Kanye West’s 13th Amendment outburst was baffling, but worth considering
Kayne West's tweet that the United States should amend the 13th Amendment brought renewed attention to a flaw in its language.
- On Sunday, rapper Kanye West tweeted that we should abolish the 13th Amendment, later backtracking that he meant "amend."
- The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but its punishment clause allowed an exception for convicted inmates.
- The punishment clause isn't the exception but the rule, one that many argue continues America's slavery tradition to this day.
Should we abolish the 13th Amendment? No, no we shouldn't. Slavery is a grotesque, immoral practice, one that stands unequivocally among humanity's greatest sins. Enshrining the abolishment of slavery into the supreme law of the United States was a necessary step in the country's moral progress. I mean, who would even suggest such a thing?
Enter Ye (née Kanye West).
On Sunday, the rapper tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Make America Great Again hat with the message: "this represents good and America becoming whole again. We will no longer outsource to other countries. We build factories here in America and create jobs. We will provide jobs for all who are free from prisons as we abolish the 13th Amendment. Message sent with love."
Social media exploded at the suggestion, and the outburst quickly became trending new. West followed up with a tweet to clarify that he meant "amend" the 13th Amendment, not "abolish" it.
Meagan Flynn, a reporter for The Washington Post, speculated that West may be referring to the "13th Amendment's exception clause," a clause added to the Amendment that many scholars argue undermines its purpose. West thanked The Post for its coverage, suggesting that's what he meant the whole time.
But what is the exception to the 13th Amendment, and why do some scholars find it so problematic?
The abolishment* of slavery
Prisoners of Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm hoeing in a field (1910).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865, and abolished slavery as a legal practice in the United States. Here's the Amendment's full text: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction" (emphasis ours).
That emphasized clause is the penal labor exemption, aka the "punishment clause" or "convict exception clause." Basically, slavery remains legal in the United States but only for convicts, who can be forced to perform labor while in custody. Those who refuse to work face punishment. The Virginia Supreme Court summed up the situation pithily when it remarked in an 1871 case that prisoners were the "slaves of the state."
In her piece, Flynn notes that the Amendment's language can be traced back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The ordinance outlawed slavery in the Northwest Territory while retaining it as a form of punishment. Hard work, the thought went, was essential to moral reform.
In the post-antebellum U.S., it wasn't long before the States began to re-institutionalize forced labor, especially African-American labor, using the punishment clause's vague language as justification. Erik Loomis, professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, chronicled this historical abuse in The New York Times:
Almost immediately, states, especially in the South, used [the punishment clause] to control black labor. They began rounding up ex-slaves after the war, passing vagrancy laws that allowed the state to sell their labor. Congressional interference during Reconstruction briefly limited this practice, but by the late 19th century, white rule created a huge economic sector based upon unfree black labor, especially in the prison chain gangs at institutions such as Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm, a symbol of the Jim Crow era's murderous regime against black people, as well as in contract labor, where private employers worked black prisoners into the grave. Increasingly, prison authorities compelled labor out of nonblack prisoners as well.
The civil rights movement fought against this milieu but did not end it. As late as the 1970s, Loomis notes, prisoners in Texas were being used to pick cotton for no pay in segregated prison gangs. Texas prisoners instituted a prison strike in 1978, and by 1980, the Texas system was ruled unconstitutional.
Slavery, a modern punishment?
The Texas inmate strike was well-publicized but despite their victory, changes to the U.S. penal system have been glacial.
Arizona's Tent City prison was infamous for its inhumane conditions. It was overcrowded, prisoners remained outdoors at all times in the Arizona heat, and many were forced to work in chain gangs for no compensation. Although closed last year, Tent City remained operational for more than two decades, despite groups like Amnesty International protesting the conditions as abuses of inmates' civil rights.
In August of this year, inmates planned a nationwide strike to bring attention to prison conditions, listing low wages and the reestablishment of voting rights for ex-felons among their concerns.
Some states do compensate prisoners for their labor, but wages are meager. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, prisoners are paid less today, on average, than in 2001. Its data show that the average minimum daily wage paid for regular prison work is 86 cents, with an average maximum of $3.45.
States such as Arkansas and Georgia provide no compensation. (One imagines these state's legislators still believe that incarcerated individuals remain "slaves of the state," even if such words can't be uttered today.)
