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.