African Americans make up 13% of America’s population. The population of the American prison system, on the other hand, is roughly 50% African American.
The very first conclusion I draw from this fact is that our judicial system, within which I would include law enforcement and corrections, is institutionally racist. To put it another way, white supremacy is built into the judicial system as it operates today.
This is only the first conclusion. From there it is necessary to determine how we are to proceed in order to remedy the situation.
Unfortunately, only those people who are willing to consider the possibility that the status quo involves injustice will even come to this first conclusion. There is a sizeable and quite powerful segment of Americans, particularly in right-wing conservative circles, and more generally in the political establishment, who are unwilling to ever concede that the status quo involves injustice. Especially when it comes to race and race relations, these conservatives and establishment figures are determined to deny that there is anything wrong or unjust about American institutions, laws, or economic structures.
There is really no subtlety or nuance involved here, although the right wing has spent years trying to make it seem so. The simple question in this case is: why should the 13% of the population who are black furnish half of the prison population?
Once we’ve eliminated the possibility of chronic institutional racism, I would argue that the only other explanation is that there is something inherently wrong with African Americans—in other words, that they are racially inferior.
Since the civil rights movement, it has become less acceptable to maintain an intellectual position of white supremacy in public. Instead, conservatives have resorted to insinuations, code words, winks and nudges, directed at possible white constituencies who will respond with predictable fear and hatred, and then dutifully elect “tough” or “law and order” candidates.
Trying to reason from cause and effect is only a delaying tactic. If blacks are more likely to commit crimes, then why? Because of their race? Or does economic racism necessarily increase crime within the minority community? To admit the latter is impossible for the right-wingers, so they talk ad nauseam about personal responsibility, hoping you’ll forget about the lopsided statistics and settle into a complacent moralism. Nothing needs to be done, in other words, except wag our fingers at the poor black people and tell them to behave better.
The overrated gasbag Daniel Moynihan, a Democrat, began the fashion of blaming the problem on “culture.” African Americans had developed a dysfunctional culture, which led to single-parent families, drugs, and crime. Again, this begs the question, why? Are blacks simply racially predisposed to create inferior forms of culture? National Socialist doctrine, I would remind you, focused almost exclusively on culture as an indication of racial purity or impurity. The Jew’s culture was a primary threat to the German people, even more than Jewish money or politics. To try to explain racial disparity in terms of culture is to simply switch the terms of white supremacist arguments so that they sound more tolerant and civilized. We want to help these people develop a healthier culture, you see, so that they can succeed. At the same time, we don’t need to examine our judicial system or economic system with a critical eye, since the problem is “cultural.”
Every couple of decades or so, some white “scientist” or “researcher” will come out with a book or a study that proves statistically that blacks are inferior to whites. In 1994 we had a book called The Bell Curve, which actually created serious discussion and controversy. It was simply a resurrection of old fallacies in new and more sophisticated language, and mucked up with a lot of complex and ambiguous hedging about genes and intelligence and how that translated into “success.” Like the reemergence of the national id after years of attempted sublimation, white supremacist assumptions periodically resurface in order to justify the status quo.
This need to justify the status quo at all costs is a prevalent and widely held compulsion that applies across a wide range of issues besides race. It makes serious evaluation of our problems extremely difficult.
I ask again, then, and in this case the subject is racism: why are 50% of American prison inmates black, when black people are only 13% of our population? If you can’t start with the word “racism” (and then move from there into substantive discussions about how to change our society), I guarantee that you will end up twisting your mind into knots, all so that you don’t have to admit the problem—in short, so that you can stay comfortably asleep.