This year, Equal Justice Initiative — a non-profit based in Montgomery, Alabama — put out an impressive report entitled “Slavery in America: The Montgomery Slave Trade.” Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) is a world-renowned organization that provides legal assistance to the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, children prosecuted as adults in the criminal justice system, and communities marginalized by bias, discrimination, or poverty. We appreciate that EJI spent time putting together such a comprehensive and informative report on slavery in America and on reflecting on our past. While some might ask, “Why look back?,” we believe that in order to change our current state of mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, we must understand where our thoughts, beliefs, and laws come from, and how we developed as a nation. As EJI says in its report,
“Slavery in America traumatized and devastated millions of people. It created narratives about racial difference that still persist today. It also fostered bigotry and racial discrimination from which we have yet to fully recover. In learning more about slavery, we can learn more about ourselves, our past, and hopefully, our future. By strengthening our understanding of racial history, we can create a different, healthier discourse about race in America that can lead to new and more effective solutions.”
We cannot talk constructively about criminal justice reform, reentry, and progress toward social justice without first reflecting honestly on our nation’s past. There is no doubt that the United States, which incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation — with an increase in its jail and prison population from 200,000 to 2.3 million in the past 40 years — disproportionately incarcerates people of color. Nearly one out of every three American black men in their twenties is in jail or prison, on probation or parole, or otherwise under criminal justice control. Black men are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than white men.
So we encourage you to reflect on our past, no matter how much we might want to look away, and to think about how America’s Era of Slavery — which lasted more than 200 years and ended only 150 years ago with the Emancipation Proclamation — lives on today in the ways we criminalize, incarcerate, and punish, both inside and outside of prison walls.
For further reading, see EJI’s incredible interactive timeline, “A History of Racial Injustice: The Timeline.” Also check out EJI’s page on “Race and Poverty” and a great scholarly article written by Executive Director Bryan Stevenson on “Confronting Mass Imprisonment and Restoring Fairness to Collateral Review of Criminal Cases.”
–The R&R Team