Drawing the New Color Line

Matt Wasserman Mar 15, 2011

CREDIT: Jessica PatrickTexas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire
Robert Perkinson
Metropolitan Books, 2010

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2010

The problem of the color line has become reinforced by prison bars. Since 1970, incarceration rates have quadrupled in the United States, leaving over two million people behind bars. Black men suffer the worst of it: As of 2009, nearly one in twenty black men were incarcerated. Black males are six times more likely to be imprisoned than white males, and more than two and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than Hispanic males, according to the Department of Justice.

The rhetoric of a “war on crime” was part of the backlash to the civil rights movement, with politicians conjuring the specter of black lawlessness to gin up white votes. Barry Goldwater brought this ostensibly race-neutral “law and order” rhetoric to the national stage, but Richard Nixon put it into practice. Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, wrote in his diary that Nixon told him, “The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Pretty soon Democratic politicians were panting to prove that they too were tough on crime. Bill Clinton even left the campaign trail in 1992 to personally oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded inmate who saved some pecan pie from his final meal to eat later.

Michelle Alexander sees this move towards “lockdown America” as not merely racially biased, but as part of a new system of racial control. In The New Jim Crow, she posits that mass incarceration has replaced Jim Crow as a racial caste system in much the same way that Jim Crow replaced slavery. While each successive incarnation grows less universal in its reach and less brutal in its application, it remains a system of institutionalized oppression.

Alexander effectively makes her case, compiling damning statistics while disarming skeptics by confessing that she herself did not initially believe that mass incarceration constituted a new form of racial domination. Step by step, she illustrates the racial inequities displayed in all aspects of the criminal justice system, from police practices and penal law statues to Supreme Court decisions. While the law in its “majestic equality” forbids both black and white from using or selling drugs, three quarters of those imprisoned for drug offenses are black or Latino, despite the consistent finding of government surveys that whites use and sell drugs at comparable or higher rates than those of any other race. Alexander’s analysis would benefit from addressing issues of class in addition to race, but she nonetheless offers an effective brief on the need for radical reform of the criminal justice system.

In Texas Tough, Robert Perkinson offers a well-researched and compellingly-written genealogy of the contemporary model of retributive justice, tracing it back to its blood-soaked Texas roots. Perkinson argues that historians have been mistaken in looking to Northern penitentiaries, which aimed to rehabilitate and re-integrate prisoners, to understand present-day prison practices. Instead, he claims that the current model of punishment and warehousing of prisoners grew to maturity in Texas.

Perkinson sketches the history of Texas prisons from their expansion following the abolition of slavery to the present day. Initially, they served as much as a source of coerced labor as a form of social control. Some reforms were instituted following the finding by a federal judge in Ruiz v. Estelle (1980) that the entire Texas prison system constituted a form of “cruel and unusual punishment.” The rape of prisoners is no longer institutionally condoned and the Texas Prison Rodeo — billed as the “world’s toughest rodeo” — has been shut down. However, convicts assigned to work duty still pick cotton in the blistering sun under the watchful eyes and guns of mostly white guards. Don’t mess with Texas, indeed.

Mass incarceration is one of the major civil rights issues of our time, and its impact extends beyond prison walls. Those convicted of a crime are faced with a barrage of challenges, ranging from being ineligible for jobs and barred from social services and public housing to not being allowed to vote. The millions stripped of their rights constitute a massive underclass, separated from the rest of the country, but not even nominally equal.

While Perkinson’s focus is on the historical roots of mass incarceration, Alexander’s interest is in understanding its contemporary effects. Nonetheless, both bring out the horrors of mass imprisonment and the need for systemic change. As Perkinson states, “Were the prison, with its lengthy record, judged by the same standard as its inhabitants, it would surely be classified as a repeat offender, perhaps a candidate for the death penalty.”

Forty years ago it was not uncommon for policymakers and academics to endorse the abolition of prisons, at least for all but the most hardened criminals. Abolishing prisons, or even significantly reducing incarceration rates, is a fringe position today. The discourse of a war on crime is too entrenched and the constituencies backing prison expansion too powerful for politicians to advocate more than a slight rollback of imprisonment.

The civil rights movement has been called a “second Reconstruction.” Discussing the failure of the first Reconstruction, W.E.B. Du Bois remarked: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” It is past time for the millions locked up behind prison walls to see the sun again.

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