Race and the Mass Incarceration Society

A new frontier for the civil rights movement

According to a 2002 U.S. Justice Department report, 6.7 million people in the U.S. were under “correctional supervision”—prison, jail, parole or probation—nearly four times as many people as in 1980. It is estimated that, on any day, upwards of one-third of black men in their twenties face this reality. With black women as the fastest growing prison population in the United States, perhaps similar statistics may not be too far behind. Our politicians speak of the success of the need to be “tough on crime,” but our law and order regime is not quite what it seems on the surface. What our society is undergoing is not the effective prosecution of millions of hardened lawbreakers who happen to be dark-skinned, but instead the development of a new form of social control rooted in the traditions of slavery, Jim Crow, and ghettoization—the mass incarceration society.

These institutions, according to sociologist Loic Wacquant, have each handled “the task of defining, confining, and controlling African Americans,” but the mass incarceration society we live in differs significantly from slavery and segregation. Their purpose was to extract cheap labor from blacks while still maintaining enough social distance between races for whites to benefit materially and psychologically. Globalization, however, wreaked havoc on this pre-1960s American social order as manufacturing jobs (and social mobility) moved to the suburbs and then overseas. Pushed into benefit-deprived, unstable service economy jobs, or into chronic un- or underemployment, black workers confined to the bottom of the economic hierarchy became economically unviable as laborers. Herded into the abandoned central cities, this black urban “underclass” revolted in the mid-1960s against these conditions in a series of urban “riots” across the U.S.

These urban rebellions set the stage for the new method of social control—the mass incarceration society. The new law and order regime of Nixon and Reagan sought to incite racial fears exacerbated by these rebellions and associate blacks with crime. Winning elections by being tough on Negroes—or “crime”—became such good politics that even Bill Clinton, friend of colored folks, made it Democratic strategy in his 1992 victory. This new resolution to the “problem” of poor blacks has been effective yet because it makes poor blacks invisible and couches the debate in terms that are not explicitly racial. Bill Clinton or George W. Bush would never be against black people, nor suggest that they themselves should serve time for their own past drug use—but they can certainly be “tough on street crime.”

The mass incarceration society, then, relies on these racial fears to justify its staggering size. It is presented as a necessity that keeps safety and order, but it is in reality intended to “disappear” and control a surplus population of laborers and turn them into someone’s economic gain. Thus, the black middle class operates as administrators in the social control regime—educators in poor schools, parole officers and social workers—while whites serve as correctional officers and management. At a time when rural areas should be suffering from globalization, more than a few towns have been buoyed by jobs from prison construction and management. Not to mention the added legislative representation and state funding that a rural town receives by having thousands of inmates counted as non-voting residents—essentially the three-fifths clause without the effort of long division.

To make matters worse, corporate America is in on this, most egregiously in the form of private prisons. Private corporations make hundreds of millions building and operating prisons across the nation. These companies and their shareholders, therefore, have a vested interest in human beings continuing to be arrested and incarcerated for long periods. Not only do private prison companies profit, but so do phone companies that overcharge inmates and companies like IBM and Victoria’s Secret that use underpaid, unfree prison labor for manufacturing.

But questions remain: Don’t criminals deserve to be punished? And if they do, what’s wrong with a little profit on the side? I offer that there is a significant difference between being criminal and being criminalized. Although blacks make up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, 44 percent of prison inmates in 2003 were black. And while politicians and police claim to be primarily clearing the streets of violent crime, 81 percent of those sentenced to state prisons in 2000 were convicted of non-violent crimes, including 35 percent for drug offenses and 28 percent for property offenses. Drug offenders constituted 20 percent of state prison inmates and 55 percent of federal prison inmates in 2001.

Now, if we as a society are just against drugs and want to arrest as many drug users and dealers as possible, then fine—even though I don’t necessarily agree with this tactic. All that I ask, as a citizen of this great drug-fighting country, is that the War on Drugs stops being a war on certain drugs and certain people. For every drug arrest made in Roxbury, I’m sure a team of Scooby Doo-caliber sleuths could find their share of illicit substances right here on Harvard’s campus, or in suburban high schools, or in investment banker parties—but nobody is sending the Mystery Machine to investigate. This differential application of the law, coupled with the realities of life in the concentrated poverty of American ghettoes, has created a justice system where many blacks cannot escape its increasingly pervasive grasp, and many white politicians delude themselves into conveniently forgetting their own past drug use or the current drug use of their children.

According to a recent Gallup poll, only 34 percent of blacks express confidence in the police and 16 percent in the local courts. Coupled with the fact that one in seven black men is barred from voting because of penal disenfranchisement and that criminal conviction can make one ineligible for government services, including college financial aid and public housing, the sense of alienation and nihilism that many young black men and women feel is very real and very dangerous. America needs an immediate and honest conversation about the role of incarceration in a democracy and how racial paranoia has led us to warehouse and surveil millions of citizens. Prisons are thus the new frontier for the civil rights struggle. And though this movement will certainly be less photogenic than old church ladies being brutalized by racist police officers while trying to vote, we must not shy away from one of our generation’s major callings. The enemy may be more challenging than segregation, but at this rate, if nothing is done, we will find ourselves in the midst of a prison society that has more in common with Jim Crow than a multiracial democracy.

Brandon M. Terry ‘05 is a government and African and African American studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.