Goal Write a reading response discussing opposing claims about the



  • Write a reading response discussing opposing claims about the Thirteenth Amendment


In the documentary 13th, Jelani Cobb (Links to an external site.), a professor at Columbia Journalism School, makes the following claim:

One of the things to bear in mind is that when we think about slavery, it was an economic system. And the demise of slavery at the end of the Civil War left the Southern economy in tatters. Uh, and so this presented a big question. There are four million people who were formerly property, and they were formerly kind of the integral part of the economic production system in the South. And now those people are free. And so what do you do with these people? How do you rebuild your economy? The 13th Amendment loophole was immediately exploited. (2:50-3:32)

In “Demystifying the 13th Amendment and Its Impact on Mass Incarceration,” Patrick Rael (Links to an external site.), a professor of history at Bowdoin College, acknowledges that 13th‘s “powerful overview of the crisis of mass incarceration from the Civil War to the present has earned it plaudits from critics, activists, and scholars,” but he argues that “we need to revisit its faulty foundational history.”

Rael first summarizes the argument of Jelani Cobb in the documentary: “that the amendment created a ‘loophole’ that permitted the massive criminalization of blackness that has defined the post-emancipation experience from Jim Crow to the prison industrial complex.” Rael then explains why he does not agree with the “loophole” argument:

In a nutshell, the [“loophole”] argument is this: The country did the right thing in passing an amendment intended to make all people equal, but some connived against that noble aim in permitting, and then exploiting, the mass incarceration loophole. When we put these claims to the test with a closer look at the Amendment and its origins, we learn that they bear little resemblance to the actual history.

First, watch13th (Links to an external site.)(if you have not already) and read “Demystifying the 13th Amendment and Its Impact on Mass Incarceration” (Links to an external site.) by Patrick Rael.

Then, in of at least 750 words, address the following questions:

  1. What is the “13th Amendment loophole,” as explained in the documentary 13th?
  2. Why does Patrick Rael believe that claims made about the 13th Amendment loophole “bear little resemblance to the actual history” of the amendment? (Briefly discuss Rael’s counter-argument and the kinds of evidence he uses to support his own claims.)
  3. Which do you find most persuasive: the argument of Jelani Cobb (and others in the 13th documentary) about the 13th Amendment loophole or Rael’s counterargument? Explain your response.
  • For full credit, please support your claims with . . .
    • At least two direct quotations:
      • One or more from the primary text: 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay
      • One or more from the secondary text: “Demystifying the 13th Amendment and Its Impact on Mass Incarceration” by Patrick Rael
    • Analysis/interpretation of these quotations


  • Remember that you must correctly cite any print or web source that you quote or paraphrase. Submitting the words or ideas of someone else without proper citation is considered plagiarism.


Before writing your initial discussion post, watch 13th:

13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, features the following words by John Ehrlichman, who was an aide to President Richard Nixon:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. (18:09-18:38)

  1. First of all, what do you think about the strategy used by the Nixon campaign and his administration (discussed in the above quotation by John Ehrlichman) to deal with their “two enemies: the antiwar left and black people”?
  2. Next, how does the quotation by Ehrlichman relate to the larger points in the documentary 13th about the mass incarceration of people of color?
  3. Finally, do you agree with the film’s claim that the media’s negative representation of people of color in news shows and shows like Cops and through the use of terms like “super predator” (see 28:33) has helped justify and normalize high rates of mass incarceration among communities of color? Explain your answer.

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