read recently.