Updated: Nov 7, 2022
More people live and labor in bondage today than at the outset of our Civil War. In 1860, the Federal Census tallied 3,952,838 people who were enslaved.
The United States Department of Justice estimates that in 2020, approximately 5,500,600 adults were under supervision of a correctional institution, including nearly 2 million who are incarcerated. According to the ACLU, another 60 thousand youth are detained in juvenile jails and prisons while, per the National Immigration Forum, almost 35,000 migrants are locked up in ICE facilities. No other nation on the planet has more people behind bars, nor does any nation have a higher incarceration rate.
Nearly a quarter of the world's incarcerated population reside within the United States.
If individual states were added to the list of world nations, Louisiana would top the list for the highest rate with 1,341 incarcerated people per 100,000 residents then followed by 35 more states. Cuba -- the first nation outside the United States to appear on the list -- registers at only 510 per 100,000.
Our statistics should be startling. "One out of every three Black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys—compared to one of every 17 white boys," the ACLU reports. "At the same time, women are the fastest growing incarcerated population in the United States."
None of this is abstract. The so-called Lost Cause is, thus far, won by those fighting for white supremacy. Until there is justice, there is no peace.
In my profession -- historical interpretation -- we love to celebrate progress towards sharing a fuller, more honest account of the past, both recognizing the diversity of people who contributed to our experiments in democracy and also exposing the myths of American exceptionalism.
Clint Smith has brilliantly mapped the limits of this progress in How the Word Is Passed. No matter the fact that Jefferson's Monticello now includes tours that confront his troubled legacy as an enslaver and rapist, at the time of Smith's visit, "only four" of "eighty-nine tour guides" were Black.
How can my profession tout success based on content when our operations remain exclusive? As a white tour guide around Philadelphia's Independence National Historic Park, I'm just as much imbricated in the injustices as anyone else, even if visitors and I talk about the paradox of a free nation built by slaves.
But, as geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore often asks: what is to be done?
She stresses in her path-breaking and now classic Golden Gulag that every public dollar allocated for a prison represents a school, hospital, or museum left unbuilt by the state.
Social justice is a brick-and-mortar struggle. That's why I was apprehensive about a recent keynote, After Permanence, delivered by Paul Farber at the 2022 meeting of the Society for American City and Regional Planning Historians. Certainly we can imagine constructing humbler monuments that are flexible to ever-evolving interpretations of the past. However, we risk making our memories of long freedom struggles even more ephemeral within our somewhat insular academic communities.
Concrete narratives toward just futures should be non-negotiable. To accept otherwise surrenders us to the Lost Cause.
Far too often, our political compromises result in reconfigurations of institutionalized racism rather than reconstructing a foundation of liberty and justice for all.
As Clint Smith so artfully reveals, confederate sympathizers maintain granite memorials to both Federal and treasonous forces in order to preserve their claim of Northern aggression in the past while enforcing their vision of what power between state and federal governments should look like in our present moment. This historical project -- whether causal or a corollary -- helps mask our material reality: a state ceaselessly defined by bondage.
The past and present are inextricably linked. Our task at hand, dismantling systems and institutions of oppression, must be completed in tandem with creating permanent avenues to freedom. It is our professional and moral duty to physically build the capacity of our state to affirm life because we owe it to the future generations who will inherit this struggle. Monuments help signal the way.