“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.”
–Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
The political documentary “the 13th,” is a well-researched and informed look into the American incarceration system. The film begins by revealing the staggering statistic that one out of four African American men will be incarcerated within their lifetime. This point is emphasized by reviewing the sociopolitical history of slavery in America and tracing the socioeconomic value of slavery’s use of African American lives for capitalist gain. Unfortunately, after the Civil War, the American constituents were told that the economic value of the Confederate states was decimated. Because their number-one economic source – slavery – was no longer a legal system that allowed the Southern Economy to enforce free labor and exploitation of human lives for economic gain. Unless the exploitation of those human lives was under the premise that they were legally bound to a repayment of service. For instance, as it states in the 13th amendment of the Constitution, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” So, begins the cycle that director, DuVernay (2014), bases her entire argument upon exposing the mistreatment and systematic enslavement of African American lives throughout the reconstruction period to the turn of the century. The film explains the economic impact and the magnitude of the criminal justice system in relation to the mistreatment to African American lives as well as how politicians have employed tactics resulting in incarceration, disempowerment of African American communities in contemporary society and violence as a national health crisis. For instance, the criminalization of drug use is an example of a powerful tactic employed by American politicians to influence the population and incite violence against the African American community in order to gain votes and power. The film also explores themes such as the philosophy of prejudice and its effects, the history of enslavement and the chronic neurological imprinting of injustice and violence that accompany the criminalization of drugs in low socio-economic communities.
Foucault and Jean-Paul Sartre on the Civilizing Eye
To understand how African American communities have been impacted by the corruption of political power in contemporary society, it is important to inspect the ideology behind “prejudices” and “justice” and to deconstruct the systems that disenfranchise and exploit minority communities within criminal and social institutions. To understand the power these institutions hold over human perception and tolerance within society, this essay will highlight the works of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Michel Foucault’s idea on the power of human vision. The ideas surrounding Foucault’s work on surveillance and the imprint of political advertising on perception is highlighted in DuVernay’s work by examining the hysteria around the “Black Male Criminal” in the media. For instance, the film highlights the Willie Horton story, an advertisement that catapulted George Bush into the White House in 1988 and resulted in the repealing of the furlough program in Massachusetts for prisoners serving life sentences for first-degree murder. The idea behind Foucault’s critical studies on the regimes of power within political systems is based around the ability of the masses to blindly follow the political perception of “justice” that is embedded with social prejudice, governmental power, and economic opportunity. From the viewpoint of Sartre (1965), an individual’s perception is a function of both how they see themselves but also the value others place on them as well.
For the bigot, this struggle is more easily won by following a different guide. Rather than begin with the fundamental equality of rights for individuals, the bigot uses democratic rights to feel entitled to opinions. These opinions, however, are not rooted in facts or logic. They stem from a passion of hate. Since this passion eludes any reasoned consideration objections or counterexamples, Sartre concludes that the convictions of a bigot amount to a faith of hate. The illogic of this hate betrays the bigot’s true hate: himself. To disguise this hate, the bigot looks at the others as inferior or the cause of his miseries. This “poor man’s snobbery,” says Sartre at least spares the bigot a dose of self-respect. However, that dose, when in the right hands, can be explosive. In any case, that dose is a “vital need” for a man who is.. afraid. Not of the Jews, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world – of everything except the Jews.”
It is the philosophy of the “bigot” that is used against minority groups by politicians and political parties to win elections. Some individuals believe that the justice system is blind to race and that we should expect justice to be a system that harmonizes and unifies racial differences. However, DuVernay’s work demonstrates this is not the case. The Willie Horton case proves that this system is actually influenced by a distortion of power. For instance, Sartre proclaims that this distortion of power is a direct representation of a man who inflates himself.
