Sunday, February 15, 2009

Numbers Don't Lie

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.


Liberality said...

Ah, you have succinctly explained what I believe to be true and in such a way that I wish you would accompany me on family holiday dinners and such. I try to explain what you just said here and yet the family won't listen or hear it. I think because then they'd have to admit that our society is not fair at all and if not fair for blacks it could so easily be not fair for them as well.

I enjoy reading your work!

Chris Dashiell said...

As always, thank you for your generous praise.
An even more succinct formulation of my idea occurred to me today: If the rate of imprisonment was due solely to personal irresponsibility, the demographics of prison inmates should be roughly equivalent to the overall demographics of the country. If this is not the case, as it clearly isn't, then there has to be a flaw in the idea that the current system is just.

Mahakal / מהכאל said...

Remember also that a large percentage of the incarcerated population was convicted of no violent crime, and while blacks and whites are equally likely to use marijuana, black defendants are more likely to be charged, convicted and sentenced to prison for this most harmless of activities. The crack/powder cocaine disparity has also been discussed at length in many places, of course. It seems impossible to me that anyone could seriously claim that the purpose of these laws isn't racist.

DED said...

Yes, you're right, Dash.

The crack/powdered cocaine punishment disparity that Mahakal brought up is the most glaring example of how racism has become institutionalized.

I was hoping that you'd have available the racial makeup of those living below the poverty line. IIRC it too is disproportionately black. It is all too obvious, except to the willfully blind, that the economic hardships of poverty instill a sense of desperation to those trapped there. When one is desperate to provide food, clothes, shelter, etc for one's family, even oneself, one will risk prison/death and resort to criminal activity as that is, all too often, the only way to get money. The drug trade, for which most people in prison are locked up for, is the easiest means by which one can earn a living in areas where there are no jobs (thanks globalization!).

I do not believe that the percentage of racist white Americans is the same as it was 40 years ago. I do believe that racism has been built into our society and has taken on a life of its own. I think that the only way to end it is to invest in education and provide jobs to those communities. It won't be easy. In order to have an impact you need to employ A LOT of people fast (tough to do in a recession). The community needs to feel that they have a stake in the success of any industry or business that is planted there. If the business is too small, it too can become a victim of the criminal element.

We've clearly seen that when African Americans are afforded the same educational and economic opportunities as European Americans, they succeed. African Americans are judges, attorneys, CEO's, Congressmen and now President. If we can somehow send jobs to the ghetto, instead of China, I believe that institutionalized racism will crumble.

Chris Dashiell said...

Indeed, I didn't even touch on the drug war, which targets African Americans as well.
The prison industry, I believe, could be defined as slavery by other means.

fiddler said...

When jailing people is turned from a sometimes necessary evil into a highly profitable industry, the conveyor belts transporting human material into and out of the ever-hungry "factories" will inevitably be loaded with considerable economic bias. Even if no direct racism existed in the system, the alignment of economic inequality with racial divides would result in the outcome you describe.

I suppose you've read this?
I'm not the least surprised, only that it took so long for the first case to pop up.

Ladywolf1955 said...

My mother once said to me, "Whoever told you life was fair?" It's not "fair" that the black race is economically challenged and judicially challenged in the USA. Just as it is not "fair" that the poor (no matter what the race) are suffering from the same maladies. The blacks only moreso due to entrenched racism in this country. I hope, with our new President, that the tide will turn the other way. Time will tell. The other issue, is due to these injustices, many blacks have a chip on their shoulder, committing crimes to try to "equalize" their income level, and power/importance. This just exacerbates their inequality by making sure they die young or become incarcerated at a much higher rate. Until we practice both judicial and financial equal opportunities in the USA, this will continue to be the status quo.