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The Roots of 21st Century Shackles

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By Gwen McKinney

I was ambivalent but resolved to TiVo the History Channel’s four-part series Roots. Notwithstanding the fictination (fictional history tinged with imagination), I was dubious about an eight-hour commercial TV time suck balanced against their drive to score Nielsen ratings.

The Roots marker was well-established by Alex Haley’s work, a phenomenon of the late 20th century only comparable to the election of Barak Obama in this era. Both unambiguously spotlighted deep schisms of race and racism that will forever define America. Yes, a majority of Americans elected the first Black president, but so too has Obama withstood offenses unknown to any of his predecessors. They ranged from unfathomable legislative obstructions to record death threats. One might even conclude that the delusional traction of Donald Trump, propelled by the “birther” movement, is a direct outgrowth of opposition to the Obama presidency.

In a similar way, Roots rendered a perverse statement. Yes, Americans of all strata watched the 1977 NBC miniseries, produced on the heels of a Pulitzer Prize for Alex Haley’s book. But vast acclaim (Emmy, Peabody and Golden Globe awards) did little to move America’s collective consciousness. Popular wisdom concluded that the nation traveled a long distance since the fictionalized Kunta Kinte. Story told; over and out. No dots were connected between slavery’s horrors and the structural inequality that is rampant today.

The “new Roots” rejiggered our sensibilities. There are twists that Haley’s series did not attempt with graphic violence and few redeeming white people. The evil doers, across age, gender and class, are all implicit in the crime. My takeaway from the History Channel miniseries is more useful than anticipated. Many new adherents may draw clearer understanding about families decimated, wealth denied, social isolation and violent assault – systemically and physically – on the body of a people. I hope those ranks are largely younger African Americans not alive in the 1970s. The story might dispel their own internalized racism that has never connected the crimes visited upon successive black generations with an intractable legacy of dispossession.

More than the family roots that the miniseries unfolds, I also hope enlightened audiences of all races will grasp the unmistakable links to mass incarceration, today’s carnage exacting a toll as pernicious as the shackles of slavery. A movement is building around this contemporary saga that has captured widespread attention, traversing race and politics. The discourse was heightened by author Michelle Alexander whose seminal exposé The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness reveals that more African Americans are today behind bars, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

“There are 2.3 million people living in cages today, incarcerated in the United States, and more than 7 million people on correctional control, being monitored daily by probation officers, parole officers, subject to stop, search, seizure without any probable cause or reasonable suspicion,” Alexander recounted in a PBS Frontline interview.

She noted that the massive apparatus of 21st Century bondage also includes more than 65 million Americans with criminal records that are subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.

To deny the grossly disproportionate impact on people of color – especially Black men, women and children – is to be an apologist for the peculiar institution. You may as well embrace a fantasized perspective that the dastardly deeds of slavery ended in the 19th century.

Mass incarceration is the peculiar institution of our time. Abolition rests in transformative justice. The roots to solutions are through policies and voices that defy the fascinations of made-for-TV entertainment.


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