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12 - Janet and Bob Moses in front of the Moses Mural.jpg

The Vote, Caste, and the Carceral State.

By Dr. Janet J. Moses

The essential handmaiden of a democratic society is the vote. Prior to the 15th Amendment, in 1870, which guaranteed the right to vote, and certainly before the 13th Amendment, in 1865, which abolished slavery, the only way most Americans of African descent could vote was with their feet–by trying to escape from their enslavers. It is only during the last 150 years of the nation’s history that African Americans have officially been able to use the ballot box as a means of protecting what they view as in their best interest–and practically, this right did not meaningfully exist until less than 60 years ago. A caste of second-class citizens–the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans–provided the people power behind the fight for the vote and substantive citizenship both during Reconstruction and, then, because hard-won citizenship was soon revoked, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. And since then, the struggle for Black voting rights, and substantive first-class citizenship, has been subverted by the Supreme Court and by the War on Drugs, which is a bipartisan construction that has devastated Black communities. These, plus practices like felon disenfranchisement, have eroded Black people’s ability to use the power inherent in the vote in their interest.


Understanding the racial disproportionality of today’s imprisoned population requires a re-examination of American chattel slavery, out of which a caste of enslaved African laborers imprisoned in the plantations of the South was created. The Virginia colonial law of 1662, Partis Ventrum Sequitur, accords the status of slave to anyone born of an enslaved African womb, and the Casual Killing Act of 1669 accords white men the right to kill enslaved recalcitrant Africans. Just as the Bill of Rights enumerated a set of provisions protecting white men, codes governing the creation of the slave patrol, and the Black Codes of the ante- and post- bellum South, drew the thick, bleak, contours of what was permissible and the punishments to be meted out if Blacks strayed beyond the boundaries of their confinement. 

Thomas Jefferson understood that the fundamental requirement for the stability and safety of his colonial Virginia was absolute social control of the African, who might abscond with his body or, worse, raise up his sword, as did the formerly enslaved in what had become the free Black sovereign state of Haiti!  "But as it is,” Jefferson wrote, “we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation on the other." Bob Moses understood Jefferson’s existential concerns but admonished us to understand that what is in play even today, so many years later, is that constitutional fault line through which the lava of racial caste and of the carceral state flows.He would say, in no uncertain terms, that we must find our way across this fault line if America is to become a true democracy.


The sinews of this system have persisted far beyond the American colonial experiment. They are tightly enmeshed in and baked into the racially hierarchical structures of today’s America. And they are best observed and most painfully experienced in America’s classrooms and within the prisons and jails of the carceral state. This conference will examine policies that use voting policies to sustain the carceral state, and political practices that have removed the incarceration of Black and brown men and women from the national political agenda. The conference will consider the possibility of creating a true one man, one vote system, along with the fight for an affirmative right to vote, and substantive rights of the 14th amendment as practical tools to end mass incarceration.


Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow describes America's incarcerated as “ disposable people”-- overwhelmingly of African descent and male, their labor no longer needed and their education, anchored in the cotton picking fields of the 20th century, providing little exposure to the knowledge and skills that are essential for accessing the minimal requirements necessary for economic and political participation in American life as we know it.


The dire image of disposable people on the caboose of America’s labor history essentially reveals a tale of violence needed to keep Black folk working on the plantations, and post Civil War mines of the pre-industrial South, of lynching and of the current obsolescence of Black undereducated workers who travel the school to prison pipeline to the warehouses of the carceral state. The conference hopes to confront racialized incarceration as a historical policy of caste maintenance and social control, entailing the internal deportation of those living in the bottom tier of our racial hierarchy.


These terms raise hackles of fear and memory. They are stated with trepidation, but with the conviction that they must be faced. The conference will consider solutions that rely on the grassroots organizing of those who bear the burden of the problem, along with their allies from the spectrum of all human endeavor.

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