America’s racist penal system is slavery by another name
America has never formally broken its relationship with slavery – and black communities still live in its shadows
“The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart.”
― Barack Obama, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
When the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson violent protests broke out. Alarming pictures of police violence, siege-like militarism and a stand-off that recalls the Sixties Civil Rights era have since been beamed across the globe. However, for those who have been aware of the barometer of American civil rights struggles, this is unsurprising. What is surprising is that it hasn’t bubbled up before. Even under its first black president, America is a mostly segregated society. I grew up in New Jersey in the Eighties and Nineties, and people for the most part had either white friends or black friends. High-school lunch tables were codified by colour. The America I knew had a massive race problem and as an Iranian, neither white nor black, I experienced enough racism to know I couldn’t change it from within. So I left America in 1996, tired of the inequalities, particularly around race and social justice, and certain that a life as a free-thinking filmmaker wasn’t possible, certainly not when you had to wed yourself to a corporation in order to have health care.
This year, now a UK Citizen, I am returning to America to film a documentary which will look at the issue of race in America through the prism of the prison system. I have already visited one in Louisiana where I saw mostly black men picking cotton in fields – they were paid up to 13 cents per hour – while the predominantly white guards, armed and on horseback, watched over. Sound familiar? Unknown to most, slavery is still legal in the US: under the 13th Amendment it was outlawed “except as a punishment for crime”.
My film, From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, looks at the privatised prison system as a sanitised slave system. And in it, I ask whether America is heading towards another race war. It is not, as some have said, fanciful agit pop. What we have seen in Missouri over the past couple of weeks shows what is bubbling close to the surface. Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, along with Eric Garner, Ezell Ford and John Crawford III all men who have been killed by the police, is another victim of the race wars in America.
And America’s race tragedy is, in part, the legacy of slavery. Although black people make up just 13 percent of the overall population, one in 10 black men in their thirties is in jail or prison on any given day. As Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow, more black men are in “prison or jail, on probation or on parole than were enslaved in 1850”. Slavery never ended in America, it just changed its face.
Why does a country seemingly so concerned with liberty, have such a high rate of incarceration (2.3 million and counting)? Because it pays to imprison. Prisons are increasingly owned by corporations that profit from incarceration. These private companies are either paid by the state, or they put the inmates to work thus creating a cheap and constant work force. If a product is “Made in America”, chances are it was made in a US prison. Ninety-three per cent of household paintbrushes in the states are made in US prisons, 30 per cent of consumer electronics. Companies such as Victoria’s Secret, Walmart, Starbucks, Microsoft and Nintendo have products made in prisons (often via subcontractors) and states attract business by boasting about large prison populations which can be put to work as cheap labour. The first prison in America, after all, was formulated by a Texas governor in the year that slavery was abolished (at the end of the day, who was going to bring all that cotton and crops back in?). This eventually led to the chain gangs and Jim Crow laws which continued to criminalise and incarcerate black people in America well into the Sixties.
Ironically, prisons don’t seem to do much to reduce crime. Studies suggest that very substantial increases in imprisonment will produce only a modest reduction in crime. Worse, there is evidence that prison acts only to increase recidivism. Locking up people in the States doesn’t make a safer society. But it is a profitable business made off the backs of mostly African-Americans (and increasingly Latinos and other migrants).
America has never formally broken its relationship with slavery – and black communities still live in its shadows. America needs to re-examine it’s past in order to be able to move forward. Missouri is not the beginning, nor will it be the end.