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MARK YOUR CALENDARS! The Texas Observer’s Rabble Rouser Roundup will be held on Sunday, February 15, 2009 at La Zona Rosa in Austin Riau Haan International Headquarters Come Visit us for LUNCH! In addition to our organic coffee, pizzas, empanadas, pastries and pies, we now prepare made to order sandwiches, salads, and even black bean gazpacho. 3601 S. Congress of f E. Alpine Penn Field under the water tower check our site for monthly calendar that governed it. Public outrage was such that the state officially ended the practice by 1912. Or did it? The state continued operation of its profitable state prison farms, and the closely related practice of debt peonage endured for decades. Blackmon documents that with the exception of Theodore Roosevelt’s temporary interest in the treatment of leased convicts, the federal government and the people of the United States did their best to ignore the problem until 1942. Democratic president Grover Cleveland encapsulated the prevalent national attitude toward such issues when he said, “The Souththe white and the black Southshould be let alone to settle their problems in their own way:’ There was only one problem with this attitude: As one African-American sold into servitude later testified, in the South “the white folks had all the courts, all the guns, all the hounds, all the railroads, all the telegraph wires, all the newspapers, all the money, and nearly all the land.” Even so, successive U.S. attorneys general serving presidents from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt chose to classify convict leasing as an issue best dealt with by the states, without federal interference. Only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did FDR’s attorney general, a genteel northern paternalist \(Blackmon calls Francis Biddle, demonstrate an interest in the problem of the South’s various forms of involuntary servitude. Biddle made an example of the Skrobarcek family of Beeville, Texas, in a 1942 case. The family had held Alfred Irving, a mentally retarded black man who owed them a debt, in involuntary servitude and worked him on their farm for at least four years. The Justice Department charged the Skrobarceks with starving and “repeatedly beating the man with whips, chains, and ropesso much so that he was physically disfigured from the abuse” and won a conviction. The Corpus Christi Times caught on to the timing of the prosecution when it editorialized that the convictions should be welcomed as “a decisive setback to the enemy propaganda machine … urging … negroes that their proper place in this conflict is with the yellow race:’ Is there a direct, causal link between the convict lease system that was prevalent in what Blackmon calls the “Age of Neoslavery” and Texas’ criminal justice system of the 21st century? Not exactly. But if you had seen with your own eyes the state’s demonstrably racist, unjust and for-profit criminal justice apparatus at work in, say, 1908 and tried to predict what it would look like 100 years later, wouldn’t you likely have supposed that at least 40 percent of the men in Texas prisons and 40 percent of those on death row in 2008 would be black, even though African-Americans now make up less than 12 percent of the state’s total population? As it stands, “blacks in Texas are incarcerated at a rate seven times greater than whites,” according to a Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report, and “one out of every four adult black men in Texas is under some form of criminal justice supervision.” Might you have predicted that by 2008 Texas would lead the nation in the number of its citizens it places behind bars? In point of fact, there are more Texans under the supervision of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice today than there are citizens of Alaska. Texas has a history, and history matters. At this point in our shared story, the burden of proof rests with the state to prove that it can develop for its citizens a system of criminal justice worthy of its name, and Blackmon reminds us of the substantial legacy Texas still has to overcome. But improvement will take place only when it becomes a priority for the rest of us: Either we’ll choose to continue to build more jails, spend more on prisons than schools, and lock up every fourth black man in the state, or we’ll choose to break with our past and do better. Todd Moye teaches U.S. history at the University of North Texas in Denton. 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER DECEMBER 12, 2008