A 2016 documentary directed by Ava DuVernay
Distributed by Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th uncovers an important side of the history of this country that is usually ignored by both the media and the academic community. Most people who are familiar with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution think of it as the law that abolished slavery in this country.
However, there is an exception to this amendment that states: “except as a punishment for crime; whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” So, from a technical point of view, slavery in this country was never fully abolished. While prisoners are supposed to have certain rights, the Thirteenth Amendment clearly argues for a system of slavery in the prisons. The film 13th documents how government officials, including virtually all the recent Presidents, have targeted Black people in the skyrocketing growth of the prison population.
My opinion is that while we need to fully understand the facts presented in the film 13th, this film gives an incomplete examination of the core reasons for this problem. My opinion is that the root cause of discrimination comes from the routine functioning of the capitalist system.
Without understanding the cause of why discrimination continues to exist in this country, it is difficult to think about solutions. Another weakness of the film is that it offers no clear solutions for the horrendous problem of discrimination.
In order to place this film in perspective, I believe we need to look at a bit of history.
The Thirteenth Amendment
In 2012 Steven Spielberg directed his film Lincoln. This film is a portrayal of how President Abraham Lincoln worked to make the abolition of slavery an Amendment to the Constitution. We should keep in mind that this amendment was the culmination of hundreds of years of struggle by abolitionists. We should also keep in mind that the primary issue of the Civil War was the issue of slavery.
Before the Civil War, slave owners wanted the United States to have an agrarian based economy centered on chattel slavery. In fact, before the Civil War about 75 percent of the income of this country came from slave labor camps. Supporters of slavery dominated virtually all branches of the federal government.
Northern capitalists had a completely different idea of how this country should develop. They were developing an industrial based economy that was in sharp conflict with slavery. While many banks gained substantial profits from slavery, northern capitalists became open to the idea of pushing the slave owners out of their positions of power.
Nate Parker’s new film The Birth of a Nation documents one of the most famous slave rebellions in this history of this country. We might consider that this rebellion was one of numerous slave rebellions in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. We might also consider that about 350,000 union soldiers lost their lives in the war to remove slave owners from their positions of power.
President Abraham Lincoln stated openly that the primary reason for his Emancipation Proclamation was to win the Civil War. The union army had lost vast numbers of soldiers because of death, injury, or desertion. There were 179,000 Black soldiers who fought and were eager to fight for the union army. This was about ten percent of the total number of union soldiers. The participation of these soldiers was crucial to the union victory.
After the Civil War reconstruction governments emerged in the former slave states. Because Black people had the right to vote and soldiers from the confederate army lost their right to vote, many former slaves became government leaders. These governments worked aggressively to educate the entire population (both Black and caucasian) that was largely illiterate. The reconstruction governments also instituted many other reforms that were profound changes from the past.
Then, by 1877 the same Republican Party that organized the union army to defeat the slave owners, made a deal that allowed union troops to leave the former confederate states. This deal changed the balance of power in the South. Racist and terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan used their military advantage to take power by force.
The new power structure of the South was based around the Democratic Party that made Jim Crow segregation the law. Black people effectively lost citizenship rights in this country. Thousands were lynched and the federal government did nothing to prosecute the murderers.
The civil rights movement and the rebellions of the 1960’s
In August of 1955 white men brutalized and then lynched Emmitt Till. When people throughout the country saw the disfigured corpse of 14 year-old Emmitt Till, many understood that the time had come to organize to make a change. By December of that year, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus and the Montgomery Bus Boycott erupted.
The Ku Klux Klan along with the Democratic Party were determined to continue to deny Black people citizenship rights in this country. Civil rights volunteers were arrested, brutalized, and murdered. However, the movement refused to back down and the federal government was terrified of the idea of a new Civil War.
For these reasons President Lyndon Johnson, who had a segregationist background from Texas, signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. These laws effectively did away with any legal pretext for Jim Crow segregation. In fact, these laws merely repeated what had been established in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments had been adopted after the Civil War, but with the defeat of radical reconstruction the federal government had no intention of enforcing them.
However, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts did nothing to eliminate the institutionalized discrimination in the northern cities. In fact, Emmitt Till attended a segregated school in Chicago.
Shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights Act rebellions erupted in cities throughout the country. While Jim Crow segregation had been outlawed, institutionalized racial discrimination continued with respect to housing, employment, education, as well as the due process of the law. The primary issue that sparked these rebellions was police brutality.
When I was fourteen years old in 1967, a rebellion erupted in my hometown of Newark, New Jersey. At a time when the United States government was at war against the people of Vietnam, the Governor ordered the National Guard to go to war against the citizens of Newark. Recently I’ve seen photos of tanks that were used in Newark against the people of the city in 1967.
Malcolm X had been assassinated shortly before the eruption of these rebellions. At the time of his assassination, Malcolm was in the process of organizing the Organization of Afro-American Unity. This organization was independent of the Democratic and Republican parties and was focused on the liberation of Black people. Malcolm was also in solidarity with the anti-imperialist struggles that were erupting around the world.
Had Malcolm X lived we can speculate that the rage expressed in the rebellions of the 1960s could have been organized into a movement that demanded real change. As it was, the ruling powers of this country had their own way of dealing with the uprisings in this country.
New strategies of the ruling class to drive down the standard of living
We might think about the fact that there was a time in the history of this country when working people needed to toil twelve to sixteen hours per day for a wage that wasn’t enough to feed a family. These were the conditions that caused the labor movement to launch a strike wave that won significant concessions from employers.
