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One way we can honor John Lewis' legacy: Amend the 13th Amendment

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Washington, August 4, 2020 | comments

As our nation mourns the loss of John Lewis, we’re also grappling with how to address the removal of statues commemorating historically racist figures. But our thoughts must turn to our country’s foundational documents. These governing documents are so tied to who we are as Americans that we have often been blind to the systemic racism that is embedded within them. It’s something John Lewis spent his life fighting against.

The Declaration of Independence was a founding document of a new world, and a new future, where “all men are created equal.” Let us consider a second phrase, lesser-known, but just 894 words later: “The merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

The Indian Savages.

The “Savages” referenced here eternally demean communities that were relocated at gun-point. The families who received blankets laced with smallpox as ‘gifts.’ Those tribes that continue to endure the federal government’s broken promises and treaties time after time—even after tribal leaders lived up to their end of the bargain; the people whose sacred lands were torn apart —by horse, by fences, by family separation, and now by oil, gas, and mining —all in the name of financial gain and unfettered consumption. And yet —Indians are the savages?

Is it that easy to rationalize the destruction, desecration, and dehumanization of certain groups of people when the founding governing documents declare it so?

We say this – because words matter. History matters. One does not need to be a legislator to realize that what we say in our laws, and in our founding documents, has consequential significance that ripples across time, space and generations of human beings. 

There is more racism still embedded in our laws and history than many imagine. The 13th Amendment that abolished slavery reads, “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.” Even our attempt to fix the glaring contradiction at the heart of our Constitution contains a contradiction in itself. Even in trying to abolish slavery once and for all, we left a loophole that has been used as a justification for many of the absolute worst abuses in our prison system.

Slavery should have no exceptions.

The systemic barriers that have long shackled our relatives from achieving the American Dream have been recently been illuminated by several acts of police brutality. These barriers have been long-lasting and detrimental to the pursuit of racial equity. Focusing on this moment requires us to realize, and uncomfortably grapple with, with the uneven application of justice in America. In the words of John Lewis, “A democracy cannot thrive where power remains unchecked and justice is reserved for a select few. Ignoring these cries and failing to respond to this movement is simply not an option — for peace cannot exist where justice is not served.”

The pillars of justice cannot hold the moral and ethical weight of judging our fellow humans when the foundation is cracked. While Native children represent 1 percent of the youth population, they account for 70 percent of the children admitted to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of White Americans. Nearly one in three prisoners held in federal prisons are Latinx. In New Mexico, 10 percent of our children will grow up having a parent incarcerated at some point in their life. These statistics run contrary to the goal of blind justice. Instead, they reveal an unrelenting assault on people of color.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, we’ve introduced several pieces of critical legislation to begin to right these injustices: H.J. Res. 92, that calls for the 13th Amendment to be changed to prohibit any type of slavery; H.R. 40 that establishes a commission to study potential reparations for African Americans; and H.R. 7120, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which we passed in June. This bill put forth a bold, comprehensive approach to hold police accountable, change the culture of law enforcement, and build trust between law enforcement and our communities. Moving forward, there is still much work to be done. We must commit to reconsidering unfair prison labor wages, health inequalities, educational reinvestment, biases in artificial intelligence, lack of access to broadband, in addition to other pressing issues.

We must honor the legacy of John Lewis by seriously tackling systemic racism. We must craft a playbook that boldly and comprehensively addresses the root problems—not one that only works around the edges. We need to start anew. New ideas. New policies. A new justice. A justice finally for all. We must amend the 13th amendment.

Deb Haaland is co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, and Cedric Richmond is member of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Judiciary Committee.

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