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.”
–Loic Wacquant “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the Race Question in the U.S.”
“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.
A great post, many thanks.
loved this post! I am beginning to believe that the prison abolition movement is the next frontier for religious thinkers who consider themselves as scholar-activists.
This post is amazing. Thank you.
This was obviously a very heartfelt post. However, Michelle Alexander’s book is… not unproblematic, in terms of its treatment of the issue of drug-related crime in the inner cities during the Reagan years.
Alexander comes perilously close to stating outright that the Reagan administration invented from whole cloth the social consequences of the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and any review that fails to take note of the implications of such a statement might be uncritical to a fault. It’s unfortunate that what could be a wonderful and well-needed book on prison reform gets mired in conspiracy theory. I’ve found it particularly interesting that the really starry-eyed reviews of this book tend to come from people too young to remember, or with no direct experience of, the impact of crack on minority populations in the inner city–neither of which would seem to describe Alexander herself, so I’m not really sure what her excuse is.
I had tremendous problems with this book, but I do believe its heart was in the right place, and the same would seem to hold true for the review.
if you read the book closely, you will see that she actually places as much if not more blame on Clinton’s shoulders. She is also not the only one to point out Reagan’s culpability–the sociologist (Loic Wacquant) I mentioned also holds a very similar view (you should read his article I linked to).
Also, you call her view “dangerous” and imply that it is incorrect–could you provide concrete evidence showing which of her facts are wrong and why?
also, Alexander’s book was not about “prison reform” but about how white supremacy has survived throughout time.
Katie, there’s a wealth of concrete evidence proving that the decimation wrought on inner-city poor and minority populations by crack cocaine in the 1980s was far more a practical reality than a cynical marketing ploy on the part of any presidential administration.
There are a lot of interesting things one could say about the disproportionate impact of the heavy-handed “war on drugs” on those very populations, or how the escalating arms race between the police and criminal elements in the equation caused white, middle and upper-middle class Americans to become far more comfortable with the police adopting the tactics of the military, as long as those tactics were to be employed entirely in poor neighborhoods where they could be safely ignored. One could say that the average inhabitant of an inner-city neighborhood during the height of the crack epidemic was as likely to be a casualty of white America’s need to see evidence that “something was being done” as of the everyday violence engendered by the drug trade, certainly. However, to imply that this everyday violence did not exist, but that it was a product of the manipulation of white America’s perception, is to deny the lived experience of those who made it through those years.
In one sense, I think it’s a positive thing that for so many people, those days are so far removed as to seem unreal. As I said, though, it is a dangerous thing to allow ideological wishful thinking to distort historical truth. As a staunch anti-death-penalty activist, things would be much simpler (morally speaking) if I could claim that as for the criminals on death row, it was simply a misunderstanding–they’d never really done anything as bad as Ronald Reagan (or whoever) would have you believe. Unfortunately, the reality of working to end capital punishment means that eventually one has to be willing to defend the basic human rights of the guilty, and not just the innocent. So it is with reforming America’s prison system (while you’re right that Alexander’s book is not “about” prison reform in the sense that it doesn’t address the inevitable questions her interpretation raises, she’s certainly attempting to lay the groundwork for reform); if we need to believe that “crack babies” were a fabrication in order to believe that too many people have been incarcerated, we’re practicing intellectual dishonesty.
I’d really love to talk more with you about some of this; I don’t have Alexander’s book, and thus can’t source some of her claims. Given that the more recent trend in drug violence has tended to center around meth rather than crack, and given your assertion that drug-related crime is perpetrated equally by members of all races, I’m more inclined to look at class and systemic poverty as root causes of mass incarceration for drug-related crimes, but it would absolutely be worth looking at more recent numbers.
In the end, I don’t find Wacquant terribly compelling. I actually prefer Alexander’s book for its bridging the gap between Wacquant’s very theoretical grasp of things and a more “facts on the ground” approach. While I disagree with several of her arguments, I do think she makes some very solid points in her book. Part of my frustration, honestly, is that it simply isn’t (or shouldn’t be) necessary to downplay the reality of urban drug violence in the 1980s–her argument hangs together perfectly well without making that claim.
Hala, some of your disapproval for Alexander’s book may be my fault–she doesn’t deny that there was a crack epidemic; her only argument is that the crack epidemic itself cannot explain causally the war on drugs. also, the crack epidemic happened during the 80s; it is long over, yet the rates of incarceration of black and brown males continued to rise during the 90s and has not decreased even in the last decade.
and again, she doesn’t downplay the reality of urban violence, she simply argues that, contrary to popular opinion, it is not the cause of the war on drugs; in fact, much of the violence in “the city” (again, I think you mean to say, the violence that poor black people do) is itself a product of the war on drugs and the fact that drugs are illegal. there’s a reason that the sale of drugs between college kids is more or less non-violent while the sale of drugs between poor, people of color is fraught with violence. in “the ghetto” the sale of drugs is highly monitored by the police (unlike in the suburbs or college campuses). think also of why during prohibition the sale of alcohol was highly violent but now I can peacefully walk down to my local liquor store and buy it without problem (in fact, I am probably much more likely to be hit by a car on my way there.)
also there’s this that I left out: “the CIA admitted in 1998 that guerilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States—drugs that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods in the form of crack cocaine. The CIA also admitted that, in the midst of the War on Drugs, it blocked law enforcement efforts to investiage illegal drug networks that were helping to fund its covert war in Nicaragua.” (this is from page 6 of her book).
so as you can see, while there is not necessarily evidence that the CIA introduced crack to the ghetto (so goes one conspiracy theory), it is true that protecting the lives of black people was not a high priority for the CIA; this strongly suggests that poor Americans of African descent were considered expendenable and of inferior importance to the CIA.
