America makes up twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population….twenty-five percent!!!!
Does systemic racism truely exist? We live in a time where that question is very much in the forefront of our attention. Depending on whether you are on the right or left, your answer to that question is different. If you are in the middle, then you don’t know. I, for one, believed that social injustice is real but that systemic racism was not. However, after watching this documentary, I have my doubts.
This isn’t about conspiracy theories, or even looking at it through one set of lenses. 13th actually gives us all the lenses we need to take a step back and think. It is meant to make you uncomfortable. For the majority of us who are not history majors, we take our history at the surface level, never digging any deeper. The 13th amendment is celebrated in our nation’s history. It put a stop to one of the most horrific and inhumane things this country has ever been a part of. It was meant to be exactly what it said, freedom for all. However, loopholes allow it to be something else, something we all never looked into.
The common theme of 13th is a look at our prison system, and how slavery was just replaced with mass incarceration. Slavery was a huge business for the South, and taking that away caused an economic hit. The labor force is gone, and there is no way slave owners were going to actually get the slaves to stay and work, so what happens? It’s easy: make them criminals since it doesn’t violate the law. For decades, starting when slavery was abolished through today, this documentary shows us the history of how instilling fear in the eyes and minds of many can help create a system that basically enslaves American citizens, the majority of whom are blacks. Slave owners were able to get their labor force back and in shackles. This fear-inducing tactic brought force lynchings and beatings, then segregation and Jim Crow, and after gaining rights, it is now the “war on drugs” or the “war on crime”. Connect the dots, and you will see that throughout American history, freedom is something that has not been afforded to all.
Naturally, this is a documentary that many will say comes from a biased point of view. You either don’t believe it’s true and therefore ignore and brush it off, or you believe its true and you will embrace it and campaign to right this wrong. Early on, my first thought was “oh man, this is a Republican-bashing documentary and taking shots at their favorite President, Reagan”. Then later, it’s Clinton that gets hammered so that thought is quickly gone. This isn’t about bashing one political party but rather pointing out the faults and flaws in both and how, whether conciously or not, their decisions have been made in order to hold down those in poor communities, primarily blacks. There is even audio of campaign officials from a former President that clearly stated it!
The amount of money made from prisoners and keeping prisons full is astounding. There are economic reasons, racial reasons, and social reasons why America finds itself where it is. Many laws at times allowed for law enforcement to abuse their power. When politicians say, ‘we’re at war,’ and then put fear into the citizens and show them what this enemy looks like, bias is formed. For instance, if someone gets busted for cocaine (mainly in suburbs and used by whites), they received a lesser penalty than those who got busted for the same amount in crack (basically the same drug but this one is primarily in the ghetto and used by blacks). Drug dealers and users of crack were getting life sentences.
We talk about the absence of fathers as one of the biggest issues in the black community, but how can they be present when they are unjustly in jail? And don’t get the words confused, no one is saying they shouldn’t pay for their crimes, but the question is, how much? We fill prisons and don’t rehabilitate. Any changes is spearheaded with profit in mind while still keeping the prisons full.
So how can we look through these lenses of this history that rarely make it to us, and see how it relates today? The common divide in today’s social tensions is the idea that the media has sensationalized a few incidents to make it seem like it’s a systemic problem. The reality is, that is both true and false. It is true, that the media has pushed it into the light for whatever reasons (because it isn’t for justice), but social media has done it as well. But it’s not something that came out of nowhere. This has been going on since the 13th amendment was enacted. It builds and it builds and as history has shown; there are moments where it explodes.
The film Birth of a Nation shows us one incident. In the times of King and Malcom X we had more. And now, it is Black Lives Matter. It is a series of common events that all start with the same thing, a black person as the subject of police brutality. Now, you can have your thoughts on Black Lives Matter, but let us get one thing straight: Black Lives Matter is not an organization but a movement. They have no P.O. Box, they don’t have membership dues. They don’t meet every Thursday night, etc. It is a movement birthed from centuries of mistreatement, witnessed by generation to generation of fathers, mothers, children being mistreated or taken away from their families. It doesn’t say that other lives are not important, but it represents those that have been treated as less than human saying “hey, we ALSO matter”. [However, I will not ignore that there are some that abuse the movement to commit terrorist acts. But the few shouldn’t be judged by the many. Just like not all Muslims are radical terrorists, just like not all Christians are KKK or Westboro, Black Lives Matter falls into the same category where bad people have taken something good and turned it to evil.]
With all that said, what 13th does is challenges us to take a step back, to examine what is in front of us, and t0 ask us to really think, is this real? It should make you uncomfortable. Mass encarceration is a problem, one that can’t be fixed until America decides to admit that it is wrong and that it was set up to target a certain demographic. In the end, we can’t have an informed debate on the current state of police versus the black community if we choose to ignore the past.