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  • Annie Zavitz

Ending the Exception

Professors discuss amending the 13th Amendment to remove a troublesome clause.

By Annie Zavitz

Amend the 13th: “A Conversation about Ending Legalized Slavery in the United States and Abolishing the Prison System As We Know It” took place on Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 and was organized by Citizens Against Recidivism, Inc. and Columbia University Staff. It was moderated by Flores A. Forbes from Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs. The panel consisted of Sheena Wright, President and CEO of United Way of New York City, Professor Kendall Thomas of Columbia Law School, and Mika’il DeVeaux, Ph.D., founder of Citizens Against Recidivism. Each panelist discussed the current incarceration system in the United States as it relates to their specific area of work.

The event launched with a discussion of the importance of historically oppressed groups receiving education. For speakers, education has historically been seen as a gateway out of oppression for people of color, said Wright. Her work shows a significant connection between literacy and incarceration rates, allowing Wright to conclude that they are “inexorably linked.”

“The purpose of the education system in the U.S. has been to prepare its populace for work and productivity and to maintain distinct social and economic class structures,” Wright explained. This makes it all the more important to continue educating systematically oppressed groups, especially African Americans. As Thomas stated, educating “black and brown children is revolutionary in itself.”

Thomas also explained the significance, from a legal standpoint, of actually changing the 13th Amendment by removing the Exceptions Clause. The section in question states that “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” is illegal under the U.S. Constitution “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Though the 13th Amendment was established in order to abolish slavery, it actually creates a loophole in which slavery can still be committed within the U.S. According to Thomas, this loophole was created to continue “controlling black bodies.”

“Eliminating the Exceptions Clause is a tool in getting to a democratic justice,” Thomas said. He argued that while the removal of the Exceptions Clause would play a significant role in fighting racism, it wouldn’t be sufficient to stop there. Once that goal is reached, there will be more work to to be done in combating racism as a social issue rather than an on-paper issue as it has been seen in the past.

The Exceptions Clause allows for a system of legalized slave labor within incarceration to which millions are still subjected. Forbes and DeVeaux experienced this system first-hand, having both been formerly incarcerated. According to these panelists and audience members that were also formerly incarcerated, they were forced to work for wages ranging from 7 to 60 cents an hour. This, Thomas said, creates a “racial capitalism,” based on the “exploitation of black labor within prisons,” and establishes an “underdevelopment of racial democracy.” It is racial, he argued, because of the systemic roots of the prison system, the U.S.’s history of exploitation through slavery, and the mass incarceration crisis that targets African Americans.

“Slavery,” Thomas said, “is an economic system that still goes on today.” So it is imperative that this system be fought from as many angles and “fronts” as possible. “Pivoting,” to attack other groups attempting to reach the same goal is a “distraction,” said Wright in response to two audience members accusing the panelists of not being “revolutionary” enough.


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