Happy Holidays from the Georgia Department of Corrections as we sit in a field that has absolutely nothing to do with the services we provide for the State. Or does it? As a gubernatorial appointee, the Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections has a duty to ensure that his staff uses common sense and the tenant of fiscal responsibility to avoid political pitfalls.
What is wrong with the photo? I would identify it as tone death. Others would call it racist. Racism is one of the worst accusations you can hurl at a fellow American because of the horrific past of racism in our country. No one wants to be associated with the type of Americans that enslaved, maimed, raped, and murder black women, men and children. It is that same horrific past that requires a basic level of thoughtfulness and respect by all Americans a.k.a. “political correctness.”
I am personally going to give the benefit of the doubt to the director of this photoshoot as well as all those in leadership who approved this cotton plantation holiday card. I won’t jump to the conclusion of racism because it ends every discussion before it gets started. I rather presume that no one who participated in this holiday greeting had the context to consider the connotations of incarceration of Georgians, holiday cheer, and a photo in a cotton field.
Alone, the perfectly white and plentiful field of cotton is appealing to the eye. Georgia is an agricultural state and therefore displaying one of the State’s many cash crops is not always an automatic violation of one’s sensibilities. It could be a creative idea for the Georgia Department of Agriculture or maybe even the Department of Revenue. However, there are historical connotations related to incarceration, the slave trade, and the cotton industry that make this photo tongue in cheek.
For many Americans cotton, the cotton gin, and slavery are forever intertwined. Clearly slave labor did more than pick cotton. In fact, slaves touched every foundation and every industry of America. It is also true that cotton is a common and typical resource that in and of itself is innocuous. Because of the history of America certain imagery should always create an automatic “proceed with caution” warning for anyone who wants to avoid unintentionally offending people.
There are those who say, “people get offended at everything!” Maybe, but the discussion around this photo is not about feelings. This is about educating one another by speaking up. There are plenty of landmines to avoid in current American discourse. I personally appreciate when someone explains to me a point of view I do not have. If you care about having the proper respect for fellow Americans, Georgians, neighbors, friends, and coworkers, let me help explain why I would call a Christmas card displaying a cotton field and the Department of Corrections tone deaf.
After American slaves were emancipated, local cities and southern states put in what are called “Black Codes.” Georgia was one of the many states that put in place laws that only applied to or were enforced upon freed slaves. Everyday activities were turned into a criminal offense. Restrictions included prohibiting voting, carrying guns, learning to read or write, or gathering in groups for worship. The vagrancy law, which incarcerated recently freed slaves for not having a home, was the primary source for the convict lease system. The leasing of slaves from the state prisons from their former slave owners was slavery by another name and continued until 1928.
Simply for looking a white person in the face, a former slave could be arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life back on the same plantation where he or she was emancipated.
Through the black codes, even blacks who were never enslaved were convicted and held in bondage by the same government agency that is now known as the Georgia Department of Corrections.
The creation of the black codes was a defining moment in history for not only black Americans but also marks the beginning of the systemic problem with over incarceration of all Americans. The disproportionality for African Americans beginning in the foundations of our country. Modern day slavery was born in fields of cotton and created and enforced by the State of Georgia. Although our state has progressed since the Reconstruction era, our legal system was built on top of a broken foundation that cannot be changed. It is important we do not forget the foundation and remain respectful in light of the foundation.
The photo spread quickly on social media. Shared over 5,000 times when posted by activist Shaun King who formerly attended Morehouse College. The social media commentary hit the entire spectrum. Some argued that someone at the Department of Corrections created this photoshoot intentionally to send a message. If so, the message was received loud and clear. Others suggested that someone subconsciously made the inappropriate correlation and simply needed historical education. Frankly, there are many Americans who are ignorant to the truths about the reconstruction era. Many American history syllabi skipped from the Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights movement and Georgia’s Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. Finally, there are others who argued that there were black people in the photo who would have objected if the idea was offensive. Everyone, except one guy seemed perfectly comfortable with the idea.
Whether simply tone deaf, insensitive, racist, or innocuous there is another question from the conservative’s point of view. Why are we wasting tax dollars for a holiday photo for the Department of Corrections? Thank you to the hard working men and women of DOC, but frankly Georgian’s do not need to pay for your Christmas wishes on a card. Nor do we need to pay for the portion of your salary that was expended for this special photoshoot fieldtrip and the photographer who took the photo. Let’s try to limit government spending to only those things that go towards ensuring our prison and parole systems are in tip top shape. Because all of DOC activity is tax funded, they can easily avoid making these faux paus simply by spending their budget of time and money on their legally assigned tasks. Although run by a political appointee, our prison system should stay away from politics and strive for a minimum level of political correctness.
*It is also ironic that people who say this are offended by the fact that other people are also offended.