White supremacy and mass incarceration

February 6th, 2013

(US)-Republicans join the Left in calls for American prison reform but ignore the relevance of racism and social justice – Published on AlJazeera, by Wende Marshall, Jan 22, 2013. l

In a 2011 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Newt Gingrich said, “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential…The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.” An advocacy group called Right on Crime is spearheading Republican efforts to “demand more cost effective approaches that enhance public safety.” 

Signatories to its statement of principles include, in addition to Gingrich, other notable Republicans like Jeb Bush and Grover Norquist. A recent Washington Monthly article celebrated the right’s new focus on crime claiming it would “put the nation on a path to a more rational and humane correctional system.”

But by focusing on achieving “a cost effective middle ground,” Republican reform strategies end up eschewing the relevance of social justice and largely ignoring racial disparities and the disruptive social costs created by mass incarceration.

Justice and white supremacy: … //

Race, class and incarceration:

The US incarceration rate began increasing in the mid-1970s, but exploded dramatically after passage of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. Between 1970 and 2005 the prison population rose 700 per cent. The US comprises only 5per cent of the world’s population, but contains 25per cent of the world’s incarcerated people. Over seven million Americans are entangled with the criminal justice system through parole, probation or other forms of correctional supervision, while 2.3 million are behind bars. At 730 per 100,000 the US prison rate is 4-7 times higher than other western nations and up to 32 times higher than countries with the lowest rates like Nepal, Nigeria and India.

Racial disparities among the incarcerated are glaring: one in every 36 Latino man and one in every 15 black man is a prisoner compared with one in every 106 white man. Four percent of Native American adults are under correctional control. Data comparing apartheid era black incarceration rates in South African with current black male incarceration rates in the US provides a jarring perspective. According to the Prison Policy Institute, in 1993, during the apartheid era in South Africa, black men were incarcerated at a rate of 853 per 100,000 total black male population. In 2010, under the Obama administration, US black men were incarcerated at a rate of 3,074 per 100,000.  As the law of the land, McCleskey v. Kemp became an alibi for the racialised logic of mass incarceration, obstructing recognition and elimination of blatant racism in the criminal justice system.

Featured in the December issue of the Smithsonian Magazine, Stevenson was described as “the most important advocate for death row inmates in the US,” having successfully argued cases before the Supreme Court that banned mandatory life sentences without parole for minors. Stevenson is an eloquent, soulful man who sees the world through the eyes of imprisoned children and equates the incarceration of African Americans in the post-Civil Rights era with the enslavement of Africans in the US.

Mass incarceration, he argues, has radically changed society. He speaks of urban communities, like Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, where 50 percent of young black men are in prison, on parole or probation and where the disenfranchisement of convicted felons “has horrific implications for the political aspirations of people of colour.” In Alabama, Stevenson said, 34 per cent of black men have permanently lost the right to vote and within the next 10 years the level of disenfranchisement will be higher than it has been since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Stevenson points to the consequences of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law which denied drug offenders eligibility for public housing, food stamps and other benefits, and that has had a disastrous impact on black women and children. Black women comprise half of the female prison population, although they are only 12 percent of the total population. Between 1986 and 1991the number of black women incarcerated for drug offences soared by 828 percent.

It’s not just racism in Stevenson’s analysis that drives the shame of mass incarceration. A class system defined by gross wealth and income inequality and entrenched poverty also subverts the achievement of justice. “We have a system of justice in this country,” he said, “that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”  A racially biased war on drugs, poverty and political disenfranchisement combine, Stevenson argues, to create “a new class of untouchables, 1 million strong,” who cannot be reached by the public health or welfare systems and are “marginalised in ways from which there is no recovery.”

Using the institution of slavery as a lens through which to analyse the hugely disproportionate incarceration of African Americans men, women and children, Stevenson challenges us to question the logic of a justice system based on the rule of McCleskey v. Kemp. Why are blacks more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than whites? Why are two-thirds of those sentenced to life African Americans? Why, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, does a black boy have a 32 per cent chance of going to gaol, compared with a 6 per cent chance for a white boy?

Mass incarceration is a legacy of slavery: … //

… (full text and hyperlinks).

(Wende Marshall is a cultural anthropologist working on issues of race, healing and social change and is the author of Potent Mana: Lessons in Power and Healing).

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