The Concept of Race and Mass Incarceration


Michelle Alexander was very influential in this segment of my research and writing.

For people of color in America the barriers to chasing the ‘dream,’ or even living comfortably, are tenfold those of white middle and lower class citizens. We like to believe that after events like the civil rights movement, emancipation of slavery, and defeat of slavery part II (Jim Crow Reconstruction Era) we left our ugly racist history in the past. In reality there is still deeply ingrained racism within institutions, doing everything in their power to hold people of color to a lower caste.  America as a society dominated by the elite is so scared of those they have labeled “others” that it has done everything in its power to oppress them. 

We are all humans who share similar experiences, emotions, and are all striving for roughly the same things in life. Rather than realizing this, caring about people and having empathy, American values preach individualism to the max. When your worldview is you and your small group versus everyone else you naturally develop a paranoid mindset. Fear of and a refusal to understand other cultures leads to a society that persecutes those who have any slight differences. People who say they are ‘colorblind’ are truly blind, as that statement is acknowledging the color of humans somehow makes us different. We are all one people, there are no biological differences between us because of skin tone or the way we look, those are superficial genetics. That being said, a large percentage of the country unfortunately does not share this belief. We have to live with the current reality that POC are labeled as such and have been oppressed for decades upon decades. The concept of race as a separating quality to be conscious of among the working class was introduced to this country during Bacon’s Rebellion in the 1670’s. 

Rich landowners saw an alliance of peasants and indentured servants from all types of different ethnicities threatening to overthrow the early colonial system and realized they needed to turn them against each other or it would be the end of their reign. Elites struck a deal with the white peasants that they would get a higher wage while shortening their indentured servitude contracts, turning the rebel group against itself as many laborers took this. The white peasants were willing to continue enduring the shit work conditions, low wages and awful living conditions as long as they knew that they had one leg up on someone else. That someone being black and indigenous workers who were previously their brothers in arms, the same people now confined to the lowest caste of society and treated as lesser because they weren’t white like the elites. This kind of white supremacy became foundational for America. The chattel slave trade was introduced mere years after this, reinforcing further the cultural belief that African Americans were no more than property and didn’t have autonomy to live free like whites, at the same time solidifying the link between white supremacy and capital. 

By the time America was declared its own nation there was such ingrained white supremacy that we had a medical diagnosis for slaves who wanted to be free, drapetomania, a supposed “mental condition” for the African person desiring liberty. Even after emancipation our system has found ways to profit off of black labor in unequal power relationships, and innumerable amounts of wealth has been stolen from their communities. Immediately following the Civil War the upper class went about ensuring African American communities could never build up the generational wealth and property that white people possessed, beginning with the convict lease system to keep plantations running with free agricultural labor and ‘redeemers’ that enforced racial hierarchies of Jim Crow. Redeemers were white terrorists that went around the south murdering and lynching black people in an attempt to prevent the 14th and 15th amendments from applying while the convict lease system was the earliest incarnation of what would blossom into our modern day criminal justice landscape. Throughout this period Jim Crow, segregation and horrible disenfranchisement were upheld by the Supreme Court and our other institutions, as has been the pattern for our entire history.

Credit: Smithsonian.

African American men, women, or children (but mostly men) were arrested based on Black Code laws within southern states. These were laws that criminalized being black, and the most commonly used one was “vagrancy.” This was essentially just being unemployed, and the former slave patrols that became formal police departments quickly arrested former slaves who hadn’t found work yet. (A task that was near impossible as no white business owner would fairly employ a black worker.) On top of this they shackled arrested African Americans with ridiculously high fines that they had no savings for. Convicts were held in horrible conditions unfit for any life, forced into labor by the state to pay off their legal fines, then sent back to their former tormentors in fields or other inhuman corporate labor. Every southern state participated in convict leasing, and over 90% of the convicts leased out for virtually free labor were African Americans. Because they were only held by their new owners until a fine was paid off, there was absolutely no incentive to keep prisoners alive as they had with a slave that was a monetary investment. You can imagine what the treatment of leased convicts was like from there. 

