How Enslavement birthed the modern criminal justice system

It is no secret that African-Americans have long shouldered the brunt of a justice system created with sustained inequality and oppression in mind. Enslavement not only dehumanized African Americans in the eyes of the white majority but also laid the groundwork for a prison system that is eerily reminiscent of the institution of enslavement itself.

“I have never been able to discover anything disgraceful in being a
colored man.
But I have often found
it inconvenient
in America.”

- Bert Williams

This quote, spoken by Bert Williams, one of the most prominent Black entertainers of the early 20th century, summarizes the African American dilemma in trying to navigate the promises set forth in America’s Declaration of Independence, and its affirmations of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

However, even before those words were written, and as the founders worked at crafting them as tenants of independence and freedom for the nation and themselves, they would then and later on continue to restrict granting those liberties to the country’s inhabitants of African descent.

From slaveholder to slaveholder, town to town, or state to state, the rules that impacted the African presence in America were restrictive and varied, a cruel truth, which Williams humorously summarizes as “inconvenient.”

Imagine, without any defense or protection under the law, how much African American life was dictated by community-sanctioned rules of avarice, social constraint, and political whims based on fear and prejudice.

In New York, a leading state in slaveholding and an early financial home in brokering the system, there was also a history of social restriction and conflict doled out upon residents of African descent.

Historically, New York’s most racially heated riot was not one initiated by Blacks, but one which targeted them.

In 1866, an uprising known as the Draft Riots, was led by Irish and other recent immigrants against their forced induction to fight in the Civil War. After successfully disrupting the draft process, the rioters turned their attack on New York City’s Black institutions and communities, seeing the Black presence as being the cause of the war, and thus their situation.

The city’s first documented African slave revolt, however, was in 1712.
After a fire was spotted at the home of Peter Van Tilburgh, nine white men rushing to extinguish the flames were killed by slaves.

This uprising was quickly put down, and while several fled, others were captured and executed, with more than a dozen slaves either publicly burned to death or hung in a communal display of punishment and revenge. By 1720, New York would have the highest proportion of slaves in its population of any colony north of Virginia.

“ [At the time] The population numbered only about ten thousand, one-fifth of which was negroes, who were slaves. Their education being wholly neglected... They were, besides, restive under their bondage and the severe punishments often inflicted on them, which caused their masters a great deal of anxiety.

Not isolated as an inland plantation, but packed in a narrow space, they had easy communication with each other…the most stringent measures were adopted to prevent them from assembling together; yet, in spite of every precaution, there would now and then come to light some plan or project that would fill the whites with alarm. They felt half the time as though walking on the crust of a volcano, and hence were in a state of mind to exaggerate every danger, and give credit to every sinister rumor.”

– The Great Riots of New York      

– J. T. Headley, 1873

Today, more than three centuries hence, many of these same fears and conditions govern the politics and policing of African Americans, who are still more likely than other citizens to be subject to criminal stops, questioning, and challenges based on some societal fear or breach of racially defined territory.