Netflix’s “13th” is an educational necessity. It boldly claims and proves that not only is racism still thriving, but so is slavery. It is a documentary that should be compulsory to watch so that we can all see that generation after generation just reincarnates the oppression and violence against African Americans that those who never read their history textbooks claim has ended.
The African American narrative starts with slavery. Even after 1865 and the establishment of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, a pseudo-slavery continues to define African American history. There’s a clause in the 13th amendment stating that no one can be subjected to slavery “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted” (Library of Congress). And our criminal justice system abuses this loophole to its full extent.
It started immediately after the abolition of slavery when the south lost their largest economic asset, slaves. Instead of simply buying anyone of a darker hue, they settled for imprisoning them for minor crimes and exploiting the 13th amendment for legal slave labor.
Jim Crow laws too began soon after the introduction of the 13th amendment, legalizing segregation. In the words of one contributor to the film, it made black people “permanent second-class citizens.” It was more legalized racial degradation, a way around the 13th amendment. It was another way to say “you’re still not equal.”
And when that wasn’t enough, D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” served to rekindle the classic white supremacy American culture, glorifying the KKK and branding African American males as violent, impulsive animals. The film had resounding success, so resounding in fact, that it encouraged the resurgence of the KKK and ingrained into the popular mind a monstrous black male stereotype for generations. This movie was even the source of the idea for the burning cross, now recognized as the hallmark of KKK activity.
In the midst of all of this, since legal abuse was only one way to make racism heard, people were lynched, beaten, shot, raped, mutilated and violated in many more ways, legally and illegally. Whatever abuse wasn't at the time legal was made lawful soon after, protecting the whites from all accountability.
Then came the Civil Rights Movement and activists fighting for the rights of African Americans as people, as fellow humans. The audacity of these black people to assume they were equal to whites and then to glorify imprisonment of peaceful protesters briefly turned the 13th amendment loophole on its head. The white law enforcement and political leaders could not effectively exploit black prisoners if it was looked on as martyrdom. They were fighting a strongly united front, led by influential people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Fred Hampton. Through this activism, Jim Crow laws were abolished in 1964.
It would seem that after finally defeating Jim Crow laws, black people had more freedom than ever in the United States. However, racism still saturated daily life. And as though even that, all of the centuries of accrued resentment and trauma haunting African Americans, were not enough, the government was not through exerting their influence over African Americans.
The government needed a new way to tamp down African American influence, and they needed a way that was effective, but abstract; clear, but not explicit. The desire to oppress blacks and “protect” whites culminated in Nixon’s war on drugs. Proposed by Nixon and initiated by Reagan, the war on drugs was, in reality, a war on inner cities, specifically poor black communities. It was truly quite thinly masked, with harsher sentences for the drug types law enforcement knew were more common among inner city blacks versus rich suburban whites. Nancy Reagan helped put up the façade of protecting America’s children, urging everyone to just say no. Meanwhile, cops poured into black communities, devoting a jarringly disproportionate amount of resources to the capture and imprisonment of black males. This marked the beginning of the mass incarceration movement, signaling explosive growth in the American prison population.
Throughout the following decades, additional legislation and efforts were put towards landing and keeping people in prison, even for petty crimes or for suspicion of a crime. All this atrocity was committed for the sake of “protecting society from high crime rates” i.e. exploiting free labor and preserving white supremacy. Throughout all of this, the government intentionally pitted the world against the black male, creating a culture of racially charged police brutality and private prison growth. All this has essentially led to the re-establishment of legal slavery and institutionalized oppression.
While watching this documentary, the most chilling moment was a montage from the twentieth century depicting violent episodes of white people abusing black, overlaid with quotes from Donald Trump’s campaign rallies.
Even more infuriating, was returning to my room after watching the film, opening my browser to see this:
“On Thursday, President Trump signed three new executive orders addressing crime and immigration. One seeks to increase penalties on those found guilty of assaulting police officers. A second order directs law enforcement agencies to increase intelligence sharing while going after drug cartels. A third order directs Attorney General Sessions to prioritize fighting "illegal immigration" alongside drug trafficking and violent crime.”
Donald Trump is rekindling the war on drugs and working to enhance the rights of police officers while ignoring those of marginalized communities. After watching “13th,” I have learned that the world we’re currently living in is not worlds away from Jim Crow, or even from slavery. It’s removed, yes, but how far really is it? And when, if ever, will we realize what is going on around us and learn from history?
It is imperative that we continue to protest, defying the division between black and white. It's even more essential that we recognize what is going on in our country, accept the disgusting parts of our history, and actually take action against racism.