I continue to read, reflect, and shine a spotlight on the essays in the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Author of Just Mercy (and to my mind, a saint walking amongst us) Bryan Stevenson wrote an article titled, ”Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system.”
I have read Just Mercy twice now because it was the summer reading assignment for my children, an important and wrenching report on his activism to combat the cruelty and discrimination and injustice embedded in our criminal justice system, particularly as it relates to capital punishment. I highly recommend reading this book. I understand there may be a movie coming out, which is an unsettling thought because movies sometimes destroy the nuance and sensationalize disturbing content, but I will hope for the best because these are issues that demand reform.
Again I will try to avoid summarizing, but there were many points I wanted to highlight. One of them is that in a prison called Angola prisoners are forced to pick crops, including cotton, and receive harsh punishments if they don’t do so, or don’t do a good job of it. Stevenson then reviews the history of brutal punishments of enslaved people, and clarifies what I found an important point:
The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes. After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.” (Stevenson)
Sigh. I am going to let myself quote more because it all seems so important, but in fairness, I think every word in this 1619 Project is important… still, here you go:
Anything that challenged the racial hierarchy could be seen as a crime, punished either by the law or by the lynchings that stretched from Mississippi to Minnesota. (Stevenson)
So not only does the brutality of how African Americans are treated by the judicial system have its roots in slavery (not to mention the disturbing continuation of enslavement in the work forced upon inmates), but the criminal justice system worked (works) in tandem with white supremacists to deny legal and human rights of African Americans.
Here is another important line (okay, they are all important):
It’s not just that this history fostered a view of black people as presumptively criminal. It also cultivated a tolerance for employing any level of brutality in response. (Stevenson)
I was about to add something here but Stevenson words it so well, so here it is:
The smog created by our history of racial injustice is suffocating and toxic.
I like that line because I was thinking about the toxic legacy of the mindset that made the system of slavery in America possible. It is a mindset that continues to damage our nation, and one we all need to actively dismantle—both the thinking, such as the ability to shrug off gross injustices, and the ongoing acts of injustice.
Phew, you have to read this article. I can’t quote it all here, you know.