The Evolution of Oppression: America's Penal System in the Shadow of Historical Slavery
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The Evolution of Oppression: America’s Penal System in the Shadow of Historical Slavery

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The Evolution of Oppression: America’s Penal System in the Shadow of Historical Slavery

Deborah Plant is an independent scholar and writer. She is also a literary critic specializing in the life and works of Zora Neale Hurston.

Below, Deborah shares five key insights from her new book, Of Greed and Glory: In Pursuit of Freedom for All. Listen to the audio version—read by Deborah herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

Of Greed and Glory Deborah Plant Next Big Idea Club

1. Slavery is less an institution than it is a mindset and worldview.

Of Greed and Glory focuses on slavery (both in the historical sense and contemporary forms of slavery), but ultimately it is a meditation on freedom. To talk about slavery and the injustice of it is really to talk about freedom and personal sovereignty because slavery is unnatural to the human spirit. This makes slavery an impossible idea.

What I have come to understand is that slavery is not so much an institution as it is a mindset and worldview that is filled with constructs of self-proclaimed, so-called “slave masters” and ideations of so-called “slaves,” and inferior or servile others. The consequences of that mindset and worldview were that slavery has been reproduced in various forms, in every sector of modern society. In our contemporary world, mass incarceration is just one form of slavery.

2. The criminal exception loophole to slavery.

We call America the land of the free, but America has the highest rate of incarceration in the entire world. Though our nation is a founding member of the United Nations, America ignores the UN declaration that slavery in all its forms shall be prohibited. This declaration recognizes that all human beings are born free and are equal in dignity and rights, and that these rights are universal. Our nation does not align with these universal principles.

The 13th Amendment of our U.S. Constitution continues to sanction slavery. The amendment states that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States and its territories. However, in that same statement is the exception that slavery can be used as a punishment for crime. This criminal exception loophole allowed for the expansion of convict-leasing and prison systems, effectively infrastructure for the re-enslavement of newly freed African Americans in postbellum America. This loophole facilitated the growth of the prison-industrial complex and mass incarceration, which we witness in present-day America.

“America ignores the UN declaration that slavery in all its forms shall be prohibited.”

In the 1970s, America’s prison population was around 350,000. Today, we have over 2.5 million American citizens locked up in our jails and prisons. Of that 2.5 million, over 200,000 have been sentenced to life in prison. My brother, Bobby Plant, is one of those American citizens who has been caged for life.

3. You got a right to the tree of life.

Back in 2000, my brother was sentenced to life at hard labor in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. He was sentenced without the possibility of parole. That means that no matter what kind of rehabilitation he may experience, no matter what redemptive qualities he may have cultivated, he has been condemned to live and die imprisoned on a former slave plantation in Angola, Louisiana. Ultimately, this means that my brother has been reduced to the status of a slave. It means that politicians and prison officials will continue treating my brother not as a human being, not as a citizen, not as a person, but as property belonging to the state of Louisiana.

In one of his letters, my brother wrote:

I think a lot about what I could be doing if I was at home. All my days are being wasted, and I feel like I could be doing something with my life. I’m smart and I learn fast, but I have nothing to do here…what is my purpose of living? I’m not helping anyone or doing anyone any good. I feel like my life should have meaning.

We all have a right to hope and to the possibility of a future. Thus, perpetual slavery in America is unacceptable, barbaric, and has no place in a just society.

4. Injustice anywhere never ceases to threaten justice everywhere.

If we are to eradicate the practices and politics of slavery from American soil, it is not enough to only recognize the insidious forms enslavement takes as it relates to African Americans. We must also become knowledgeable of the essence of slavery, which is to say that we must become aware of the insidious, and mostly unconscious, master-slave mentality. This mentality manifests as the dehumanizing objectification of human beings as property that can be dominated, subjugated, exploited, and disposed of with indifference.

The master-slave dynamic was not isolated to Southern plantations, and it did not die on Civil War battlefields. This dynamic thrives at the core of the interlocking systems of racialized injustice, monopoly capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and elitism. The master-slave dynamic is deeply rooted in an ideology of greed and glory and the voracious desire for excess and tyrannical power.

5. We have entered the evolutionary phase of the American Revolution.

Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed social justice and public interest attorney, pointed out that slavery did not end with the 13th amendment but that slavery evolved. It changed form. Well, the American Revolution did not end with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The revolution has continued to this day, and we are its living promise. It is our responsibility to take this revolution to its next phase.

Many of us may be familiar with the story of Elizabeth Willing Powel, the prominent Philadelphia socialite and civic leader, who, in the aftermath of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, asked Benjamin Franklin, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

“The evolutionary phase of the revolution requires that we the people embody the ideals that are fundamental to retaining our freedoms and liberty.”

It is not enough to espouse the watchwords of democracy—if we are to keep it. A democratic republic, a government of, by, and for the people, was fashioned for us. To keep it, we the people must become conscious of how our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness are being undermined.

If we are to keep this precious republic, we must evolve our consciousness to reflect the ideals inherent in our American Revolution. We must live the attributes of Equality, Liberty, and Justice for All in our daily lives. The evolutionary phase of the revolution requires that we the people embody the ideals that are fundamental to retaining our freedoms and liberty.

It requires us to become consciously aware human beings and citizens who are open to authentic, respectful, and critical dialogue with one another. It requires thinking about the abolition amendments that have been debated at federal and state levels. And it requires us to engage in random and systematic evolutionary acts of justice and liberty. We have a sovereign legacy to keep. For all of us who believe in freedom, this is our destiny.

To listen to the audio version read by author Deborah Plant, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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