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Land of the Free and Incarcerated: Mass Incarceration of People of Color in the US

Over 2 million people are currently locked up either in a US jail or prison. When also including people on parole and probation this number shoots up to a staggering 6.84 million. To put this into perspective, the US population makes up only 5 percent of the world´s population but holds 25 percent of the global inmate population – no other country in the world puts this many people behind bars. Furthermore, it is disproportionately the black population that is locked into the system of mass incarceration. Examining the issue of black mass incarceration in more detail, a strong argument can be made that this system maintains and perpetuates a racialized social order severely marginalizing people of color.

This short blog post sketches the argument that US mass incarceration of people of color is a form of structural violence by the state functioning as an instrument of social control to maintain racialized power hierarchies rooted in the era of slavery. Considering the magnitude and racial bias of this system, scholars such as Michelle Alexander have argued that this practice can be conceived of as a new Jim Crow. Jim Crow refers to the period after the abolition of slavery in which discriminating laws and institutions were created to maintain a racialized social hierarchy. These laws were challenged by the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g Brown v. Board of Education). Applying some of Begoña Aretxaga´s insights to this issue, the operational logic of the US penal system can be understood as one way of ensuring governmentality by shaping citizens subjectivity, by pitting social groups against each other as well as by instrumentalizing alarmistic political framing to legitimize partisan and discriminating policy moves.

The racial divide

The US penal system is not only the biggest in the world, it is also massively racially skewed against people of color, especially against black males: The likelihood of a black man spending time in prison at some point in his life is currently around 1 in 3 (for Latino men 1 in 6 and for white men 1 in 17). Although black people make up only 13 percent of the US population, they make up about 40 percent of those incarcerated. Around 20 percent of the total inmate population spends time in jail for drug related offenses. Although, contrary to popular belief, white people use and sell drugs at about the same rate as African Americans as Michelle Alexander work documents, African Americans are 6 times more likely to be imprisoned for drug related charges than white Americans.

Incarceration has many negative social and psychological consequences: It breaks families apart, creates economic hardship and job losses, traumatic experiences in jail and potential exposure to dangerous diseases result in enduring consequences, as well as dwindling post-release job opportunities, political marginalization through electoral disenfranchisement and social stigmatization. Considering the severity and disproportionality with which the community of people of color is hit by this system, a case can be made that this system is violent due to its extremely harmful effects and that it functions as a way to maintain racialized power hierarchies.

The so called „black crime issue“ has not been merely an issue of poverty, but has been actively fueled and constructed by the US government via policy decisions during the era of the so called War on Crime and War on Drugs. As Michelle Alexander notes, state spending on the criminal persecution of drug related offenses increased dramatically under Reagan’s presidency and huge media campaigns were launched to legitimize the War on Drugs. In 1986 Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act which, among other things, imposed new mandatory minimums for drug offenses, such as a 5 year mandatory minimum for the mere possession of crack cocaine (without needing to prove any intention to sell it). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act also established the severe sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. This piece of legislation was clearly racialized since most black drug users cannot afford cocaine and hence opt for the cheaper alternative: crack. These political decisions are the main reason why the number of people incarcerated jumped from 161 US residents in prison or jail per 100,000 in 1972 to the current figure of 707 inmates per 100,000. In fact, until 2010, the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was 100:1 (today it is 18:1) and in 2002, 80% of crack defendants were African Americans . On top of devising drug laws that would ensure high incarceration rates of people of color, the increase of resources for law enforcement obviously lead to higher arrest rates further cementing the narrative of „black crime“.

The social logic behind black mass incarceration

What is the social logic behind implementing such a destructive system? One possible explanation is the maintenance of a racialized social hierarchy by using the penal system and its marginalizing effects as an instrument of social control as Michelle Alexander argues in her aforementioned book. Another factor certainly fueling the issue is the privatization of prisons which has made them a financially profitable market and investment opportunity, especially during times of economic crisis: high unemployment and/or poverty are linked to soaring incarceration rates and thus soaring profitability. Furthermore, the issue of mass incarceration needs to be contextualized within the history of the social struggle of people of color regarding their violent subordination during slavery, the subsequent prisoner leasing system and Jim Crow.

There are good reasons to believe that mass incarceration is a continuation, although much subtler, of an oppressive racialized social system. As Begoña Aretxaga argues (building upon some of Michel Foucault´s insights), the penal system produces and reproduces the state as a powerful social object: It can discipline its citizens and can delegitimize marginalized social groups that might have an interest in changing power relations by criminalizing them. Following Aretxaga´s thoughts further and applying them to the issue at hand, the racialized penal system can be interpreted as a means to mask real power relations by framing a social issue as a crime issue under the guise of public interest. According to Aretxaga, state power can be further affirmed by calling a state of exception thereby also surreptitiously legitimizing certain legislation – the speech of exception found in the War on Crime and War on Drugs discourses may serve this very function. Framing a social issue in terms of “war” securitizes this very issue and may legitimize drastic countermeasures. Also, this framing conceals the social dynamics entangled with this issue by reifying it as a clearly delineated, depersonalized object (e.g. “drugs”). Such framings can further function as a political “dog whistle”: Speech about War on Drugs and “cracking down on crime” being a superficially racially neutralized way to covertly legitimize discriminating against black citizens. Moreover, crime statistics and the practice of mass incarceration with its destructive consequences can be interpreted as enhancing governmentality of a “dangerous social class” and producing power-knowledge about them that acts in their disservice. In this way, the skewed US penal system fulfills an important function of ensuring governmentality of the US population: Criminalizing social issues that are in fact due to structural reasons as well as to power interests helps to shape a subjectivity that does not hold the state accountable for these social issues but rather blames the “character” of individuals or the “culture” of certain social groups. Furthermore, the way the penal system works appeases marginalized whites by enhancing the value of whiteness due to the allegedly inherent moral inadequacy of blackness – in a racialized social hierarchy, marginalized whites and blacks are much less likely to solidarize since their attributed ethnicity is reified and pits them against each other.

Breaking a vicious circle

What makes it, amongst other things, tough to challenge these practices and discourses harming people of color and cementing a racialized hierarchical social order is that they are self-fulling prophecies and self-perpetuating: The penal system produces more crime and recidivism is a serious issue. Families and communities wrecked by mass incarceration are tough environments for the next generation to even try break this vicious cycle making it easier to buy into the talk on being “tough on crime”, on “problematic cultures”, “characters” and “work ethic”. The criminalization of people of color and the damaging consequences for them and their communities is an instance of a state turning against its own people under the guise of the rule of law to maintain highly unequal and racialized power relations.

Further References

  • Alexander, Michelle (2010): The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.
  • Aretxaga, Begoña (2003): Maddening States. In: Annual Review of Anthropology 32 (2003), 393-410.
Klara Sinha

Klara Sinha

Klara Sinha holds a BA in philosophy and sociology and is currently enrolled in the Master´s Program International Studies/Peace and Conflict Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. She is also a student assistant at the HSFK working in the project “Gesellschaft Extrem: Radikalisierung und Deradikalisierung in Deutschland“. Her research interests include epistemic injustice, right-wing extremism, racism, gender and emancipation.

Klara Sinha

Klara Sinha holds a BA in philosophy and sociology and is currently enrolled in the Master´s Program International Studies/Peace and Conflict Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt. She is also a student assistant at the HSFK working in the project “Gesellschaft Extrem: Radikalisierung und Deradikalisierung in Deutschland“. Her research interests include epistemic injustice, right-wing extremism, racism, gender and emancipation.

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