The standard narrative regarding slavery in the United States suggests that slavery was legal until a bloody civil war was fought over it, after which the 13th Amendment was passed, which prohibited slavery. But this leaves out one crucial caveat. The 13th Amendment prohibited slavery “except as punishment for a crime.” This allowed slavery to continue under the cover of law.
In the South, this was followed by the passage of the Black Codes, which criminalized a litany of innocuous actions specifically for blacks. According to Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, the Black Codes “established a racial subjugation at least as rigid as the apartheid system developed in South Africa decades later.” These laws heavily restricted economic freedom for black laborers. Hummel notes that “South Carolina forbade them from practicing any profession other than servant or agricultural laborer.” Black “idleness” was criminalized through vagrancy laws. Blacks were also prohibited from owning firearms.
Once blacks were effectively criminalized, it was easy to legally enslave them “as punishment for a crime.” Some Southern states embraced a convict lease system, where prisoners were leased out to private businesses as slave labor. In some respects, this system had even worse incentives than the system of slavery that preceded it. As Angela Davis writes:
Slave owners may have been concerned for the survival of individual slaves, who, after all, represented significant investments. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased not as individuals, but as a group, and they could be worked literally to death without affecting the profitability of a convict crew.
Whereas slave owners would find it costly to replace slaves who died or were otherwise injured, those who leased convicts as slaves would simply have their crew replenished with more enslaved prisoners if those currently working for them died.
Convicts were also forced to work on public works projects. For example, according to Alex Lichtenstein, “[T]he renowned Peachtree Street and the rest of Atlanta’s wellpaved roads and modern transportation infrastructure, which helped cement its place as the commercial hub of the modern South, were originally laid by convicts.”
While the convict lease system no longer exists, coercive prison labor persists. The Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as “Angola,” was converted from a slave plantation to a prison, and is still used for forced agricultural labor. Sweatshop conditions exist in prisons across the country. Companies like Walmart, AT&T, and Starbucks all profit from this prison labor. So do war profiteers like BAE, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing. The racism of slavery persists; according to the Sentencing Project, 60% of prisoners are people of color, with 1 in 3 black men experiencing imprisonment in their lifetime. America incarcerates on a mass scale, with more than 2.4 million people imprisoned.
The shameful system of chattel slavery that characterized the American South did not simply end with the passage of the 13th Amendment. Instead, slavery changed forms, morphing into a different system of racial control and forced labor that has some similarities to the contemporary system of mass incarceration.
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