by Christy Yao
Editor's note: citations for the statistics referenced in this article can be found in the documentary 13th.
13th is a brilliant film that looks at the exploitation of Black Americans from the time of chattel slavery through today. People from all races and across the political spectrum are interviewed, and the film presents an appropriately critical view of America’s racist past. The film is aptly named after the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Well, it abolished one form of slavery in the United States. In what sounds like some dystopian fiction, there is a caveat in the 13th Amendment which allows those who have been convicted of crimes to essentially be enslaved, locked up in degrading environments, and forced to work without pay.
13th starts out with an explanation of the history so lacking in many classrooms — slavery was not just a major human rights violation, but an economic system that was foundational to the South. Suddenly, after the Emancipation Proclamation, this economic system that had been built upon dehumanization was upended. In response to this, police in the South began to arrest Black people for minor crimes; by taking advantage of the 13th Amendment’s loophole, they were able to force them to work essentially as slaves. After that came Jim Crow laws, which were replaced with the War on Drugs and tough-on-crime legislation in the latter half of the 20th century.
13th is the perfect antidote to a nation addicted to negative images of Black people, particularly Black men. This obsession with the crime-frenzied Black man can be traced back to The Birth of a Nation, a major motion picture that spawned the rebirth of the KKK. In this dehumanizing film, a man in black face is seen trying to sexually assault a white woman. The woman throws herself off a cliff in a desperate attempt to get away. Thus the stereotype of the Black male sexual predator was born. This is especially ironic, as later pointed out in 13th, because interracial rape historically occurred more often between white slave owners and enslaved people than it did between Black men and white women.
Moving on to modern-day forms of racism, the film notes that much of the problem with the War on Drugs stemmed from when the U.S. decided that drug abuse was a criminal problem instead of a medical one. The more systemic problem, however, was that the War on Drugs disproportionately impacted minority communities. This was intentional according to John Ehrlichman, a member of the Nixon administration, who claimed that the War on Drugs purposely targeted Black and anti-war activists because they “couldn’t make being anti-war or being Black illegal.”
The Reagan administration turned what had been a metaphorical War on Drugs into a literal one. The following election season, Michael Dukakis was leading George Bush, Sr., by double digits until Bush started using an ad featuring an incarcerated Black man, claiming that Dukakis wanted to be soft on criminals like him. The strategy worked, and Bush won the presidency.
The film also highlights the role that the FBI had in taking down Black leaders. J Edgar Hoover called the Black Panthers “the biggest threat to the U.S.” The FBI was concerned about Martin Luther King, Jr., as well. Fred Hampton was a leader in the Black Panther Party who was killed by the government. He said, “You can jail revolutionaries, but you can’t jail the revolution.” Unfortunately, his fate was worse than being jailed, as he was killed in his own bed next to this pregnant wife.
13th then explains how these hurtful policies have evolved to affect people of color today. The film particularly points out the strange grandchild of slavery that private prisons and the American Bond Coalition have become. Private prisons were enabled through the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a chilling mixture of corporate lobbyists and state legislators. They and their vendors make money off of incarceration. The government assures private prisons that they will be kept full, and they will keep making money. All this isn’t even to mention the forced labor that goes on inside these prisons. The industry has expanded to immigration detention centers, where entire families are kept in deplorable conditions, but the large corporations who run the centers get a healthy paycheck.
13th makes a point of noting that once someone is arrested, it is very hard to break free from the prison industrial complex. 97% of those who are arrested take plea deals out of desperation and never see a trial. In addition, even after one serves time in prison, their punishment is not over. With a criminal record, it is hard or nearly impossible to get a job, apply for student loans, rent from a private landlord, and vote.
The film ends with scholars asking the question of what the next iteration of racist oppression in America will be. It is suggested that the American Bail Coalition, in collusion with ALEC, might have the answer. It is currently in vogue to oppose the expansion of prisons or mass incarceration. Knowing this, the American Bail Coalition is planning to make a profit off of ankle monitors and in-home surveillance. This 1984-esque scenario is warned to be the next wave of human rights violations for minorities in the United States, masked as progress.
Viewers of 13th are left with harrowing statistics and advice on how to move forward. Although 1 in 17 white men will be in prison at some point throughout their lives, that statistic is 1 in 3 for Black men. There are more people currently under some kind of penal surveillance today than there were enslaved people in the 1850s.
13th is one of the few places I have ever seen the word “rehumanize” used outside of our organization. In the last few minutes of the movie, there is a call to action: “Rehumanizing us...all of us.” We need to change the way our country looks at human dignity and look to our marginalized brothers and sisters to lead the way in creating a country where all are truly free. Corporate interests and crooked politicians, especially those who do not understand the struggle of Black America, cannot lead us into righteousness. We need to make room and have respect for Black leaders. We have an opportunity in our country to right one of the greatest wrongs in the history of humanity — the lingering effects, and re-iterations of, the treatment of human beings as property. The question is: will we?