From Slavery to Mass Incarceration:

For the full version of this essential reading go to:

Original:  Posted by Sandy Bernabei

“Here are the first 4,000 words…

Rethinking race and imprisonment in twenty-first-century America.

Loïc Wacquant

8 Consider three brute facts about racial inequality and imprisonment in contemporary America:

 (i)   Since 1989 and for the first time in national history, African Americans make up a majority of those entering prison each year. Indeed, in four short decades, the ethnic composition of the U.S. inmate population has reversed, turning over from 70 percent white at mid-century to nearly 70 percent black and Latino today, although ethnic patterns of criminal activity have not fundamentally changed during that period.

(ii)   The rate of incarceration for African Americans has soared to levels unknown in any other society and is higher now than the total incarceration rate in the Soviet Union at the zenith of the Gulag and in South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. As of mid-1999, close to 800,000 black men were in
custody in federal penitentiaries, state prisons, and county jails—one male out
of every twenty-one, and one out of every nine between twenty and thirty-four. On any given day, upwards of one third of African-American men in their twenties find themselves behind bars, on probation, or on parole. And, at the core of the formerly industrial cities of the North, this proportion often exceeds two thirds.

(iii)   The ratio of black to white imprisonment rates has steadily grown over the past two decades, climbing from about five to one to eight and a half to one. This
rising “racial disproportionality” can be traced directly to the War on Drugs launched by Ronald Reagan and expanded under George Bush, Sr. and Bill Clinton. In ten states,  African Americans are imprisoned at more than ten times
the rate of European Americans. And in the District of Columbia, blacks were thirty-five times more likely than whites to be put behind bars in 1994.

 Students of crime and justice know these grim facts but disagree about their explanation. Most analysts account for the sudden “blackening” of the carceral system—comprising jails, state prisons, federal prisons, and private detention facilities—in terms of trends in crime and its judicial treatment (arrest, prosecution, sentencing); a few have considered such non-judicial variables as the size of the black population, economic factors (the poverty rate, unemployment, income), the value of welfare payments, support for religious fundamentalism, and the dominant political party. But these factors, taken separately and in conjunction, simply cannot account for the magnitude, rapidity, and timing of the recent racialization of U.S. imprisonment, especially as crime rates have been flat and later declining over the past quarter-century.

 Black hyperincarceration

 To understand these phenomena, we first need to break out of the narrow “crime and punishment” paradigm and examine the broader role of the penal system as an instrument for managing dispossessed and dishonored groups. And second, we need to take a longer historical view on the shifting forms of ethno-racial domination in the United States. This double move suggests that the astounding upsurge in black incarceration in the past three decades results from the obsolescence of the ghetto as a device for caste control and the correlative need for a substitute apparatus for keeping (unskilled) African Americans in a subordinate and confined position—physically, socially, and symbolically.

 In the post-Civil Rights era, the remnants of the dark ghetto and an expanding carceral system have become linked in a single system that entraps large numbers of younger black men, who simply move back and forth between the two institutions. This carceral mesh has emerged from two sets of convergent changes: sweeping economic and political forces have reshaped the mid-century
“Black Belt” to make the ghetto more like a prison; and the “inmate society” has broken down in ways that make the prison more like a ghetto. The resulting symbiosis between ghetto and prison enforces the socioeconomic marginality and symbolic taint of an urban black sub-proletariat. Moreover, by producing a racialized public culture that vilifies criminals, it plays a pivotal role in remaking “race” and redefining the citizenry.

 A fuller analysis would reveal that this increasing use of imprisonment to shore
up caste division in American society is part of a broader “upsizing” of the state’s penal sector, which, together with the drastic “downsizing” of its social welfare sector, aims at enforcing a regime of flexible and casual wage labor as a norm of citizenship for unskilled segments of the postindustrial working class. This emerging government of poverty weds the “invisible hand” of a deregulated labor market to the “iron fist” of an omnipresent punitive apparatus. It is anchored not by a “prison industrial complex,” as political opponents of the policy of mass incarceration maintain, but by a system of gendered institutions that monitor, train, and neutralize populations recalcitrant or superfluous to the new economic and racial regime: men are handled by its penal wing while (their) women and children are managed by a revamped welfare-workfare system designed to buttress casual employment.

