Ava DuVernay’s critically acclaimed documentary 13th began streaming this past weekend on Netflix and tells the haunting but truly American story of how the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, “except as a punishment for a crime.” Four million enslaved people, representing 90 percent of the black population, became citizens of the United States with the amendment’s ratification. In an instant, $3 billion in human property, a value three times greater than all American manufacturing and seven times greater than all banks, transferred hands. Black people took immediate control of their own labor and political power.
But the South regrouped quickly. Legislators turned to the newly constitutionally protected power of the state to criminalize nearly every aspect of black freedom, from employment and land ownership to voting and everyday forms of self-defense and self-pride. “After the Civil War, African Americans were arrested en masse,” the author Michelle Alexander says in the opening scenes of the 13th. “It was our nation’s first prison boom.”
What abolition took away, the modern criminal-justice system restored: a racialized system built in the South to economically exploit, socially contain, and politically control the black population in the name of law and order. The film traces what it calls a “slavery loophole” and its unparalleled, century-and-a-half of success in making America the greatest and wealthiest jailer in the world. The Brookings Institution estimated in 2014 that the entire prison industry is worth $80 billion. That’s a whole lot of money and profits in the pockets of correctional employees, supply vendors, private employers of prison labor, and private prison contractors. Where else but “in the land of the free and the home of the brave” can so much freedom and income be subsidized by so many unfree. The film makes clear this seeming contradiction is no contradiction at all.
13th could not arrive at a better moment. With almost weekly high-profile police killings of black people, the long history of law enforcement as the foot soldiers of this massive criminal-justice system has finally caught up with it. Or so it seems. Confrontational protests, grassroots organizing, and a series of Department of Justice investigations have led to widespread calls for police and prison reform—and abolition in some circles. Even in a presidential race notably bereft of sophisticated policy debates, implicit bias, and institutional racism within the criminal-justice system are at least getting some air time.
The Republican and Democratic vice-presidential candidates debated race and policing. The entire exchange revealed the yawning gap between specific policy solutions for decriminalization and demilitarization by the Movement for Black Lives, a collective of 50 organizations, and what the candidates are willing to discuss on the national stage. Still, both Mike Pence and Tim Kaine agreed, somewhat, on the problem of bias. “We have got to do a better job recognizing and correcting the errors in the system that do reflect on institutional bias in criminal justice,” Pence said, while insisting that policing is “not a force for racism or division in our country.” For his part, Kaine said: “People shouldn’t be afraid to bring up issues of bias in law enforcement. And if you’re afraid to have the discussion, you’ll never solve it.”