Opponents to the current penal labor system aren't arguing that inmates shouldn't work, but that the work needs to be humane, meaningful, and fairly compensated. Jim Liske, president of Prison Fellowship, argued such a case:
Meaningful work can be part of a restorative corrections policy [emphasis original]. Many prisoners need to learn skills that will make them employable after release. Prison jobs also help people maintain a sense of purpose and structure during long sentences. Society as a whole also benefits when prisoners' labor allows them to pay restitution. But slavery — labor that dehumanizes one person for the profit of another — has no place in prisons or in the Constitution.
Such punishments and cruel conditions may be foisted on any prisoner, regardless of race and gender. However, it should be noted that African- and Hispanic-Americans remain over represented among prison population. Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics 16 percent. But they represent 33 and 23 percent of incarcerated individuals, respectively. Whites, by comparison, make up 64 percent of the population but only 30 percent of inmates.
Denver inmate is educated on voter registration information.
Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Others have argued that the 13th Amendment needs to be reconsidered in light of sexual slavery as well. Sexual slavery is the practice in which inmates treat other inmates as sex slaves, raping them and trading them to others for favors or commodities. The practice is considered underreported and widely ignored.
Estimates for how many people are sexually abused in U.S. prisons each year vary, but according to a U.S. Department of Justice 2011-12 report, about half of reported incidents involved a prison staff member. Lovisa Stannow, executive director at Just Detention International, points out that consensual sex with an officer "is not possible when one party literally holds the key to the other one's freedom."
The law does provide protections for inmates. The Eighth Amendment provides protection against cruel and unusual punishments, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act, passed in 2003, creates a mandate for research into prisoner rape and to develop standards to prevent the practice. And the implementation of national standards is bringing more data to light.
However, as law clerk Kamal Ghali noted in the UCLA Law Review, there is something perverse about an inmate not being able to use the 13th Amendment to strengthen a claim of wrongdoing in cases of sexual slavery.
[…] Obviously, prison officials that cruelly and intentionally enslave prison inmates act in flagrant violation of the Eighth Amendment. Nonetheless, there is something unseemly about excluding government-perpetuated slavery from the scope of the Thirteenth Amendment. While the intention-based approach has the advantage of allowing prisoners to bring some claims, it has the major drawback of letting prison officials off the hook for their intentional acts of slavery.
Abolish? Amend? Ignore?
Given all of this, is Kayne West right? Should we amend the 13th Amendment to remove the punishment clause? That obviously depends on how we amend it, and West was mum on the details. (Turns out Twitter isn't the best place to discuss thorny legal issues with deep historical roots. Go figure.)
But there is precedent. As Flynn points out in her article, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts fought against the Amendment's wording even as it was being drafted. His preferred version read: "All persons are equal before the law, so that no person can hold another as a slave: and the Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to carry this declaration into effect everywhere within the United States and the jurisdiction thereof."
Sumner's revision provides a good starting point, and the U.S. needs to reinvest in serious discussions on how to close this legal loophole. Because while the Eight Amendment may protect against cruel and unusual punishment, as long as the 13th Amendment remains as written, our status quo can be neither cruel nor unusual in the eyes of the law.
- The 13th Amendment: Slavery is still legal under one condition ›
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A vertical map might better represent a world dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic.
- Europe has dominated cartography for so long that its central place on the world map seems normal.
- However, as the economic centre of gravity shifts east and the climate warms up, tomorrow's map may be very different.
- Focusing on both China and Arctic shipping lanes, this vertical representation could be the world map of the future.
The world, but not as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTkwMjIyNn0.qmQfwUdjQka8JX6q4KGANagleiuucpWay5ytMenZxUU/img.jpg?width=980" id="b95e4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ac088ec55c0585a93a9a310faab9a4c7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A Chinese 'vertical world map,' showing the world in a different perspective from the one we're used to.
