Today, “the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South African did at the height of apartheid…In the District of Columbia, [for example,] it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison”
–Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“The ethnic composition of the inmate population of the U.S. has been virtually inverted in the last half-century, going from about 70% (Anglo) white at the mid-century point to less than 30% today.”
“The lifelong cumulative probability of ‘doing time’…based on the imprisonment rates of the early 90s is 4% for whites, 16% for Latinos, and a staggering 29% for blacks. Given the class-gradient of incarceration, this figure suggests that a majority of [poor] African-Americans…are facing a prison term of one or several years at some point in their adult life, with all the family, occupational, and legal disruptions this entails, including the curtailment of social entitlements and civil rights and the temporary or permanent loss of the right to vote. As of 1997, nearly one black man in six nationwide was excluded from the ballot box due to a felony conviction and more than one fifth of them were prohibited from casting a vote in Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming.”
“Instead of a war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me.”
In her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration in the United States, especially as it relates to the War on Drugs, is “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow” (4). She continues:
“In my experience, people who have been incarcerated rarely have difficulty identifying the parallels between these systems of social control. Once they are released, they are often denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, and relegated to a racially segregated and subordinated existence. Through a web of laws, regulations, and informal rules, all of which are powerfully reinforced by social stigma, they are confined to the margins of mainstream society and denied access to the mainstream economy. They are legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African-Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era.”
If you are white like I am, you probably think that these claims are, at best, absurd, and, at worst, more proof that people of color unfairly blame all “their” problems on white people. After all, people who were slaves did nothing to deserve their enslavement, yet people in prison committed crimes and therefore deserve their fate. If you think this way, you are not alone; as Alexander explains, “most people assume the War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. This view holds that the racial disparities in drug convictions and sentences, as well as the rapid explosion of the prison population, reflect nothing more than the government’s zealous—but benign—efforts to address rampant drug crime in poor, minority neighborhoods” (5). Unfortunately, there is absolutely no truth to this belief.
For example, “President Ronald Reagan officially announced the current drug war in 1982, before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods” (5). Similarly, “the Reagan administration hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for the war,” and “almost overnight, the media was saturated with images of black ‘crack whores,’ ‘crack dealers,’ and ‘crack babies’” (5), stereotypes which Reagan himself created and fed to a white public hungry for proof of white innocence and therefore superiority to black criminality (remember also that Reagan was the man who gave his first speech after winning the Republican Party’s nomination for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a very small town famous only for being the town where 3 civil rights workers were murdered; kind of an odd choice, don’t you think?)
Moreover, as Alexander argues, “the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline” (6) and, as a result of the Drug War, “in less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase” (6).
“Don’t conceal the fact; the penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.”
Of course, while Reagan’s racism is lamentable, it is not evidence that the war on drugs is itself racist. It could simply be that Reagan’s beginning the war on drugs before drugs became a serious problem was an act of foresight. It could also be the case that people of color, especially when poor, commit drug crime at higher rates than white people. In reality, however, this is not at all true, as “these stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime STUDIES SHOW THAT PEOPLE OF ALL COLORS USE AND SELL ILLEGAL DRUGS AT REMARKABLY SIMILAR RATES.” In fact, it is white youths who are more likely to engage in drug crime than their black peers, yet, it is almost impossible for a white youth to be incarcerated for a non-violent drug crime. (7). Nor can the U.S.’s remarkably high rates of incarceration be explained by remarkably high rates of crime: for example, “between 1960 and 1990…official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the U.S. were close to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that period” (7). Even more tellingly, “today, due to recent decline, U.S. crime rates have dipped below the international norm. Nevertheless, the U.S. now boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations…and NO OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD INCARCERATES SUCH AN ASTONISHING PERCENTAGE OF ITS RACIAL OR ETHNIC MINORITIES.” (8).
Another popular belief about the drug war is that it is aimed at ridding the so-called drug kingpins; however, this is also far from true as “in 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five were for sales” (59). Moreover, most of those arrested for sales were not “kingpins” but low-level dealers. Neither it is true that most of the people arrested in the drug war are arrested for possession of the really bad drugs, like heroin. Instead, “arrests for marijuana possession—a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol—accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s” (59).
“I see no changes; wake up in the morning and I ask myself, is life worth living or should I blast myself? I’m tired of being poor and even worse I’m black…”
Another reason that we may have a hard time understanding how mass incarceration is a “race-making” and white supremacy-preserving institution akin to slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto is that we are used to thinking of racism as conscious and intentional hatred for people of another race. Certainly, such hatred often accompanies racism, but, in the United States, racism has never really been about hatred or personal beliefs of any kind. Instead, as Alexander and Wacquant help us see, racism, at its core, has always ultimately been about power and superiority—attitudes and beliefs about race follow the institution. For example, beliefs that African-Americans and indigenous people were sub-human were not the cause of slavery and genocide, but their justification and result. For this reason, for the rest of this entry, I will be speaking not of racism, but of white supremacy.
The success of individual black people like Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama may also make it difficult for us to accept the fact that American society is organized by a racial caste system. However, this belief is similarly fueled by misperceptions about our racial past. As Alexander reminds us, “no caste system in the United States [not even slavery] has ever governed all black people” (21). Even in the depths of slavery, there were free blacks, and in the darkest night of Jim Crow, Fredrick Douglass was a powerful political figure, who was nominated for vice president and was appointed to positions of power by President U.S. Grant, such as minister to Haiti.
Similarly, just as the end of slavery did not result in the end of racial caste (Jim Crow was just a new form of racial caste), neither has the end of Jim Crow resulted in the death of racial caste. We are insufficiently aware of the fact that “racism is highly adaptable” as “the rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged.” Alexander calls this “process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change…preservation through transformation.” (21).
“Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion—transition—in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined. It is during this period of uncertainty that the backlash intensifies and a new form of racialized social control begins to take hold. The adoption of the new system of control is never inevitable, but to date it has never been avoided.” 22
When we see the U.S.’s racial history in this light, it is much easier to understand how slavery, Jim Crow, the ghetto, and mass incarceration are all methods of creating and preserving white supremacy and white control.
So, what does mass incarceration do? What needs does it fill in the white psyche?
First, and most importantly, like the ghetto, Jim Crow, and slavery before it, mass incarceration keeps the idea of race alive. In other words, as Wacquant argues, these institutions do not simply reveal or result from racial differences (for example, think of the claim that slavery was the result and revelation of the intellectual inferiority of blacks to whites). Instead, each of these institutions “produces this division anew…and inscribes it…in a distinctive constellation of material and symbolic forms” (Wacquant). In other words, each of these institutions have conspired to racialize African-Americans, marking them as different in some way, while simultaneously hiding the fact that the origin of this difference lies not in biology, culture, or values, but in history.
Wacquant provides a quick history of how these institutions produced race. As I already alluded to, slavery produced race not the other way around. The idea that black people were naturally inferior to whites and therefore well-suited to a life of slavery combined with the idea that blacks were highly dangerous and therefore in need of being restrained by the civilizing force of white rule allowed white Americans to sate their economic need for slave labor while continuing to see themselves as deeply committed to democracy and equality. Jim Crow kept the idea of race alive (without which white belief, either implicit or explicit, in their own supremacy could not survive) while “reworking the racialized boundary between slave and free into a rigid caste separation between whites and Negroes.” This institution produced its own justifications, mentalities, and codes of life that resembled, but were not identical to those produced by slavery. Moreover, the ghetto
“Imprinted this dichotomy onto the spatial makeup and institutional schemas of the industrial metropolis. So much so that, in the wake of the ‘urban riots’ of the sixties, which in truth were uprising against intersecting caste and class subordination, ‘urban’ and black became near-synonymous in policy making as well as in everyday parlance. And the ‘crisis’ of the city came to stand for the enduring contradiction between the individualistic and competitive tenor of American life, on the one hand, and the continued seclusion of African-Americans from it, on the other.”
