In 2022, Some States Voted to Outlaw Slavery—Others Didn’t

Viral tweets are dunking on Tennessee for just now voting to outlaw slavery. But we should really be asking why others aren't doing the same.

In 2022, Some States Voted to Outlaw Slavery—Others Didn’t
Photo:Getty, @FOX13Memphis/Twitter

Here’s something I didn’t expect to type in 2022: During Tuesday’s midterm election, five states voted on whether to outlaw continued slavery through forced prison labor, and as of Wednesday afternoon, only three have voted to outlaw it. Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont voted in favor of a ballot measure that would amend their state Constitutions to prohibit slavery and involuntary, forced servitude as punishment for crime; results in Oregon are still too close to call and Louisiana roundly rejected the amendment.

The ballot measures in Alabama, Tennessee, and Vermont won’t take immediate effect but they create grounds for legal challenges against prison policies that force incarcerated people to work or threaten them with sanctions that include loss of certain “privileges,” like phone calls. Notably, the 13th Amendment explicitly allows incarcerated people to be enslaved as punishment for their crimes.

But the utter WTF factor isn’t necessarily that ballot measures to prohibit prison labor didn’t pass—rather, there’s been some understandable public guffawing at the wording of the ballot measures. Voters were quite literally presented with a choice of whether to outlaw slavery in the year-of-our-lord 2022 and, so far, only three states have clearly voted to do so.

On Tuesday night, a tweet from a local Fox station in Tennessee declaring in big, bold letters “SLAVERY BANNED” has been inundated with mocking or outraged replies. How is slavery just now being banned, users asked. A fair reaction! But as some have pointed out, the real outrage isn’t that Tennessee, Alabama, and Vermont “just now” voted to end slavery and its continuation via coercive, unpaid, or under-paid prison labor—it’s that currently, before Tuesday night’s election, only four states (Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and Rhode Island) have explicitly abolished slavery. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times notes that “more than a dozen states still have constitutions that include language permitting slavery and involuntary servitude for prisoners,” and other states have no language on the issue.

The graphic continues to make the rounds on social media as a punchline, and yet, for all the dunking on Tennessee, this is a comparatively progressive move from the Southern, deep-red state, all while it remains unclear whether the ostensibly blue Oregon will do the same. However many people mock the South for being “backward,” organizers—especially those of color—in these states are doing deeply important work that shouldn’t be erased.

Prison labor is a multi-billion dollar industry that America’s capitalist economic system relies on to function. Meanwhile, incarcerated people are paid literal pennies on the hour, and those who try to withhold their labor are threatened with loss of “privileges” like visits with family, or even threatened with solitary confinement. The controversy isn’t that Tennessee voted to abolish slavery Tuesday night—it’s that not enough states have joined them.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin