13th — Why Words Matter
13th is a powerful look at systemic racism and what is being called the criminalization of an entire sector of society. Nominated in 2017 for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, 13th is the story of how our nation — unwittingly to many of us — has managed to systematically keep the black population enslaved despite the language of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The film, directed by Ava DuVernay, was released back in 2016, but has gained traction recently as the death of George Floyd instigates protests worldwide, like a tourniquet to keep pressure the wound so it doesn’t kill us.
The wording of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America reads as follows:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
DuVernay’s argument is simple. The language except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted has, in effect, kept slavery alive even after the country fought a bloody civil war to abolish it.
The war on drugs started with Nixon, a concept dreamed up by Nixon’s counsel, John Ehrlichman of Watergate fame, and this “war” disproportionately affected black men in the way justice was dispensed. Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one” and vowed to eradicate it, a battle cry that resonated especially loudly with Southern voters. This sleight of hand worked and Nixon resoundingly won the electoral college vote although he only narrowly won the popular vote the first time around.
In 1970, one year into Nixon’s first term, there were approximately 338,000 people in incarcerated; today, that number is well over 2 million, and of that number, almost half a million are in jail without yet having been convicted of a crime because they can’t afford bail.
We in the U.S. have 5% of the global population, but 25% of its prison population. Today, one in 17 white men will be incarcerated versus one in three black men and one in six Latino men. That should make anyone watching 13th do more than raise an eyebrow.
DuVernay argues that, like systemic poverty, you become acculturated to systemic racism and the very subtle ways in which the system has been skewed against the black community.
If Nixon started the problem by campaigning on a law and order platform, Ronald and Nancy Reagan kicked it up several notches with their own war on drugs, and it really shot through the roof — which was surprising to me to learn of someone who at one time had the moniker “the first Black President — with Bill Clinton’s “three strikes” rule which took discretionary sentencing away from judges and replaced it with mandatory sentencing. That meant that if you were busted three different times, say, twice with a single joint, for example, and the third time for a violent crime, you would be serving life in prison even though the first two crimes were more likely misdemeanors. President Clinton has since apologized for this law.
All those who have died at the hands of the police — many of them just kids — have set the stage for the protest following the death of George Floyd, events that have been simmering for years but seemed to have coalesced overnight.
13th returns to lawyer and author, Brian Stevenson, civil rights activist, Angela Davis, former Obama-administration official Van Jones, and Harvard Professor, Henry Louis Gates, among others, again and again to chronicle the difficulties African Americans face in their daily lives and how society has been engineered to create barriers to their success. The commentators provide commentary and background as each of these individuals has their own personal stories — vis-á-vis their lives and careers — of insidious societal behavior, yet each one has successfully navigated a larger life despite the handicaps they’ve experienced as a result of the color of their skin.
If you want to see why words matter, watch 13th.
Today is July 4th, the day our country celebrates freedom from tyranny and rule of the oppressor. It’s time for us to take a long look inside to see how we are oppressing each other and what we can do to really make our nation The Land of the Free for all its inhabitants, not just select groups.
Watch 13th, currently streaming on Netflix. Take a look at what’s happening on the other side of the fence. Consider it your patriotic duty as an American.