So the hypertrophic growth of imprisonment is one component of a more comprehensive restructuring of the American state to suit the requirements of neoliberalism. But race plays a special role in this emerging system. The United States far outstrips all advanced nations in the international trend towards the penalization of social insecurity. And just as the dismantling of welfare programs was accelerated by a cultural and political conflation of blackness and undeservingness so, too, the “great confinement” of the rejects of market society—the poor, mentally ill, homeless, jobless, and useless—can be painted as a welcome “crackdown” on them, those dark-skinned criminals from a pariah group still considered alien to the national body. The handling of the “underclass” question by the prison system at once reflects, reworks, and reinforces the racial division of American society and plays a key role in the fashioning of a post-Keynesian American state.

 Four peculiar institutions

 The task of defining, confining, and controlling African Americans in the United States has been successively shouldered by four “peculiar institutions”: slavery, the Jim Crow system, the urban ghetto, and the organizational compound formed by the vestiges of the ghetto and the expanding carceral system. The first three served, each in its own way, both to extract labor from African Americans and to demarcate and ultimately seclude them so that they would not “contaminate” the surrounding white society that viewed them as irrevocably inferior and vile.

 These two goals of labor  and social seclusion are in tension: extracting a group’s labor requires regular intercourse with its members, which may blur the line separating  “us” from “them.” Conversely, social isolation can make efficient labor extraction more difficult. When the tension between exploitation and exclusion mounts to the point where it threatens to undermine either of them, the institution is re-stabilized through physical violence: the customary use of the lash and ferocious suppression of slave insurrections on the plantation, terroristic vigilantism and mob lynchings in the post-bellum South, and periodic bombings of Negro homes and pogroms against ghetto residents (such as the six-day riot that shook up Chicago in 1919) ensured that blacks kept to their appointed place at each epoch.

 But the built-in instabilities of unfree labor and the anomaly of caste partition in a formally democratic and highly individualistic society guaranteed that each of these peculiar institutions would in time be undermined by the weight of its internal tensions as well as by black resistance and external opposition, and be replaced by its successor regime. At each new stage, the apparatus of ethno-racial domination became less total and less capable of encompassing all segments and dimensions of the pariah group’s social life. As African Americans differentiated along class lines and acceded to full formal citizenship, the institutional complex charged with keeping them “separate and unequal” grew more differentiated and diffuse, allowing a burgeoning middle and upper class of professionals and salary earners to partially compensate for the negative symbolic capital of blackness through their high-status cultural capital and proximity to centers of political power. But lower-class blacks remained burdened by the triple stigma of “race,” poverty, and putative immorality.

 Slavery (1619–1865)

 From the first years of the colony to the Civil War, slavery determined the collective identity and individual life chances of Americans of African parentage. Orlando Patterson has rightly insisted that slavery is essentially “a relation of domination and not a category of legal thought,” and, moreover, a relation unusual for the inordinate amounts of material and symbolic violence it entails.  In the Americas (as opposed to, say, in the Islamic world, where slavery served no productive purpose), this violence was channeled to fulfil a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable appetite of the plantation for labor. The forcible importation of Africans and West Indians, and the rearing of their descendants under bondage supplied the unfree workforce needed to produce the great staples—tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton—that were the backbone of North America’s preindustrial economy.

 In the early colonial period, indentured servitude was economically more advantageous than slavery but, by the second half of the seventeenth century, demographic and economic factors conspired to make slavery the preferred source of labor. After the Revolution, human bondage was abolished along the Eastern seaboard and prohibited north and west of the Ohio River, but it spread and solidified throughout the South, as the economic value of slaves rose in concert with the increase in the demand for cotton and the scarcity of labor in the new territories of the Southwest. Once generalized, slavery reconfigured society, culture, and politics in its image, concentrating economic and state power in the hands of a small slaveholder class tied to lower-class whites by patronage relations and to their slaves by a paternalistic code that reinforced the latter’s lack of cultural autonomy and sense of inferiority.