For many, the despair of this personal crisis prevents a rational and ethical commitment. Instead, it leads to a passioned and contrived conviction: Someone else to blame. “Not just anyone,” this despair says to itself, “An easy target is needed so I can blame them just by looking at them. This look marks the birth of race relations. (Hooke, 95)
The more powerful the passion or the more powerful a look into a certain debacle the more incitement evokes the passions of hate. For instance, Willie Horton raped a white woman and whether or not the equivocal white male was able to decipher a man’s passions versus the self-hating act of looking at pornography or exhorting women of their own. Race relations was exemplified in the Willie Horton Ad Campaign, and a power struggle was declared against the black community. For the men bound by their inability to discern moral passions of hate, it would be inconsequential to look at the lived experience of a black man or the historical distribution of power within the black community. Thus, a sheep-goat is created for social incitement, media entrapment, and political advantage. Understanding the construction of racial tension in political advertising and the philosophical underpinnings of prejudice within human perception helps serve the understanding behind the larger consequences of political extortion and social disenfranchisement throughout the rest of the argument in this paper.
The History of Enslavement and African American Incarceration in Contemporary American Society
Understanding the systematic enslavement of African Americans was a point that DuVernay made in her documentary. She paints a vivid history of the deconstruction of slavery during the reconstruction era after the civil war. The heartbreaking truth comes as a surprise, while as an audience member, you discover that the South continued the use of free labor in the form of mass criminalization of African American men.
For instance, at the beginning of 1989,
for the first time in national history, African Americans (who comprise 6% of the country’s population) made up a majority of men walking in through prison gates, marking an epochal transformation in the recruitment of inmates. In four short decades, the ethnic composition of the U.S. carceral stock reversed, turning over 70% white at the mid-century point to nearly 70% black and Latino today, although the ethnic distribution of did not change fundamentally during that period. (Wacquant, 2004)
The result of the systematic enslavement of African America populations has led to the drastic rise of capitalistic corruption in the incarceration industry. The corruption that occurs at every level of the criminal justice chain is something that social workers, criminologists and psychologists alike try to understand when dealing with vulnerable populations. The corruption in our criminal justice system is one that is fueled by the philosophy of the bigot and exercise of capitalistic power. A corrupt prison system is one that has a price to pay for everything and hinders inmates ability to reform, get treatment and seek rehabilitation after their sentence is served. Not only that, but the corruption found within these institutions can hinder an individual’s access to court hearings and appeal procedures. Corrupt practices within the prison system include forced labor, where prisoners are required to work for free under dangerous conditions packaging and shipping the products of large corporations. The abolition of this system is not based solely within the system itself, the corruption that is embedded within the capitalistic nature of mass incarceration is fermented and secured by the philosophy of the bigot. Without police brutality and the bigoted electorate, decades of systematic oppression and violence against the African American community would have not been tolerated since the end of the civil war era. Violence against African American people has led to increased internal violence within internal social-group dynamics, poverty, historical and neurologic consequences regarding the susceptibility of mental illness in the African community. DuVernay highlights the tactics of power that create the saliency of these consequences through the investigation into the wielding political power and controversy known as the “war on drugs.” The war on drugs was established by President Nixon in 1971, when he proclaimed it to be “America’s public enemy number one.” (Sharp, 1994) Nearly a decade later after trade relations had stunted and mass appeal had been drawn to the criminalization of drugs, Ronald Reagan’s presidency was formatted around the platform for a “zero tolerance” policy for all drug users that incorporated life-sentences. In Reagan’s “zero policy” program, drug users were prosecuted for possession and accordingly penalized. Block grants and rehabilitation budgets were not allocated and proved to be insufficient for the overwhelming amount of drug use at this time. With the increased position of penalty for drug usage in the United States, the black community suffered drastically with rates rising exponentially in incarceration. Along with Reagan’s zero-policy system, there was an emergence of dark money that was a governmental operation that infused African American communities with crack cocaine in exchange for weapons. The event of the contras has been denoted as one of the most