Yes, This is Exactly Like Slavery

Halden Doerge just shared a link today that shows statistics that there are now more black men incarcerated than were in slavery when it was legal.  One reply suggested that the comparison to slavery was unfortunate – though he doesn’t dispute the awfulness of the reality, so I’m not trying to pick a fight or be judgmental, certainly there are people in prison who “should” be there.  The point is very important to drive home, though.  Considering, according to the article, there are many many jobs now dependent on this vast prison system, and considering the rise of private for-profit prisons, we see that in fact, the incarceration of poor racial minorities is tied into our economy in a real way…and when it comes to private prisons, prisoners are literally commodities, “goods” that could be traded and whose existence brings money in for corporate elites.

This is exactly like slavery.  Especially considering that much of this is a result of systematic failures in justice and not simply isolated individuals who are morally corrupt.

This reminds me that I need to look into literature on prisons and reform.


  1. “exactly like slavery”?
    “much of this is a result of systematic failures in justice”?

    Speaking as someone who has been involved with the criminal justice system in a variety of roles for the last 20 years, incarceration is a tragedy but it is not “exactly like slavery” nor is “much of this” the “result of systematic failures in justice.” The people incarcerated have been convicted (usually as a result of guilty pleas) for crimes they have committed and actually represent a small percentage of the actual number of criminals in our society. Most criminals are not apprehended, and many who are caught are not prosecuted. I am not saying that there are not miscarriages of justice, indeed, just the opposite: we should be focusing on identifying wrongly convicted individuals and working to remedy those cases rather than wringing our hands in some generally unhelpful way about how incarceration of culpable individuals writ large is “exactly like” the involuntary servitude of innocent human beings. It is not. If you want to help, go volunteer to be a guardian ad litem in your local courts on behalf of a victimized child, or work in your parish after-prison ministry, but don’t tilt at the liberal windmill that somehow the fact of incarceration or the demographics of the confined population are the unjust aspect of this situation. The larger problem is the moral decay of our society that has led to the acceptance of crime as a way of life for entire segments of our population.


    1. Bill,

      Well I don’t recall that last time I was called liberal! I’m fairly confident that most liberals would not like me at all, I’m far too critical of political liberalism and capitalism, though not of a cooperative de-centralized socialism. Perhaps I can make clearer just in what way I meant it was like slavery. Most clearly this comes out in the reality of private prisons. I believe this is a travesty and all prisons should be public and/or non-profit. Otherwise prisoners are, as I said, literally commodities, whose wills are subject to the corporate interests of those who operate the prisons.

      Also, inasmuch as the “war on drugs” has hit poorer people the hardest, and as much as our economic policies mean that a disproportionate percentage of poor people, especially in urban centers, are non-white, then yeah, I really do believe this is a problem of system and not of mere moral decay. So I wasn’t really talking about the wrongly convicted so much as those who have the deck stacked against them from the beginning. I don’t agree with conceptions of ethics that consider abstract individuals breaking inviolable laws, the punishment of which much be an objective penalty. In philosophical terms that’s “deontologized ethics.” Punishments should be remedial and not penal.

      Between full time school and full time childcare, it is not very easy to save the world, so shifting a finger to me, while legitimately pointing out my own ethical flaws (see my last post), doesn’t sufficiently address social breakdown.


  2. Tony,

    You have yet to make your case. Nice rhetoric, but no argument. To say “X is like Y” requires you to point out the relevant similarities betweeen X and Y. You have not only failed to do that, you have made a claim that the current incarceration of minorities is “exactly like” slavery.

    Claims like that require more than generic hand-waving references to “corporate elites”–(yawn). Once again, nice collection of words, little substance.


    1. Amused,

      Hello, welcome to the blog. A few things: 1) Giving a short snotty remark anonymously is cute, but cowardly. I use my name because I want to make the risk of real engagement with people and not hide behind the internet. 2) Systems operate in excess of any group of individuals, and so my argument depends on this truth, that a great number of prisoners are “captive” in a system from before they are born. Perhaps you buy the bullcrap of the “American Dream” where any reasonably good hard-working person can “make it,” and if you do then it’s no wonder you can’t conceive of this as a “system.” 3) If it is a “system,” the participation in which they had “no choice,” and since privatized prisons profit from imprisoned people, then they are a commodity, which is to say “property.” 4) So economic systems “trap,” disproportionately, racial minorities, and commodify them for profit… then in that way it is like slavery.

      I don’t mean it is the “same exact thing” in a univocal way. That’s just crude literalism.


  3. Illegal drugs are tearing American culture apart, especially inner cities. Drug addiction needs to be treated as part of the criminal justice system. Half of offenders have a history of substance abuse. Treating substance abuse can be less expensive incarceration. Minorities have less access to better and costly addiction treatment programs because of insurance issues. Newsweek has a good article on the issue of the prison system and drug treatment.


  4. Thanks for sharing, Tony.

    Wow. I didn’t think you’d get as much push back on this post as you did. After all, this seems like a pretty commensical view point, given that the US imprisons a quarter of it’s population – more so than any supposed ‘barbaric’ nation.



  5. The problem I have with the linked article is the statistics, and the link that the article trying to make to slavery. The U.S. population in 2010 was 308.7 million, with 12.6% of them being blacks at 38.9 million. In 1850 the total U.S. population was only 23.2 million, with 13.8% of them being counted slaves at 3.2 million. This means that the number of blacks in the U.S. today is greater than the total U.S. population in 1850. It stands to reason that with an exponentially increasing population, eventually you will be able to make statements like what this article made. Interestingly, if we follow in the vein of the article, the percentage of slaves in 1850 compared to the total population (13.8%) was greater than the percentage of blacks in 2010 compared to the total population (12.6%) (with approx 10% of blacks being imprisoned). If we’re comparing imprisonment to slavery, then in the vein of the article we could conclude that black imprisonment-slavery compared to the total U.S. population as decreased significantly! In other words, statistics and numbers are often easily manipulated to support a given argument.

