In July 2005, I wrote the following:
“With under five percent of the world’s people, the US accounts for 25 percent of the planet’s prisoners. More than half its 2.2 million prisoners come from the one eighth of its population that is Black. Today, an astounding three percent of all African-Americans languish in prisons and jails, and nearly as many more are on probation, parole, bail, house arrest or court supervision… Right now, the shadow of prison squats at the corners of, and often at the center of nearly every Black family’s life in this nation.”
Last week, President Obama repeated some of these same figures, and they are pretty much the same. The president then announced the release of forty-some nonviolent federal drug offenders out of a total of about 70,000, and stopped in at a federal prison. The same day, ex-president Bill Clinton offered a half-hearted “apology” for his 1990s crime bills, which he admitted “set the stage” for state and federal governments to nearly double the US prison population.
Why did President Obama wait 6 ½ years into his presidency to say the basic damning numbers and free a token handful of drug war prisoners? And how come Bill Clinton – fifteen years out of office – chose last week to publicly admit that Black mass incarceration was maybe not the best public policy?
The short answer? Hillary Clinton is running for president. She needs that big Black vote. Barack and Bill are working hard to position Hillary as the lesser evil, so that a large Black vote can be mobilized for her.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that mass Black incarceration has been the joint and bipartisan policy of both Republicans and Democrats. The federal prison budget rose every year but one in the Clinton and Bush years. So far, the Obama years look about the same.
The First Black President approved new federal Supermax solitary prisons, and his Justice Department went to court to keep thousands behind the walls who should have been freed when Congress relaxed the crack-to-powder sentence disparity.
Why is Black mass incarceration the bipartisan policy of America’s rulers?
It’s not about a continuation of slavery or to get free prison labor; nine out of ten prisoners do no work at all. And it’s not because prisons are especially profitable. Apart from immigration prisons under Obama, privatization has never been big enough to drive the engine of mass incarceration at any time in the last three or four decades.
Justifies Black pain
Black mass incarceration serves the vital purpose of morally justifying America’s viciously unequal and racist economic and social order. The prison state does this by creating mostly Black and Brown class of permanently stigmatized and “unworthy” poor who can be portrayed as not deserving decent housing, real educations, affordable health care, dignity or jobs at living wages and whose precarious lives and devastated communities can be blamed on anything except the failure of neoliberal capitalism to provide bread, education, housing dignity or justice.
The more unjust and unequal capitalist America becomes, the more it needs prisons, and that stigmatized class becomes defined by them. Their precarious lives are also a standing lesson to millions more with falling wages and rising debts to shut up and suck it up or this could be you.
We at Black Agenda Report have been talking about Black mass incarceration for ten years now. We’re glad that presidents Bill and Barack have rediscovered it – even if only just in time to get another Democrat elected – which for them is about all that matters.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor of BlackAgendaReport.com.