13th, A Documentary in Discussion

Ava Duvernay’s 13th documentary explores mass incarceration and the presence of racial criminalization from the end of slavery to the present. The documentary features interviews with several leading scholars, pundits, and activists working on the issue, as well as a host of other commentators, including journalists and politicians. The main argument at hand is that mass incarceration is an extension of slavery. 13th demonstrates that criminalization has been a persistent feature of anti-black racism. Much of the story speaks to the attribution of the term “crime” to the black identity that is reinforced during the Nixon and Reagan eras of the New Right. Crime and black communities became intertwined in a national narrative of fear mongering that enabled Congress to expand the criminal code. As a result, the prison systems saw a greater and greater influx of primarily African Americnas over time — eventually generating an industry of private prisons as a byproduct of racial state violence in a capitalist society. 

13th begins with the conclusion of slavery. Slavery was eradicated, yet an entire region’s economy was left in shambles — something had to be done. The prison system was the solution. While the 13th Amendment asserted the illegalization of slavery, one clause left a loophole: “except as a punishment for crime.” This was part of constitutional language, an available tool to be used in whichever way the South wanted. Prison was the answer. And therefore, the black identity became criminal — an animalistic threat to white society. This branding became a staple in racial attitude, conditioned within the nation. Jim Crow was the social norm. It was a part of the fabric that was American culture as it revolved around day to day performances. While institutions were the vehicles, racial ideologies were the pulse. 

Richard M. Nixon’s 1968 campaign “ran on a platform of ‘law an order’” would be the introduction of the New Right. This mantra is what may be called “dog-whistle politics” (13th) which really referred to the movements of  black liberation, antiwar, and gay rights. The wave of protests and sensational trials during the period rendered persuasion of whites easy to think they needed this “war on drugs.” The carceral state established itself as it hid behind the words of “law and order”  and was in direct response to the rebellious social movements. One quote from the movie reveals a shocking admission from a Nixon official:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (13th)

This was a quote from John Ehrlichman who was a Nixon advisor. He admits the Nixon administration’s “war on drugs” and it’s true implications. The southern strategy entailed a less overt focus on race while grounded itself in an ethos of “color-blindness.” Incarceration is not merely the prison walls that have been built around these Black Americans. Incarceration has become an “integral [part] to U.S. state process that has rendered Black people … unfree” ( Sojoyner 98). 

Focus then shifts on the Reagan era that immediately followed. Reagan was the man who really enforced his declaration of a “war on drugs” — centralizing the drug policy in the executive branch, cutting addiction programs, and enforcing unfair minimums for drug-related penalties. Meanwhile, crack cocaine had come to the forefront — a new cocaine of the 1980s. It’s unfamiliarity immediately induced a fear. Congress established mandatory sentencing penalties that were far harsher on crack than for cocaine powder. It is mentioned that the latter is a more suburban issue while crack is more of an urban issue. The national media had shifted its attention on black communities where “joblessness, low-performing schools, deficient health care facilities, and decrepit housing” existed before drug use became a public issue (White et al. 578). Despite this, crack cocaine was a new topic; not many knew that it did not appear in inner-city neighborhoods until 1985. The confusion and unfair concentration on crack only enabled the explosion of mass incarceration. This pattern would not cease: “tough on crime” attitude was necessary to win the presidential election. Democrat Bill Clinton adopted this identity and put severe punishments on violent criminals along with mandatory minimum sentences. Prison life became harder to escape. 

What came to my surprise was the incentive that came with imprisonment. The fact that “punishment is profit” completely subverts my idea of the prison system. Although the private prison system is not the all-encompassing impetus in the criminal system, it does change the concept of prison as a whole — that it is not just for the purpose of reform. These private institutions have contracts with states, shareholders who require bodies behind bars to maintain their assets. And when minimum sentencing is set in stone with these high bails, people like Khalief Browder — poor individuals subject to racial profiling — are fixed two tough choices of plea bargains with longer sentences or jail time awaiting proof of innocence. 

Mass incarceration has been the product of institutionalized racism. Much of the criminalization is based in identification and labels with “crime” and “criminal.” The idea was not personal construction but rather preconceived notions passed down generation after generation. 13th has made me — and maybe you as well — realize how incarceration has introduced a carceral state that has spread beyond the cage. 


Works Cited

Sojoyner, Damien M. “Incarceration.” Keywords for African American Studies, edited by Erica R. Edwards et al., vol. 8, NYU Press, New York, 2018, pp. 97–102. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvwrm5v9.24. Accessed 29 May 2020.

White, Deborah Gray, et al. Freedom on My Mind: A History of African Americans with Documents, 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2017.

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