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Thursday, June 21, 2012

At the heart of American justice (Part II)

Depiction of slaves in a cotton field
As the modern incarnation of slavery is undoubtedly a chip off the old block, a stroll down memory lane may help paint a fuller picture—

The Civil War ended in 1865, much to the chagrin of a bitter, war-torn south.

Until 1877, the Union Army chaperoned Reconstruction, during which freed slaves could vote, receive education and own land despite violent hostility from an upstart terrorist organization, called the Ku Klux Klan and the establishment of the infamous Black Codes, which, according to Harvard Historian Heather Cox Richardson, “were designed to limit the free movement of freedmen and…ensure…a stable and cheap labor force.”

The Union withdrawal, after The Compromise of 1877, allowed wealthy plantation owners to reestablish control over the region, through the institution of Jim Crow Laws, effectively re-nullifying the rights of Blacks after twelve years of relative progress. 

Jim Crow featured the pervasive oppression of people of color through segregation, criminally exploitative sharecropping contracts and horrific violence for the next 80 years during which southern states embraced the practice of convict leasing— the arbitrary arrest, conviction and selling of Blacks to corporate labor camps. Many men were abducted outright and reincorporated into a free labor system blatantly modeled after the chattel slavery system which had dominated the south prior to the Civil War.
 
A chain-gang in 1898 (Library of Congress)
In his book, Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Pulitzer Prize Winner Douglas A. Blackmon traces the origin of forced labor in America. “It also became apparent how inextricably this quasi-slavery of the twentieth century was rooted in the nascent industrial slavery that had begun to flourish in the last years before the Civil War. The same men who built railroads with thousands of slaves and proselytized for the use of slaves in southern factories and mines in the 1850s were also the first to employ forced African American labor in the 1870s.”
  
Hundreds of thousands were forced into labor camps in the United States resulting in innumerable deaths. Bodies were heaped together in mass graves which are still visible to this day. Thus, slavery was resumed, more or less unchallenged, until the The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s.

While naively idealistic interpretations often proclaim the Civil Rights Movement as “the birth of a new nation,” habitually overlooked is that it featured the assassination of its most influential figures. Also, the ensuing period was characterized by race riots and war protests, across the United States, expressing dissent to the spectrum of government policy, both domestically and internationally.

Then, in 1969, amidst a backdrop of civil strife, the Cold War and Vietnam, Richard Nixon delivered an address to Congress naming drugs, “a serious national threat.” In 1971, the government declared war on drugs. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was founded two years later and, with the flick of a pen, systematic oppression was legitimized anew.

In 1950, when Blacks were sweltering in mock freedom, under the savagery of Jim Crow, some sixty-five percent of all state and federal inmates were Caucasian. In 2012, in an allegedly post-racial America, an unprecedented 2.3 million individuals are incarcerated in the United States with Blacks and Latinos comprising sixty-five percent of that number.
 
As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, explains, “More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”

The origins of the astronomical inflation of the American prison population and the literal reversal of its racial proportion can be traced directly to legislation passed in the immediate aftermath of civil rights and the subsequent implementation of those policies in the 1980s.

Among other things, the War on Drugs was a federal response to an unexpectedly invigorated minority population vehemently opposed to a discriminatory status quo.

In the wake of World War II, the glaring inability to reconcile the nation’s racialized past was a blemish on the global image of the newly crowned “Leader of the Free World.” Suddenly deprived of more overt methods of systematic persecution, the drug war afforded means to reinforce age-old race and class subjugation, while ensuring plausible deniability, and the appearance of respectability abroad.

Texas Department of Corrections, 1968 (Bruce Jackson)

Furthermore, it served to re-institute the default system of free labor —subsisting of Black, Latino and impoverished men— that has dominated the entirety of American history.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total number of adults within the jurisdiction of correctional authorities was a monstrous 7.1 million, as of year-end 2010. The figure represents a delectable source of revenue to any capitalist without a conscience. However appalling, the sentiment is not uncommon among legislators.

Former Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix, for example, once urged Nike to abandon production in Indonesian sweatshops and relocate to his state. “There won’t be any transportation costs,” he pleaded. “We’re offering you competitive prison labor."

Ironically, as real unemployment hovers around twenty percent, in the United States, the gross number of laborers continues to increase as more companies utilize slave labor across the spectrum of industry— from textiles and service to manufacturing and agriculture.

According to The New York Times, current legislation mandates that private prison companies are afforded preferential status in receiving contracts. "Under current practice — governed by intricate laws, regulations and policies — an agency must buy prisoner-made goods if the company offers an item that is comparable in price, quality and time of delivery to that of the private sector, with certain exceptions."

BP prison labor in 2010
The Center for Research on Globalization reports that prison labor is legal in 37 states and utilized by a number of reputable companies including IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Victoria Secret, JC Penny, Starbucks, Nortel, Lucent Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Lockheed-Martin, Nordstrom’s, Revlon, Macy’s, Pierre Cardin and Target Stores.

In the United States, slavery is a booming enterprise.

Despite the insistence of every standard history lesson in the country, the practice of subjugating people for profit did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. On the contrary, it has only been revised, effectively obscured, behind an ever-evolving veil of legitimacy whenever the previous model can no longer be sustained under social pressure. The ugly reality is that free labor has been an inherent element of the American economic paradigm since the nation's inception and there is little, if any, indication of meaningful interest in eliminating the practice. 

As the United States incarcerates more Blacks than South Africa, at the height of apartheid, and more people than any nation in history, elected representatives ply their trade, like two-bit hustlers, auctioning liberty to the highest bidder for cents on the dollar or points on a package.

Democracy and justice are little more than fantasy, mirages in a wasteland called America, where complacency and disillusionment have usurped the fortitude of the people. But the truth is not subject to preference, as they say, and the bare-naked fact remains that at the heart of American justice resides an outright lie that can never be credibly uttered again. 

The promise of inalienable rights was never intended for the lower rungs of society. It was, and always has been, a privilege, not a right, inalienable only for the rich.

In the past, naive perceptions of racial distinction have squandered opportunities for lasting equality among people of lower socioeconomic means, but as more Americans are increasingly subject to the threat of incarceration, perhaps, a chance for social unity can emerge. 

The American penal system is a human rights violation of unprecedented proportion perpetrated by the most powerful government on Earth. If justice and equality are to have a snowball's chance, it will be for the sake of a collective refusal to accept anything less than life, liberty and justice, finally, for all.