Thanks for introducing me to these texts by Alexander and Wacquant. I’ve only had a chance to skim them quickly, but it seems that both are making a pretty strong case for thinking of racialized mass incarceration as at least one of the major current forms of white supremacy–or, I would prefer to say, racism (if only because this term seems more general).
Your post generated a flurry of thoughts in my head. I’m interested to see what you think about them. Here are some of them (apologies for the length):
It strikes me that what’s particularly difficult (perhaps particularly insidious) about this form of racism is that it imputes guilt (in some cases credibly) to those who are victimized by it. The problem seems to be that criminality–though admittedly constructed, though enforced unequally along racist lines–is not entirely an illusion. The myth of natural racial inferiority, which undergirded earlier forms of racism (slavery, Jim Crow, etc.), has no basis in reality; it is a pure fiction, wholly illusory. But crime carries with it a juridical process by which “facts” are determined: the facts of the case, who did what, against what law, etc. As a consequence, the fight against this present prison-form of racism–and it does really seem to be a form of racism–does not have the luxury of rejecting in its entirety the “regime of truth” which sustains it, for this regime is grounded partially in a juridical process of establishing criminal facts–which one cannot reject as a whole without jeopardizing the concrete society-wide pursuit of justice.
We are left, then, in a position, on the one hand, to question the validity of certain laws, certain ways of enforcing laws, and/or certain legal proceedings, where racial bias is largely constitutive of the facts of the matter; and/or, on the other hand, to examine the conditions which are effectively encouraging racialized criminality (and not merely racialized imprisonment)–I mean, criminality which one would really want to acknowledge as criminal (murder, rape, theft, perhaps drug use).
It seems we’ve got to pursue both levels of analysis. In order to combat this particular form of racism, we’ve got to deal with its particular regime of truth, which is less easily dismantled than its explicitly racial-theoretical (and patently ludicrous) antecedents.
This way of looking at things may also help to explain the Oprah-Obama phenomenon. If a person of color can avoid both the appearance and the practice of criminality in our society, then, provided other conditions of “success” are also met, race itself may not be an effective hindrance. Race may even come to function as a marker of prestige. This is the odd complexity of the current moment: there are different ways of being racialized–through the appearance or practice of criminaility, on the one hand, and through the (much rarer) performance of glamorized success (the “American dream”), on the other. It is not uncommon to see the latter mode of racialization announced in a way that silences the former.
So, to wrap things up, I think your post is really helpful, insofar as it powerfully corrects this tendency. What I’ve tried to do here is just reflect briefly on some of the strategies that might be necessary in the current stage of the fight against racism. One final thought–which I think Wacquant’s work brings out well–is that one of the principal conditions which promotes both the appearance and the practice of criminality is poverty–or, to be precise, extreme marginality or exclusion within a neo-liberal market economy, a condition which effects people throughout the world, of every color, but people of darker colors at a much greater rate (which is not coincidental, nor a consequence of any innate inferiority). Poverty, then, is a crucial factor in the second mode of analysis that I’m recommending, regarding the conditions of the appearance and the practice of criminality. And I think this is where theology–Christian theology in particular, grounded in the gospel which is proclaimed to the poor, begins to have something really significant to say.
Thanks so much for your comments and no need to apologize for the length!
Firstly, I agree wholeheartedly with the following: “It strikes me that what’s particularly difficult (perhaps particularly insidious) about this form of racism is that it imputes guilt (in some cases credibly) to those who are victimized by it.” There is a certain evil genius to the system, which I think is encapsulated by the John Edgar Wideman quotation I included. I also suspect, although I do not know firsthand, that people who are affected by the war on drugs might also internalize a sense of worthlessness thereby making solidarity among the urban poor more difficult than it otherwise would have been.
And I think you are also right to point to the way racial inferiority is no longer envisioned along biological lines, but along cultural or “values-based” lines. For example, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say a variation of the following: “the problem with [black] poor is not their poverty, but their culture and/or values.” For some reason, white people think that as long as you as not saying that black people are biologically inferior, it’s not racist. Again, this is because we have an undeveloped appreciation for the way in which white supremacy survives by changing.
also, as to your rightful claim that this regime works because it seems so obvious (who did what, against what law, etc)…Alexander also discusses the way in which the vast majority of people incarcerated for drug offenses do not even receive the fair trial we assume they do. most people do not even receive a trial…instead, because prosecutors tend to engage in what’s called “overcharging”–piling on offenses and jail time so as to almost force defendents to plea guilty to a lesser charge (most of these people lack adequate legal representation and judges often have little leeway as most of these offenses carry mandatory minimums). ultimately, there really are two justice systems. keep in mind that funding for prosecuting white collar crimes was dramatically reduced at the same time funding for prosecuting drug crime was increased, and you get a deeper understanding of the injustice at play here.