Just as Jim Crow kept white supremacy alive after it was threatened by the abolition of slavery and the brief but glorious era of Reconstruction; just as the ghetto kept migrating African-Americans “in their place” (read: out of the middle class and away from white people) as they came north following the second world war, so does mass incarceration work together with the ghetto to keep white supremacy alive. This brings us to the third thing that mass incarceration does: it “solidifies the centuries-old association of blackness within criminality and devious violence” (Wacquant). Also, the era of mass incarceration of brown and especially black bodies, began in the late 1960s, a time in which white innocence and moral decency was becoming less and less believable. The mass incarceration of people of color was a perfect solution: it allowed white people to once again re-assert their belief in their innocence, decency, and moral superiority. The blame is shifted from white to black as blackness, not whiteness, represents what is wrong with America.
Fourthly, mass incarceration along with its partner in crime the ghetto, serves as a perfect mechanism to ensure that black bodies are largely kept out of white spaces without white people having to lift a finger. The era of mass incarceration allows white people to hang onto the benefits of white supremacy without having to actually admit that this is what they are doing. The Civil Rights Movement made it no longer acceptable to “be a racist.” One could no longer admit (to others or to one’s self) that the reason you want to live in the suburbs is largely because you don’t want to live in a predominantly black neighborhood, for example. Yet, white people were not really willing to sacrifice the privileges afforded them by the survival of white supremacy. Mass incarceration therefore allows white people to continue being and benefiting from white supremacy while also sincerely believing themselves to be advocates of racial equality. For, as John Edgar Wideman argues:
“It’s respectable to tar and feather criminals, to advocate locking them up and throwing away the key. It’s not racist to be against crime, even though the archetypal criminal in the media and the public imagination almost always wear ‘Willie’ Horton’s face. Gradually, ‘urban’ and ‘ghetto’ have become codewords for terrible places where only blacks reside. Prison is rapidly being re-lexified in the same segregated fashion.”
If this seems far-fetched, just listen to white people talk. Increasingly, white people speak of the black body in code so that they can continue signifying, asserting, reassuring, and convincing themselves of the pathology, danger, and exotic hypersexuality of the black body without having to admit to themselves that this is what they are doing. In this way we are better positioned to understand the white use of phrases like “welfare queen/mother,” “crackhead,” “single mother,” “thug,” “inner city,” “bad or rough part of town,” “drug dealer,” and even the wildly popular phrase “that’s ghetto”. In each case, white people are communicating their aversion and feelings of superiority to black bodies and black space.
Fifthly, mass incarceration fuels not just the perception of white supremacy, but also the material (that is, economic, political, and social) reality of this supremacy. Employers are legally able to discriminate against convicted felons. Inmates are ineligible for Pell Grants. In many places, anyone who has been in prison more than 60 days is unable to receive welfare payments, veterans’ benefits, or food stamps. Thanks to Bill Clinton, most ex-convicts are unable to participate in Medicaid, public housing, Section 8 vouchers, and related forms of assistance. All but 4 states deny inmates the right to vote while incarcerated; 39 states forbid convicts placed on probation from voting, and 32 states also prohibit parolees from voting. In 14 states, ex-felons cannot vote even when no longer under criminal justice supervision, and 3 states, bar ex-felons from voting for their entire life. As a result, ONE BLACK MAN IN SEVEN IS CURRENTLY DENIED THE RIGHT TO VOTE AND SEVEN STATES PERMANENTLY DENY THE VOTE TO MORE THAN ONE FOURTH OF THEIR BLACK MALE RESIDENTS.
“Cops give a damn about a Negro, pull the trigger, kill a N*****, he’s a hero; give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares, one less hungry mouth on the welfare.”
Finally, had I more time, I would chronicle Alexander’s argument for the way in which poor people of color, who are the targets of the war on drugs have been systematically deprived of the constitutional rights white Americans take for granted. The Court has suspended all protections of the 4th and 5th amendments in the war on drugs, proving that Arizona’s anti-immigrant law is not the first time people of color have been deprived of their constitutional rights. You should also check out a post at the Crunk Feminist Collective chronicling the way in which the 13th amendment is being similarly violated.