In elementary school, kids learn about how the country once enslaved and brutalized African-Americans—many of our white ancestors, to many’s disgust, would harass them, beat them, break them. At such a young age, kids can’t fathom such cruelty towards a group of people solely due to their skin color. And so when they learn of the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, they’re relieved that those horrors had been put to rest.
Or, so, they thought they had been.
Today, in the wake of Donald Trump’s false generalizations of African-Americans, Latinos, and Muslims, racists now have a scurried out from their hiding places to voice support for the Republican candidate. A wave of xenophobia has now washed over this country, drowning out all rational thought and fact with disillusionment and white patriotism.
Due to this, Netflix took the opportunity to expose why so many people still fear African-Americans. And, to my astonishment, it ties back into the Thirteenth Amendment. The full Thirteenth Amendment reads as follows: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
What group of people are disproportionally incarcerated? African-Americans.
The newly released Netflix documentary follows American history through the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, segregation, Jim Crow, Reagan, Clinton, and all the way up to our current election. The film is a sobering examination of the tangled, racist mess that is modern-day slavery, but this time, African-Americans aren’t working in plantations—they’re thrown behind bars to rot.
Ava DuVernay’s galvanizing journey exposes how the white elite have used the Thirteenth Amendment for their own personal gains: segregated school systems, the militarization of police, private prisons. Many have talked about these racist practices, such as John Oliver and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and yet many still label African-Americans as second-class citizens. Even today, they are still treated as second-class citizens in a multitude of ways from their impoverished communities to a lack of funding for education, longer and harsher criminal sentences to housing discrimination.
However, as the film tells, many of these supposed racists have seats of power in our society as lawmakers, judges, police officers, politicians, and even as the President of the United States.
In the second-half of the documentary, many of the scholars, historians, and activists point at former President Ronald Reagan as the man who fanned the flames of racism, segregation, and mass incarceration back in the 1980s. After his blind crusade against the drug epidemic, which promoted racial disparities in prisons, Bill Clinton further instilled racist practices with his now infamous 1994 crime bill through the militarization of the police and mandatory minimum sentencing.
The true triumph of this film is how it doesn’t shy away from pointing fingers at societal institutions as well as public figures. Through its blend of history and footage, 13th is a bold protest against modern-day slavery, documenting the current implications of slavery in our supposedly progressive society. From its stunning line-up of well-educated activists, historians, and politicians, Ava DuVernay’s extraordinarily film is painstakingly relevant to society today in light of the election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Colin Kaepernick’s continued protest against racial injustice.
This way a definite wake-up call for white America, and hopefully many will listen and understand how African-Americans have a radically different experience in this country than we do.