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Slavery, Death and Mass Incarceration

When we think about the subject of slavery, people generally assume this refers to a period of American history that is prior to 1865. Some people mistakenly believe that slavery is now illegal in this country and has been for the last 150 years. Not true. Legal slavery still exists and is merely limited to people who are incarcerated—so says the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

U.S. prisons currently hold 2.3 million people. This is one quarter of the world’s prison population. In this country 51 percent of those now incarcerated are African-Americans, who only make up about 13% of the entire population. Today we have more people in prison than in the United States Military, more people in prison than in college, and more Black people in prison right now than the total number of African Americans held in captivity at any one time during the entire history of outright slavery.

Missouri, near the bottom of the list in quality of education (number 45 out of 50), is in the top 10 on the list of states with the highest rate of imprisonment.

Even though racism is a gigantic factor in mass incarceration, imprisonment is by no means just a Black, Latino, or even a gender issue. At the present time there is nothing unusual or alarming about the trends of imprisonment where Whites are concerned, but as the system drains the ready supply of Black bodies, the raging monster of mass incarceration is turning into a beast that is beginning to reduce its focus on color. You see, too many big-money corporations have large investments in this beast, which feeds on greed and wealth. Although men are the overwhelming majority of prisoners, women, denied equal pay for their work, are the fast-est growing prison population. Latinos are the second fastest-growing segment. They make up 35% of the Federal prison population. So if you are White and seeking to avoid imprisonment, you might do well to pay attention to these incarceration trends.

What are the causes, you may ask, of such high rates of imprisonment in the African American community? You may also ask why there is a disproportionate number of Black-on-Black homicides as well as killings of unarmed Black men by police and security guards.

Judge Greg Mathis who served as an advisor on President Obama’s Task Force (Am I My Brother’s Keeper) reports that the commission made some interesting but predicable suggestions. The disproportionate rates of incarceration and killings of Black people by law enforcement and each other are due to:

  • Poverty
  • Lack of opportunity
  • A failed education system, and
  • A saturation of guns and drugs in our community.

This makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to Black-on-Black homicides, because people who suffer the first three kind of deprivations on a daily basis endure extremely high levels of stress. Add weapons and drugs to all this confusion and it becomes a perfect recipe for murder and self-genocide. Isn’t this in itself another form of slavery?

Another reason for such high rates of deadly violence in the Black community has to do with media glorification of the gangster-rap culture. This plays out in music and movies which purport to give our young brothers and sisters “a street education“ but are actually designed to put images and ideas in their heads that are just setting them up to get killed or go to prison. Many of our young brothers and sisters don’t seem to realize that Hip Hop and gangster rap are two different things.

I already know that some young people will be critical of these comments and disagree with me. But consider this: Some of the most vehement lovers and de-fenders of gangster rap music are the ones in jail with the longest prison sentences.

Even Tupac Shakur explicitly stated to the media at one time, “I am not a gangster rapper.” On several occasion he expressed his frustration with people who tried to confuse his stage image with who he was in real life.

Tupac was one of the most influential rappers of all time. Young people still recognize that the messages in his music and his public statements are relevant to this very day. And this belies the assertion of some rappers that music with a positive message does not sell.

Perhaps those messages are even more relevant today when one considers the epidemic of violence being committed against unarmed black people by white law enforcement officials and attempts by the media to suppress news about people’s protest over this.

All you need to do is listen to the words in the Song “Holler if You Hear Me,” (which are too graphic to be quoted here) and you will see that 18 years ago Tupac actually foretold of many things that are taking place right now and what we should be doing about it.

It is no coincidence that positive and fun-loving rap music has been suppressed and silenced by the media. It is no coincidence that everybody who used to be famous for this genre at one time is either dead, has been driven into retirement, or is currently trying to pursue another profession. Among these celebrities are Tupac Shakur, Gil Scott-Heron, Heavy Dee and the Boyz, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, Public Enemy, Who Dini, Kurtis Blow, The Gary Bird Experience, Cool Mo Dee, Digital Underground, Boogie Down Productions, Queen Latifah, LL Cool J, D.J. Jazzy Jeff, and the Fresh Prince.

To all young Black people who choose to worship the media as your god, you should also know that many of the record companies which promote gangster rap music are also some of the biggest investors in private prisons. Why? Because they already know what their merchandise is designed to pro-duce.

What you need to understand is that you are not in prison because you are a gangster or a born criminal--you are in prison because society did not give you the same opportunity that it gave to other people to make a decent life for yourself. Your environment made you feel that in order to survive you had to steal, you had to rob, and/or you had to go out and sell drugs. And if somebody got in your way they had to be removed one way or another.

People throughout the world have condemned the United States for mass incarceration and the indiscriminate killings and other police violence against citizens in this country, particularly unarmed Blacks. Even Missouri Governor Jay Nixon recently acknowledged that situations like the one in Ferguson can be avoided in the future if police officers have better training.

Unfortunately, the attitude of many police officers is that they are above the law and whatever they say is the law. If an incident ensues it does not matter what really happened because whatever the cops choose to tell the judge and the jury is the only thing that will be believed.

This is the same attitude that many prison guards have towards inmates. And society has tolerated this attitude towards prisoners for so long until it has become acceptable even outside of prison for law-abiding citizens to be treated the same way. Therefore police officers think they can literally do anything they want to other people without any fear of consequences.

According to Judge Mathis, the Presidential Task Force observed that the “Negative inter-action between law enforcement and com-munities of color also promotes distrust on both sides.”

Incidents occur on a daily basis where police officers just open fire on unarmed citizens for no apparent reason, even when people try to comply with their demands. This is why some young Black people feel that they are probably going to be killed or severely beaten no matter what they do when they are confronted by a police officer who has his or her weapon drawn. The younger generation of Blacks is not like the older generation. If they think they are going to die anyway, they may well choose to die fighting. Since they usual-ly don’t live long enough to go to court and tell the jury or the judge what really happened, the officer’s side of the story is the only one that gets heard. If the victim does survive, he or she is most likely imprisoned and the truth is not believed.

Police officers are supposed to uphold the law and they should be held even more accountable than anyone else when they break it. But that won’t happen as long as we keep living in a society where media and public concern about the amount of air pressure in a football trumps concerns about real injustice

This was originally published in Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE)