Thoughts That Hurt to Think #039 – A slave by any other name…

A lot of people think slavery doesn’t exist in the United States any more, and some even think slavery has been eliminated worldwide. Although most folks are aware that a number of slaves were brought to America from other countries back in the day, they don’t all seem to know that the circumstances of many people today strongly resemble the conditions slaves existed in yesterday.

They also often don’t know the first slave was owned by a black man, but that’s another subject altogether; don’t worry, we’ll get to that later.

If anyone can claim the title of ‘African-American’, it’s most of the people that were enslaved in the beginning of the United States’ relatively short and brutal history. They came straight from Africa, unlike the rest of us; I mean, we can all trace our roots back to Africa, but very few people in America today came here after being born there.

Many of the slaves whose backs our country was built on were of white European descent, and even more of them were from Asia; but most of them were black, and straight from Africa. They were not allowed to vote or own property, and most folks know that; what a lot of people don’t know is that most of them also received money for their work. It wasn’t much, usually; and it was generally left to the slave owner to treat their slaves well in such respects…but you might be surprised at how many slaves in early America were able to buy their freedom with the money they had been paid by the person they were buying that freedom from.

Things are way different now.

In modern day America, there are more black men in prison than there were slaves back then. It sounds like a strange comparison to make, but stay with me; the similarities will be quite clear if you keep reading.

Very few of the people locked in prison in America are violent offenders. Nearly everyone agrees that it’s wrong to physically attack another person, or steal from them, or rape them; and most of us feel more safe knowing that people with such tendencies get removed from society. Some of us would rather see them rehabilitated than punished, since we know that society is likely the one that owes the debt; but we already talked about that, in Some Rehabilitation Actually Works!

This is another subject altogether.

What surprised me, when I found out, is that the vast majority of people in prison are not violent offenders. They aren’t thieves, either. In fact, most of the people in prison are there for drug offenses. In case you don’t know, drug use is as popular among white people as it is black people. It’s just way more common for black people to get thrown in prison for these practices.

That’s just ridiculous, right?

I said that, the first time I heard about this situation. I thought it was surely exaggerated, how much racial profiling determines who gets put in prisons in America. Then I was working with a guy, and he told me about his morning.

On his way to work, this friendly fellow had been pulled over. It was first thing in the morning, but for some reason the officer that did the pulling over asked my co-worker if he had been drinking. He said no, and repeated the answer as he was asked if he had any illegal drugs or weapons in the car. The officer didn’t believe him, apparently, because he asked if he could search the vehicle.

At this point in the story, I was flabbergasted. I interrupted him, and pointed out how ridiculous the situation was.

“Did you say no?” I asked. “Did you tell him that he needed both probable cause and a search warrant to go through your personal belongings, and that he clearly had neither?”

My co-worker laughed at me, in the most friendly fashion.

He didn’t think this was ridiculous, or unusual; he told me that it happened at least a couple times a month, and that he had heard stories about black men who said ‘no’ when a police officer asked to search their vehicle. He knew that he had to do what he always did, and he let the guy search his car. It took awhile, since there were a lot of tools in the trunk; but after a thorough search, the officer let him get on with his day.

I couldn’t believe it. What I found even harder to believe was the fact that my co-worker wasn’t angry about it at all. He thought it was totally normal, and had long since accepted that he should be expected to be treated like a suspect every time he encountered a police officer.

My friend had never been arrested, and was actually a veteran. For those of you wondering, wonder no more.

This was in California, not some part of the country that is associated with behavior of this sort. My co-worker was from the deep south, and he said it was way better here than it was there.

Somehow, that didn’t make me any less angry.

It wasn’t until later that I realized what this meant. I found out that prisons had become privatized institutions just prior to the big rush to fill them to overflowing, and that these privately owned businesses were being paid for every prisoner they could pack in there. Then I found out that prisoners were being forced to work at a fraction of a fraction of minimum wage, and the pieces came together at last.

Prisoners do more work for less money than slaves did, back in the day. They don’t get to vote, even after they are released from servitude; and getting a decent job with a criminal record is difficult to impossible. Most of them end up right back in the very institution that programmed them to believe they don’t belong in polite society anymore.

It might be easy for some to ignore this situation, or pretend it doesn’t exist. There might even be folks laughing at me right now for referring to our country’s prisoners as ‘people’, when they are clearly seen as something less by the powers that be. I wonder if they considered it deeply when the first black president acknowledged the problem, and admitted that he avoided imprisonment only ‘by the grace of God’.

Or maybe they listened to what he said about the wage gap and whistle-blowers and closing down Guantanamo, and realized that this guy was as full of it as all the others that came before him. When he signed a law enabling the government to imprison American citizens indefinitely without trial or due process, it certainly brought his credibility into question for a lot of people.

This situation might not seem serious until you look at what kind of work these prisoners are doing. Most of us might think of rock crushing or license plate stamping when we think of incarcerated people working, but that changed right along with the privatization of these facilities. Now prisoners create products for corporations, and prisons have another stream of income to buffer their business.

I won’t call out any companies, but I will suggest you search it.

Every time I hear someone complain about products being made in other countries by workers being paid next to nothing to be sold in ours at a huge profit, I can’t help but think of this situation. The same thing is happening right here in our own prison system, and many states don’t require that these slaves be paid any wage at all.

Oops…did I say slaves?

Sorry, I meant prisoners.

Even the most famous politicians that have dealt with slavery have been painted in a generous light by history. An awful lot of folks think Abraham Lincoln was a pretty swell guy, but few people point out that he was not actually an abolitionist. Looking closely at the way the laws he passed were worded, it pretty quickly becomes clear that Lincoln was just fine with slavery.

First of all, he only initially freed slaves in the states that were in rebellion. Lincoln always thought slavery should be dialed back, but never abolished. Even the final law that got passed had an exception to the rule, stating that no one in the United States could be pressed into indentured servitude or slavery ‘except prisoners’. Rather than change the laws, Lincoln just made it illegal for private citizens to own slaves; the government was allowed to continue business as usual.

Now that prisons are privatized, I guess private citizens can own slaves after all. So, really…we’re right back where we started. Except now there are more black men in servitude to the government than there ever were to private citizens in this country’s history. When you put it that way, it seems as though Lincoln actually did more harm than good. Since he clearly stated that his aim was not to abolish slavery but to form a federal government, all kinds of things then fall on his shoulders.

Whether we can hold Lincoln responsible for the state of prisons today or not is up for debate, I suppose. But when you look at how he thought African Americans should be treated after they were freed from slavery, there’s one thing you can’t deny. When you say one group of people should not be able to own property or vote, you say more about yourself than you do about that group of people. And what Abraham Lincoln said and did leads us to a pretty obvious conclusion, when you look at it…

‘Abraham Lincoln was racist!’

We’ll talk about that next week, in a post by that name.

I hope you come back for it!

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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