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The Recurring Facade of Progression

Two weeks ago, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Khalil Muhammad discussed the possibility of a Third Reconstruction in America. Reconstruction commonly refers to the "period following the Civil War of rebuilding the United States," spanning from 1865 to 1877. Its halt is still negotiable among historians, but its conclusion is often associated with the Compromise of 1877. The Compromise of 1877 was an informal settlement among members of Congress to solidify the results of the 1876 election (sound familiar?). After they negotiated the dispute, Republicans regained power.

To compromise the deal, the Republicans agreed that they would pull out troops in the South. Troops were implanted into the South following the Civil War to maintain order in the South and prevent another uprising. With these troops gone, white supremacy lawlessness resumed at a higher level. And Black people fled. This is known as the Great Migration.

We often associate the era of Reconstruction as an era of prosperity. Black people were elected to Congress for the first time. Historically Black Colleges and universities were popping up in the South. There was a significant economic and social improvement in life. And this is not to say that the strides accomplished in this era were not monumental. Still, it is to say that because this period provided so much prosperity and hope for Black people, it was violently crushed.

Brewing during Reconstruction was a functional replacement for what was lost in the Civil War—slavery. And the best way to funnel Black people into bondage was through criminality. After slavery was abolished through the 13th amendment, Black Codes essentially replaced slave codes. As described by David Oshinsky in Worse Than Slavery, Black Codes were “to control the labor supply, to protect the freedmen from his own ‘vices,’ and to ensure the superior position of whites in Southern life” (Oshinsky 20). Consequently, arrest rates skyrocketed “as the legislature increased the penalties for minor property crimes,” while “the local courts moved to weaken protections only recently afforded black defendants” (Oshinsky 40). Although not entirely clandestine, the Black Codes involved a vagrancy law and additional restrictive policies that propelled the system of convict lease, most infamously the Pig Law, which “redefined ‘grand larceny’ to include the theft of farm animal or any property valued at ten dollars or more” (Oshinsky 40). Thus began another legal funneling of black bodies into the prison system, ultimately resulting in the black body becoming a commodity. The Black Codes resulted in the majority of blacks being restricted to the labor force regardless of the development of progressive policies in the Reconstruction era. The establishment of white authority through terrorism in the Redemption era and Black Codes instilled enough fear in the black populations to allow whites to prevail (Smithsonian American Art Museum).

Excessive sentencing and over-policing also contribute to modern-day inequities in incarceration—all legacies of this era. In terms of excessive sentencing, Oshinsky also argues that convict-leasing is a “form of legalized murder that sentenced thousands of faceless victims to a ‘death by oppression’ for often trivial acts. Under no system…did the punishment so poorly fit the crime” (Oshinsky 67). Convict–leasing was “a functional replacement for slavery” (Adamson 1).

Now, in a general breadth, corrections, including prisons, juvenile justice programs, and parole, make up around 5% of state budgets—approximately $56 billion, according to a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (Center on Budget and Policy Problems 1). Another startling fact reveals in the past three decades, “state and local government expenditures on prisons and jails have increased at a much faster pace than state and local spending on elementary and secondary education and post-secondary education” (U.S. Department of Education 2). Additionally, state-level policy offenses are the most significant contributor to the state prison population.

The history of state prisons also explains the apparent reasoning behind the increased rates of incarceration amongst specific communities. Additionally, the reason behind shifting to increasing the number of state prisons was “the country’s move away from corporal and capital punishment toward imprisonment” to be seen as an “international exemplar” (90). After the Civil War, state prisons increased exponentially, even outside the South: “States used the prospect of prison labor revenues to guide their decisions about how to budget for new state systems” (Ball 96). Conclusively, the rise in incarceration and the rise of state-funded prison systems is “neither necessary nor inevitable” (Ball 106).

Historians will note this era as monumental. We've elected Barack Obama. We've elected Kamala Harris. Our country is fastly moving towards a majority-minority country demographically. We are paying attention to race and crime issues because the legacies of slavery are still impactful today. Are we getting what we want? Will we finally reach justice? Or are we in another facade of progression? Is this another Reconstruction?


Smithsonian American Art Museum; Racial Relations during Reconstruction,, pp. 1-6

Oshinsky, David M., 1944-. Worse Than Slavery :Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York :Free Press, 1996. Print.

Adamson, Christopher. 1983. Punishment After Slavery: Southern State Penal Systems, 1865-1890*. Social Problems. 30:5. JSTOR.

Initiative, Prison Policy. “Tracking State Prison Growth in 50 States.” Prison Policy Initiative,

“Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education.” Report: Increases in Spending on Corrections Far Outpace Education | U.S. Department of Education, 7 July 2016,

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