    The statistical significance of our prison population is NOT a comparison of total numbers across centuries, but a comparison of ratios within this decade. In other words, does the racial ratio of our prison population compare relatively with our total national populous ratios? The linked article is nothing more than angst-mongering driven by the unanswered question of “why are these comparative ratios so different from each other”.

    The point that I feel like I’m getting from Tony, however, seems to be that people are, once again (or rather “still”?), commodities within a social system. Even without the privatizing of social institutions, the person can and is given a monetary value (based on many factors). And this certainly is not limited to the prison system; it extends to education, healthcare, and any other institution/corporation (dare I even say churches?)that deals in/with people. With this point, I must agree that it is a problem that needs dealing with.

    In short: article = dislike; Tony’s point = like.



    1. Matthew – Greetings, and thanks for the comment. I concede that the number game is misleading and ‘angst-mongering.’ But as you perceptively pointed out, that wasn’t really the point I was driving at. Far more important is the commodification of human beings and their relative ‘enslavement’ via persistently (even if unintentional) racist and ‘involuntary’ economic and judicial systems. Cheers!

      Steve, Robbie, Aaron and Jordan – Yup

      Eleanore – Hello and welcome to the blog. Please see my concession to Matthew which I just gave but also my comments in reply to Bill and especially “amused.” (btw, I don’t know why you put Tony in quotation marks, it’s my real name). Certainly it is not “exactly like” early American slavery in every respect, but I’ve already made the point three times now just exactly in what ways it is the same in my opinion and so far the protestations have not changed my opinion.


  6. This makes me think of a couple of songs. Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” and Tupac’s “Changes.” They sang their dread about things out of their control. One can call these “things” systems, social structures, or institutions, and one can argue either way the validity of said things with what ever statistics at one’s disposal, but no matter what sort of meaning one attaches to minorities bursting prison seams, people are still out there singing, writing, and speaking their confusion, dread, and heavy-laden consciences about the matter.

    Gaye sang of war and economy,

    “Inflation, no chance
    to increase finance
    Bills pile up sky high
    send that boy off to die”

    Tupac rapped of crime and imprisonment,
    “It ain’t no secret don’t conceal the fact
    the penitentiary’s packed,
    and it’s filled with blacks….
    And I ain’t never did a crime I didn’t have to do.”

    Wonder sang about job availability,

    “Her brother’s smart he’s got more sense than many
    His patience’s long but soon he won’t have any
    To find a job is like a haystack needle
    Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people
    Living just enough, just enough for the city.”

    Now, some of these conditions have changed, but in many respects they have remained the same. What we should see and hear in these songs and many others (Lauryn Hill’s “Rebel,” for example) is the ferment of a tangible cultural situation that can neither be validated nor invalidated by cogent rationales and favorable statistics. It stands alone and validates itself, I think.


  7. I spent a few months visiting an urban African American church. There a thirty some year old man ran a program for young teenage men. He could gather forty or fifty teenage boys who hungry for male input into their lives. The only boys there that had a father at home were the sons of two deacons.

    The African American inner city community is largely a matriarchal culture because of the absence of men. In slavery the male had little to do with nurturing his sons; he maybe did not know who they were or did not have the opportunity. An unintended consequence of the Great Society also moved men from the home because welfare did not allow a father in the home. Where are the role models for young African American men? It will take generations to change this culture.

    The white man has contributed a great deal to messing up the African American community. Is it any wonder there is a hugely disproportionate number of African Americans in our prisons?


  8. @Bill:

    “The larger problem is the moral decay of our society that has led to the acceptance of crime as a way of life for entire segments of our population.”

    I suspect that this is what Tony is talking about when he writes, “systematic failures in justice.” Destructive, criminal behavior is accepted and often encouraged within certain segments of American society. Children who grow up in such environments are raised to think and live a certain way, not intentionally, but as a by-product of their unjust circumstances. And while some may be able to overcome those circumstances, most are not so strong.

    It’s also worth bearing in mind that criminal behavior is not only accepted and encouraged in lower-class, minority neighborhoods. Certainly other segments of society (Wall Street, for instance) have their own pet vices. But the poor, and especially minorities, suffer far heavier consequences. The makeup of the prison population, however, doesn’t seem to reflect this.


  9. Amused had a point. The comparison you are reaching for is a bit overly dramatic.

    “X is just like Y”.

    X: Incarceration of Black Criminals.

    Y: Slavery.

    Now in ‘Y’ (slavery–let’s look at American slavery, since that is what you are aiming for) you have a state of affairs in which large numbers of innocent people have their freedom forcibly taken from them and are made to serve the will of those who regard them as nothing more than obsolete farm machinery. They are bought and sold on chopping blocks and generally treated with brutality and deprived of minimal human comforts.

    Now, according to ‘Tony’, this is EXACTLY what is going on in our prison systems.

    Uh.. hmmmm. no it isn’t.

    By the way, if univocality isn’t what you are shooting for, that’s fine. That leaves analogy or equivocation. Ok, let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and go for analogy. Well, I am afraid you still have to identify where X and Y share the relevantly similar properties in a way that makes your comparison still relevant after we see the drastically different properties between the two states of affairs you are aspiring to compare as “exactly alike”.

    It’s a failed analogy. Nice try though. Perhaps if you set aside the dramatic and bogus comparisons, and just cut to a discussion of social justice, we could get to the point behind the rhetoric.

    But then again, the rhetoric is too much fun, isn’t it?


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