by Tallon Kennedy
My life so far has been a privileged one, and the main reason for this is my white skin. For a long time, I didn’t understand how racism is institutionalized and ingrained in America, because growing up, I never had to think about race. I never had to live the experiences of racism. I had to teach myself everything I currently know and understand about race in America, because neither my parents nor my teachers felt the need to teach me about how racism is not only pervasive in modern America, but is the backbone on which power hierarchies are structured and maintained. I had to teach myself through listening to the voices and experiences of people of color.
The new Netflix documentary 13th is a fantastic resource for white allies wanting to engage in anti-racist discourse, as well as expand their knowledge of how racism and its rhetoric operate within American society. The documentary utilizes the voices of scholars of color in an analysis on how black American citizens have been routinely barred from the same opportunities to advance in life that white people have through political rigging of our social institutions.
13th is structured brilliantly, moving fluently through time to show how slavery has just been repackaged and renamed post-abolition. The film is focused around the 13th Amendment itself, and how the language in the Amendment has a clause that allows slavery to occur “as a punishment for crime,” which is a fact that I embarrassingly didn’t know until I viewed this film.
The documentary then shows how the 13th amendment has been used over time to construct a criminal justice system that not only targets people of color, but also forces them to work and produce consumer items for little to no payment. Through the war on drugs, and the militarization of police forces, America has created a system that has kept slavery alive into the 21st century.
A particularly poignant part of the film features audio from a Donald Trump speech being applied to video of black individuals being pushed around and assaulted in the 60s, and it then cuts to the racial violence that has occurred at Trump rallies. It’s disturbing, but it gets the message across. Racist attitudes and violence is at the forefront of our society— it always has been, and it still is.
If you’re like me, you’re parents and all of your white friends have extolled the successes of Bill Clinton’s presidency. 13th reshapes Clinton’s presidency for what it was: a neoliberal disaster that installed mandatory minimum sentencing and three strike laws that have destroyed communities of color, and took the war on drugs to the next level.
13th is a comprehensive analysis of institutional racism in America from its very founding up until this very day, and it’s a film that every white person in America needs to watch.