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Kanye West, "New Slaves" and a Long Tradition of Locking People Up for Profit

Carl Takei,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality
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May 24, 2013

This was cross posted to The Huffington Post.

Projecting his latest music video onto the sides of 66 buildings around the world over the weekend, Kanye West debuted his new song, “New Slaves.” He rapped:

I know that we the new slaves…
Meanwhile the DEA, teamed up with the CCA
They tryina lock n—s up, they tryna make new slaves
See that’s the privately owned prison, get your piece today
They prolly all in the Hamptons, braggin ’bout what they made

Though he says some troubling things about women (and not just in this song), Kanye is right to call out CCA, the Corrections Corporation of America, for how it ‘gets [its] piece’ in our national overincarceration epidemic.

They tryina lock n—s up, they tryna make new slaves

Today, there are more African-American adults under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War.

We have a long tradition of bondage in this country – one that has recurred in various forms, under different names, even after the end of slavery. Take the convict lease system. In the first decades after the Civil War, many freedmen were returned to bondage – in some cases for the same masters who had owned them before the war. How? Vagrancy laws, which were used to sweep up freedmen who left their old plantations for new towns, on the excuse that they arrived without jobs.

More recently, two disturbing trends – the increasing overincarceration of people of color and the rise of a massive immigration detention machinery – have fueled the growth of a new heir to the convict lease system that rakes in billions of dollars a year for CCA and other for-profit prison companies. Over the past forty years, the United States has built up the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars. This is a historical anomaly; despite relatively stable incarceration rates earlier in the twentieth century, our prison population grew by 700% between 1970 and 2005, far outpacing both crime and general population growth.

And this overincarceration epidemic has a massive and disproportionate impact on people of color. If current trends continue, 1 in 3 Black men born today can expect to serve time behind bars.

Michelle Alexander calls this phenomenon “The New Jim Crow” because it has made the criminal justice system function as a new form of racial caste system, creating a massive underclass of Black and Brown people in this country who are denied voting rights, subject to job discrimination and housing discrimination, because they carry the label of “criminal.” That “criminal” label obscures the underlying racial and economic realities. When a person is so branded, it becomes politically and socially acceptable – even desirable – to deny that person rights that politicians would not dare deny on the basis of race.

They prolly all in the Hamptons, braggin ’bout what they made

While communities of color suffer, the for-profit prison companies benefit. In recent SEC filings, CCA admitted that drug law reform and reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes are “risk factors” for them that could hurt their bottom line.

Another “risk factor” for CCA is immigration reform. In the past two decades, rising use of immigration detention has become a major profit center for CCA. In FY2011, nearly 430,000 immigrants passed through ICE custody. The U.S. government now spends more on immigration enforcement than it does on the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, and ATF combined. And much of this goes to CCA; according to the nonprofit Detention WatchNetwork, nearly half of all of the immigrants detained by the federal government are detained in for-profit prisons.

In the immigration context, people who cross the border from Mexico to work here are not called “job seekers” – they are “illegals.” Like the word “criminal,” that term serves the interests of prison profiteers like CCA by obscuring the underlying racial and economic realities of the situation.

Whether it’s projecting the message onto the Prada store on 5th Avenue or protesting CCA’s shareholders meeting, the word needs to get out: slavery is slavery no matter what you call it. It is time for Americans to reject those who depend for their profits upon a flow of African-American and immigrant bodies into their prisons and stop accepting the linguistic distortions that enable this modern traffic in flesh to continue growing.

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