13th Amendment, 21st Century

Two nights ago my wife and I went to see ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, Raoul Peck’s fine film about James Baldwin, and his unique role in the struggle for civil rights in America. Today we watched a DVD of Ava Duverney’s, documentary, ‘The 13th’, about America’s ongoing national disgrace, which is mass incarceration of black citizens. If I was a stronger person I might spend this evening watching Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar winning masterpiece, ‘12 Years a Slave’, in order to remind myself of the four hundred years of American slavery that all three films are rooted in. But I’ve already seen ‘12 Years’ more than once, and so, at least for now, I do not need further reminding.

However, if there is one thing that most Americans, especially white Americans, need to be reminded of continuously, with volume and detail, it is the story of American slavery and it’s aftermath. In fact I would ask any of my fellow white Americans reading this piece, who haven’t seen those films, to please watch them soon, even before you keep reading this, because if you do so, you will be far more knowledgeable about essential American history than the great majority of your fellow citizens, and you’ll have a better chance of understanding what I’m getting at.

I am a white husband of a black wife. We have two black children. There have been ‘mixed’ babies born on this continent since the first slave ships arrived, so our children are as African American as any of their peers, especially in the eyes of law enforcement.

What I need to say is this: we are living in a systematically racist country: a country that has crafted a method whereby black Americans are locked up at rates that only an intentionally unjust system could possibly maintain. This unjust system has been upheld by Republicans and Democrats, by clergy and academia, by corporations and the courts, from the moment the country was founded, until this very hour. When slavery was abolished, the constitution was amended with a loophole that made the criminalization of blackness as easy as floating down a lazy river. Here is that language(the italics are mine): “Abolition of Slavery (1865) 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.” In other words slavery wasn’t actually abolished by the 13th Amendment. It was renamed. Why would a nation determined to permanently abolish involuntary servitude write the option to re-impose it on a specific group of people into the constitution? The amendment goes against the presumption of innocence. It confers citizenship with one hand, while reserving ‘punishment for crime’, as a means of re-imposing involuntary servitude, with the other. And we’ve known this, or should have known it, for going on two centuries.

Attitudes have changed, in the same way that fashions change, but the criminalization of blackness has only increased since the 13th Amendment was written. There are more black people in prison now than ever in our nation’s history. According to a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee, the odds of my son or one of his black male friends going to prison are one in three, while the odds of one of his white male friends going to prison are one in seventeen. The report concludes by saying that the U.S. is violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that all citizens must be treated equally under the law. The U.S. ratified that treaty in 1992. It was violating it before ratification and it has violated it every second since. We had a black president for the past eight years, yet adding an amendment in order to nullify the loophole language of the 13th Amendment never came up. I understand why. The President can’t rewrite the constitution. That is up to the congress, and amendments require a two-thirds majority. President Obama knew he couldn’t lead a winning effort to amend the constitution but I wish he had brought it up, because if nothing else it would have raised awareness and perhaps shed light on what is actually the law of the land, as opposed to the idealized and altogether false image of rigorous fairness that politicians pay lip service to whenever they want to feel safe.

Please watch ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, and ‘The 13th’. They are important films that only a tiny percentage of our country will see. Meanwhile Fox News and Brietbart, and CNN and MSNBC, all of whom live and die by market share, reach millions and millions of people with their variously angled versions of reality.

Watch the movies, and even if you hate them, talk about them. If you’re white, find a black man and ask him how often he’s been treated like a suspect. It is likely he won’t welcome the conversation, but it is unlikely he won’t have stories. I have hundreds of black relatives. Every single one of us knows someone who is or has been incarcerated, and I have already seen my son in handcuffs, seated on the curb outside of our house, surrounded by heavily armed police officers. Why? Because he ‘Fit a description’. What was the description? Black male. Did he look like the actual suspect? Not in any way, shape or form other than they are both black. He was wearing blue shorts. The suspect was wearing long black sweats. My son is light-skinned and has dreadlocks. The suspect was dark and had a wild ‘fro. My son is under 6 feet. The suspect was well over six feet. My son and the suspect look alike the same way Frederick Douglas looks like Trayvon Martin. Yet the officers, rather than ask anyone in the neighborhood if they knew our son, whom they apprehended across the street from our house, just stood around waiting for the ‘witness’. Did they read my son his rights? No, they did not. Instead, one of them asked him, aggressively and repeatedly, “Why’d you do it?” which is completely illegal.

We live in Ocean Park in Santa Monica, California, which is an increasingly affluent, but still mixed neighborhood. We live across the street from Santa Monica High School, of which my son is a proud alumnus. My wife and I have lived on that corner since before our children were born. All those police officers had to do was ask a few simple questions of our neighbors. But black bodies are suspect, and it was easier to wait for the witness, who soon arrived, took one look and shook his head. “No, that’s not him,” he said, and the cuffs were removed.

 

I still shudder when I imagine how differently things might have gone.

 

I have anecdotal, vicarious, personal and intimate experience with racism. It’s familiar to me on a cellular level. This makes me different from almost all of my fellow white Americans. I have also had strong racist feelings, of both fear and hostility, in my lifetime, because I was born into the white side of a racist society. Racism was a condition of my birth, which makes me the same as almost all of my fellow white Americans.

The Trump administration, and it’s most ardent supporters, have torn open the closet door and liberated the ugliest, most violent kind of American racism so that it might reemerge and be harnessed as a political force in ways we have not seen since the 1960’s. Recently a black friend of mine was called a ‘nigger’ by a white shopper at the Whole Foods on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. My wife and I have lived here since 1983, and until then neither she nor I could remember hearing of such an overt declaration of racist hatred happening so nearby. That was maybe five weeks ago. Since then I’ve heard of numerous similar incidents, all on the West Side of Los Angeles. This is not about old, long-suppressed feelings being reawakened in a tiny minority of social misfits. It’s about white people feeling re-entitled to publicly express racist feelings they’ve been keeping to themselves.

I stopped being White a long time ago. I don’t miss it. But I sometimes have a weird longing for the prism that I used to look at the world through. It was selective, yet egalitarian. It granted me unlimited access, but kept me at a comfortable distance. It made my world vivid, but welcoming, like a ride at Disneyland. I felt intrinsic to everything, but never unsafe.

You know, like a delusional person.

America is a great and terrible country. We must acknowledge this double edged fact, and then do what the three films I’m recommending do, which is to see it for what it is: as a brutal, racist, unrepentant, deeply divided nation, that has shown itself to be, at critical, dangerous and inspired periods, capable of great progress.

 

This right here is one of those times.

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