bizarre alliances in modern history, with the attempt of the Reagan administration to influence and destroy the revolutionist socialist gang-violence known as the Uzi-tong “gangsters.” Reagan’s denial of this political corruption, without discourse or programs, that helped re-stabilize the communities affected by the insidious war tactic was a complete deception speared by his political campaigning and policies regarding crime. The result of these horrible handlings led to a community that was affected by increased violence, drug dependency and life-sentences regarding drug possession. What Reagan reported to the American people at that time was a folly or a hoax to what was really happening in underserved communities. Drawing back to the thoughts of Sartre, it appears that a major theme in the political policy of men running for office has been based upon the exploitation of mass hysteria concerning crime, drug usage and the indoctrination of the African American community for political gain. Using the example of the Willie Horton case again, it can be seen that the scapegoat for the American system, illustrated by the bigot’s philosophy, was the African American community. Presidential elects including Clinton, Reagan and Nixon produced mass propaganda around the violence in America during this time period and targeted young African American children as the cause of the violence. It can only be theorized that they were playing into Sartre’s and Foucault’s depiction of the “blindly” just. The “blindness” referencing the corruption, lies, and deceit these governments used to persuade and manipulate American voters. Without proper reform and a national effort to support the devastation in these communities, the consequences have led to continued drug usage, racial prejudice reigning in current American politics, the continued corruption of the justice system and a national health crisis of violence for the African American community.
Neurological Imprinting of Violence Consequences of a National Health Epidemic
The violence epidemic in the African American Community is something that scholars and now medical doctors have started to investigate and draw attention to. In a report published by the “Journal of the National Medical Association,” the number one killer of black males ages 10-35 is homicide, indicating a higher rate of violence than any other group (2018). The paper put out by the National Medical Association was a not intended to be representative of traditional literature; however, to reinforce the need to treat violence as a public health issue, emphasize the effect of particular forms of violence in the African American community and to advocate for a comprehensive policy reforms that can lead to the eradication of this epidemic. ( Frazer, Mitchell, Nesbitt, Williams, e.t 2018) According to the report, the cost of violence in these communities not only contributes to devastating mental health issues but increases the national deficit for health care coverage. “Psychological trauma from exposure to violence, defined as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), increases a person’s risk of adopting violent behavior.” ( Frazer, Mitchell, Nesbitt, Williams, e.t 2018) The violence impacted by the corruption of American politics, prejudice, brute police force and the mass incarceration of African American lives has created a deterioration of not only individual systems but an erosion of the health of the community as well. “The place where a person lives, eats, sleeps and breathes, can foster and perpetuate individual violent behavior. “ ( Frazer, Mitchell, Nesbitt, Williams, e.t 2018) The confounding risks of the violence distributed into these communities by means of gang violence, intimate partner violence, drug addiction and increased neurological susceptibility to phylogenetic biological disorders has created high-risk environments for these individuals lives. The impact of the social and political history behind the oppression of the African American community has led to a break down in government systems, education systems and treatment opportunities for these communities. Without education fostering the history behind African Americans relationship with violence, drug dependency, social environments and neurological susceptibility to chronic illness treatment and revitalization of this community will be hard-pressed for growth. Understanding the fatal consequences of the philosophy of the bigot, the history of mass criminalization and more will help shed light on the national health crisis that is debilitating communities chances for success.
DuVernay, A. (Director). (n.d.). 13th [Video file]. Retrieved 2018, from http://www.avaduvernay.com/13th/
Frazer, E., Mitchell, R. A., Nesbitt, L. S., Williams, M., Mitchell, E. P., Williams, R. A., & Browne, D. (2018). The Violence Epidemic in the African American Community: A Call by the National Medical Association for Comprehensive Reform. Journal of the National Medical Association, 110(1), 4-15. doi:10.1016/j.jnma.2017.08.009
Hooke, A. E. (1992). Blind Justice Versus the Civilizing Eye: Sartre and Foucault on the Paradox of Race, Crime and Justice. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 8(2), 89-99. doi:10.1177/104398629200800203
Sharp, Elaine B. 1994. The Dilemma of Drug Policy in the United States. New York,
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