This story is part of an editorial series examining racial discrimination as the driving force behind mass incarceration in the United States, in partnership with Ava DuVernay’s ‘13TH.’
The most powerful tool of 13TH, the latest documentary by Selma director Ava DuVernay that explores the history of mass incarceration in the U.S., is its universality. The film touches on more than how criminalizing black bodies was written into the Thirteenth Amendment to our Constitution—which essentially turned incarceration into a legal form of servitude; a loophole to the abolition of slavery loophole. It painfully explains how the provision has been exploited to discriminate against African Americans and other minorities. In turn, that has affected our society’s perceptions on race, politics, public safety, identity, and each other. Institutionalized racism is deeply baked into our way of life, and in many instances, we’re unable to see it.
It’s no coincidence that studies show people are more likely to shoot a black target than a white target. Or that cops search African-Americans more at traffic stops, even though white people are more likely to be found with guns or drugs. Or that communities of color overwhelmingly find themselves behind bars for drug crimes, even though their white counterparts (again) are just as likely to commit these same crimes, if not more. As DuVernay’s documentary masterfully demonstrates, what drives race in 2016 America—the endless stream of police shootings, the anger of the Black Lives Matter movement, the racial divisiveness in this presidential election—is the inevitable result of something 150 years in the making.
And it’s not just law enforcement. This intentional imbalance exists in all aspects of everyday life: housing, schools, the workplace, everywhere. But all too often, it takes one defining experience or conversation for the corrupt nature of the system to come into clear view. This is when our perspective sheds the personal for the bigger picture, and when we realize everything we had known up until that point—about the color of our skin, and our position in the U.S.’s racial class system—wasn’t done by chance. It was created by design.
We tapped a variety of influential voices—including Pusha T, Charlamagne Tha God, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement Opal Tometi and Johnetta Elzie, music executive Russell Simmons, and the director of 13TH herself, Ava DuVernay—to hear their first-hand accounts of experiencing racial injustice, and how those moments helped shaped who they are today. Here’s what they said.
Charlamagne Tha God
“I grew up in South Carolina where the Confederate Flag flew over the Statehouse. I never felt like I wasn't allowed to go somewhere because I was black, but I'm sure I've experienced covert racism. The funny thing about it is that this is just one of the underlying things you knew.
“I remember specifically, me and my now-wife (this had to be in like 1999) walked into this restaurant in our hometown. It was a restaurant we had never eaten at, even during the day. It was right by the railroad tracks, and it was one of those restaurants we'd just always drive by. But one day, we were like, ‘Why don't we go check that place out?’ And we walked in, and there was nothing but white people there. The workers were white. Everybody in there was white. Literally. And we looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Nah, this ain't where we supposed to be.’ And then the host said, ‘Why don’t y'all wanna stay? Because there's no black people here?’ And we just laughed, and were like, ‘Yeah.’ But it was just like, an underlying thing. We just didn't feel like we were supposed to be there. There was nothing telling us we had leave, or someone saying, ‘Y'all aren't welcome.’ We just knew this wasn't the place for us.
“I've got an 8-year-old daughter. I fight within myself everyday whether or not to even plant those seeds in her head because I don't want to start a fire where there's not a fire. I don't want to sit down and tell my daughter, ‘Some people get treated this way because of the color of your skin. You may be treated this way because of the color of your skin, and because you're a woman.’ I don't want those burdens in her mind. I'm trying to raise me a superhero! I'm trying to raise me a god! I don't want to make her feel like there's any limitation to her life. We'll cross that bridge when we get there—if she ever feels like she's receiving some unfair treatment, and she doesn't necessarily know why. We'll assess the situation, and try to figure out what it is.
“But the truth of the matter is, she is going to see a lot of discrimination because she's black. She is going to see a lot of discrimination because she's a woman. I fight with these things now, and we're having these conversations now. It comes up because she's asking while I'm sitting there watching CNN, ‘Why are the police going after black people?’ She'll ask me, ‘Why does somebody like Donald Trump seem so hateful?’ So I have to explain these things to her; that some people don't see all humans as equal.
“Those are the toughest conversations that I have to have about race, and they're with my child.”
—Charlamagne Tha God, Co-Host of ‘The Breakfast Club’ on Power 105.1 and author of the forthcoming book Black Privilege: Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It
“Growing up in Compton, I saw people from my community there one day, and not there the next. Friends at school, I'd be like, 'Where are you going this weekend?’ 'Oh, I'm going to see my father, or my brother. He's locked up.' I’d see POs [parole officers] on my block visiting people. And then also, growing up where I grew up, I'd see police officers, and I wouldn't think safety like most Americans, or many Americans who don't live in black or brown communities. They see police officers, and they think safety. When I was growing up, I saw a police officer, and I thought, 'Who they coming for? What's happening?'
—Ava DuVernay, Director of Selma, 13TH, and Queen Sugar
“I think about what it meant to talk to my friends and family and other people who watched as George Zimmerman got off for the murder of Trayvon Martin. So many of us had felt as though Trayvon Martin was being put on trial. And so we watched in shock that the murder of a child could essentially be flipped around—to have this child be on trial. It really epitomized how deep racism and conflicts of race are within U.S. society. I think for me, as an advocate and someone who works as a public educator on issues of racial injustice and inequity, that was probably one of the most difficult things to have to explain to people. Difficult, as well as important. It's one of the most significant and important examples in the 21st century of how deep-seeded anti-black racism is within the United States.
