Issuepedia:Essays/Rugger Ducky: Slavery In America

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Slavery in America, from the end of the Civil Rights Movement to Today

Part One

I am a citizen of a nation in which slavery is legal.

That's a very hard thing for me to say, and a harder thing still to hear. Hard for me to say, because I have lived my life fighting for the idea that all citizens of our country are equal. Of course, I’ve always had the privilege of having white skin to hide me from the truth. Harder still to hear, because in a nation where slavery is accepted, no one is ever truly a free citizen.

But I can't hide from the truth anymore. Even the UN Report on Human Rights in the United States pulled no punches when released last week.

I'm a lifelong, passionate student of history, and dreamer of the future. The song Imagine was released just before my birth. Born to an anti-Vietnam War hippie mom, who surely sang along to me in my crib the words of her favorite musician. I grew up listening to stories of those who had fought long and hard for equality. I read everything I could get my hands on about the struggles of this country to truly represent the freedom and rights enshrined in our laws.

Slavery was stricken as constitutionally legal with the 13th Amendment. Yet the text itself left former slave owners with everything they needed to ensure they could continue prospering under the enforced labor of others.

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 system continued with Jim Crow laws. The "former" slaves were kept indebted to the land in the form of sharecropping. Requiring them to only get goods and seeds from the store associated with the landowner, and pay it off at the end of each growing season kept them too poor to leave. And if they did think about leaving, that’s when the laws against certain jobs, living in certain areas, shopping in certain places all applied. It was oh so easy to keep slavery going, because they had the force of law. A black man unknowingly breaking a Jim Crow law would find himself either lynched or imprisoned for a very long term. Almost certainly to work on a chain gang.

And those prison jobs have always benefited the small local county sheriffs and police. They used the prisoners to staff their homes, care for their yards, and do labor for associates. While any profits were immediately pocketed by the police or sheriff.

When Jim Crow officially ended, it was still decades before many could vote, or take any rights of citizens.

But that pesky line in the 13th Amendment stayed there.

The same sheriffs and police that fought to keep Jim Crow alive and well never left their cash cow behind. They stayed in office, and simply continued their normal practices.

As a result, we now have a country that imprisons a far greater percent of our population than any other. That uses terms like "stop and frisk" as an acceptable practice to continue the enslavement and unfair imprisonment.

You might say "Oh, what's the harm in checking someone to see if they're breaking the law?".

The harm comes in the violation of their 4th Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. And in the overwhelmingly hard-handed use of these tactics against people of color. Even in "liberal" areas like the Bay Area.

A young white man is just as likely to be carrying marijuana as a young black man. Yet that young black man is many more times likely to be arrested for it.

We've grown our prisons for many reasons. For-profit prisons are thriving, and have created a huge lobby. That lobby does much to push for "mandatory sentencing", to ensure that minor crimes or even victimless crimes are punished far longer – so there is more profit per prisoner to be had.

Private prisons especially, but also many publicly run ones are continuing to be heavily used for their free/cheap labor. Your business have call center needs you don't want to pay much for, or outsource overseas? Here's the place for you! They even take the time to point out to racists that these prisoners speak English!! And their services include a great note Furthermore our agent turnover rate is less than half of the industry norm and the absenteeism rate is practically zero. Because there’s no such thing as a sick day or personal day in prison, and the average prison term is longer than most people can tolerate working in a call center environment outside the prison industry.

The Sheriff's Union and Police Unions continue to rake in their profits, and have absolutely no incentive to hand over power. And since prosecutors depend on police cooperation to do their jobs, the police don't get prosecuted for breaking the laws and violating civil rights of citizens. When citizens do try and speak up about the injustice, its easy to shut them down when you control all the power.

Slavery is, and always has been, a monetary system. There's huge profit in enforced labor. Black lives in this country have only mattered as far as the monetary gain that can be stolen from their labor.

And the answer to young black men and others of color is still the same as what it was for Jim in To Kill a Mockingbird. If you refuse to be stopped and imprisoned, if you refuse to be held any longer for crimes you haven't committed, but merely for the color of your skin, that's an immediate death penalty offense.

Slavery or death. That's the inevitable choice of people of color in the US.

Part Two

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.

