Prompt: Recently the Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, has brought the precarity of Black lives to the forefront of public discourse, particularly as it pertains to policing and the law. Their activism is animated by the acknowledgment of the centrality of the carceral/ criminal justice system to contemporary racial inequalities.
- How can we meaningfully connect the carceral/criminal justice system to previous “peculiar institutions”? Why is it important to start with slavery to understand the emergence of US penal exceptionalism?
The concept of race in America, both today and in the past, could not exist without slavery and the methods of dehumanizing people of color which occurred and still do. It is essential to remember how tied to economics slavery was. The dramatically less expensive production allowed by slave labor combined with the open fertile southern lands, brought tremendous wealth to the white south. Northern colonists – and later Americans – benefited from cotton, tobacco, and other agricultural commodities grown through slave labor in the South. As racism morphed from one ugly incarnation to the next, the one vein that ran through it all was this economic oppression. Today the racial wage gap, the private prison industrial complex, racialized property pricing, and of course the inheritance of four centuries of racism combine to form a system opposed to justice and equality.
The emergence of the criminal justice system as a wholesale tool of American racism emerged with Reagan and post civil rights America. The phrase “tough on crime,” harsher minimum sentences, and the infamous “War on Drugs” all emerge to create this latest incarnation of racism. Police forces across the nation ran into black neighborhoods taking advantage of pre-existing notions of drugs in poor black communities. Harsher minimum sentences combined with unequal criminal penalties corralled blacks, mainly men, into prisons. From 1920 to 1970 incarceration rates remained stable. Since 1970 they have increased four times over. Seven and a half million Americans now exist within the criminal justice system, while only a third of those are in prison at any given time. The remainder are on probation. Black people are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. Even though drug use is relatively equal between races, black people make up 59% of those serving time for drug offenses. This statistic becomes even more powerful when one considers that blacks make up only twelve percent of drug users in the United States.
Considering the well-documented success of Scandinavian incarceration methods and the vast documentation of the ineffectiveness of our own, we are forced to ask why we do not adapt to an unquestionably better system? Given our racist past and present to me, it is clear that we once again have become entrenched in unjust oppression.