In the 20th century and beyond, America’s policing and justice systems have become the newest instruments to hold POC, and lower class white people, beaten down and in the gutter where they can’t resist domination by the wealthy. One recurring theme through America’s white supremacist history has been that the oppression of others has benefited nobody (even white people,) besides the upper class that gets to hold onto power. 

“The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” – Michelle Alexander

No other developed nation has the level of mass incarceration that America does, but I’m sure most readers already knew this. Beyond being a human rights violation on many levels due to the conditions of imprisonment, it’s an embarrassment that contributes to our global image of being a brutal imperialist state; intolerant of any other group or ideology. The amount of people incarcerated in the United States is 2.3 million; nearly a quarter of all prisoners in the world. (The general US population is only about four and a half percent of the world population, to put that in perspective).

It should come as no surprise that African Americans specifically are most affected by the carceral system, being arrested at five times the rate of the next highest group which are white people. Convict leasing was directly adapted into our modern day incarceral system, which sees black felons account for 40% of the 2.3 million people imprisoned; less than 18% of the country’s general population is African American. This is an incarceration rate of 600 African Americans per 100,000 of the population, by far the highest in the country. White people constitute around 70% of the general population yet account for only 29% of the incarcerated, a rate of 184 residents per 100,000 arrested.

Additionally, 40% of police killings are unarmed black men, a demographic that accounts for only 6% of the general US population. It is no coincidence that as soon as laws were enacted and agencies started to go after hate groups that were lynching people, the modern day incarceral system was created as the new “tough on crime” wave rolled in. America’s white supremacy and capital pursuit needed to ensure some way that white people could still feel above POC while generating free labor, and as a result there is a clear agenda of profiling and targeting specific populations through laws that claim to control the ‘problem’ within them; laws that are written by politicians with a vested interest in keeping POC labeled as dangerous and in prison.

For example the notorious crack epidemic of the 1980’s inspired outrage among middle America fueled by Reagan and Biden’s “super predators” and other harmful racial stereotypes. This crisis was entirely fabricated too, as it has been documented that the CIA and law enforcement partnered to inundate POC, specifically African American, communities with the drugs that they created laws entailing harsher penalties for. (I will discuss this specifically when I talk about foreign policy). This led directly to the ‘war on drugs,’ an admitted GOP propaganda effort started by the Nixon administration, picked up in earnest under Reagan, that purposefully equated black people with heroin and other illicit substances to justify brutal policing and extremely unfair prison sentences to keep them away from society. 

The result of this outrage was the militarization of law enforcement and mass incarceration of around 800,000 black people on crack charges throughout the decade. There is no pharmacological difference between powder and crack cocaine, yet because the latter was associated with black communities intentionally (even though a vast majority of crack and powder users are white,) the punishment for crack has been disproportionate in comparison to other drugs as legislators use racism to fuel their lawmaking. Prior to 2010, 5 grams of crack carried a 5 year mandatory minimum. This was a 100 to 1 disparity between cocaine, with which you would need to be caught holding in excess of 500 grams to receive the same sentence. Even though the law was amended in 2010 the disparity is still 18 to 1 in terms of sentencing, and black communities are statistically much more likely to receive crack charges, while a majority of white users only receive sentences for powder.

Whether it be at the border or on the streets of populated urban centers, law enforcement has been gruesomely effective at incarcerating “offenders” with increased plausibility for arrests that centers around racial profiling to find specfic drugs or paraphenilia. The war on drugs has only been a small sliver from the broader pie of policies created to justify targeting black, latino, and other disenfranchised American communities, and this norm has led to an absolute explosion in the prison population as our establishment throws away the ‘undesirables’ that need to be monitored. (Any nonwhite or poor person; those who don’t align with a society that America’s white supremacy and savage capitalism pursuit box us into). This second series will explore the link between our mass incarceration and the broader disenfranchisement within savage capitalism,  questioning why we uphold a harmful status quo and showing the reader solutions to restore communities rather than tear them down.


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One thought on “The Concept of Race and Mass Incarceration

  1. Pingback: Recidivism and Misleading Statistics, The Traumatizing Reality of the Justice System | The New Federalist

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