With so much attention focused on resolving the presidential election, a number of other issues are slipping under the radar. For example, why did 100,000 Nebraska voters choose to keep the language of slavery in the state constitution?
Section 2, Article 1 previously stated, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” The item on the ballot proposed to remove the language from “otherwise” to “convicted.” Just over two-thirds of Nebraska voters approved this constitutional change. Thirty-two percent voted “No.”
The charitable perspective is that they didn’t take the time to read the admittedly confusing language of the ballot choice. That’s how the Nebraska chair of the Democratic Party chose to frame the vote. “People are reading it very quickly,” Jane Kleeb said. “Sometimes voting yes means no type of thing. Maybe for some voters that was the case…” The language of the actual ballot choices was typically convoluted. However, the title below the choices in bold print was not: “A constitutional amendment to eliminate slavery or involuntary servitude as a punishment for crime.” That seems quite clear.
I find Nebraskans to be often well-educated and able to read. I don’t think this was generally a failure of intelligence or literacy. Was the language really that confusing? If so, why wasn’t it written better? More to the point, why wouldn’t something on the ballot involving slavery generate some focused attention?
Perhaps this was indeed a failure of attention. But if that is the case, that’s a rather embarrassing admission for Nebraskans as well. Could nearly a third of Nebraska voters have been so distracted by the top ballot race that they ran out of focused concern by the time they got to the second page of the ballot? That’s certainly possible but does not speak well of the Nebraska electorate.
There is clear evidence, however, that some leaders and voters wished to keep the language in order to maintain the severest options for punishing criminal offenders. I quote from reporting by Channel 3 news in Omaha. “In an opinion column for the North Platte Telegraph, Senator Mike Groene was against changing the wording saying, ‘This issue is not about the ownership of slaves but instead concerns the rehabilitation and punishment of individuals who have committed crimes against society.'”
The argument is that this amendment is not about enslaving black people or anyone else. It is rather about being tough on criminals in general. This seems to argue that under the right circumstances, enslaving people is a positive social good. And it ignores the ways that certain states used this provision in the 13th amendment to re-institute chattel slavery after Reconstruction under the guise of lawful imprisonment. It also seems to be woefully ignorant of the mass incarceration crisis we continue to face in this state and this country — a crisis which is largely racialized and is especially targeted to black communities and persons.
Our anti-racism book study group is just beginning a discussion of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. That seems timely in light of this election outcome. Stevenson notes, “This book is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us.” [Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (p. 14). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.] Enslavement seems to fit the description of “extreme punishment.”
One of the fringe benefits of my sophomore dalliance with atheism was that I read deeply and studied the work and thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. He wrote, “But thus I counsel you, my friends: Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful. They are people of a low sort and stock; the hangmen and the bloodhound look out of their faces. Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! Verily, their souls lack more than honey. And when they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had—power.”
If punishment is an end in itself, then it will happen by any means necessary. If that desire to punish fuels individual racist behavior and institutional racist policies and practices, then those means will be applied disproportionately to black and brown people. At least some Nebraska voters wish to keep slavery and involuntary servitude in the “punishment toolbox” of the state criminal justice system. Once again, Nietzsche is prophetic (and more Christian than he would ever wish to be).
We voted by mail weeks in advance of Election Day. We had a chance to read the ballot carefully, and this ballot issue generated surprise and consternation for both of us. I continue to wonder why I didn’t know that was an artifact in the state constitution. Why didn’t I know? I didn’t go looking, nor did I think I had a reason to go looking.
“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” The outcome of this balloting does not improve my perspectives on how Nebraskans view the role of the criminal justice system in our state. The path of least resistance is, of course, to remain blissfully ignorant.
So, silly me! Now I know better — that I should spend time looking for and watching for such bombs in the constitution, state law, regulations, local codes, etc. After all, I don’t always see the dogs pooping in the backyard. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it. So I go out and check every day, and “voila!” I find little fecal bombs all over the place (two large dogs). What unknown piles of shit will I find if I just use some more of my retirement time looking at existing law? At least I will be at a lower risk of stepping in it.