The Rebirth of Slavery

The new Jim Crow

Elen Tesfamariam

I recall sitting in Professor Livingston’s American Politics class at Seattle Central College when a white student raised his hand and asked why black men were so prone to going to jail. I myself along with three other black students had a shocked look on our faces, but the truth is that we had no answer. Sure most black people know that there are systems in place for black Americans to fail, but I couldn’t provide a concrete response. Our teacher gave us a brief explanation as to how slave labor along with convict leasing and mass incarceration played a major role in the large number of black men that are incarcerated. Our teacher’s response felt extremely incomplete. As a future black woman in law, I was embarrassed with myself and felt compelled to explore more. That is when I discovered The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The book draws similarities between mass incarceration today and past systems of racialized social control like Jim Crow. The book also highlights the racial ties to the war on drugs. It argues that federal drug policy unfairly targets black men by tossing them in jail in large scales in order for black men to remain inferior while whites benefit economically. I was blown away by this new concept that had factual evidence to back it up. Michelle Alexander became my hero.

Michelle Alexander began her legal career as a civil rights lawyer in 1992. There was one particular case that later became the seed of The New Jim Crow. Alexander was representing a young black man in a case against the Oakland Police Department. The man kept a detailed journal of every police encounter in which he was abused or harassed. As Alexander questioned him she discovered the man was a felon and hesitated to move forward with the case because she knew that his testimony would not be credible. The man insisted that he had been framed by the police, but Alexander was still reluctant to represent him. The man became angry and stormed out of her office yelling “you are just like the rest of them.” A while later Alexander opened up the newspaper and came across a story in which a number of police officers, including one that the man mentioned months ago, were arrested for framing and beating up innocent black men.  In an interview from 2012 Michelle Alexander recalled how this made her feel: “…he’s right about me. The minute he told me he was a felon, I stopped listening. I couldn’t even hear what he had to say. And I realized that my crime wasn’t so much that I had refused to represent an innocent man, someone who had been telling me the truth, but that I had been blind to all those who were guilty and that their stories weren’t being told.” Thus The New Jim Crow came into fruition.

Alexander exposed the truth behind the so called “War on Drugs” which was the greatest instigator of mass incarceration. It was a deliberate strategy to control black people and keep them inferior. Most people assumed that the War on Drugs was in response to the crisis on crack cocaine being sold in inner city neighborhoods. However, In 1982 President Regan announced the war on drugs a few years before crack even became a crisis in poor black neighborhoods. This was the first indicator of the fictitious war. There was speculation that drugs were being brought in to the black neighborhoods through the CIA.  It was at this time that crack spread rapidly. Images of black whores, crack babies, and drug dealers were scattered throughout various media outlets. As a result of the war on drugs, the US has more people incarcerated than any other country, mainly black. Alexander made an astonishing statement when she revealed that “The US has more black people in prison than blacks locked up in South Africa during the height of apartheid” (27). The mass incarceration of blacks in the 1980’s appeared eerily similar to racial slavery before emancipation.

During reconstruction it was difficult for black Americans to become assimilated into white culture. Although technically “free” the impediments for black growth were very much evident in black codes and other forms of oppression. Basic rights such as walking on a particular side of the street or vagrancy charges were some of the few that would cause black people to be jailed. Under the 13th amendment, slavery was abolished except for in the form of a punishment. One of the most destructive practices of this time period was a form of punishment for black prisoners knows as convict leasing. White plantation owner were worried about losing their businesses that were built off of the bloodshed of slaves, and needed a new form of the same free labor. Their businesses simply could not be sustained without black workers. Mass amounts of black men were jailed for erroneous charges. This was evident in that whenever the prison companies came into town, there would be a big sweep of black men jailed. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name,  Mary Ellen Curtin worded it quite bluntly, “If you used to get something for free in the past, you don’t want to pay for it.” Thus white business owners developed a systematic way to rent out prisoners for hire.

my people

Similar to renting a vehicle these days local businesses could rent out prisoners for a monthly fee. It was quite simple, plantation owners went to prisons to pick out the prisoner of their liking, took them back to the plantation, and worked them to death. One white man from the south during this time period nostalgically recalls “Before the war, we owned the negros. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to keep him….But these convicts, we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another one” (Mancini, 3). It was somewhat of a slow process, but eventually white folks figured out that they could make a fortune off of convict leasing: a new form of racial slavery.  What began as a slow process of convict leasing developed into a major revenue for prisons and private business. In 1898 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing. Black prison workers were significant to the growth of the nation much like slavery was. Had it not been for black prison workers, economic development in the south would have plummeted. Abolitionist movements and large massive reforms eventually lead to end of convict leasing by the 1930’s.

