Once Slavery Ended, Why Couldn’t They Just Pull Themselves Up?

Although the Thirteenth amendment technically abolished slavery, it provided an exception that allowed for the continuation of the practice of forced labor as punishment for a crime. In the decades after the Civil War, black incarceration rates grew 10 times faster than that of the general population as a result of programs such as convict leasing, which sought to replace slave labor with equally cheap and disposable convict labor. Although convict leasing was abolished, it helped to lay the foundations for wave after wave of laws and public policy that encouraged the jailing of African-Americans at astronomical rates. As Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Name of Colorblindness, “The criminal-justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.”

The legacy of slavery and racial inequality can still be seen in countless other ways in American society, from well-documented acts of unfounded police brutality to voting restrictions to ongoing inequalities in employment and education. It’s no wonder that the call for reparations for slavery, racial subordination and racial terrorism continues to inspire debate. Beyond the original promise made by General William Tecumseh Sherman just after the Civil War to provide newly freed blacks with “40 acres and a mule”—a promise quickly recanted—nothing has been done to address the massive injustice perpetrated in the name of the “peculiar institution.” In 2016, a study by a United Nations-affiliated group reporting to the U.N.’s high commissioner on human rights made nonbinding recommendations that the history and continuing fallout of slavery justifies a U.S. commitment to reparations.

“Despite substantial changes since the end of the enforcement of Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights,” the committee said in a statement, “ideology ensuring the domination of one group over another continues to negatively impact the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of African Americans today.”

Slavery was not a choice, but opting to ignore its legacy is. It is a choice that will continue to inflame passions as long as we attempt reconciliation with confronting and redressing the awful truth.