Ava DuVernay's "13th" documentary left me stunned silent. I watched it twice, once alone and then at a screening with UT students and faculty, and both times it was hard for me to form a coherent thought afterward. Mass incarceration was always something I knew existed; I knew it affected black and brown people more, but this film showed me that there were so many things that I really didn’t know.
For starters, mass incarceration isn’t a common cold-like phenomenon that just happens to befall people of color more by chance. It's an intentional and systematic form of oppression. It hinges on the 13th amendment that outlawed “slavery,” but only if a person wasn’t incarcerated. In that circumstance, slavery can persist, and persist it did. The film documented the ways in which black criminality was formed and concocted to aid in this system of mass incarceration. It showed how black people have historically been portrayed as “super predators” so that the imprisonment of black bodies could not only be justified but desired.
Institutionalized racism has proven to be the greatest shape-shifter in history, constantly changing in appearance but, in essence, always remaining the same. Always. In all ways. The film warns that one day prisons may very well become obsolete, but the ideology behind mass incarceration will live on, as prison designers move towards implementing more prison systems based in communities. And as we continue to elect politicians who display an utter contempt for minorities and an apathy towards our struggles.
“My biggest takeaway from it was how capitalism is an agent of white supremacy, or maybe even synonymous with it,” my friend Ajahni said in conversation. The one defining characteristic of our notorious shape-shifter is that he always works for the monetary benefit of white America. Under slavery, under Jim Crow and under mass incarceration - his goal is to make money at the expense of liberty for all. There has never been a time when black and brown bodies have not been exploited under capitalism. It’s inconceivable for me to believe we can get rid of institutionalized racism for good if we don’t get rid of the system that birthed, nurtured and sustains it: capitalism. But no one in power wants to get rid of capitalism, because it works - if you benefit from it. And it’s familiar to those who don’t directly benefit from it. It’s Black Friday shopping, and new iPhones and the NFL. It’s America.
And that’s what leaves me with no words. Because America has problems but they are self-inflicted problems. It seems like the country is caving in on itself and there are no odd forces of nature or Cuban communist leaders to blame for the mess America has made. The fragile state of world affairs is quick to crumble at the smallest perturbations and this nation has elected the single worst diplomatic leader. This nation, that hails itself for being a land of the free, jails more people than any other country in the world. This nation was built on stolen land, with stolen labor, and it runs on hypocrisy. I don’t foresee anything changing unless we acknowledge that. This film confronted Americans, individually and collectively. It asked, “how will you clean up this mess?” Many left feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, we know what the problem is, but how do we even begin to fix America?