Image: Prior Probability<p>Europe is tucked away in a corner, an appendage of Asia dwarfed by neighboring Africa. North America is stood on its head, facing the rest of the world from the top of the map — cut off from South America, which cuts a solitary figure at the bottom. Africa is justifiably huge, but equally eccentric. </p><p>The eye scouts elsewhere for a place to land: not the Indian Ocean, which dominates the middle of the map, but some terra firma. Antarctica and Australia are too small, mere stepping stones for the land mass of Asia. Ultimately our gaze is drawn toward China, the lynchpin of this unfamiliar world. </p><p>Managing to leave both poles intact, this "vertical" world map is about as far away as you can get from the classic Mercator projection – which slices up both, giving center stage to a puffed-up Europe. Perhaps this new map will become more familiar soon: It may do more justice to the world of the near future, dominated by China and determined by shipping routes across the iceless Arctic. <br></p>
China's 'ten-dash line'<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg1Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NTI4MzQyNn0.sBe0oFTif4Jef1vWh1kAnUylU_QMPXT5xQjm-5aA3sA/img.jpg?width=980" id="a3b81" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="80fc6e4f5c9c1c978f698be2c8de5484" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
'China without any part left out': includes Taiwan and the islands and atolls in the South China Sea, surrounded by a ten-dash line
Image: Global Times<p>While there's no indication that this map represents the Chinese government's "official" worldview, it is no secret that China has a thing with maps – and more specifically, the country's representation on them. </p><p>In China, the country's current economic success is seen as a redress of the unequal treatment meted out by western superpowers in the 19th century. China's world dominance is a return to a more natural state of world affairs, many feel. Cartographic rectifications are a symbolically significant corollary of that sentiment.</p><p><a href="https://www.citylab.com/equity/2015/12/china-cracks-down-on-politcally-incorrect-maps/421032/" target="_blank">Fines are regularly imposed</a> on companies – domestic and foreign – that fail to represent China to the fullest extent of its external borders, disputed though they may be by others (e.g. India, Taiwan and any of the countries with claims overlapping China's in the South China Sea). But the People's Republic's cartographic obsession doesn't end at China's territory itself. It also includes the country's position on the world map. <br></p>
The Kingdom at the Middle of the World<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTkwODEzMX0.SGrAZBH6iJVggFYSaIahzv9GvfEh17y1SwUNINbVicQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="1774c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="99790d80a909d17a948f7c5d463d7d98" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Early Japanese color copy of Ricci's world map
Image: public domain<p>China's name for itself is <em>Zhōngguó</em>, which means 'Central State' or 'Middle Kingdom', reflecting its ancient self-image as the civilized center (<em>Huá</em>) of the world, with wild tribes (<em>Yí</em>) at the edge. That view is not unique to China. Vietnam, for example, at certain times also styled itself as the "central state" (<em>Trung Quóc</em>) – considering the Chinese in turn as the uncouth outsiders.</p><p>It may be surprising to recall, but Europeans themselves once considered their own continent a relative backwater, viewing Jerusalem as the true center of the world. That changed with the Age of Discovery, which placed Europe at the center of an ever-expanding world. Maps reflected that worldview, and largely continue to do so. That's why today's standard world map still has Europe at its center – with China off toward the periphery on the map's right-hand side. </p><p>The most notable feature of the very first major modern world map produced in China, the <em>Kunyu Wanguo Quantu</em> (1602), is that it places China firmly at the center of the world. Produced for the Chinese emperor by Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, it was the first map ever to combine that perspective with modern western knowledge: it was the first Chinese map to show the Americas, for instance. </p><p>That representation may not have taken off elsewhere, but it will be instantly recognizable to Chinese students, as it's the standard format for world maps in China's schools today.<br></p>
America on its head<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMDU1Nzg2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwMzQ5NTc0MH0.EqadI2Yp-2dPwi3VccFZelIDK4V9t0ZOfTfHjdB6wVw/img.jpg?width=980" id="97104" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2b66e8de389b3d736bc28e019e445cd0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Upside down you turn me: North America on its head, in Chinese characters
Image: Prior Probability<p>For those used to "classic" Eurocentric world maps, Europe's marginalization may come across as a bit of an upset. America's new position on the horizontal Chinese world map is less jarring: It merely moves from the left- to the right-hand side of the picture. But then there's this vertical world map, which deals a similar blow to the American land mass: divided in two and pushed to the upper and lower edges of the map.</p><p>Unfamiliar? Sure. Shocking? Perhaps. Wrong? Not really. First off, no world map is totally right, since it's mathematically impossible to transfer the surface of a three-dimensional object onto a flat surface without some distortion. And since the world is a globe, where you center that map is a matter of purely subjective choice.<br></p><p>Those choices have historical reasons. Mercator's map was not specifically designed to put an inflated Europe at the center of the world. That was just a side effect; its main purpose was to aid shipping: Straight lines on the map correspond to straight lines sailed on the seas.</p>
By 2050, a completely melted Arctic could enable the Transpolar Passage, shortening trade routes between Asia and Europe and boosting business for Alaskan ports like Nome and Dutch Harbor.
