Mythbusters: Mass Incarceration

For most of the 20th century the prison population in the United States remained below 300,000 prisoners. By the year 2000 the population rose to over one million prisoners. When numerically compared to other western nations, the US prison population rises to the top. The racial disproportion in prison populations is unmistakable; African American men make up 39% of the prison population though they represent less than 12% of the total adult male population. (Bobo and Thomson, 2010). The heavy presence of incarceration in the United Sates might seem to reflect high crime rates and a successful police force, where it actually reveals mass incarceration to represent a socially acceptable platform for racism.

Mass imprisonment as a societal tool has two defining features: “a rate of imprisonment that is markedly above the historical and comparative norm for societies of this type, and the social concentration of imprisonment effects such that incarceration ceases to be incarceration of individual offenders and becomes the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population” (Garland, 2001). Mass incarceration grew its roots in the pre-Civil Rights era, when the term law and order was used to combat civil rights legislation. Segregationists argued that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was the leading cause of crime (Alexander, the Rebirth of Caste). Along with crime rates reported to be on the rise a perception of threat developed, and many called for a “law and order” agenda. This law and order agenda targeted the African American community. It was rooted in residual fear from the era of chattel slavery, during which it was imperative for white citizens, as slave-owners, to dehumanize those whom they enslaved. This dehumanization served as justification for their behavior.

Historically, punitive punishment has been supported by Americans. Research by Bobo and Thompson (2010) found the key predictor in the acceptability of punitive punishment to be implicit prejudice, specifically racialized resentment. Implicit prejudice works on many levels, one of them being dehumanization. Research by Goff et. al (2010) found implicit dehumanization of African Americans to uniquely predict both police violence and sanctioning of police violence on the individual level. White Americans like to see themselves as egalitarian however the country’s choice of imprisonment as punishment reveals itself to be highly racialized.

2 thoughts on “Mythbusters: Mass Incarceration”

  1. This makes me think of the a comparison in one of the readings comparing the conviction rates of crack cocaine uses versus powder cocaine. They’re controlled, looked for, and policed based on the associations drawn between them and race. I find that not only are laws enforced differently depending on the race of the subject, but the laws are shaped to stronger control and focus on illegal activities in the form that is associated with certain racial groups versus the activity in its entirety. Take cannabis, any college student is exposed to its presence on campus – either directly or through association, yet (in my experience at Muhlenberg at least) you don’t see it heavily sought after and controlled by campus police. Even this growing “vape culture” doesn’t seem to be heavily regulated and it seems to be parallel to the racial implications of “vape life.”

  2. One of the more profound arguments I’ve heard is the comparison of mass incarceration to modern-day slavery, and I can’t say I disagree. The way that we’ve racialized drug use and drug laws, allowing our criminal justice system to criminalize and detain people of color all-the-while ignoring the use of drugs among whites and the upper class is nothing short of newly configured enslavement. Between neighborhood policing, in-school policing and general prejudicial perceptions, our criminal justice system has feigned a new social construction of oppression. Non-violent drug crimes and cannabis distributers are statistically men of color because they’re the ones that are under a microscope — the predominantly white institutions and college campuses across the country don’t face this threat despite the blatant drug use and “criminal” activity.

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