Mass Incarceration of Colors

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“One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” are the final words of our pledge of allegiance. Since the formation of our great country, political leaders have had a very loose definition of the word “all”. Many people would say that racism in today’s climate has drastically decreased since the end of segregation since the 1960’s; if you would have seen Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th you would quickly realized this is not the case. People of color have been unlawfully persecuted in the United States since the abolishment of slavery.

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Even today, laws from the past still greatly affect modern life and racism.

In 1865 the 13th Amendment was approved by the United States government which formally abolished slavery. This was thought to be the end of an era and the start of something new for African Americans. A chance to start over and to have a better life but little did they know that they still had so much more suffering to bear. As a newly freed slave there was much else to do or elsewhere to go. Majority of slaves had no education.

They did not know how to read, write or do anything other than what they were taught since they were born which was to work on the plantations for the whites. So even after they were freed many just stayed working for their previous owners for “slave wages” considering they did not have much choice. These “slave wages” were merely nothing compared to the work that they were doing and since they also lived on the plantations, the owners would charge them rent to stay which was the same amount they paid them. This made it impossible for former slaves to save up money and start a new life off the plantation.

There were very few who did have hope in finding a new life and set off but they certainly did not get too far. The 13th Amendment clearly states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”, which means if convicted of wrongdoing slavery can still be enforced(Amendment XIII). As a result people of color have been charged with crimes as little as loitering and vagrancy just to the keep free labor. This was the first mass incarceration of African Americans which will be a trendsetter for centuries to come.

After slavery issues were “resolved” the southern states still did whatever they could to strip African Americans of natural rights. For example, Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws were created to keep African Americans from gaining basic rights like, interracial marriage, voting, owning property in certain neighborhoods and segregation in general. Segregation went as far as restaurants, public transportation, schools, restrooms, fountains, and practically everywhere. What made this acceptable to pass as state law was that everything would be “separate, but equal” (Riggs 667).

This ended up not being the case however. White public places were well kept and had great service however for African Americans they had to sit in the back of the bus, fountains were infested with bacteria, restrooms were unsanitary, etc. Through time people of color were beginning to grow sick of how they were treated. People began to revolt and protest against segregation. In result people were beaten, imprisoned, abused, shot and killed because of their peaceful protests. However in this case, the mass incarceration of people of color was a benefit, productive. African Americans took being arrested to their advantage.

To show that they were doing nothing wrong and the only reason that they were in a cell was because of the color of their skin. It gave them a voice, a reason to fight back. Eventually there would be a group of people to take their voice away. The organization, The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) eventually came in play. Mass terrorization of an entire race. They threatened, hung and burned many but sometimes they wouldn’t even have to do it themselves. The KKK inspired many white supremacist to fight back against the revolution. In August 1955 a boy named Emmett Till experienced the fullest of White peoples wrath.

14 year old Emmett Till was spending a couple weeks with his uncle in Mississippi. There was supposedly an incident where Till “talked fresh” with one of the women working at the white owned corner store. Four days later, three men associated with the woman held and kidnapped Till at gunpoint, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck and threw him in a local river. After the body was found his mother demanded local sheriffs to send her sons body back to chicago where a class cased open casket funeral was held to show what the racist rage has done to her child(Pool 414).

This event impacted the movement for equal rights greatly. Thousands of people have seen his body and some fainted at the sight. Pictures of Emmett Till were in newspapers across the country which enraged African Americans all over. With what happened to Emmett Till and many other much like his case, everyday people of color got one step closer to gaining the rights they should have obtained ages ago.

With segregation over and African Americans with their newly gained rights, there was hope in the new era. However this did not last long for in 1969, Nixon became president of the United States which was also when the Vietnam War was at its greatest peak, drafting many young men into the army to serve the war. Nixon quickly realized who his enemies were. People of color and the educated college students against the war so he started a “war on drugs”.

This “war on drugs” was supposed to eliminate his worry by associating African Americans with heroin and Hippies with marijuana. They addressed drug abuse as if it were a crime issue rather than a health issue. The government ran the campaign as if it were to save the children of America and make the country a drug free and safer place. John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s advisors, said,

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and the black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with Marijuana and the blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…” (“13th” 00:18:10-00:18:28)

The War on Drugs was a direct attack towards people of color and antiwar activists, discriminating and silencing an entire population of people, basically stripping them of their first amendment rights just because the government did not like the cause they were fighting for. Along with the marijuana and heroin there was a new drug on the market. During the same time was the big renaissance of the crack cocaine epidemic. Deonna Turner says, “Crack cocaine was popularized because of its affordability; its immediate euphoric effect, which helped individuals escape their social and economic dilemmas; and its high profitability, which provided opportunities for some to move up the “economic ladder”(Turner 158).

Regular powdered cocaine was prominently used by the rich white percentage of the population but crack was mostly sold by hispanics but mainly purchased by the African American community. Because of The War on Drugs, a person who was convicted to be in possession of a small portion of crack received a much harsher penalty than a person in possession of mass amounts of powdered cocaine. “The 100-to-1 ratio between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine was used as a guideline for minimum mandatory punishment. For instance, a minimum penalty of 5 years was administered for 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powdered cocaine”(Turner 158). Because of this there were mass incarcerations of people of color as a result of bias laws being passed by America’s racist government.

Before Bill Clinton’s presidency there was an increase in crime for decades so the past five presidents were Republican mostly because the people wanted a president who was “tough on crime” so Clinton took the matter very seriously to please the people. Even though he was a democrat he handled some matters in a republican way especially when he addressed the crime in the United States. September 13th, 1994 Clinton passed the Crime Bill Signed which included the “three strikes and you’re out” legislation and mandatory minimums.

The most harmful part of the Crime Bill was mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums essentially stripped judges right of interpretation to find a reasonable sentencing or punishment for a persons crime and gives the a minimum sentence. People who have never committed a crime in their life or even the wrongfully accused have been sentenced months and even years in jail. Mandatory minimums have destroyed people’s lives (David 93).

Not only is the matter absurd but even Bill Clinton himself said that it was one of the most major mistakes he had made during his presidency. In 2015, Clinton gave a speech to the NAACP where he says, “… in that bill, there were longer sentences and most of these people were in prisons under state law, but the federal law set a trend. And that was overdone. We were wrong about that… we had a lot of people who were essentially locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long”(NAACP106 00:27:00-00:29:40).

The main reason why this bill was so harmful was because it mas majorly bias toward the colored community. Many laws and bills passed that just seem economical and progressive really affect people of color, more specifically, poor people of color.

In present day, people of color are still being oppressed by laws from the past and labeling an entire race as criminals tends to make it socially acceptable. Unlawfully persecuting people of color seems like a never ending fight with multiple cases; the central park jogger case (five teens of color were wrongly accused in the 1989 gang rape and beating of a white female jogger.

They were convicted after false confessions were used as evidence against them during trial to gain a shorter sentence), Trayvon Martin (An African American teen walking home was shot by a white male on a neighborhood night watch dismissed by court as “self defense”), Oscar Grant (made to confess to a crime and served time for a crime he did not commit for a shorter sentence) and many more. At this point, racism is a never ending predicament.

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Mass Incarceration of Colors. (2020, Jan 30). Retrieved from