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The present tense of (racial) slavery: the racial chattel logic of the US prison

The US prison regime functions through a racial chattel logic. Its animating force is not economic exploitation but rather racialized social reorganization and neutralization.

Todd Awbrey/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Since the era of colonial and genocidal world conquest, the historical pathways of transatlantic chattel slavery have marked the geographical and political boundaries of global racial dominance. We cannot adequately conceptualize, theorize, or politically intervene in contemporary institutions of bodily expropriation and chattel-making—literally, the violent conversion of the human subject into an object of violent commodity relations/exchange—without a central focus on ‘race’ as a matrix of enslavement. Racial slavery thus cannot be positioned in the past tense, as if it were some kind of historical artifact no longer relevant to the shaping of our global (racial) condition. Neither can the endemic violence of racial chattel slavery—its institutionalized rituals of psychic, physical, and cultural brutality—be conceptualized as the extremist or irrational residue of an otherwise bygone period. Slavery shapes our spatial and political present tense, to the extent that the places in which we move would literally not exist as they do if not for the epoch-shaping violence of a global racial enslavement regime.

How does racial chattel slavery, as a modeling of power relations, shape the current historical moment?

The formation of the US prison is distinguished by a racial chattel logic. The prisoner/‘convict’/‘inmate’ is legally understood as the bodily property of the state, eviscerated of civil existence (including ‘rights’) and designated as available for ‘involuntary servitude’. Scholars such as Angela Y. Davis, Marcus Rediker, Alex Lichtenstein, Dennis Childs, Sarah Haley, David Oshinsky, Douglas A. Blackmon, Matthew J. Mancini, and others have differently traced the links between racial plantation slavery and the emergence of the modern American penal system. This body of scholarship elaborates how the emergence and transformation of the US prison during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries fundamentally replicated—and in many ways exacerbated—the social and racial logic of the supposedly abolished slave plantation. Moving from this work, we can more deeply examine how the thirteenth amendment’s alleged abolition of US slavery was animated by a white supremacist logic. The thirteenth amendment to the US Constitution, commonly glorified as the decree that freed the enslaved African, reads:

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. [emphasis added]

We might rethink the implications of the thirteenth amendment in the following way: at the moment that the amendment designates the “duly convicted” as available for formal subjection to “involuntary servitude” (re-enslavement), it effectively revises and elaborates_—and absolutely does not ‘abolish’—the power relations and systemic racial violence formed over centuries of racial chattel slavery, including its transatlantic dimensions. This reform of slavery_ formed the foundation for the rise of the modern US prison during the early-twentieth century and the subsequent emergence (since the late-1970s) of what we have come to know as the ‘prison industrial complex.’ The contemporary US jail and prison is both a restructuring and institutional expansion of slavery’s systemic racist anti-black violence.

Further, the everyday institutional functioning of the US prison since the time of thirteenth amendment has not relied on the ‘exploitation’ of the incarcerated people as an alternative form of ‘slave labor.’ During the era of the US prison industrial complex, for example, the overwhelming majority of imprisoned, jailed, detained, and otherwise incarcerated people are neither allowed nor solicited to ‘work’ during the time they are held captive by the state. This begs the question: if the contemporary condition is not best described as a time of massive ‘prison slavery’ (in the sense of a systemic exploitation of incarcerated people’s labor), than what is the link between the US prison regime and the power relations of slavery?

The US prison in its contemporary form is animated by the social and cultural logic of racial chattel slavery, and not its vulgar economic logic. Put another way: the US carceral regime, particularly in its late-twentieth and early-21st century form, has become a system of targeted, racialized human displacement and state-sanctioned social disorganization and reorganization of poor black, brown, undocumented, queer, indigenous, and other criminalized populations. Rather than exploiting incarcerated people as a surplus laboring chattel/slave class for the benefit of neoliberal capitalist profit and productivity—performing the grueling physiological labor of farming, metalwork, and data entry, for example—the logic of the contemporary prison regime is to isolate and socially neutralize the imprisoned as a generally non-laboring chattel rendered permanently and formally vulnerable to the institutional violence of the state.

The point of this targeted, racial/gender/class specific system of criminalization and incarceration is therefore not to imprison for the sake of harboring an economically productive or profitable slave labor force. Instead, incarceration serves as a primary method of reproducing a racialized and gendered socioeconomic order from the local to global scales, and securing the internal conditions of ‘law-and-order’ for a historically white supremacist nation building project. By the latter point, I am merely reminding that racial chattel slavery was inseparable from US nation building until the close of the Civil War and the passage of the thirteenth amendment, and remains inseparable from US nation building in the era of the prison industrial complex and the emergence of multiple, racialized domestic wars on drugs, gangs, crime, etc. The fact that the United States has become the fastest and most prolific incarcerator in the history of humankind during the short span of the late-twentieth and early-21st centuries is no accident of history or idiosyncratic corruption of a malformed state: it is the logical outcome of slavery’s aftermath, and the primary evidence of slavery’s present tense.

About the author

Dylan Rodríguez is Professor and Chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Riverside.


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