This story is part of an editorial series examining racial discrimination as the driving force behind mass incarceration in the United States, created in partnership with Ava DuVernay's '13TH.'

Donald Trump was elected to be the next president of the United States Tuesday night. After running a campaign that was characterized by rhetorical attacks on people of color and racial tension, many Americans are nervous about the future of race relations in America. 

Trump's election wasn't the first sign that America hadn't come as far as many had hoped when it comes to race, though. For the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has put issues of racial inequality in the justice system from and center and highlighted just how stubborn racism can be in America. 

Indeed, the past few years of race relations in America beg the question: can our racism be unlearned? Experts believe perhaps it can, but that work starts with a better understanding of the nation's history.

In August 2014, about a week after Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson, and two years before Donald Trump was elected president, poet Claudia Rankine traveled down to Ferguson to speak to a community in resistance. Shortly thereafter, she captured the meaning of Brown’s death in a haunting seventeen syllables: “Because white men can't/police their imagination/black men are dying.”

About a year and a half later, The Guardian asked her what she was thinking about when she wrote the lines, which appear in her award-winning book Citizen: An American Lyric. “When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds,” she said. “Darren Wilson told the jury that he shot Michael Brown because he looked ‘like a demon.’ And I don’t disbelieve it. Blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people.”

But what is at the root of a white imagination that has turned black bodies into “demons” and criminals? What has led to the disproportionate representation of African Americans in our prisons and jails? And how can that racism be unlearned in a time of heightened racial tension that will see the first black president succeeded by one whom many see as a racist?

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, as well as the author of the 2011 book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

“The issue of mass incarceration is in many ways, but not solely, tied to the problem of racial criminalization. That is, associating criminal behavior with racial groups or types rather than, as is constitutionally mandated, individuals,” he told Complex.

This phenomenon of racial criminalization can be traced back in part to the 13th Amendment, which offered a “loophole” on emancipation by permitting the forced labor of those who had committed a crime, explained Muhammad. With Reconstruction came the emerging figure of the rapacious, monstrous black man—a notion that still holds immense sway over our national psyche. As long as black bodies were criminal bodies, they could be locked up and exploited for their free labor, just like when they were enslaved. It’s a history that’s explored in-depth in Ava DuVernary’s recently released documentary, 13TH.