Slavery never truly went away

Teagan Gaviola, Editor-in-Chief

The US education system has ingrained in our minds that slavery is a thing of the past—many white supremacists, racists and ignorant white people often say, “Slavery was so long ago. Can’t we stop talking about it?” 

And, to be frank, I feel there are several aspects of this statement that are wrong in many ways. Just to name a few: 

  1. The effects of slavery have lasted generations beyond the official abolition of slavery within the United States. Black Americans feel the impact of slavery to this day. The fact in itself that the negative effects have lasted this long proves the importance of continual conversations about slavery.
  2. Black Americans, and Black people in general, should not have to turn a blind eye to the harm that white people have caused to their entire community just to appease privileged white individuals who find themselves too uncomfortable to talk about slavery (yet somehow comfortable enough to ignore it—funny, right? I guess since it’s so commonplace for white people to feel comfortable on the basis of race, it’s no surprise some often expect these types of conversations to conform around them). 

However, where I want to get into the thick of it is how the aforementioned statement often references slavery as a long-forgotten aspect of society, no longer existing today. And, while it’s true that the form of slavery we are most familiar with happened long ago (although not as long ago as people are comfortable enough to admit), the enslavement of individuals and their denial of basic human rights continues on even as you read this sentence. 

The United States was built upon an institution of racism and slavery, mainly targeting Black and brown individuals—it’s no surprise that these things did not disappear suddenly nor easily. 

In 1865, the abolition of slavery was ratified through the 13th Amendment. This amendment 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.” 

Many social justice activists and informed individuals—like Bryan Steveson, an American lawyer and the founder/executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative—have pointed out a specific clause within this amendment that is important to understand when addressing modern day slavery within the US:

“Except as a punishment for crime.”

This statement opens an entire can of worms, from which I will just barely scrape off the top of its contents.

The creation of this amendment consisted of twisting language in order to access a loophole which renders slavery legal. Stated by the US Constitution itself, individuals convicted of crime do not hold the same rights to freedom as those who aren’t. 

In the aftermath of the 13th Amendment, the Southern American economy was in tatters, as slavery was not only an act of white supremacy and dehumanization of entire peoples, but also an economic system that white America profited from. And so the 13th Amendment’s constitutional loophole was immediately exploited.

Masses of African Americans were arrested, leading to the first prison boom in the US—no matter how petty the crime, Black Americans were arrested and therefore criminalized, no longer deemed free under the American Constitution. These individuals were forced to provide labor in order to rebuild the Southern economy under their confinement as prisoners.

Hereafter, the criminalization of Black individuals was increasingly used as a weapon against the Black community. This racist rhetoric has barely transformed, in which false accusations, police brutality, racial profiling and racially-biased court juries continues to plague Black and brown individuals of the 21st century.

Today, the racism ingrained throughout America continues to lurk in our current justice system, which disproportionately targets Black and brown people. According to the Netflix documentary titled 13th, 61 percent of the US prison population consists of people of color, which is vastly disportionate to the demographics of the US as a whole. Provided by the same source, white people make up 64 percent of America’s population, yet only make up 39 percent of America’s incarcerated. 

Simultaneously, prisoners are required to endure harsh labor with little to no pay in return. In some instances, prisoners are expected to risk their lives as firefighters for pay far less than the federal minimum wage. In other cases, like in Texas and Florida, prisoners are subjected to field work with no pay. Even large corporations like Walmart and McDonalds utilize prison labor as means to lower production costs. 

Although these individuals are criminals in the eyes of the US justice system, it does not make them any less human and should not make them any less worthy of basic human rights. 

On top of all this, the practice of modern-day slavery expands much farther than the United States, and it’s important that we turn our attention to these instances as well. For years now, Somali citizens, as well as other ethnic groups, are being auctioned off as slaves in Libya. Whilst the slavery within the US was moreso reformed into a covert method of involuntary servitude, the form of slavery we are most familiar with is quite literally occurring in Libya and other parts of the world.

As the criminalization of Black individuals persists and their right to freedom is constitutionally challenged once convicted, it’s important that we acknowledge one thing: slavery in the US was never truly abolished—it was simply reformed into what we now know as the US prison system.