13th Amendment to the US Constitution

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

This was how Kevin Phillips, chief campaign strategist for Richard Nixon[1], explained the "Southern Strategy" for taking over control of the white voting bloc of the deep South in 1970. ( )

In the late 60s, Nixon met with Senator Strom Thurmond and other "Dixiecrats", those formerly southern Democrats who had left the Democratic Party after the integration of both the military and the party national convention. Determined to capture the South as an entire voting bloc and capture the Presidency in a nation torn by the Vietnam War and racism, Nixon didn't hesitate to use the very same men who had defended Jim Crow through not even subtly coded dog whistles.

Today we try and pretend it was a lot more subtle. It wasn't. Nixon didn't try and hide the Southern Strategy one iota. In fact, he depended on it. The more obviously his party abused people of color, especially African-Americans, the more traditional southern Democrats changed parties to follow their racist hearts.

As payback for his election, Nixon rewarded the Southern Republicans with exactly what they wanted. A clear cut way to continue the economic benefits of their slave system. Civil Rights had made it hard to abuse people of color without good excuse. Nixon was about to give it to them.

It only took him until June 17, 1971. On that day, Nixon began the ultimate war on people of color: the "War on Drugs".

His special message to Congress in which he unveiled it started off with an obvious appeal to Southern racists. By identifying New York City (often seen and used as the antithesis of Southern identity) as the #1 problem city full of drug-addicted people (people of color goes quietly without saying), Nixon made it clear to Southerners that he was fully on their side.

Now minor possessions of drugs of any sort were immediately criminalized, beginning (and continuing) with especially harsh and draconian punishments throughout the South. Possession of a a single "joint" of marijuana, which might get a white Vietnam veteran at most admonished by a policeman became an easy conviction for white prosecutors with black defendants.

And the US prison slave system continued to grow. And grow.

In the 80s, we became familiar with "crack". Crack became synonymous for many racists as the drug of choice for people of color. Punishments for possession of crack skyrocketed, while laws dealing with equal amounts of cocaine, seen as a wealthy white person drug of choice did not.

Even after reform of the obviously racist drug penalties, we still can say today:

Possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine yields a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first offense; it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to prompt the same sentence.

President Reagan continued and heavily increased funding for the War on Drugs, still secretly and obviously a war on people of color.

Then came the final demonization of black men by the GOP: Willie Horton.

In 1986, a man who had been convicted of 1st degree murder and sentenced to life in 1974 (despite no evidence involving him in the actual murder) was given a weekend pass. Desperate for some freedom, he fled and did not return. Nearly a year later, he broke into a home. He tied up the white male occupant to a beam in the basement, and when his white fiancee returned home, raped her several times.

Both victims were alive. But Horton had committed the single unthinkable crime in the South: a man of color raping a white woman.

President George Herbert Walker Bush was Vice-President under Reagan when it occurred. The nation was at best very bored with him, and he trailed Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election by a considerable margin. President Bush had as his political strategist a man named Lee Atwater.

{{box/quote|You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. [...] "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger".|

Dukakis was leading by an astonishing 17 points early in the summer. Atwater held a series of focus groups in NJ, where he told the story of Willie Horton raping this white woman (and cutting her fiancee) to white voters. He found that not only did blaming Dukakis for the rape work, but that by making Horton look as dangerous as possible, he could turn around the entire election.

Atwater told President Bush: We're 17 points back and they’ll pick up 10 more points at their convention and we won't win. Even with a good campaign, we won't win. You can get so far behind that even a good campaign won't win it for you.

President G H W Bush obviously agreed. He won the election after the Willie Horton ads turned it completely around for him. And the damage was permanently done.

Now not only were black men to be seen as dangerous violent drug-fueled rapists/murderers, they could not even be trusted to be freed. So began mandatory sentencing for crimes, and "3 Strikes" laws. Of course the most lobby money towards those comes always from the prison lobby. Private prisons and slave labor contract companies like CCA and Unicor have too much money to ever see a reason to end racism and slavery.

It's time. It's time to end the phony "War on Drugs", time to call it what it is: racism and hate that have no future in our nation. Stand up and demand that we end this here and now.

Not one more generation of children in our prison slave system. Not one more.


  1. One will note that while at all times I recognize the importance of the title of President, I refuse to apply it to a disgraced bigot like Nixon.