And as to the following: “We are left, then, in a position, on the one hand, to question the validity of certain laws, certain ways of enforcing laws, and/or certain legal proceedings, where racial bias is largely constitutive of the facts of the matter; and/or, on the other hand, to examine the conditions which are effectively encouraging racialized criminality (and not merely racialized imprisonment)–I mean, criminality which one would really want to acknowledge as criminal (murder, rape, theft, perhaps drug use).” Yea, I think I get what you’re saying but I’m not sure I agree with it. I have read that murder rates are higher among some populations, but again, I think much of this is due to the war on drugs. Given how underreported rape is in general, along with the stat about 1 in 3 or 4 college women being sexually assaulted, I am not sure if middle class men are less likely to commit rape than poor men. I am very suspcious of the factuality of that claim, although I have no doubt that men of color, especially when poor, are much more likely to be prosecuted for sexual assault. And again, drug use is not higher among blacks than whites. Also, if we look at how under-prosecuted white collar crime is I think we have even less ground to say that poor black people aactually commit crimes at higher rates than whites, even factoring in class.
I would go further and say that wealthy people, who are disproportionately white, don’t need to commit crimes, since the law has already been written to enable their well-being and acquisition of wealth. If we get even more radical and think about the pillaging of ecosystems and indigenous communities around the world which is legal when done by a corporation, our ordinary picture of who is a criminal seems even less true.
and I agree with your explanation of the Obama-Oprah phenomenon…although again, there have always been black celebrities, even at the time of slavery, so I just think we should be careful about the extent to which the success of people like Oprah and Obama is really new. (not saying it’s not different, just that we should be careful not to make too much of it).
But yea, you should check out Wacquant’s books…I highly recommend his “Punishing the Poor.” It’s really great.
For solid incarceration reform proposals, read “Prison & Slavery – A Surprising Comparison.”
Amazon.com (with “Look Inside” feature and Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/1432753835
thanks, John! I will check that out!
hey–did you write that? nice! even more incentive to check it out. thanks for stopping by!
I did write it, and it took me three years. And I never set out to be a prison reformer, either, but the facts were too clear that change is needed, and there were methods that have been proven successful. Some folks will not like how I come to my reforms, and many will not like the reforms themselves, but the evidence of effectiveness is very solid.
Thanks for writing back. I just wanted to clarify one thing: I didn’t mean to suggest that the rates of actual crime among poor racialized communities are necessarily higher than those among predominantly white upper-class communities. You suggest strong reasons why that is probably not the case. My only claim was that the rates of actual crime are not zero–and so, to some extent, racialized criminality is a real phenomenon, and our response to it needs to be examining the conditions which encourage it (one of which, you argue, may be the war on drugs itself). But I also want to explicitly agree with you about the need to challenge the injustice that is present in the justice system itself, which turns away from drug-related crimes in white neighborhoods and polices them drastically in black neighborhoods.
cool. thanks for clarifying. 🙂
Thanks for this post (as well as for the follow-up). The information contained here makes me sick (and also makes me examine things I’ve said unthinkingly that are traces of my own white supremacy). I have a question that’s not on anything specific that you wrote, but that is more generalized (so feel free to answer it in as general a way as you like).
So, given the depth and complexity of white supremacy in the United States, such that it almost renders itself invisible in certain coded language and legal procedures, what does the practice of solidarity look like on the part of white people, do you think? Part of it seems to me to be precisely about the difficult task of consciousness-raising and the removal of scotosis, to begin, but then what, given the breadth and near-invisibility of white supremacy? I guess, more simply put, how do you conceive of solidarity? This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, partly because of our conversations.
Katie, I was wondering something similar– What do you think are practical steps forward?
Liz and Megan,
Sorry it has taken me so long to respond–I have been trying to think of an adequate response. I think you are right Liz, consciousness raising is definitely essential. Beyond that, I think we should seek out prison-reform as well as anti white supremacist movements that are already in progress.
I have found this blog helpful as far as further consciousness-raising about the prison issue http://prisonlaw.wordpress.com/
and I am in the process of seeking out political movements already in progress. if anyone out there knows of any, please send them our way!
Katie, thanks for this well-argued post. I’m just commenting to say “hi” as this is my first time here but will now definitely keep an eye on the blog. My interests lie in what I call “theology and peacebuilding” or “restorative theology,” an echo of a field I study and occasionally practice, restorative justice/RJ. RJ as a field was developed in the correctional systems in the US and Canada. So your post and this blog’s overall approach seems to resonate deeply with me.
Thanks again, and looking forward to more engagement!
Thanks so much for stopping by. I look forward to hearing more from you.
So the fact that one in seven blacks can’t vote is somehow due to whites? Surely, they should quite simply not be convicted of felonies? What am I missing in your argument?
Well written and interesting article, but some logical leaps that cause discomfort.
this is what you’re missing: