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Slavery: A Multi-Billion Dollar Modern American Enterprise

Robert Franklin

Posted on May 10, 2018 16:11

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We understand the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution as mandating the abolition of slavery. That's how we're taught about it in school, before quickly moving on to the 14th. However, there is a caveat to the abolition of slavery that is rarely taught and scarcely discussed:

"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."

Basically, this means that while a person cannot be owned by another person, they can however be owned by the state if they're convicted of a crime. It should be enough to make even the most rigid champions of law and order pause for a moment. After all, is there ever an instance when slavery is okay?

For over 150 years, there has been an instance where slavery is acceptable. The Punishment Clause of the 13th Amendment -- included as a result of cultural attitudes of the time that considered hard labor a necessity for moral rehabilitation -- allows for inmates to be treated (and even leased out) as a cheap source of labor.

Starting almost immediately following the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Southern states -- whose economies had been left with a serious labor shortage due to the abolition of slavery -- began using law enforcement to round up newly-freed black men and women for absurd crimes such as "vagrancy," which meant being young, black, and unemployed. These men and women, once incarcerated, would then be outsourced as cheap labor.

Frederick Douglass identified the "convict lease system" that manifested in American criminal justice following the ratification of the 13th Amendment:

"(States) claim to be too poor to maintain state convicts within prison walls. Hence the convicts are leased out to work for railway contractors, mining companies and those who farm large plantations. These companies assume charge of the convicts, work them as cheap labor and pay the states a handsome revenue for their labor. Nine-tenths of these convicts are negroes."

This practice still, in 2018, exists, and the economic value of compulsory inmate labor is estimated to be about $2 billion annually. This is why the calls by inmates for a federal investigation of slavery at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola is an important story.

It's no secret that young black men are stopped, searched, arrested, tried, and convicted at significantly higher rates than white men, despite a negligible difference in criminality between the two demographics. These sentences -- largely a result of a wasteful, failed drug war -- also have the tendency to be longer when the defendant is black. This means black men spend more time in a system that financially benefits from their presence, both in terms of state revenue and as dehumanized "human capital" rented for labor projects by predominantly white business owners and project leaders.

It is said the United States was built by slavery. This statement is wrong. It still is.

Robert Franklin

Posted on May 10, 2018 16:11

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Source: WWL

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