by Rashaad Thomas – Arizona State University
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.
During Arizona State University’s (“ASU”) Fall Semester 2014, I was enrolled in a course held at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law (“SDOCCL”). The first day of the semester, I took a free moment to tour the beautiful, yet unfamiliar building. During my tour, I noticed that there were only two other people who looked like me out of the large number of people present. The only two people were faces of color on a faculty profile photo poster.
While reflecting on the poster of faculty it was clear, there is a lack of representation of Black faces at ASU’s college of law. As a person of color, this lack of representation can be interpreted as a form of symbolic violence that has gone unchallenged since the establishment of the law school in1964—ironically, the same year the Civil Rights Act (Pub.L. 88-352, enacted July 2, 1964) was passed. Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu defines symbolic violence as shared cultural practices exercised by a social agent with his or her complicity. It therefore relates to the imposition of power and control of people within an institution that results in relationships in which the dominated are treated inferior, denied access to resources, and limited in social mobility and personal aspirations. (Webb et al. 2002). I walked out contemplating, “Are people like me welcomed at the SDOCCL? If, SDOCCL is a representative of ASU, am I safe on its campus?”
Many think that racial issues were solved when Brown vs. Topeka’s Board of Education deemed segregation illegal or that racial issues no longer exist because President Barack Obama was elected the First Black President in 2008. However, evidence suggests that the unresolved issues of race continue and can be found in between the lines of the Emancipation Proclamation and the United States Constitution’s Amendment XIII.
Contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation and Amendment XIII were not documents created or passed to end slavery. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to gain favor from Congress, end the Civil War, and secure his re-election as President of the United States of America. It declared, “all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then thence forward, and forever free.” (Emancipation Proclamation 1863). The Emancipation Proclamation’s promise of liberty was undercut by President Lincoln’s approval of a Joint Resolution of Congress, which sent Amendment XIII to the state legislatures for ratification with the intent that slavery and/or involuntary servitude be permitted as punishment for a crime. Amendment XIII was finally passed by the Senate in February 1, 1865. (The House Joint Resolution 1865).
Today’s alarming data on incarceration displays how, through its institutions, the United States dispossess and disenfranchises people of color and the poor by investing large sums of capital in support of federal, state, and private prisons. (The Sentencing Project 2014). The data indicates that prisons have replaced plantations and slaves have evolved into prisoners: Blacks, Latinos, homeless, disabled, military veterans, and the poor. In her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” Ohio State University law professor and civil rights advocate, Michelle Alexander, states, “more African-American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” (Alexander 2012). It is my argument that predominantly white institutions, including institutions of higher education, are advocates of discrimination against people of color and the poor by failing to rectify and thereby ignoring the barriers that challenge their existence and their success.
Malcolm X once stated, “When you live in a poor neighborhood, you are living in an area where you have to have poor schools. When you have poor schools, you have poor teachers. When you have poor teachers, you get a poor education. When you get a poor education, you are destined to be a poor man and a poor woman the rest of your life.” (Beito 2010). The following statistics support this proposition:
- Black students accounted for 18 percent of the country’s pre-K enrollment, but made up 48 percent of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions. (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights 2014).
- Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students. (Hsieh 2014).
- Prisons consist of 38% Black men while Black men only make up 6% of the US population. (The Sentencing Project 2014).
- The national unemployment rate is 5.6% but the Black unemployment rate is 11.4%. (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015)
- Black Americans make up 12% of the US population, but 26% of the poverty rate. (Macartney, Bishaw & Fontenot 2013).
Amendment XIII has resulted in a systemic civil war against people of color and the poor by building a society around legal dehumanization and enslavement that predominantly affects persons in lower social classes and even more predominantly those of color. I remember reading in the Autobiography of Malcolm X that he once aspired to be a lawyer. However, his eighth grade teacher Mr. Ostrowski thought differently about his goal saying, “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer – that’s not [a] realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be.” (Hayley 1965). I left ASU’s SDOCCL asking, “Is the lack of faces of color at ASU’s SDOCCL implicitly echoing the voice of Malcolm X’s eighth grade teacher suggesting Black folks need not apply?”
Alexander, Michelle. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York. The New Press.
Angulo, Carlos and Weich, Ronald H. (1997). Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. Retrieved from http://www.civilrights.org/publications/justice-on-trial/juvenile.html
Beito, David T. (27 April, 2010). Malcolm X Defends the Second Amendment. Retrieved Video from http://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/126022
Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015). Economic News Release: Employment Situation Summary. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
Carson, E Ann, Ph.D. (2014). Prisoners in 2013. Retrieved from
Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863; Presidential Proclamations, 1791-1991; Record Group 11; General Records of the United States Government; National Archives. Retrieved from http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=34
Hayley, Alex. (1965). The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told To Alex Haley. New York. The Random House Publishing Group.
Hsieh, Steven. (21 March, 2014). 14 Disturbing Stats About Racial Inequality in American Public Schools. The Nation. Retrieved from
Macartney, Suaznne, Bishaw, A., & Fontenot, K. (2013). Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007-2011. Retrieved from
National Association For the Advancement of Colored People. (2009). Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet
The House Joint Resolution proposing the 13th amendment to the Constitution, January 31, 1865; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1999; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives. Retrieved from http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=40
The Sentencing Project. (2014). Facts About Prisons and People In Prison.
The Sentencing Project. (2014). Felony Disenfranchisement Laws In the United States. Retrieved from http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_Felony%20Disenfranchisement%20Laws%20in%20the%20US.pdf
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshots: School Discipline. Retrieved from
Webb J, Scirato T, Danaher G. 2002. Understanding Bourdieu. London: Sage.