Freedom supposedly rings in the ears of all Americans these days, yet many new age thinkers, political activists, and even rappers have attributed various modern conditions in this country as an extension of what was formerly known as slavery. In other words, freedom stretches only so far. Some artists liken the hip-hop industry to the chains and shackles that once bound African-Americans, while others focus on corporations and economic servitude. The most significant testament to modern slavery, however, is the impact and proliferation of the U.S. prison system, where the cycle of racism and disadvantage continues on a daily basis, and very few are able to liberate themselves from the binds that tie them.
Photo by miss_millions.
As addressed in the column, “America’s New Slavery: Black Men in Prison” on FinalCall.com, freedom was always limited. “The constitution’s 13th amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery in the United States, but provided an exception—in cases where persons have been ‘duly convicted’ in the United States and territory it controls, slavery or involuntary servitude can be reimposed as a punishment … The majority of prisoners are Black and Latino, though they are minorities in terms of their numbers in the population.”
The demographics, in fact, are staggering. The article points to a study done by the Pew Research Center showing that, among black men aged 18 or older, one in 15 are behind bars. The rate is particularly alarming when compared to white men aged 18 or older, of which one in 106 are behind bars.
Beyond the figures, prison activists criticize both why people are put in prison and what possibilities exist for those men and women thereafter. For one, it’s too easy to get behind bars. According to a piece in The New York Times, the number of inmates in state and federal prisons has doubled in the past 20 years to more than 1.5 million, in part due to the fact that nonviolent offenders remain locked up longer than is necessary to account for their risk factor. Regulations like the Three Strikes Law in California, for instance, can put someone in jail for life for seemingly minor crimes if they have two prior felony offenses.
In the famous case of Ewing v. California, defendant Gary Ewing, a black man, was sentenced to life in prison after stealing three golf clubs due to his previous burglary convictions. Ewing appealed the sentencing, claiming it was cruel and unusual punishment, yet lost.
Along the same lines, many of the country’s most impoverished communities consist of African-American and Hispanic populations, and often these demographics commit nonviolent offenses like robbery and drug dealing that place them in prisons indefinitely. Furthermore, they are subject to conditions like racial profiling, making them easy targets for detention. Once incarcerated, their situations fester, often leaving them in even worse shape when they get out – if they get out.
Writer Rania Khalek discusses the problem on her blog, Black Men in Prison, writing, “Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher rates of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.”
Khalek also observes how prison labor extends the slave master’s whip, stating, “The abolition of slavery dealt a devastating economic blow to the South following the loss of free labor after the Civil War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive prison system was created in the South in order to maintain the racial and economic relationship of slavery, a mechanism responsible for re-enslaving black workers.”
A piece from Cornell University’s Chronicle Online attests to the obstacles these men and women face post-incarceration. The road after can often be worse than before, as the article points out.
“The prison system in this country is essentially the new plantation … It is the new system of slavery that functions to make it impossible for people who are within that system to take a normalized, functional role in society once they leave the prison. Restrictions on housing, obtaining licenses, employment and education are just some of the obstacles facing former prisoners.”
Not to mention the fact that health care in prison is all but nonexistent, thus the system can slyly kill off the weak and keep slavery alive without much scrutiny at all. The Chronicle cites evidence from prison research showing that, among other issues, “end-stage AIDS victims have been deprived of nutritional supplements until they had six teeth or fewer, pregnant women were not seen regularly by an obstetrician, and Tylenol 3 was administered for metastasized breast cancer. When patients did receive care, it was often accompanied by sexual abuse.”
In recent times, with the overcrowding of prisons and budget deficits that result, state governments have been forced to address the crisis at hand, but have avoided examination of underlying ideology. Prisons are merely one prong of the discussion. One ongoing debate amongst the hip-hop community is whether corporations are additionally responsible for similarly oppressing minority communities. Marred by stereotypes, greed, and upper-handed manipulations, rap artists have long wondered how free they truly were. Slavery translated to black minstrelsy, damaging African-American self-confidence, respect, and opportunities — building up only to bury back down.
In this lyrical universe, kids want glorified possessions more than diplomas, and they’ll sell just about anything to get them. The end result can place them in the streets or the jail cell instead of college.
“Out of the frying pan, we jump into a new form of slavery,” 2Pac rapped in “Ghetto Gospel”.
Ay dogg that label is that slave ship/ Owners got them whips and rappers is slaves/ If you really wanna eat you gotta hear the same thing/ With the football, b-ball, or if you slangin that dope/ Ain’t never seen no hope/ Brainwash video shows be foolin my folk,” dead prez raps in “It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop”.
“We ain’t work for free, see they had to employ it/ Built it up together so we equally appointed,” Lupe Fiasco rhymes in “All Black Everything”.
Some see the truth; others take such contentions as merely something to complain about. The numbers speak, however, for themselves. All in all, it begs to differ: who truly is free?