Slavery By Any Other Name….
Perryetta E. Fortson-Lacy*
There is a cliché that says, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” For America, this cliché accurately describes an embarrassing history that has made its way into modern times. From the arrival of the first African slave in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, it was obvious that human rights were not inherent to being human but subject to negotiation by the powerful.
African men, women and children were targeted for slavery. Hundreds were brought to the American colonies on a journey across the Atlantic called the Middle Passage. Slaves were branded like cattle and packed onto slave ships, by captains known as “loose” or “tight” packers, based on the amount of slaves they could squeeze onboard. The male slaves were shipped chained, while the women and children were sometimes allowed to move freely within a certain area. The voyage to North America, from Africa, according to Greg Lembrich’s essay “The Middle Passage, Slaves at Sea,” could take up to five weeks, during which time many of the slaves died from disease or suffocation.
Differences made the difference. People of color were misunderstood and feared because of skin tone, culture and behavior. Their dark skin was believed to be inferior to white skin. Their African culture was considered to be heretical. Their naturally resistant behavior to enslavement was considered incorrigible. Although slaves were important to the colonial economy, their Caucasian counterparts considered them to be savages in need of spiritual conversion and physical subjugation. Despite their fear of the slaves, however, colonists continued to hold them captive. Slaves were good for the colonial economy. Plantation owners grew crops that needed harvesting. Slave labor was cheap and profitable. Enslavement guaranteed cheap labor and profits.
The powerful passed laws that perpetuated the oppression of the powerless. Caucasians were “the powerful.” They owned land and slaves. They voted and held offices. They enacted laws that protected the economical and social interests of the colonists. The slaves, conversely, were powerless: not because they were inferior but because colonists determined them to be inferior. African slaves were classified as chattel or property. They were not afforded the inalienable rights of which the Founding Fathers wrote. The powerful voted for measures that ensured slaves would remain powerless and in captivity. Denial of rights, in conjunction with whips, chains, torture and even death, served to constantly remind slaves of their powerlessness. Enslavement guaranteed colonial social control and power.
Slavery was a colonial institution that was so deeply interwoven into the societal fabric that it took the threat of civil war to abolish it. Ironically, when slavery was finally outlawed in 1863, it was not criminalized because it was inhumane but as an effort to save the Union, according to Abraham Lincoln.
Truth be told, America still traffics in human cargo. The word “slavery” has been stripped from the vocabularies of the socially and politically correct. It is now called incarceration. The slave ships have been renamed jails. Prisons have replaced plantations. Africans have become African Americans. Despite these changes, people of color remain branded as slaves to a criminal justice system that is overseen by powerful Caucasian men. Policies such as “the war on drugs” and “tough on crime” serve to empower the already powerful to ensure minority disenfranchisement. Politicians still garner support by appealing to the masses. By playing on the fears of the public, politicians and lawmakers implement ineffective and prejudicial policies that provide a false sense of security for the majority and guarantee imprisonment for the minority.
Jails, instead of colonial slave ships, are the vessels that hold people of color captive. American jails, like the slave ships they’ve replaced, are notoriously overcrowded. One website, www.justiceconcepts.com, calls the jail overcrowding situation “jail bloating.” Plantations have been replaced with prisons, where captives work for little or no wages, sometimes chained together to form a chain gang, which is still practiced in states like Arizona.
Gone are the days of the traditional abduction, packing, branding and shipping of African slaves in America. The general populace would not tolerate such abhorrent violation of human rights. Contemporary times dictate enlightenment. We are a more socially and politically correct America. Now, we determine specific behaviors of impoverished people of color to be criminal. African Americans are then targeted, evidenced by the concentration of law enforcement officers in the inner-city areas in which many African Americans live. The targets are often captured (subjugated) with the use of pepper spray, Taser guns, canine units, choke holds, night sticks, tear gas and bullets. After capture, the targets are manacled, booked into jail, packed into holding cells and branded “criminal.”. They are then assessed and placed on the legal auction block (court), where they are tried, convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, by men of power, typically Caucasian. “Tough on Crime” policies ensure lengthy prison sentences, although the resulting “mass imprisonment” particularly impacts “communities of color”, according to Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, in their book Invisible Punishment. More and more, African American captives are transported to prison, where they will serve their terms of imprisonment until Caucasian people of power determine that it is no longer economically viable to keep them in custody. Slavery by any other name….
* Perryetta E. Fortson-Lacy is a graduate student at UNLV.