When confronted with the awful reality of how black people were treated in the age of slavery and then during the Jim Crow era, many white people take solace in the knowledge that they would never sit idly by and watch black people be mistreated today.
It’s easy to look back on the anti-slavery effort or the Civil Rights movement and feel superior, but in doing so, white people tend to forget that racial segregation is alive and well today — and that, just as many failed to take action during the height of Jim Crow, they are now content to look the other way as minorities are victimized by law enforcement officials and the prison system at large.
Admittedly, I’ve been complicit in all this. I’ve always recognized that it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for the black community, but until I saw the new Netflix documentary 13th, I didn’t realize the true gravity of the situation.
The premise of 13th is that the mistreatment of black people in America is far from over. People may no longer be allowed to own slaves or force passengers to sit at the back of the bus based on their skin color, but that doesn’t mean the problem is over. Instead, it has taken a new form: mass incarceration.
Brought about largely during the 1980s and 1990s and shockingly accelerated since 2010, our nation’s system of mass incarceration keeps far too many people behind bars due to minor crimes, or in many cases, no crimes at all. Once they’re released, former inmates’ freedoms are further stifled by stigma, along with an inability to secure housing or employment upon submitting to background checks. Many others are denied the right to vote.
13th paints an incredibly bleak picture, but there are signs of hope. As the documentary points out, the age of the smartphone has made mistreatment more visible than ever. The media shock factor has been repeatedly used through the ages to jolt people into action, and now, live social media feeds and other tools are being used for the same purpose. Social media also has a way of humanizing a population that society has spent far too long criminalizing. The road to redemption will be a long one, but an informed and passionate citizenry can accomplish great things.