Dear My People: Slavery Never Ended, It Just Found New Forms

By ALEXIS LEVATO

I am from Chicago, simultaneously one of the most diverse and segregated places in this country. Yet, the first time I learned about the racist housing policies that create segregation, known as redlining, was in an American Studies course here at Middlebury. I was only exposed to this idea because of my personal interests and class choices. So, I have decided to begin this series that seeks to educate white students on issues that we are not often exposed to because of our race.

We often consume black media without acknowledging what this act means. Luckily, Justin Simien has created a show that invites us to look at what it means to be black on an elite college campus, and more importantly for people like me, what it means to be white on our campus. He presents many familiar conversations, filling in the gaps of knowledge that we, as white students, lack. In the show “Dear White People,” one of the first topics addressed is the legacy of slavery in relation to whiteness in Volume II, Episode I.

To begin: it always goes back to slavery. Always.

This isn’t just a question of recognizing the abuses and dehumanization that our ancestors committed, although that would be a step in the right direction.

Instead, it is about the relics of slavery that exist in our society, systemic or not, that threaten and steal the rights and lives of black Americans today.  

First, there is a clear connection between slavery and the current prison system. Slavery became sharecropping, which became Jim Crow, which has finally left us with the current carceral system, which targets people of color and particularly black Americans. They are the overwhelming majority in a privatized prison network that, in practice, must be full in order to fulfill and justify the contracts that companies have with the U.S. government.

And it’s not just incarceration. It is also about what happens after; those who were convicted do not have the right to vote or have access to social systems like welfare. They also are less likely to be hired, let alone at a well-paying job that can support a life without poverty. This is not the only experience, but it is common.

There are many aspects of the prison system that reflect slavery, which we could explore for days or write a thesis on. Michelle Alexander wrote a book on it, appropriately titled, “The New Jim Crow.” It is deeply informative if you are interested in our prison system.

Another relic of slavery is the consistent dehumanization of black people by media, politicians, cops and ourselves. Hypersexualization was and is a tool to demonize black women and men, turning them into something other than human. It is used to construct black men as predators that must be policed. Black women were portrayed as hypersexual beings that could be raped and abused. More than four in 10 will experience physical violence, and over 20 percent are raped in their lifetime. These numbers are higher than those for women in almost every other racial group.

Emmett Till was a young boy beaten to death by Southern whites because a white woman alleged that he addressed her inappropriately. The justification? He was a sexual predator at the age of 14. This was only 63 years ago.

This still exists today in the forms of police brutality, the KKK and the prison system. 

Speaking of the KKK, it is important to acknowledge this racist group that was the result of the end of slavery. Whites during Reconstruction sought control over black Americans who had previously been their property but were now “free.” So, they went around terrorizing the black populace and brutally murdering them. Lynching became a spectacle because it was an assertion of power over the “other.” There is currently no federal law against it. The most recent case? 1998. That is if we don’t count police brutality. Since then, numerous nooses have been drawn, put on statues, etc., as a threat against black Americans all over, including President Obama.

These are not the only ways it continues to exist, but they are the most prevalent. 

The point is: yes, slavery happened. We are still talking about it and will continue to do so until it is recognized in its present forms and eliminated from our society.

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a series in which Alexis Levato will reflect on themes in the show “Dear White People,” which she is analyzing in an independent study course. 

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