In devastating detail in Daedalus [the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences], the sociologists Bruce Western of Harvard and Becky Pettit of the University of Washington have shown how poverty creates prisoners and how prisons in turn fuel poverty, not just for individuals but for entire demographic groups. Crunching the numbers, they concluded that once a person has been incarcerated, the experience limits their earning power and their ability to climb out of poverty even decades after their release. It’s a vicious feedback loop that is affecting an ever-greater percentage of the adult population and shredding part of the fabric of 21st-century American society.
In 1980, one in 10 black high-school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent. Western and Pettit calculated that if current incarceration trends hold, fully 68 percent of African-American male high school dropouts born from 1975 to 1979 (at the start of the upward trend in incarceration rates) will spend time living in prison at some point in their lives, as the chart below shows.
* There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
* As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
* If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas, like Chicago, have been labeled felons for life. These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — a group of people who are permanently relegated, by law, to an inferior second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits — much as their grandparents and great-grandparents once were during the Jim Crow era.
I have not read the book. I will buy it. But this is not the first time I’ve noted the idea that our prison system is a continuation of Jim Crow. In a summer 2007 Boston Review article, Glenn C. Loury observed that the reason imprisonment rates continued to rise while crime rates fell is because we have become progressively more punitive:
The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively, I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to the success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of “frontlash” in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George Wallace’s campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime: Once the clutch of Jim Crow had loosened, opponents of civil rights shifted the “locus of attack” by injecting crime onto the agenda. Through the process of frontlash, rivals of civil rights progress defined racial discord as criminal and argued that crime legislation would be a panacea to racial unrest. This strategy both imbued crime with race and depoliticized racial struggle, a formula which foreclosed earlier “root causes” alternatives. Fusing anxiety about crime to anxiety over racial change and riots, civil rights and racial disorder—initially defined as a problem of minority disenfranchisement—were defined as a crime problem, which helped shift debate from social reform to punishment.
Alexander says that today the Drug War has become the primary vehicle for imprisoning African Americans. In an acceptance speech she gave this September when Nieman’s Constitution Project presented her with its 2010 Constitutional Commentary Award, How the Drug War has subjugated poor people of color and nullified the Fourth Amendment, she notes this is more than even crack v. powder cocaine disparities:
Nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990s — the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war — was for marijuana possession, a drug less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, and a drug that is at least as prevalent in middle-class white communities and on college campuses as it is in poor communities of color.
The drug war, though, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, despite the fact that studies consistently indicate that people of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youths, are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color.
But that is not what one would guess by taking a peek inside our nation’s prisons and jails, which are overflowing with black and brown drug offenders. In some states African Americans have constituted 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.
The complicity of the court:
In the failed War on Drugs, our Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures have been eviscerated. Stop and frisk operations in poor communities of color are now routine; the very sorts of arbitrary and discriminatory police practices the Framers aimed to prevent are now commonplace. Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a strident dissent, felt compelled to remind the Court that there is “no drug exception” to the Fourth Amendment. His reminder was in vain. In a series of cases beginning in the early 1980s, the Supreme Court steadily unraveled Fourth Amendment protections against stops, interrogations and seizures in bus stops, train stations, in schools, on the job, on sidewalks and airports. These aggressive sweep tactics are used almost exclusively in poor communities of color.
People often ask me: If the system is as rife with conscious and unconscious bias, as you suggest, why aren’t there more lawsuits filed? Why not just file some big class action lawsuits challenging bias by the police or prosecutors? Doesn’t the 14th Amendment guarantee equal protection of the laws?
What they don’t realize is that the Supreme Court has closed the courthouse doors to claims of racial bias at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stops and searches, to plea bargaining and sentencing. The Court has ruled that in the absence of conscious, intentional bias — tantamount to an admission or a racial slur — you can’t even get in the courthouse doors with allegations of race discrimination in the criminal justice system.
Sasha Abramsky with more from that Daedalus research:
It gets uglier. When high school dropouts buck the trend by coming out of prison and finding steady work, they overwhelmingly hit a dead end in terms of earnings. Western and Pettit found that after being out of prison for 20 years, less than one-quarter of ex-cons who haven’t finished high school were able to rise above the bottom 20 percent of income earners, a far lower percentage than for high-school dropouts who don’t go to prison. They conclude that the ex-cons end up passing on their economic handicap, and by extension the propensity of ending up behind bars, to their children and their children’s children in turn. As evidence, they cite recent surveys indicating children of prisoners are more likely to live in poverty, to end up on welfare, and to suffer the sorts of serious emotional problems that tend to make holding down jobs more difficult.
University of California at Berkeley professor of law Jonathan Simon writes that these men and women in many ways become the human equivalent of underwater homes bought with subprime mortgages—they are “toxic persons” in the way those homes have been defined as “toxic assets,” condemned to failure.
The prisons are the most overtly brutal of the racist outcomes that result from court-protected systems, but let’s also remember that Erwin Chemerinsky has definitively documented the Supreme Court’s role in the re-segregation of our public schools.