In terms of material that gets me going to the point that I have to write it out to find some peace of mind, the Black in America series may have me spending more time writing than I spent watching the show. The panel discussion on the second night takes center stage right now. The comment made by Conservative Columnist Tara Wall, that there is no racist intent in the sentencing of minority offenders, prompted me to write her a letter. Since her comments were made publicly, I felt it gave me the responsibility to reply publicly as well, so I’m reprinting the letter here. To be consistent, I’m using my usual blue background with red highlights on my opening middle and closing statements.
Dear Ms. Wall:
I wanted to first thank you for serving as a panelist for the Black in America Series. To be chosen as such, where only a small fraction of our nationally known representatives had an opportunity to participate, was obviously an honor to you, and thus an honor for those of us who were represented by you.
Second, I wanted to share something with you. Watching the young district attorney in the expose’ and hearing how conflicted he was in serving a system that is often “flawed”, my heart went out to him. Anyone that works within “the system” or any system that has unresolved issues of fairness must deal with that conflict at sometime. I have been in that position far too often myself. For the sake of sanity and retaining your self-concept, you eventually have to take a side, and to that end, the more information you have to be comfortable with whatever truth you may accept for yourself, the better. To that end, I share this with you
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution:
Section 1. 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.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation
In terms of the fairness of our legal system, and in particular the legal ramifications of the War on Drugs, our national legislature did what was in their legal remedies to continue our growth as a capitalist nation. You were right on one hand with your assertion that the sentencing of drug related crimes was not done intentionally to be racist. The root of it was economics, but the pathway to get there, its secondary motive, was indeed racist.
Interestingly, the initiation of the war on drugs coincided with the divestment from South Africa by US corporations. The companies that divested from South Africa, in various ways, invested in prisons. New prisons were built in areas where there was not significant crime to fill them, funded by many of these corporations. Immediately afterward, free base cocaine was replaced with crack as the drug of choice for those wanting an intense high on a budget. Then mandatory minimum laws were put in place to crack down on people who were selling the less pure version of an old drug, i.e. 10 year sentences for an ounce of crack, two years for an ounce of coke. This would be the equivalent of a credit card company charging 5% interest for an item bought at Sach’s, and 25 % interest for an item bought at Wal-Mart. It’s not inherently racist; it’s punishing the poor for being poor. But when the dominant numbers of Blacks are poor, and when there is no Sach’s in the Black community to shop at even if they wanted to avoid the higher penalty, it is systematically racist.
From slavery, to Jim Crow/Share Cropping, to Apartheid, to the prison industrial complex (I despise that term, but I’ve had to accept it as it is the commonly accepted terminology), to undocumented workers, our country has always had free or reduced cost labor to allow our capitalist system to thrive. Those who drafted the thirteenth amendment understood this, and they also understood that there was never going to be a better system of free labor than slavery. So rather than abolish slavery, they merely changed the tenets of slavery from race-related to crime-related, and left themselves (Congress) the ability to resurrect it at a later date if it were ever needed. And the ending of Apartheid brought about that need. I do need to emphasize one thing: slavery was never abolished, it was set aside. If more people understood that fact, many of the disagreements about the intent of our legislative and law-enforcement systems would indeed be abolished. Anyway, enterprises within the prison walls include, auto parts production, call center operations, computer hardware production, and other would/could/should be unionized jobs. Economically, non-unionized prison labor hurts more working Americans than undocumented worker labor, but again it goes to the root word of capitalist system being not capital, but capitalize; the only way for me to make more is to take advantage of someone else.
The kids at the youth detention home associated with my job create some of the most beautiful hand-crafted furniture you will ever see. It’s a shame they had to go to jail to learn those skills… no… actually, it’s as criminal as the activities that got them locked up… no… it is constitutionally established, and therefore allowable and acceptable. But it’s not fair, it’s not right, and it is racist. And that’s the truth… at least that’s the truth that I have accepted for myself that allows me to sleep at night. Thank you for allowing me to share my truth with you.
Sincerely and with the utmost respect,