The combined might of racial disparities linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, racial justice uprisings in the wake of George Floyd protests and the most racially divisive presidential election in American history have forced the nation to examine its soul on matters of race.
The 13th Amendment proved to be the first of three constitutional amendments passed in the wake of a cataclysmic Civil War that left more than 700,000 Americans dead, turning a nation that considered itself liberty’s surest guardian into little more than a republic of death and suffering. But the 13th’s abolishment of racial slavery or “involuntary servitude” came with one extraordinary caveat. It made a glaring exception in the case of those citizens found guilty of a criminal offense that would, over time, prove to be the rule vis a vis Black Americans and the justice system.
The parallels between our own time and 1865 are especially striking.
In many ways, America is in the midst of a Third Reconstruction that has forced a moral and political reckoning on the relationship between race and democracy and the possibilities of Black citizenship and dignity. The Trump presidency, in panoramic ways, represented the consolidation of the political forces that opposed Black freedom in the Civil War’s aftermath. The first Reconstruction ultimately faltered on the heels of a negotiated peace between Whites at the expense of Black civil and human rights.
Movements for “abolition” of slavery then, just like “Defund the Police” now, rested on efforts to overturn an immoral system that dehumanized Black people under the cover of legal, political, and policy regimes. These regimes argued, against all contrary evidence, that the system offered the best protection and benefits for Blacks, Whites, and the nation.
This generation of Americans has the profound opportunity of writing a new chapter in our nation’s history.
Words unmatched by deeds will not be enough. The 13th Amendment failed to fundamentally transform the structures of anti-Black violence and degradation that contoured Black lives. Instead, it offered a formal equality before the law, one that could technically be ripped away from those accused of being criminals. The badge of the criminal then, replaced the mark of slavery, creating a new caste system that persists into the present. The 13th Amendment’s 155th anniversary should be one of not just celebration but mourning for lost opportunities the nation still has a chance to recover in our own time.
Peniel Joseph, Ph.D., is the Barbara Jordan Chair in Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin.