Slavery, Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration

Throughout the history of the United States, those in power have used violence and fear of such violence to oppress and marginalize people of color. The lynching of over 4,000 black individuals between Reconstruction and World War II is one of the most blatant examples of such racial violence.  Communities used lynchings to enforce social, political, and economic segregation. Black activists, community organizers, and the black press resisted this racial terrorism. Yet governments, the press, and prominent citizens allowed lynching to remain a powerful tool of oppression for nearly a century. As the Equal Justice Initiative writes, “lynching – and other forms of racial terrorism – inflicted deep traumatic and psychological wounds on survivors, witnesses, family members, and the entire African American community.”

We must remember that lynchings are only one instance in a longer history of ways in which the United States has oppressed African Americans.  After the Civil War, the end of slavery, and Reconstruction, the South entered the era of Jim Crow segregation and its accompanying racial terror. Jim Crow codified a system of racial apartheid that affected almost every aspect of daily life for African Americans, greatly or even completely restricting their access to economic and civil rights.

Even after Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement, local and federal governmental policies still marginalized people of color. Laws that accompanied  New Deal relief and the GI Bill disproportionately gave whites a lift into the middle class while redlining, discriminatory lending policies, and local control of federal funding kept access away from non-whites.  

Racial inequality and violence have manifested themselves in new forms in the 21st century. African Americans are disproportionately victims of police brutality and mass incarceration. In its report to the UN Human Rights Commission, The Sentencing Project noted that for black males born in 2001, the probability of going to jail is about one in three.  Once incarcerated, Alabama prisoners are subject to deplorable overcrowded conditions, including a mental health care system a federal judge has ruled to be “horrendously inadequate.”

From the abolition of slavery to the eradication of Jim Crow laws, this country has taken many steps to improve the lives of people of color. Many people have been able to create a life their ancestors could only dream of. Despite all of the improvements that have been made in our country, the United States still has a long way to go before we reach true equality.   

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