Summary by Bill Thedford with Responses Collected by Lydia Bogar
This week, the Social Change Working Group presented a well-attended 2-day program on the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This amendment, dated 1865, abolished slavery for all but criminals. Avi Bernstein opened the session on Wednesday 7/12 with Ava Duvernay’s acclaimed film “13th” from Netflix. The film exposed the expansion of criminal prosecution as a means to disproportionately subjugate the black population to coal mining, field labor, “chain gangs” and other low cost labor. After the film, Professor Smith collected questions from the attendees as a basis for Thursday’s talk.
On Thursday, Avi introduced Professor Doug Smith who presented examples of State and Federal criminal laws as well as court rulings leading to the incarceration of poor and predominately African American people. These laws effectively utilized this criminal exception in Amendment 13 to provide cheap labor and business opportunities (e.g., to independent prison operators and even corporations). The discussion on the second day expanded the scope of the talk to include the role of police in this process. The process was widened by Nixon’s war on crime and drugs and has expanded or continued through all succeeding administrations. It was observed that the number of African Americans in Federal and State prisons today exceeds the number of slaves in the U.S. before the Amendment was added to the Constitution.
No solutions were proposed, but the potential value of home release programs and volunteer youth mentoring were discussed. In addition, Michael Burns, a member of the Social Change Working Group, has created a bibliography of materials on the issue which can be accessed by clicking here: BIBLIOGRAPHY. The group has also compiled a list of action opportunities which BOLLI members might choose to explore. Click here: ACTION.
What BOLLI members say about 13th…
BETSEY ANSIN: “A Riveting, pounding film that forcefully presents the generations long dehumanization and punishment of black men, and their families. Carried some scenes with me all day and will convincingly talk it up! Would show this to my grandchildren over the age of 10.
CRIS ARONSON: My eldest son is an educator teaching in an ethnically diverse primary school. HIs students include those of Asian, African American, Latino and European backgrounds as well as those born and raised in the US. When Mal first joined the school district, he was looked upon with trepidation to say the least. Why? Because he is racially mixed (most people saw Black), sports an earring and is extremely fit. Parents weren’t certain they wanted this man teaching their children or being an integral part of the school. That was 19 years ago. For the past 10 years, he has been the most requested teacher in the school, receiving numerous district and State awards and is given more gifts at the end of each academic year than most children get for Chanukah or Christmas!
My point: once people have the opportunity to get to know someone on a personal level (especially true of “the Other”), prejudices based on superficial ifrst impressions and stereotypes can give way to honest knowledge and appreciation of that individual.
AVI BERNSTEIN: This is the first time that I have seen this inspirational, beautifully constructed film. The big question is what we do next and how.
ABBY PINARD: Nothing in it came as a surprise, but the film connects the dots to powerful and painful effect. Should be required viewing … I’m not an educator, so I wouldn’t presume to recommend for younger kids but at least high school.
SUE WURSTER: So powerful…and so disheartening. Our general lack of knowledge about so much of this makes me feel even more determined to push for significant change in our teaching of our own history in our schools.
LYDIA BOGAR:Touring restored plantations in the South Carolina, I presumed that slavery was a closed book. Reading Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and watching this film has awakened me to the nightmare and reality of Black Lives Matter. I am horrified and need to know more.
The remaining events in this series, New American Political Realities, are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, July 19 and 20, from 10:30-12, when the focus will be on “The Politics of Supreme Court Nominations.”
Please be sure to leave additional comments and/or questions below–whether you were in attendance or not!
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