Cultural Response for “13th”

While choosing to be racist is a personal choice, so much of our society is structured to encourage racism that simply choosing not to be racist will not be enough to end the cycle.  In this essay I will examine the ways in which the structures that perpetuate racism could be changed, as well as explore the futility of public figures who have tried to “apologize” for instituting a system that devastated black communities and deepened the wounds of racism in America.

The big question is, “What can we do to end the cycle of racism?”. To say there is an easy or obvious answer to this question would be to ignore the 150 years of racial history since the end of the Civil War. And while racism is a way of thinking a person chooses to adhere to, other factors are at play, specifically economic ones which perpetuate this cycle. Being that we live in a capitalist society the very foundation of our society is based on business and money: the more money a business can make while at the same time minimizing the costs associated with running the business the more the stockholders and corporate leaders will benefit. As shown in “13th”, business interests then align with political leaders (through such organizations as the American Legislative Exchange Council) to enact laws which judge black and Latino communities as criminals in an effort to circumnavigate the 13th Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting slavery in hopes of having access to plentiful and cheap labor.

One possible solution could be disincentivizing corporations through either prohibiting lobbying via excessive campaign contributions, or at least outlawing certain businesses, such as private prisons to lobby for laws which provide the “criminals” for them to make money off of as cheap labor. And while this would not do much to immediately change the mindset of people who are racist, it would go some distance in removing one of the excuses racist’s trot out when defending their racism: that all black people are criminals who deserve to be locked up.

Next, let’s assume we can solve the structures that perpetuate racism. What then? What do we tell the communities and individuals who have been devastated by centuries of exploitation? In the film “13th”, politicians express regret for worsening the cycle, yet how can an apology genuinely be enough?  Yes these politicians are responsible for legalizing slavery in America, but these apologies from white men feel hollow because they are still in a position of power. The white man is behaving as if he is benevolent and can just handwave away the racism of people in power who look down on those with no power. An apology does not change the power structure in America.

As seen in another documentary, “Scarface 4 Life Rykers Island”, countless black men leave prison violated and fundamentally changed to such a degree that one former inmate says prison was just “a gladiator school”. How can so many people who have been conditioned towards violence and mistrust ever be repaid and be accepted back into society? Compared with solving the causes of racism, this issue may be even more difficult to overcome and there may be no act strong enough to make up for the injustice done to literally millions of human beings. Even putting aside the legality of giving back the billions of dollars made off of legalized slavery in the prison system, what good would this money do for people who have been conditioned to behave as selfishly as the people who enslaved them?

The short answer is that there is very little that can realistically be done, at least not immediately. However, changing laws and disincentivizing business interests can go a long way to changing the structures that perpetuate racism.

James Baldwin said in his famous Cambridge University debate with the conservative William F. Buckley that racist people (white people) have been raised to believe “that no matter how terrible their lives may be, and their lives have been quite terrible … at least they are not black.” Perhaps then the only solution is allowing black human beings the dignity of actually being a human beings, that instead of treating black people as animals, or gladiators, or as slave labor, by removing not just the literal shackles of oppression but the metaphorical shackles too, can we free people from debasement. When we live in a society that allows those in charge – politicians, business executives – to manipulate the laws to oppress an entire race of people for their own greed and gain, can we be surprised those of us who are not part of the oppressed population would turn our eyes away and say “at least it’s not happening to me”? Leveling the playing field could go a long way to at least removing the excuses racist people have for their racism and force them to come to terms with how they view their fellow citizens.

 

Works Cited

13th. Directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix, 7 Oct. 2016.

Reed, Troy. “Scarface 4 Life Rykers Island.” YouTube, 18 Nov. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1qDqUK4FxDw

“James Baldwin Debates William F. Buckley (1965).” YouTube, 27 Oct. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFeoS41xe7w