As citizens of the United States, most of us assume that slavery has been completely abolished in our country, and that the tremors resulting from the cruel practice have finally ceased. According to Fairhaven professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb, those assumptions are misguided, if not completely incorrect.

On Wednesday, January 18, McMurtry-Chubb presented a great deal of research that she has compiled in a World Issues Forum called “What’s Race Got to Do With It? Criminal Incarceration and the Legacy of Slavery.” The audience sat stunned, only breaking from their silent stare to express their shock and outrage as McMurtry-Chubb hit us with more and more statistical evidence showing a connection with the time period when slavery was legal and the current Criminal Code in Georgia today.

McMurtry-Chubb walked the audience to her final conclusion artfully by starting off with the conception of African Americans in our society based on the section carved for them by the media. “Blackness as a racial designation has been likened to criminality…they are considered to be thieves [who are] dangerous and conniving,” according to McMurtry-Chubb.

This preconceived notion does not appear to be too carefully hidden by the press. McMurtry-Chubb showed a slide from the Associated Press, where an African American man is seen wading through the devastated streets of New Orleans. The caption reads, “Hurricane Katrina victim found looting a grocery store in New Orleans.”

The next slide shows two white folks who are wading through the same water, and who are clearly in the same predicament. The caption says that the two are returning after “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”

McMurtry-Chubb posed the question, “who is looting, who is finding, and why is there a distinction?”

50 Cent then flashed onto the screen dressed in clothes that McMurtry-Chubb “associated with black gangsters,” pointing a gun directly out at the viewer from the illustration. “The bigger discussion is about the commodification of culture; we only allow black people to be shown as criminals,” McMurtry-Chubb said.
“There is tremendous crossover appeal; white suburbia is very comfortable with this image of African Americans.”

“What’s wrong with these images? They are sexy and popular,” McMurtry-Chubb continued. “[They are also] stereotypical, and ultimately dangerous…they have a real impact for how African Americans are seen…for most, they could land them in jail,” according to McMurtry-Chubb.

This statement may seem off base, but if her research doesn’t give hefty evidence to support her last point, it sure says something. According to Bureau of Justice Statistics from 2003, one out of eight black males between 25 and 29 will spend some time in jail.

According to Washington State Prison statistics released on February 22, 2002, 3.2 percent of the state’s population in Washington is made up of African Americans, but African Americans make up 18.1 percent of Washington’s inmates.
In a Human Rights Watch Report from 2002 it said that though Black and Hispanic people make up only 25 percent of the national population, they make up a shocking 63 percent of the prison population.

“This is an alarming national trend…[it has been] almost 151 years since the end of the Civil War…and 42 years since the Civil Rights Act,” McMurtry stated. “Wow, how did we get here? I would argue that the roots of the [current situation in prisons] is rooted in slavery and slavery’s legal end.”

The legal end of slavery came in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Section One 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.”

In case you missed it, the amendment is saying that the practice of slavery or involuntary servitude has been abolished EXCEPT if we deem it an appropriate punishment for a crime.

Now, surely this provision exists solely so chain gangs will be able to be used. According to McMurtry-Chubb, legislatures from the south used this exception to just revamp their pre-Civil War slave code. “All indicators of race were removed from the face of the criminal code that governed slaves and free people of color. The new ‘neutral’ code was then folded into the criminal code that had governed slaves and free people of color,” according to evidence that McMurtry-Chubb discovered by comparing Georgia’s criminal code in 1861— before the abolition of slavery— to the laws in 1867.

In comparing the laws from the two years, McMurtry-Chubb discovered something else, all crimes that were formerly in the criminal code for slaves and free people of color now carried the penalty of labor in the penitentiary.

When looking further into the specifics of this labor, McMurtry-Chubb found a very interesting connection. See if you recognize it:

The use of overseers as well as guards was more than just common practice, the necessity of it was written into the criminal code. Whipping became regular “when it was reasonably necessary to enforce discipline or get work or labor from the convict.” The Governor was given control of convicts after the chain gangs had been filled, and he was allowed to lease them out to private contractors. A “principal keeper” was appointed in a position that nearly mirrored plantation owners.

If you didn’t catch it, all of these practices— which were all written into Georgia’s criminal code— are more than vaguely reminiscent of the freshly abolished use of slavery. “Much like the system of slavery that preceded it, [the Georgia criminal code] gave Georgian government and the Georgian business man an opportunity to invest in bodies of African Americans for financial gain,” McMurtry-Chubb said.

According to McMurtry-Chubb, this is a clear result of not only the racial prejudices of the time, but also the special provision to the 13th Amendment. “[The Georgia] state interpretation of the 13th Amendment wrote…African Americans out of the law in a manner that preserved white supremacy and allowed the abuse of the convict leasing labor system.”

The past Georgian criminal codes have damaged more than just the past, they have “served to reinforce and perpetuate notions of black criminality,” according to McMurtry-Chubb. “The state legally constructed Blackness to support claims of African American criminality, ineptitude and laziness.”

According to McMurtry-Chubb, the criminal code has also “shaped criminal laws well into the 21st century.” In doing her research, McMurtry Chubb found that 62 percent of Georgia’s prison population is composed of African Americans while only making up 29 percent of the state’s population.

“The most alarming [fact is that] African Americans are convicted and imprisoned at a higher rate than Caucasians for the majority of crimes [connected in Georgia’s pre-Civil War criminal code to slaves and free African Americans],” McMurtry said. “The legacy of slavery and perceptions of black criminality remain.”

McMurtry presented her research at a World Issues Forum in Fairhaven College. These lectures, videos and discussions are scheduled for noon to 1:30 p.m. every Wednesday. They are free and open to students as well as the public. See the accompanying blurb for a listing of other upcoming Forums.