Whitney Benns on the ongoing reinvention of American slavery

Whitney Benns, a friend of the Systemic Justice Project and Justice Fellow has a fantastic piece in The Atlantic on forced labor in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. After describing scenes that are virtually unchanged from antebellum slavery, including especially the race of various participants, Whitney looks at the history of slave plantations transitioning seamlessly into sites of prison labor. Her piece forces us to ask how we rationalize the continuation of practices that we all agree are immoral, and she runs through some of the justifications we might give ourselves for ongoing slavery, from ‘rehabilitation’ to ‘fairness’. It is a powerful piece that deals with a particularly horrific example of our ability to use categories and flimsy arguments to choose when to care, and reminds us that the first step to changing this practice may be to look beyond individual actors to systems. As Whitney explains,

individual narratives are not enough. When we focus on the individual, it’s easy to miss the context. The context here is undeniable, and it is made clear by the very first frames of Angola for Life.

As the camera zooms out and pans over fields of black bodies bent in work and surveyed by a guard, the picture that emerges is one of slavery. It is one of a “justice” system riddled with racial oppression. It is one of private business taking advantage of these disenfranchised, vulnerable workers. It is one of an entire caste of men relegated, as they have long been relegated, to labor for free, condemned to sow in perpetuity so that others might reap.

Read the whole piece here.

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