The civil rights movement as well as the rebellions of the 1960s convinced the ruling powers that they needed to change their methods of discrimination. On the one hand, they agreed to support affirmative action programs. These programs allowed many Black people to get jobs as well as university educations they had been excluded from in the past.
On the other hand, the government adopted laws that caused prison population to skyrocket. The film 13th documents how the government instituted this policy, that made Black men a target of the so-called criminal justice system.
Corporations are continually driven to cut their operating costs. This was the reason why corporations viewed the improved standard of living of Black and Caucasian workers to be intolerable. Therefore corporations made massive investments to build factories where workers are paid two dollars or less per day. As these companies invested their money overseas, they closed down many of their manufacturing facilities in this country.
Today, the Taiwan based company Foxconn or Hon Hai produces cell phones and computers for Apple, Samsung, and Dell. The Apple Corporation is one of the most profitable in the world. Yet Apple doesn’t employ workers to manufacture their products. Corporations like Foxconn produce all Apple devices.
The other strategy used by corporations to counter the improved standard of living in this country was to increase the number of immigrants who work here. The labor movement was slow to respond to this change and didn’t make much of an attempt to organize workers who were born in other countries.
Today immigrant workers do some of the most difficult jobs in agriculture, meatpacking, construction, and in the kitchens of restaurants. Immigrants also work at highly technical jobs. Because college education in this country is so expensive, graduates seek out the higher paying jobs.
We also know that the United States government has gone to war against several nations all over the world. Thousands of soldiers lost their lives and hundreds of billions of dollars were allocated because of these wars. As a result, millions of people lost their lives. The idea that these resources could have been used to improve the standard of living in the world is inconceivable to those who support the capitalist system.
So, when we look at the overall response of corporations and the government to the labor, civil rights, and woman’s movements, we see a clear trend. While working people made gains because of decades of struggle, corporations did everything in their power to reverse these gains.
What is the road to liberation?
Anyone who reads the newspapers in this country, or has received a so-called education is familiar with the following argument. They say that all you need to do is to take responsibility for your life and everything will be all right. You need to work hard in school and on the job. Do what you are told and stay out of trouble. Follow these rules and the “American Dream” of prosperity is waiting for you.
The film 13th effectively destroys that myth. It gives the facts showing how Democratic and Republican administrations worked to vastly increase the prison population and target Black people. This was not because of an increase in crime. This was one way the ruling powers have used to drive down the standard of living.
Black people have been some of the most militant defenders of human rights in this country. This is another reason why they have been targeted by the government and sent to prison in disproportionate numbers. In fact, Malcolm X served about ten years in prison. His uncompromising tenacity enabled Malcolm to transform himself to become an international leader.
One of the commentators in the film 13th talked about how the Black Lives Matter movement has no organizational address. The commentator argued that he felt that this is a good thing because of the fact that many Black leaders of the past have been targeted by the government and or assassinated.
Clearly it is true that anyone who challenges the ruling powers in this country becomes a target. Clearly it is true that Black people have historically born the brunt of the repressive powers of this country. However, there is political space to advance a movement to liberate humanity.
The Militant newspaper has been in print for decades and supports the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. Eighteen members of this party served time in prison because of their opposition to U.S. participation in the Second World War. Today certain prison authorities are preventing prison inmates from reading The Militant. Supporters of the paper have engaged in a campaign to force the government to allow inmates to read the paper. This is a clear example of how activists can advance the struggle and be open about their politics.
Their politics and ours
The standard of living has been continuously deteriorating for the past forty years. In 1971 tuition at Rutgers University was $200 for a New Jersey resident. Now that same tuition is about $10,000. So, if a worker had a salary of $10,000 per year in 1971, that worker would need a salary of $500,000 to have the same increase as the tuition increase at Rutgers University.
Understanding this, we can anticipate that the standard of living will continue to deteriorate. As worker’s standard of living deteriorates, prices continue to increase. Eventually there are more commodities on the market than there are people to purchase these commodities.
This is why corporations invest hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising. They are continuously driven to sell every commodity they can. However, these efforts can only lead to an eventual collapse of the economy. When this happens the ruling powers can only demand more ruthless cuts in our living standard. This is their only way of creating an environment they feel will be suitable for investment.
There is another way. There have been many struggles throughout history demanding that working people be treated with the dignity we deserve. There was the slave rebellion of Spartacus against the Roman Empire. There was the revolution in the thirteen colonies that created this country. There was the Civil War that took power away from slave owners. There were also the labor, civil rights, Native American, and woman’s movements. There have been other movements demanding human dignity throughout the world.
When we begin to understand this history, we can see that there is a clear road to the future. Working people clearly have the capacity to end the system of capitalism in the world. The government that promotes corporate profits can be replaced with a workers government that makes human needs it’s only goal.
This kind of government can use technological advancements to make work easier and more rewarding. This kind of government has the potential to eliminate poverty. This kind of government can do away with the source of discrimination against Blacks, women, immigrants, and Native Americans. This kind of government can also work to begin to eliminate poverty throughout the world. This kind of government can work to ensure that the environment will not be destroyed, and continues to serve as a home to all the organisms that live on this planet.
This choice will become clearer as time passes. The ruling powers are in a crisis they are simple unable to resolve. Only working people can organize to place a new kind of political economic system in place that can liberate the human race.