Various people in the Kentucky disenfranchisement diary are questioning why so many black folks are ineligible to vote because of felony convictions.
1 out of 4 Kentucky of African Americans … have felony convictions? Why? Something not right here.
Well yes, something is not right here, and has never been right.
This year we mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first black slaves in the U.S.
Somewhere in a parallel universe where we have a liberal president with a sense of history, the United States would be using 2019 as an opportunity for a year of informing the country at large about the legacy of slavery, and the awful history of what happened for generations afterward.
If nothing else, it would shut up ignorant people who keep asking why blacks should get any compensation for the discrimination of the “distant past” since “slavery ended” in 1865, more than 150 years ago, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Unless you have studied this period of history, you are probably not aware that a convenient loophole was baked into the 13th Amendment, allowing involuntary servitude to be imposed as punishment for commission of a crime.
So after slavery ended, the entire economy of the South shifted to create a system that would allow former slaveholders continued access to free/low-cost labor by turning as many blacks as possible into criminals.
Legal segregation and disenfranchisement (Black Codes, Pig Laws, Jim Crow) combined with local custom and old-fashioned greed made sure that very few opportunities were available to freed blacks, making them vulnerable to entrapment and exploitation.
All kinds of minor offenses were criminalized. Crimes that used to be misdemeanors were bumped up to felonies. Vagrancy laws made it a crime to be unemployed. Sundown Towns could arrest black folks for simply being within the city limits after dark.
From the PBS documentary, Slavery By Another Name: (go to 15:03 in the video)
With the end of Reconstruction, the nature of both crime and punishment in the South changed dramatically.
In state after state and county and after county, new laws targeted African-Americans, and effectively criminalized black life.
It was a crime in the south for a farmworker to walk beside a railroad.
It was a crime in the South to speak loudly in the company of white women.
It was a crime to sell the products of your farm after dark…
Anything from spitting or drinking... or loitering in public spaces could result in confinement. So there was an overexaggeration of African-American criminality during this time period…
In Mississippi, theft of a pig, worth as little as a dollar, could mean five years in prison.
In Tennessee, hard labor right result from stealing an eight-cent fence rail…
Under slavery, most black crime was punished by slaveholders, leaving the courts to discipline whites. Now only about ten percent of those arrested were white.
Doing nothing at all could get you arrested: if it was time to bring the crops in, local authorities would just have a sweep and bring in anyone they could find. When they picked you up off the street, and you said you had done nothing wrong, “talking back” could get you arrested for “resisting”.
And once in prison, you could be forced to work for free.
Convict leasing meant prisoners were leased out to various companies who would pay a few dollars a month to the state per worker. Company owners would reap huge profits from this source of labor. Farmworkers were shackled together in the fields. Public works projects such as ditch digging and road construction were done by chain gangs.
Work and living conditions in the coal mines and steel plants and turpentine camps and lumber companies were particularly brutal, and it did not matter how badly workers were treated. Slaveholders had previously had some financial investment in slaves and therefore an economic incentive to keep them alive; but under the convict leasing system, the overall investment in each worker was much less significant.
If a worker died you just got another one.
Peonage laws meant you could be imprisoned for very small amounts of debt. This was connected to the convict leasing system, because if you were caught up in a sweep, trumped-up charges had huge fines and court costs. Sometimes a company owner would offer to pay your fees and fines to keep you out of the mines and camps, but then you would have to work for him. You might think you were contracted to work for a certain number of months, but when the time was up, there was no guarantee you would be released.
Many blacks were forced into the sharecropping system, because there was no other work, being unemployed was illegal, they had no money for passage out of the South, and if they left, things could be worse for the relatives they left behind. Sharecroppers faced usurious interest rates that made it impossible to ever get out of debt.
Worst of all, it didn’t matter if you were debt free! Someone with the right connections could just claim you owed money even if you didn’t. In one very famous case, one of the largest abusers of peonage labor was taken to court, but the judge said he was not engaging in peonage because the men working for him did not actually owe him money! And while the court acknowledged that the 13th Amendment abolished involuntary servitude, technically it was not against the law, because there was no punishment established if you forced people to work for free anyway!
Not only that, imagine how this created ill will among poor whites whose wages were suppressed by convict labor. They could not get jobs in the mines and plants and camps because they had to be paid higher wages than the cost of convicts, and could not be overworked in the same harsh way.
Think also of what this did to black families when men and boys could be caught up in the system and disappeared away from their parents, their wives, and their children, who lost the companionship of their loved ones as well as their economic contributions to the extended family.
Bottom line: the entire Southern economy, and by extension the entire U.S. economy, was built on this inhumane network of exploitation that lasted for generations after slavery “ended”.
As a “bonus” it provided a handy feedback loop of justification for bigotry: of course “all blacks are criminals” — look at how many of them are in prison.
Anyone (black or white) trying to buck the system was dealt with swiftly by the KKK or Klan-equivalent citizen councils, or were just shunned by the powers that be until their lives were unbearable and they either had to get with the program or move away from the area.
This is not ancient history. The past isn’t even past. There are MANY people alive today whose parents and grandparents were forced to work under these conditions. There are people alive today who themselves worked under these conditions.
Disenfranchisement connected to criminal records was stepped up after the Voting Rights Act made it technically illegal to simply deny blacks the vote because of their race. Making sure that there are lots of “criminals” helps concentrate the power of conservative votes and keeps whites in a state of fear that makes them easier to control.
For-profit prisons, in exchange for the promise of much-needed jobs, still make states sign contracts that pledge to keep the prisons full. Ever wonder how they manage to do that? And prison labor is still leased out at very low rates of pay. What products do you use that are cheaper because the company lowers manufacturing costs through prison labor? How can other manufacturing jobs ever pay a living wage when they have to compete with prison labor?
As recently as 2018 it was still legal for sheriffs to pocket whatever money they could save from the budgets allocated for feeding prisoners. And a lot of people at that level of the criminal injustice system are locked up PENDING TRIAL—they have not been proven guilty of ANYTHING. And many of them are in jail because they are too poor to afford just a few hundred dollars of bail money.
Roger Stone needs to STFU and stop complaining. He is walking around free, and no one is going to force him to assemble air filters or something for 55 cents an hour (the average inmate wage in Florida).
And there are seven states where prisoners earn $0.00 per hour for their work. Now. In 2019.
I could go on, but anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the profit motive behind black “criminality” can watch Ava DuVernay’s outstanding documentary The 13th.
The PBS documentary “Slavery by Another Name” covers this as well, and is available for free on YouTube. (update—I just noticed that I had the wrong link here last night. The link now goes to the correct PBS documentary. I have also added a brief excerpt above.)
There is an extensive bibliography available on the subject, but a good place to start is Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”.
The economic connections between the prison system, forced/cheap labor, and restrictions on voting rights are the very beating heart why it has been such a struggle for so many blackfolks to recover from the ills of slavery.
Why don’t we spend 2019 learning about it, talking about it, and coming up with serious actions to address it?
And that doesn’t even get to the ways other people of color have been and are being economically exploited and having their very existence criminalized.
Something most definitely is not right here.