By the 1980’s we witnessed the return of prison labor exploitation as Michelle Alexander has revealed in The New Jim Crow. Similar to various forms of mass incarceration of blacks, the War on Drugs was used as another form of black imprisonment. According to Alexander, the policies during this time “seemed designed to send folks to prison, which is what, in fact, happens the vast majority of the time” (13). The mass incarceration of black people during this time immobilized the black community just as it has done repeatedly. Incarceration hinders black advancement pertaining to family, employment, loans, and more aspects of ones life. Just imagine how employers feel when a black man walks in for an interview. To illustrate this, it was said that “the concentration of imprisonment amount young black urban makes is so extreme today that many of us simply assume that, when we encounter a young black man, he has a criminal record” (Clear, 2). This is significant to the lack of progress we see in black Americans versus white folks today. Automatically labeling someone as a criminal can prevent black development.

It is difficult for a society to shift their attitudes towards black people when they have always been considered a main source of profit. Especially in the case of the United States in which the country was built off of free slave labor. A nation such as the U.S. that has developed its superpower economy from the kidnapping of innocent Africans to be used as free labor producers has a difficult time letting go of this practice. We see evidence of this from convict leasing, to mass incarceration in what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. Alexander suggests that ending mass incarceration will require a grassroots movement of people, white and black, criminal and non-criminal, demanding peace and prosperity for all.

Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina, 1996. Print.

“Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America.” RSS 20. Wbur.org, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Clear, Todd R. Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Slavery by Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. Prod. Catherine Allen and Douglas Blackmon. PBS, 2012. Film.

” What Was Jim Crow.” Jim Crow Museum: Origins of Jim Crow. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

10 thoughts on “The Rebirth of Slavery

  1. When I read your blog the phrase, “Breaking the Cycle” kept coming back into mind because I hear many people from privileged backgrounds tell Black students and students of Color that they just have to “Break the Cycle.” I knew that this was easier being said than done especially for those who do not come from a marginalized background. People do not understand that it takes years, even centuries to fully heal from 500+ years of historical trauma and oppression. As students of Color we carry the weight of our ancestor’s oppression, making it more difficult to succeed in this society especially in a system that was never set up to work for us. Convict leasing and mass incarceration of Black bodies is still alive and well; how do people expect that the Black community to heal and break the cycle from this, if it has been rooted since the beginning of slavery? Also when reading your blog, my mind went to my community and the similarities between mass incarceration of Black bodies and detention centers or how farm workers now are faced with unfair labor conditions. Everything my community is going through is not something that is new, it started with slavery and is being pushed on other communities in the name of capitalism. I am a firm believer that you can’t liberate a community unless the most oppressed are liberated, in this case the Black community and Native people have been the most oppressed in the U.S, so I work towards these communities’ liberation to reach my communities’ liberation.

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  2. 1. I like the title, but I would have used a different title because it is not really the rebirth of slavery. There has always been slavery on form or another because the system keeps people segregated through institutional racism.
    2. There a couple pictures as visuals and they did a great job in depicting the blog one is about the book they are discussing. The other picture is about convict leasing which they touch upon in their blog.
    3. I would like to know more about the prison to school pipeline system and how it has derived from convict leasing.
    4. The student relates to the cultural object by talking about a discussion brought in class.
    5. I wished the author would have related in a more personal level by going into more depth about their feeling towards the White students question.

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  3. I enjoyed reading your blog. One one of my American Ethnic class we addressed the incarceration of how black men are put in jail more the white men. It seems that all black men are the ones who get caught but it’s the white men supplying the drugs to the blacks. Somehow the white men don’t get caught but the blacks always get caught. With this yes they see more blacks in jail and detention centers. We wonder why because we the black men are committing the crime. We have labeled the black men to go to jail because we are targeted to be the one’s to as we have been labels as a drug users, etc. This does start back into slavery. We were the one’s looked upon as the destruction one’s. White had the power and if we crossed that power we were punished. So it’s no matter why blacks as labeled as they are- as criminals. We need to stop this labeling and start acknowledging that it isn’t the blacks who start it-it’s the whites who have started it.

