While Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of African Americans from chattel slavery in the U.S., slavery was never fully abolished.
According to the 13th amendment, slavery can still be used as punishment: “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.” That exception moved slavery from the plantation to the prison system.
During Reconstruction, Southern states quickly moved to criminalize the presence of African Americans and arrest them for minor offenses to include loitering.
The Vagrancy Act of 1866 “forced into employment, for a term of up to three months, any person who appeared to be unemployed or homeless. If so-called vagrants ran away and were recaptured, they would be forced to work for no compensation while wearing balls and chains.”
Obvious connections have been made to hyper-surveillance and over-policing in African American communities, which then results in higher rates of incarceration. A line can also be drawn to class as “more than 80% of all arrests are for low-level, nonviolent offenses and conduct related to poverty,” according to the Vera Institute for Justice.
“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior,” Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives,” she said. “Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”
She’s right. According to The Sentencing Project, there are currently two million people in the nation’s prisons and jails. The United States leads the world in incarceration and African Americans suffer disproportionately. It is no wonder that Americans view police officers differently.
In a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, 84% of African American adults said that in police interactions, people racialized as Black are generally treated less fairly than those racialized as white and 63% of European Americans, those racialized as white, said the same. The majority in both groups agree that their encounters are not the same and there is a history behind this reality.
From slave patrollers to police officers, the history of incarceration in America is legally tied to slavery. The fourth regulation of state patrollers states: “One patroller shall have power to seize any negro slave who behaves insolently to a patroller, or otherwise unlawfully or suspiciously; and hold such slave in custody until he can bring together a requisite number of Patrollers to act in the business.” They needed a “slave pass” to move about freely and apart from their owner.
“I recollect going one Sunday with my mother to visit my grandmother; and while there, two or three of the patrol came and looked into the cabin, and seeing my mother, demanded her pass. She told them that she had one but had left it in another cabin, from whence she soon brought it, which saved her a whipping, but we were terribly frightened,” Austin Steward recalled in Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, written in 1857.
Sadly, Steward’s account doesn’t sound much different from the stories of those who are murdered and maimed for minor and imagined offenses.
“I feared for my life” is voiced as a common justification by police officers and self-deputized “concerned” citizens. Yet, there is no history of African Americans perpetuating hundreds of years of systematic violence and oppression against those racialized as white.
Enslavers feared insurrection and rebellion. Today, there is “white fear” and the dread of becoming the “minority” — because we all know what that means, don’t we?
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin said. Consequently, we will never be free of slavery until we abolish the prison industrial complex, which profits from incarceration and make no exception for human bondage. Only then can we truly celebrate Juneteenth.