On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass delivered a speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. His speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” questioned the coexistence of celebrating American freedom and the practice of American slavery.
Over 150 years have passed since 1852. This Fourth of July, as a young African-American woman who is currently imprisoned, the time seems long overdue to again question what this holiday represents and misrepresents. In the year 2005, the contradictions of Douglass’ 1852 may seem all too clear–even obsolete. But the legacies of those contradictions are still with us in our growing criminal justice system. In fact, the connections between the slavery of our past and our mass imprisonment practices of today are not discreet once we understand history.
The most obvious link is the 13th Amendment, passed in 1865. While many of us know that this amendment abolished slavery, we often forget its one exception–that slavery could continue for people convicted of crime. In fact, this exception was what first made racialized mass imprisonment possible.
So while the institution of slavery as we knew it was abolished, the institutionalized racism behind that system was able to evolve through that loophole. Once paired with the Black Codes criminalizing African Americans for actions only they could be convicted of, like vagrancy and possession of firearms, prison populations that provided cheap labor through convict-leasing programs transformed from nearly all-white to overwhelmingly black. To avoid punishment, some whites even wore black face during robberies.
After emancipation, even African Americans who avoided integration into the newly racialized criminal justice system possessed few freedoms. We were still hung and lynched, beaten, raped, and otherwise degraded. Although our forced labor built so much of this nation’s infrastructure and wealth, we were robbed of our self-identity, our family and kinship ties, our worth and value–to be left without resources for survival and often set up to be thrown in prison.
Today, institutionalized racism continues to evolve, reminding us that we are all survivors of slavery and its legacies. While segregation is no longer legal, it is the reality for most Americans. So when my home state of California loses $9.8 billion in education spending as it has over the last four years, those cuts impact our schools the most. Even though crime rates are falling, the government continues to under fund our schools while investing in a growing prison industrial complex. Just last month, California opened its 33rd prison, spending $700 million just for the mortgage and committing to $110 million each year after that.
It has taken the U.S. government over 100 years to only recently acknowledge the history of lynching through a formal apology. We are still victims and survivors of police brutality and the “driving while black” phenomenon. And the laws continue to eliminate African Americans, as well as other people of color and poor whites for warehousing in U.S. jails and prisons.
In its jails and prisons, the government reproduces many of the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. It breaks up our families by taking us far away from our communities and loved ones, making it hard for them to come and visit. Like slavery, prisons create conditions where abuse and rape are commonplace. We are denied human affection, proper clothing, nutritional food, proper medical care – sometimes to the point of medical abuse – and education, despite a high demand and need for it. We’re deprived of laughter, love and kindness. There are few programs that prepare us to re-enter our communities, which contribute to high recidivism rates. And while under the law, our bodies count for more than 3/5 of a person in terms of electoral votes, those votes go to the communities we are locked up in, not the communities we came from. And, as with under slavery, most of us are still denied the right to vote at all, under felon disenfranchisement laws.
For all of these reasons, I can say that being in prison is a form of modernized slavery, new millennium style.
Being in prison on the Fourth of July is a painful reminder of how misleading the American story of independence is. This Fourth of July, we must re-examine who experiences so-called American freedoms. We must re-define our cultural values and begin building a world we could all celebrate. This world would no longer rely on domination, prisons and war as a way to hide our social problems. Everyone would be able to access quality education, healthcare, housing, and jobs, regardless of their color, but also their gender, sexuality, religion or class. Now that would be something to celebrate.
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