From Slavery to Mass Incarceration

August 23, 2019

Progression from slavery to mass incarceration in US history

In America we celebrate the past all the time—the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Bill of Rights, and so much more. It doesn’t matter that these all took place long ago, before we were born, before anybody alive today was born—these historical triumphs make many of us feel good about who we are as Americans, so we eagerly claim them as our own.

The first enslaved people sold in America were brought to Jamestown, Colony of Virginia, in 1619—almost exactly 400 years ago. We don’t like to talk as much about that. But if we ever want to have an honest accounting of who we are as Americans, we can’t pick and choose what we wish to remember.

America, after 400 years, don’t you feel like it’s finally time to honestly discuss the legacy of slavery?


The Effects of Slavery in America

America was built by enslaved people. They built the US Capitol. They built Wall Street. They built the White House. Slavery wasn’t just some kind of unfortunate regional quirk—it was an economic engine for the entire country. For more than two centuries, white Americans profited from forced Black labor. So when slavery officially came to an end in 1865, efforts to subject Black lives and communities to state control did not. Jim Crow laws, which emerged a decade or so after the Civil War, effectively legalized segregation in all aspects of American life for the next 100 years. But Jim Crow was even more brutal than that. Jim Crow was a century of state-sponsored terror against Black people intended to maintain the prewar racial hierarchy.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, with the passage of the Voting Rights and Fair Housing acts that the Jim Crow era officially ended. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) also finally outlawed redlining, a decades-long strategy used all across the country to effectively deny homeownership to Black Americans. The thing to remember here is that redlining was official government policy—it was the law of the land. In the housing boom of the 1950s, as white America began building wealth in the suburbs, Black people, by law, were deliberately and systematically shut out.

While the FHA made redlining illegal, racism in the mortgage industry didn’t go away. Black Americans were hardest hit by the recent subprime mortgage crisis, for example, in part because they were targeted by many subprime mortgage lenders. Similarly, the end of slavery didn’t stop former slaveholders from thinking of Black people as slaves. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but left in a loophole: “except as punishment for crime.” States throughout the former Confederacy immediately began drafting laws guaranteed to lead to the arrest of Black people, who were then put back to work (sometimes in prisons that had once been plantations, like Angola in Louisiana) as enslaved people in all but name. The roots of today’s mass incarceration are in those Black Codes.


The Past Is Not in the Past

The past matters. There’s a direct line from slavery to the fact that the average Black family has only 10 cents for every dollar held by the average white family. There’s a direct line from slavery to the fact that Black people, while only 13% of the overall population, make up 40% of the prison population. Slavery isn’t something from the distant past—its impact is felt and seen right now, particularly by Black Americans, every single day.

This country has never truly reckoned with slavery (and if some political leaders have their way, we never will), but we can’t ever hope to effectively fight systemic racism or transform our broken criminal justice system if we don’t truly understand why and how things got to be the way they are.


Creating a More Just Future

It’s been 400 years since the first enslaved Africans were brought to this country. Four long centuries. It’s time for us to face the legacy of slavery head-on.

We need to start with separating myth from fact. Many, if not most, Americans have little understanding of what slavery was really like. We hide from the brutal reality and create myths instead—myths about benevolent slaveowners, about how slavery wasn’t really all that bad, about how slavery happened long ago and has nothing to do with us today. The future of this country depends on our ability to embrace the truth about our collective history, even the parts that make us want to look away.

This won’t be easy or comfortable. But it’s necessary. Ta-Nahisi Coates said that “An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.” Looking away isn’t an option. Not for any of us. Every citizen, every politician, and even every company must do its part to look at the truth without flinching. In that way, together, we’ll continue the fight for a more just and equitable country.