By the nineteenth century the sharp dichotomy between bondsmen and freemen  had been racialized: the militant defense of slavery generated an elaborate ideology that justified the subhuman condition imposed upon blacks by their inferior biological makeup. Particularly in the period between the Great Awakening and the Civil War, the specter of insurrection and abolition resulted
in increased hostility toward manumission, miscegenation, and “passing” by Negroes, and a rigid twofold racial schema based on the mythology that God had created a separate species of blacks to be slaves and that persons of mixed descent were against nature and fated to physical extinction. In short, slavery as a system of unfree labor spawned a suffusive racial culture. And that culture remade bondage into something it was not at its outset: a color-coded institution of ethno-racial division

 Jim Crow South (1865–1965)

Emancipation posed a double and deadly threat to Southern society: the overthrow of bondage made slaves formally free laborers, which potentially eliminated the cheap and abundant workforce required to run the plantation economy; black access to civil and political rights also promised to erode the color line initially drawn to bulwark slavery but subsequently entrenched in both North and South. In a first phase, during Reconstruction, the Dixie ruling class promulgated the Black Codes to resolve the first problem by establishing “forced labor and police laws to get the freedman back to the fields under control.”  In a second phase, through the 1880s, the white lower classes joined with the plantation elite to demand the political disenfranchisement and systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major institutions: the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation was born which would hold African Americans in its brutal grip for nearly a century in the Southern states and beyond.

 This regime restricted economic opportunities for African Americans in the Southern cotton fields and the emerging mining and industrial towns of the uplands by limiting their employment to the most dirty and dangerous “nigger work.” Former slaves and their descendants were prohibited from attending churches and schools with whites. And they were methodically banished from the ballot box thanks to an assortment of residency requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests, “grandfather clauses,” and disqualifying criminal offenses.

Most crucially, Jim Crow curtailed social contacts between whites and blacks by relegating the latter to separate residential districts and to the reserved “colored” section of commercial establishments and public facilities, bars and movie houses, parks and beaches, trolleys and buses, waiting rooms and bathrooms. Any and all forms of interaction that might imply social equality between the “races,” or, worse yet, provide an occasion for sexual contact across the color line were rigorously forbidden. Any infringement, real or imagined, was savagely repressed, as testified by periodic explosions of mob violence, beatings, whippings, and rioting against blacks who failed to display proper caste deference. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, some 2,060 African Americans were lynched, one third of them after being accused of sexual assault or mere social improprieties towards white women. These veritable carnivals of caste rage, during which the bodies of “bad niggah” were ritually desecrated by burning, mutilation, and public exhibition, were fanned by the press, tacitly supported by the churches, and encouraged by complicity from the forces of order. African Americans could hardly turn to the courts for protection since the latter openly put the law of caste above the rule of law: as a Mississippi gentleman put it, “race is greater than law now and then, and protection of women transcends all law, human and divine.”

 The Northern Ghetto (1914–1968)

The ferocity of Jim Crow as a system of labor extraction and seclusion sowed the seeds of its eventual ruin, for blacks fled the South by the millions as soon as the opportunity came. In part a result of economic causes—including a booming demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor in Northern steel mills, packinghouses, factories, and railroads—this Great Migration was driven by the
irrepressible will to escape the indignities of caste and its attendant material degradation, truncated life horizons, and rampant violence. Indeed, the outmigration of blacks was heaviest in those counties of the Deep South  where lynchings were most frequent. The trek north to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia was thus undertaken by Southern blacks not only to “better their condition” but also to board what Langston Hughes called the “train of freedom,” on a journey filled with biblical imagery and political import: it was a race-conscious gesture of collective defiance and self-affirmation

 Though Northern cities did offer salutary relief from the harsh grip of Southern caste domination and significantly expand the life chances of the former sharecroppers, African Americans there came upon yet another device for economic exploitation and social seclusion: the ghetto. As the Negro population grew, so did the animosity of whites towards them. Previously informal patterns of ethno-racial discrimination and segregation hardened in housing and schools, as well as parks, playgrounds, and beaches. They were extended to the polity, where the promotion of a small cadre of black politicians handpicked by party leaders served to rein in the community’s votes to the benefit of the white-controlled city machine. They were systematized in the economy, where a “job ceiling” set conjointly by white employers and unions kept African Americans trapped in semi-skilled, manual, and servant work that made them especially vulnerable to business downturns.  And, when they tried breach the color bar—by attempting to move outside their reserved perimeter, for instance—blacks were assaulted on the streets by white “athletic clubs” and their houses were bombed by “neighborhood improvement societies.” They had no choice but to take refuge in the secluded territory of the Black Belt and to try to build in it a self-sustaining nexus of institutions that would both shield them from white rule and procure the needs of the castaway community: a “Black Metropolis” lodged “in the womb of the white,” yet hermetically sealed from it.