Image: The Maritime Executive<p>The vertical world map, showing the relative proximity of China (and the rest of Asia) to Europe and (even the East Coast of) North America, has a similarly maritime <em>raison d'être</em>, or it will have by mid-century. <a href="https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/the-arctic-shipping-route-no-one-s-talking-about" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Experts project</a> that by 2050 (if not sooner), the Arctic will be sufficiently ice-free to enable the so-called Transpolar Passage, i.e. shipping straight across the North Pole. </p><p>That would shave more than three weeks off a traditional sea voyage between Europe and Asia, via the Suez Canal – and even be significantly faster than other northern alternatives like the Northwest Passage (via Canada) or the Northern Sea Route (hugging the Siberian coast). Since ships would not need to go through locks or pass over shallow waters, it would also remove current restrictions on tonnage per ship. <br></p><p>The only country seriously preparing for such a future: China. None of the other Arctic powers is giving the Transpolar route any strategic thought. On the other hand, China's Arctic Policy document, released in January 2018, already matter-of-factly refers to the Transpolar route as the 'Central Passage' – one of several 'Polar Silk Roads' that China seems to want to develop. And they already have the world map to go with it.</p>
The Labour Economics study suggests two potential reasons for the increase: corruption and increased capacity.
Cool hand rebuke<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQyMTIyNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjY1NTYyOH0.0MCPKN3If94mYCNf3mMNrnTvJXjXN_bKLhgk9203EXk/img.jpg?width=917&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=453" id="1627b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6d76421ba1ea0de4b09956b97e80c384" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A chart showing prison population rates (per 100,000 people) in 2018. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Who profits with for-profit prisons?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="97ac37e6c7f6f22ec130ea2d56871701"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dB78NV2WpWc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The Labour Economics study suggests that privately-run prisons do convicts a few favors at the moment of sentencing. However, proponents of private prisons often point to other benefits when making their case. Specifically, they argue that private prisons reduce operating costs, stimulate innovation in the correctional system, and reduce recidivism—the rate at which released prisoners are rearrested and return to prison.</p><p>In regard to recidivism, the research is mixed. <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank">One study</a> compared roughly 400 former prisoners from Florida, 200 released from private prisons and 200 from state-run facilities. It found the private-prison cohort maintained lower rates of recidivism. However, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1745-9133.2005.00006.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">another Florida study</a> found no significant rate differences. And two other studies—one from <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0011128799045001002" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Oklahoma</a> and another out of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0734016813478823" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Minnesota</a>, both comparing much larger cohorts than the first Florida study— found that prisoners leaving private prisons had a greater risk of recidivism.</p><p>The research is also inconclusive regarding cost savings. <a href="https://www.hamiltonproject.org/assets/files/economics_of_private_prisons.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A Hamilton Project analysis</a> noted that such comparisons are difficult because private prisons, like all private companies, are not required to release operational details. In comparing what studies were available, the authors estimate the costs to be comparable and that "in practice the primary mechanism for cost saving in private prisons is lower salaries for correctional officers"—about $7,000 less than their public peers. They add that competition-driven innovation is lacking as the three largest firms control nearly the entire market.</p><p>"We aren't saying private prisons are bad," Galinato said. "But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn't be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go."</p>
What exactly does "questions are the new answers" mean?
- Traditionally, intelligence has been viewed as having all the answers. When it comes to being innovative and forward-thinking, it turns out that being able to ask the right questions is an equally valuable skill.
- The difference between the right and wrong questions is not simply in the level of difficulty. In this video, geobiologist Hope Jahren, journalist Warren Berger, experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, and investor Tim Ferriss discuss the power of creativity and the merit in asking naive and even "dumb" questions.
- "Very often the dumb question that is sitting right there that no one seems to be asking is the smartest question you can ask," Ferriss says, adding that "not only is it the smartest, most incisive, but if you want to ask it and you're reasonably smart, I guarantee you there are other people who want to ask it but are just embarrassed to do so."