As Rhode Islanders go to the polls to vote, at least the abolition of slavery will not be on the ballot. Elsewhere in five states, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennesee and Vermont, voters will decide …
As Rhode Islanders go to the polls to vote, at least the abolition of slavery will not be on the ballot. Elsewhere in five states, Alabama, Louisiana, Oregon, Tennesee and Vermont, voters will decide to close a species of slavery-forced labor by people convicted of certain crimes. In other words, these states (and about 20 in all whose constitutions include language permitting involuntary servitude and slavery as criminal punishments) allows our democracy to finish the sentence, “Slavery’s okay when it’s a punishment ”(Associated Press, Oct. 20, 2022 Kimberlee Krusi).
How can this remnant of rationalization still exist more than 150 years after emancipation? We are not talking here about prison labor, where the prisoner seeks employment during his incarceration and who should, by the way, make minimum wage if he is cleaning up the roads or making the proverbial license plates.
We are talking about incarcerated workers making nothing or just pennies on the dollar and, who if they refuse work can be denied phone calls, or visits with families. Recalcitrants are punished with solitary confinement and even denied parole.
I suppose that if most people see nothing wrong with the scenario here it makes the point that an acquiescent attitude toward “ legitimate” slavery purdures. It is plain wrong. If you commit the crime you should do the time, but society doesn’t have the right to demand free labor. It also is no accident that the overwhelming numbers of inmates in forced labor chain gangs are minorities. It is a fiction to suggest that forced labor is appropriate to make the prisoners pay for their upkeep. They haven’t voluntarily checked into the Marriott.
This societal glimpse into rationalizations to treat people as our “handmaidens” sometimes rears its head when the issue of welfare recipients comes up. Some, usually able-bodied folks, insist that the welfare moms should work 40 hours a week for the check and food stamps. Putting aside a moment the complicated situations normally presented by unemployed women with children, or homeless veterans, recipients are often unable to work because of the climate that put them in the situation and the lack of resources.
That does not mean, however, that job training or schooling shouldn’t be mandatory with a timeframe to exit the rolls as long as systems like child day care, mental health services, etc. are able to be accessed.
While not on a ballot, a race issue will be decided this year by the United States Supreme Court when it decides whether affirmative action practices have disproportionately harmed Asian-Americans who applied to Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. The Court is most likely to strike down race-based admissions.
Hopefully, the court would not conclude that factors like a first generation college student status or his/her “zip code” can’t be used. After teaching in an inner city school and years of living and working in the poorest neighborhoods in Rhode Island, I know from experience that kids who get good grades despite the challenges in their environment have the “right stuff” for admission, since they have had to struggle mightily to get where they are.
This determination and drive are evaluative factors which should apply across the board to any “color of skin” who overcomes these obstacles. May this standard remain.
Arlene Violet is an attorney and former Rhode Island Attorney General.