 Although this “black city within the white”—as black scholars from DuBois and Frazier to Oliver Cox and Kenneth Clark have consistently characterized the ghetto—served the functions of extraction and seclusion, it differed from the earlier peculiar institution in the degree of organizational autonomy it permitted black Americans. The urban Black Belt enabled African Americans to fully develop their own social and symbolic forms and thereby accumulate the group capacities needed to escalate their resistance to continued caste subordination.

 Analyzing the workings of the ghetto as mechanism of ethno-racial control highlights its kinship with the prison. Thus the ghetto is a kind of “ethno-racial prison” in that it encloses a stigmatized population with its own distinctive organizations and culture. And the prison functions as a “judicial ghetto” relegating individuals disgraced by criminal conviction to a secluded space harboring the social relations and cultural norms of a “society of captives.”  So when the capacity of the ghetto to ensure caste domination was undercut in the 1960s by economic restructuring that made African-American labor expendable and by the mass protest that finally won blacks full voting rights, the carceral system began to function as a substitute apparatus for enforcing the shifting color line and containing segments of the African-American community devoid of economic utility and political pull. As the ghetto became more like a prison (what I call the “hyperghetto”) and the prison became more like a ghetto, the two
institutions increasingly fused to form the fast-expanding carceral system that constitutes America’s fourth “peculiar institution.”

 “Prisonization” of the ghetto

 The hyperghetto presents four main characteristics that differentiate it sharply from the communal ghetto of mid-century and converge to make its social structure and cultural climate akin to those of the prison. I will consider each in turn by drawing a schematic contrast between the mid-century “Bronzeville” depicted by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton  fieldwork, statistical analysis, and survey data.

Class segregation over racial segregation

 Mid-century American ghettos contained a full complement of classes, for the  simple reasons that the black bourgeoisie was barred from escaping while a majority of adults were gainfully employed in a gamut of occupations. True, from the 1920s onward, Chicago’s South Side featured clearly demarcated subdivisions stratified by class, with the small elite of black doctors, lawyers, teachers, and businessmen residing in the more stable and desirable neighborhoods adjacent to white districts at the southern end, while the families of laborers and domestic workers massed themselves in areas of blight, crime, and dissolution towards the northern end. But the social distance between the classes was limited by physical proximity and extensive family ties; the black bourgeoisie’s economic power rested on supplying goods and services to its lower-class brethren. Moreover, “brown” residents of the city were united in their rejection of caste subordination and an abiding concern to “advance the race,” despite internecine divisions and the mutual panning of “big Negroes” and “riff-raff.” As a result, the postwar ghetto was integrated both socially and structurally.

 Today’s black bourgeoisie still lives under strict segregation and its life chances continue to be curtailed by its geographic and symbolic contiguity with the African-American sub-proletariat. Nonetheless, it has gained considerable physical distance from the heart of the ghetto by establishing satellite black neighborhoods at the urban periphery and in the suburbs. Its economic basis has
shifted from the black community to the state; employment in public bureaucracies accounts for most of the growth in the number of professional, managerial, and technical positions held by African Americans over the past thirty years. The genealogical ties of the black bourgeoisie to the black poor have also grown more remote and diffuse. Moreover, the historic center of the Black Belt has experienced massive depopulation and deproletarianization, such that a large majority of its residents are no longer employed: two thirds of the adults in Bronzeville did not hold a job in 1980, compared to fewer than half thirty years earlier, and three out of every four households were headed by women, while the official poverty rate hovered near 50 percent.

 These shifts in the social composition of the ghetto make it socially akin to the prison, dominated as the latter is by the most precarious fractions of the urban proletariat: the unemployed, the casually employed, and the uneducated. In 1991, fully 36 percent of the half-million people housed by U.S. jails were jobless at the time of their arrest and another 15 percent worked only part-time or irregularly. One half had not finished high school and two thirds earned less than a thousand dollars a month; in addition, half the inmates were raised in homes receiving welfare and only 16 percent were married. Residents of the hyperghetto and clients of the prison system thus present similar profiles in economic marginality and social disintegration.

 Loss of a positive economic function

The transformed class structure of the hyperghetto is a direct product of its evolving position in the transformed urban political economy of the past three decades. From the Great Migration of the interwar years to the 1960s, the ghetto served a positive economic function as reservoir of cheap and pliable labor for the city’s factories. By the 1970s, the engine of the metropolitan economy had passed from manufacturing to business- and knowledge-based services and to factories relocated in suburbs and exurbs, in anti-union states in the South, and in foreign countries.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s