This holiday season, I finally got to enjoy the free time that I use to kick back and watch troubling documentaries about the state of our civil society, as I like to do. I was most looking forward to watching 13th, the documentary about America’s relentless incarceration of people in color. The movie is explicit in its message, which is lays out in a linear, chronological fashion, starting with slavery. As it moves through the decades, the director points at the ways that this institutional dominance persists through different means, from chain gangs to the war on drugs to the three-strikes policy, and finally to police brutality of black bodies.
Racism is an ugly streak on the track record of humanity, an example of the human race turning in on itself on very frail bases of beliefs. It has always been difficult of me to understand why discrimination and bigotry exists.
First reason: Once a pattern and worldview has started, it can be hard to stop. 13th defines incarceration as an extended pattern from slavery (though doesn’t necessarily explain my black men were targeted for slavery).
Second reason: This is one that we’re told as international relations students: in human society, it there must exist in a given moment a dominating class and a group being dominated. This is often used to explain why often dominating groups attempt to pit minorities against each other. In the 60’s mainstream media began defining Chinese and Japanese Americans as the model minority, by classifying black Americans as the “bad minority.” By doing this, America was able to wave away accusations of racism by using Asian Americans as case studies in “working hard to be successful.” Again, this is touched upon by 13th in the context of the war on drugs, during which Reagan racialized cocaine as a white drug and crack as a black drug, and criminalized them each to extremely different degree. Again, it doesn’t explain why black men are targeted as the minority in the crosshairs.
Third reason: I began to understand this one as the most convincing argument after finishing the documentary. Ultimately, evil begets evil, and the impulse for subjugating races of people is fed by the ever-present evil of … you guessed it! Capitalism. The need for profit, as we have learned (and learned again form the outcome of this presidential election) has always been held in higher regard than the liberties of historically oppressed people.
Companies have reaped huge benefits from this imprisoned labor force, some of whom get paid as little as 12 cents an hour to work for corporations like Victoria’s Secret or Walmart. The same size corporations are part of ALEC, the American Legislative Council, that works with politicians and lawmakers to create templates for laws. This undercover council is to blame for the “three strikes laws,” “truth in sentencing” laws, and mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. Even when mainstream media is pressed to pay more attention to the human rights of these prisoners, the corporate proposal is to allow prisoners to be imprisoned in their own homes, under surveillance of leg braces off of which they could profit from once more. No matter which way you see it, there is money to be made off of putting people in cages. As long as there is a hunt for money, there will always be a manhunt for bodies to fund it. This documentary helped me understand the logic behind it all, though I found there to be no sense at all.