“I say this because it goes from being this story that is very personal—about a family and about a child being stopped and killed—to then about a community of people (the jury) siding with someone who we know, and everybody knows, murdered a teenager. Not just murdered, but literally sought him out and killed him. We're essentially saying, 'You know what, despite all the facts, it's okay. It was justified.' And there was something about that that just moved from the personal story about racism that we harbor, and the interpersonal dynamics around racism, to looking at the systemic, institutional, and structural challenges around racism. To me, it's one of those important points in our history, and important points in my own personal life where I can point to this as being one of the, 'No, people, it's just not about personal bias. It's about the ways in which our system is set up to affirm that bias.' And the impunity and the lack of care and value on black lives.
“I reached out to Alicia Garza, who wrote the Facebook post that ended with 'Black Lives Matter,' and told her, 'Hey, we have to name this. We have to build out this platform. We have to build out an umbrella campaign that allows us to move from just one-off stories about one black person being murdered, to an assessment and a critique of the ways in which black lives are devalued across the board in the United States, and in various systems and institutions.’
“My parents wanted to shield me and my brothers for a long time. I have two younger brothers, and I know my parents have spoken to them about driving and interacting with police. They didn't have those conversations with me, but they did have conversations about being exceptional black people. They really built that into my brothers and I—that we needed to perform at our best because we'll always have these stereotypes cast on us. In their ways, they were trying to protect my brothers and I from the world that would seek to see us as less than.”
—Opal Tometi, Co-Founder of the Black Lives Matter Movement
"When I was really young, I used to go to private school. A private, all-white school, in St. Louis County, and I'd be like the only black kid there. We'd go to one of my mom's friend's house sometimes after school. I loved going over there, and it was on the west side of St. Louis. So I'd leave my private school, all-white environment, and go straight to the hood. Sometimes across the street, police would just jump out on dudes in the neighborhood. Either the [dudes] were just minding their business, or they was selling drugs. They were the pop-up boys. I remember trying to figure out in my mind, ‘How does this make sense? I go to school with white people, and they love me there.’ But then I come home, and go to my mom's friend's house, and I see white people jumping out on people who look like me. That doesn't look like love.
“When I was riding in the car with my cousins, we wouldn't go to some places. If I was riding with someone else whose ID or insurance wasn't alright, we wouldn't go to certain areas in St. Louis. We [didn’t want] to be pulled over, and possibly even taken to jail for old warrants or whatever. My best friend, maybe like four or five years ago, had some old warrant. She was working on getting fixed, but the city still issued warrants anyway, even after her lawyer had contacted them. We got pulled over one night, and she was like, ‘I really think I might go to jail.’ So she's crying, which makes me cry, and she's like, 'If anything happens, call my dad.' Luckily, they let her go with a warning. But she's had a few run-ins where she's been pulled out of her car by the police. Then, in 2014, one of my best friends was killed by the police in St. Louis, and that changed everything for me.
“Where Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, my mom used to work at a beauty shop right on West Florissant. We have friends who live in apartments over there. My favorite nail shop is there. When I was younger, I used to be over there. Everyone knows somebody who lives in Ferguson. It's so small, and it's like in the middle of north St. Louis County. So to get through the county, or if you're getting to the city, you have to drive through that. That's not even your backyard—that's your front yard. Everyone knows where Ferguson is here. It's crazy to know that the whole world now knows, too.”
—Johnetta Elzie, Community Activist and Leader in the Black Lives Matter Movement
“You know, growing up, you always would hear that the government is after you, or how the playing field wasn't even for you as a young black male. I would always hear that, and I accepted it. I just accepted it as, ‘That's what it is.’ And you dealt with it accordingly. You took the risks that you took. You made vows that if things didn't end up in your favor, you'd keep yourself a certain way. But the unfair rules were something that we didn't, or I didn't.... It was just the norm. It never bothered me. I never thought about it. You always know it’s there, but it's just the way of life in America. That's just what it is.
"A lot of kids feel hopeless, and rightfully so. I feel like they've been proven right so many times. But it is for you to be stronger, and know that you can't give up. You can't give up, and you can't stop fighting. Because you'll be like I was and just think, ‘This is just the way.’ You'll accept it as ‘the way.’ And this is not the way, man. This is not the way. Yo, the playing field can be even. It can be. Me, my era, eras before me, we just accepted it as ‘the way.’ That was totally wrong.”
—Pusha T, Rapper, President of G.O.O.D. Music
“Hollis, Queens was a lower-middle class neighborhood. We had moved up from South Jamaica. We thought we were going somewhere, and then heroin destroyed the neighborhood. The only rehab we had was the Nation of Islam, which had a rehab on the corner. An intake, a rehab, and a mosque. Before you knew it, they were zombies, and no one fucked with them. No one supported them, and no one understood how to help them, even though they were our children, our older brothers, and our family members. We didn't do anything to help them. But more than that, the government targeted them, and in some cases, they sold them the drugs in the first place. The wealthier neighborhoods didn't have the amount of heroin on the corner that we had. They let it happen. They let our lower-middle-class neighborhood became the heroin capital of Queens. It was right there on the corner! I guess they did the best they could to arrest everything breathing. But the epidemic grew. It was horrible, and it destroyed the community. Everybody went to jail.
“The way to clean it up was to clean the people up. It was horrible what they did to the community. They turned a church-going culture in our community into prison culture. That's why you wonder why the rappers say what they say. Prison culture took over communities that used to have church culture. And it destroyed the fabric of the black community. Educating innocent people in criminal behavior and dumping them back in the hood without hope, they became the educators of the young people in what was cool. Coming home from jail was always viewed as cool in every community in the hood. 'I just came home, son.' So that's what the prison-industrial complex did, that's what prison did—it changed the culture of the communities, and destroyed the fabric of the black community, for sure. In some black communities, the whole fabric was destroyed because of the prison-industrial complex. I would argue that the whole culture was affected so deeply.”
—Russell Simmons, Entrepreneur, Co-Founder of Def Jam Records, and CEO of Rush Communications