Prison Labour and the Reconstruction Amendments

I wrote yesterday about the growth of prison labour in the US and the impact it was having on the US jobs market. I received quite a lot of messages and comments about the 13th Amendment to the US constitution.

The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments are know as the Reconstruction Amendments because they were passed in the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War.

The 13th Amendment (1864) abolished slavery

The 14th Amendment (1866) gave freed slaves equal rights and citizenship to white Americans

The 15th Amendment (1870) made it illegal to deny someone the right to vote based on race, colour, or former servitude.

Mainly opposition to these amendments came from Southern States which had been part of the Confederacy, but over time as populations moved from South to North they became embedded in places like Detroit. We think about the Great Migration from South to North as being purely an African American phenomena, but white Americans moved North too, bringing with them their hostility to racial equality. Many of the Southern States had an economy based entirely on slavery, and racial equality didn’t just challenge the social order, but it’s economic basis. Americans fought to take states like Texas and New Mexico from the Mexicans specifically to expand a slave economy. Without slavery these states had no economic purpose.

The mass incarceration of African Americans, and forced Labour programmes is an attempt to get round the 13th Amendment, in the same way that Republican Party attempts to change electoral districts, introduce conditions on voting and ban postal votes are attempts to circumvent the 15th Amendment and restrict the rights of minorities to vote. The extent to which the 15th Amendment has been circumvented to protect the political power of older white voters is sharply illustrated by Presidential Elections. No Republican President has entered the White House with a majority of the popular vote since George Bush senior in 1988.

The current conflict in the US is between a group of mostly older, mostly white Americans who want to maintain their race based privileges and are prepared to sanction violence and electoral manipulation to do so, and a group of mostly younger, ethnically diverse Americans who want to end these racial disparities forever.

As always in a fight between the young and the old the old can’t win forever.

The arc of the moral universe is longbut it bends toward justice

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