The United States is the imprisonment capital of the world. Just one state, Louisiana, has an incarceration rate five times higher than Iran and 13 times higher than China. More than 2 million Americans are behind bars in jails and prisons, the highest on earth in total number and by percentage of population.
Mass incarceration began in the early 1970s and has steadily increased since. Minor infractions result in prison terms and an ever-increasing number of offenses are added to the list. Black people are a minority of Americans but make up fully half of the imprisoned population. Most committed nonviolent crimes.
Imprisonment was and is seen as a tool to keep Black people from fully realizing gains made in the 1960s. It was no longer legal to keep Black people from living where they wanted, getting jobs for which they were qualified, or preventing them from going to the polls. It was possible to put people in jail for any and every offense, however. People can’t compete for good jobs or agitate for their rights if they are in jail. Problem solved.
The toll that mass incarceration has taken on Black people is enormous. A newly published book entitled “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” gives the facts and figures behind the crime committed against Black people. Prisoners are ‘disappeared persons’ who are removed from census figures, who lose their voting rights, and who upon gaining their freedom are banned from entire categories of employment. According to author Becky Pettit, statistics about Black people cannot be trusted because incarcerated men aren’t included in them.
Every negative statistic that bedevils the Black community is tied to the awful effects of imprisonment. It is not mysterious that a group with large numbers of its members locked away would have higher rates of HIV or lower rates of marriage or a median net worth of only $4,955.
As “Invisible Men” so clearly points out, the large numbers of Black men who are behind bars and who therefore disappear from productive life means that these dismal statistics would be even worse if the incarcerated were not also disappeared from the numbers.
“Invisible Men” is just the latest in a series of books such as “The New Jim Crow” and “A Plague of Prisons” which reveal the terrible toll that incarceration is taking on the Black community. These works are seriously needed, documenting with hard data the depth of the attack on Black people.
Unfortunately, this plethora of books doesn’t seem to be lowering rates of incarceration. The Great Recession and its resultant budget constraints around America have been the only things forcing some states and municipalities to open up some of the prison doors.
It all may have started slowly, but the code words and race baiting were evident from the beginning. Terms like “law and order,” “war on drugs,” “deadbeat dads” all meant that more and more Black people would end up behind bars for infractions big and small.
The wave of scholarship on incarceration is all to the good, but it isn’t enough if it doesn’t address the “why” behind the numbers. The backlash against Black progress is an old story that keeps repeating itself and mass incarceration is just the latest manifestation.
The next steps must include ways of honestly addressing the fact that racism is at the root of almost every crisis facing Black people. If this simple fact isn’t addressed, all of these excellent books and studies will in fact be irrelevant.
Margaret Kimberley’s column appears weekly in BlackAgendaReport.com.