Polarizing rapper Kanye West is calling for the revision of the 13th Amendment, which effectively abolishes slavery except as a punishment for crime. West recently caused a Twitter storm while proudly wearing his “Make America Great Again” cap in support of President Donald Trump. The rapper may be familiar with stirring up controversy, but he is not as well-versed about how the Trump administration ensures black low-level and non-violent drug offenders stay in prison much longer, stripping them of their right to vote and demoting them to second-class citizens.
When it comes to the state of African-Americans, West and other conservative pundits preach that Democrats are to blame for issues like high crime, poor school performance, and persistent disparities in health, housing and employment. The solution they present is for African-Americans to leave the “blue plantation” to join the red one.
Republicans often argue that black people should join the “Party of Lincoln,” who freed them from bondage. News flash, President Lincoln was not as pro-black as many proclaim him to be. He did not believe black people should serve on juries, vote, hold public office or marry outside their race.
While there is some truth to Democrats having a hand in the downfall of the black community, from slavery to Jim Crow, or social services that have created a culture of dependency, Republicans have done their fair share of damage to the community too.
Republican President Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” later escalated by President Ronald Reagan, targeted African-Americans and furthered the mass incarceration of black people. Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, acknowledged that the Nixon administration purposely pursued African-Americans for imprisonment. In an interview with Harper Magazine, Ehrlichman said: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Ehrlichman continued: “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”
Fast forward 36 years and we see the same actions being taken by the Trump administration, an administration West believes is the solution to the difficulties plaguing the black community.
In 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed a decision by the Obama administration that allowed judges to use discretion when sentencing for non-violent drug offenses, allowing the bench to go below the mandatory sentencing guidelines of a minimum five years. African-Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but account for 38 percent of the prison inmates. Forty-six percent of people in prison are incarcerated for drug offenses, and black men are incarcerated at a rate five times higher than whites for those violations.
The practice of mass criminalization of black people has led to impoverished communities of color and absent fathers. Eighty percent of people in federal prison and 60 percent of people in state penitentiary are serving time for drug offenses.
West argues the 13th Amendment continues to fuel and fund the unjust and unfair practice of incarcerating African-Americans, true, but so does his buddy Trump. The refusal by the current administration to address the racial disparities in sentencing guidelines proves they are unlikely to correct an amendment in the Constitution that is more than 150 years old, which allows inmates to be used for monetary gain and free labor.
A quick look at political history and it’s easy to see that the Trump administration, through the GOP, is not alone in its efforts to put more black bodies behind bars. Democrats are far from blameless.
After the abolishment of slavery, southern Democrats allowed U.S. companies to “lease” black prisoners to build railroad lines throughout the United States. Seventy-five percent of railroads in the south were built by black inmates and 200,000 African-Americans paid for their crimes through forced labor. Many paid with their lives due to horrific conditions. The crimes of these black prisoners, like George Cottenham, could be as asinine as vagrancy, the crime of being unemployed.
Because these enslaved prisoners were the backbone of many U.S. companies, Democratic courts made certain that their sentences and the amount of their fines were dependent upon the length of construction projects, a practice that continues today.
Inmate labor is a cost-saving method used by billion-dollar U.S. companies, such as Dell, AT&T, Victoria’s Secret and Target. Shockingly, even politicians like the Clinton family, used Arkansas inmates to clean their home and complete other household chores.
In her book “It Takes a Village,” Hillary Clinton said their residence was staffed with “African-American men in their thirties,” and “using prison labor at the Governor’s Mansion was a longstanding tradition, which kept down costs.”
Had I known this I would have never voted for her. Her husband, Bill Clinton, would later implement a crime bill that has resulted in the incarceration of more African-Americans than any other sitting president.
West and black conservative pundits should recognize that politicians, Democrat or Republican, never truly intended to improve the lives of black Americans. Any policies implemented that appeared to provide us with equal treatment under the law were not necessarily done for our benefit alone.
Before West breaks the internet again with another stream-of-consciousness rant, touting the virtues of Team Trump, he should take the time to do some research. He and others will see the role that both parties have played in harming the black community. Behind seemingly good intentions, Republicans and Democrats have had political and monetary gain firmly in view.