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  4. 1. Yes, I thought this title was both intriguing and representative of the project.
    2. Yes, there is visual representations in this blog in the form of pictures. The first picture is of the book that is being discussed, so I would say that this visual representation does a great job depicting what the blog is about.
    3. It would be interesting to know what about the 1980’s drove the creation of the war on drugs, and thus ended up creating this “rebirth of slavery”.
    4. I think you have done an excellent job of connecting this artifact to what we have learned in the course.
    5. I think one of the strongest points of this blog was in the introduction when you connected it to your own experience. The blog itself was easy to follow and flowed well. Overall, I thought the whole thing was done very well and I don’t think I would have wanted any part of it to be changed.

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  5. I really enjoyed reading your blog, because it raised a question that I too, have wondered but never understood. I remember Professor Pittman discussing how convict leasing was a reason for why there are such high numbers of African Americans in prisons today and I thought you expanded on this idea greatly. Your title and pictures suit your discussion and I would have enjoyed more Mary Ellen Curtin quotes, because I think her discussion of slavery was very interesting! Overall, great job!

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  6. The title is precise and concise, which states the focus of whole article. Different forms of reborned “slavery”, such as convict leasing and “War on Drug”, are discussed in depth. All the content are related to the title, so this is a great title that introduces the article. The picture of the book, The New Jim Crow, is a good introduction to the whole blog. The book and its connection with your personal life is a great start for this passage. The cover of the book itself has a strong image of the rebirth of slavery, which connected tightly to your focus. The photo of the convicts gives a good visual representation of the paragraphs describing the leasing system. I would like to know more about the consequences of the New Jim Crow and possible solutions or fight against this inequality. The New Jim Crow piece is included in our reading materials. You did a great job on connecting the era of post-slavery and nowadays situation, and stated that the unequal racial issue did not change essentially. The quotes are remarkable; some of them are chosen from the course material, and you have linked them to your topic. It will be better if the conclusion connected back to your personal experience that happened in your political science class. It is a good ending with words by Michelle Alexander, but I would like to hear your voice and reflection after this heavy topic.

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  7. 1. The title definitely is striking emotionally, and pertains to the blog. But, the word ‘rebirth’ makes it seem like slavery was a dismantled institution that was reintroduced in to our system, when in fact people today still reap the benefits of the institution of slavery through policy.
    2. I thought the visuals provided did a really good job of depicting the blog and were very relevant to the piece.
    3. I would really like to hear more on how things like convict leasing, then consequently mass incarceration has had an effect on the academic and professional advancement of African Americans.
    4. You connect the artifact to course material well, the mentions and explanations of convict leasing is pertinent to the material covered in lecture
    5. You should try making the blog more personal, it was definitely passionately written, which indicates to me that you have a connection with black history and your next blog could be greatly enhanced by these personal connections to your topic.

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  8. Yes the person’s title does a great job of letting the audience know what the project will be about. I don’t think the title needs any improving it drew me to the project!
    Yes there is a visual representation of the cultural project which is a cover of the book and it shows blacks hands behind jail bars. I believe this visual representation does an excellent job depicting what the blog will be about because it speaks about just that… black people and the prison system.
    There is honestly nothing further I’d like to know in regards to how the artifact relates to our class or what I’m learning. You were very clear about how this tied to our class and you’re absolutely right. If anything you made me want to learn more and to now purchase this book to read.
    You did a really good job tying this artifact to what we were learning such as the convict leasing system and the amount of money places such as Alabama were profiting from this system. Also how the War on Drugs has only been a ploy that has helped gather up more black people for the prison system to use as practically free labor.
    For blog number 2 my advice is to do everything the same. You are a very clear and informed writer and you should get a good grade!

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  9. 1) Yes, the author did a good job of making sure that the title reflected what the project will be about. Your titles also did an amazing job of pulling me in so that I could get a better understanding of what it meant.
    2) Yes, there is a very powerful cultural product. The image is a cover of a book. I knew then that she would tie in how African Americans are in the justice system.
    3) You did a good job of giving us examples of how convict leasing actually happened. I loved how you actually found a quote from a slave owner. You hit your points really well.
    4) The author of this blog did a fantastic job connecting her cultural product with the material that we learned in class. An example that I mentioned is when you connected convict leasing. It shows how back then Jailed African Americans were at a high rate and how it still is. The difference is now they cannot be slaved.
    5) This was a really good read for me. This was very easy to follow and it meets all of the criteria that a good blog should look like. Great job. I look forward to reading your second blog.

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