13th Documentary: Facing Inequalities and Institutional Racism

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Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s documentary, “13th”, explores racial history, institutional racism, oppression, social constructs, and political ideology, within the United States justice system. DuVernay accuses the government of targeting and criminalizing marginalized communities long beyond the enactment of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution. The thirteenth amendment, the namesake of the film, makes it unconstitutional to enslave citizens unless they are criminally convicted, a policy loophole, ultimately leading to systemic criminalization of blacks. DuVernay argues minorities face routine criminalization for protesting their mistreatment and are most often poorest and least able to pay bail when struggling due to sanctions of the state. The “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” are euphemisms for “race” and the countries elite, mostly white, guardians of social-historical structures perpetuate this nuanced form of oppression. Mass incarceration within the U.S. justice system enforces social controls and perpetuates many years of systematic racism and violence against its most vulnerable citizens in violation of civil rights and liberties under a guise of the protection of safety and security of the public.

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Although white Americans are responsible for a majority of crime, the study of race and crime is primarily concerned with criminality of blacks and other minorities (Okada, Maguire, & Sardina, 2018, p. 110). Attributed to overrepresentation of minorities, media helps to shape public opinion. Regular portrayals and depiction of blacks committing a crime of violence or facing arrest are in our newscasts and popular culture movies. Whites are often in the media when they are victims of blacks, while the media ignores black victims. Media helps to reinforce social norms created and enforced by the state, systems of social inequality designed to keep blacks, irrefutably an oppressed class, steeped in poverty and unable to advance in society. There are indisputable implicit biases and discrimination inside the justice organization, “Stop and Frisk” policies give police a reason to harass minorities and search for reasons to arrest them. Police target black minority neighborhoods to make arrests for drug offenses and harsh drug laws affect minorities disproportionally compared to sanctions against white drug offenders (Issac and Lum, 2016). Crime statistics easily highlight disparities between white criminals and black criminals. In 2017, there were 1,549 black prisoners for every 100,000 black adults, imprisoned nearly six times more than whites, and nearly double the rate for Hispanics (Gramlich, 2019). Longstanding social structural factors and racism are at play within crime and punishment; minorities have suffered effects of public policy for hundreds of years. The “War on Drugs” targets poor, inner-city, black neighborhoods. Communities with high poverty conditions have a greater degree of high school dropouts, unemployment, and negative environmental influences. Communities of color often face increased family issues or instability within their families; they suffer greater rates of death and disability. Additionally, they have public services, schools, medical clinics, and grocery stores, which are lacking to a great degree compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods. Within these disadvantaged communities, people become a higher risk to commit crimes, when crime becomes a reaction to their difficulties. Essentially minorities face unemployment, homelessness, lack of educational opportunities, in addition to having a lack of power over their lives and communities, becoming a perfect storm of a never-ending cycle of crime, punishment, and structural violence within minority neighborhoods.

There are different levels of structural inequality, and those facing inequalities have less control over their own fate. Truth in Sentencing and Mandatory Minimums leave judges without the opportunity to use judicial discretion on a case-by-case basis. Without a stance on inequality, there is no hope for a change in crime statistics. Systemic overrepresentation of minorities is a deeply rooted structural phenomenon, and this has nothing to do with biological factors. Legislative consequences of criminal conviction jeopardize civil rights (i.e., the ability to vote to change laws unfairly targeted at them). A conviction has negative consequences to seeking public assistance (i.e., federal education grants, welfare, food stamps, public housing, and certain types of jobs restricting work to non-felons or requires them to have a driver’s license). SSI recipients may lose benefits if they violate certain parole conditions (Okada, Maguire, & Sardina, 2018).

Instead of a “War on Crime” with mass imprisonment of minority populace, a better approach would have been to use resources to provide employment opportunities, better public services, and an infrastructure to help bring minorities out of a cycle of crime, punishment, and racial injustice. Instead, blacks fall victim to the state, which has its own interests or the interests of its corporations, and they are unable to challenge these systems of power. Jim Crow laws and redlining neighborhoods are examples of systems of power by well-funded components of the state, which instituted policies continuing to affect black communities to this day. Police, surveillance, prisons, and courts serve to uphold long-standing administrative protocol and structural violence against blacks. Economically entrenched private firms lobbying in Washington, who own many aspects of prison industry, have helped to create a modern-day corporate industry of legalized slavery of African-American men.

Connected systems and structures of power within U.S. laws and policies have shaped privilege and oppression, by way of racism, gender, age, and class, and through intersectionality of these factors. A loophole in the thirteenth amendment serves to maintain subjugation of black Americans, by their criminalization and subsequent mass incarceration. Maintaining power of political elite serves to promote economic prosperity, and perpetuates slavery of blacks by legitimizing exploitation of their servitude for economic gains.  

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