by Will Jones
In the decades following the Civil War, Frederick Douglass spoke out repeatedly against sky-rocketing rates of incarceration for ex-slaves. Although he believed that time would reverse the trend, 100 years later, according to Angela Davis, blackness is ideologically linked to criminality in ways more insidious and complex than Douglass could have imagined. In a country less than 13 percent black, one half of the prison population is African American. One third of young black men are under some form of penal surveillance. The portion of black women in prison, traditionally a small fraction of all inmates, is increasing at a rate higher than that of black men. This rate is certain to increase exponentially with the dismantling of the welfare system.
Speaking before a packed auditorium on November 17, scholar and activist Angela Davis argued that rising black incarceration rates can be understood only in the context of a hundred year old link between crime and race and class oppression. Immediately following the civil war, Black Codes created a list of crimes punishable only when committed by black people. Mississippi made it a crime for African Americans to be unemployed or drunk, or to have run away, neglected children, or handled money carelessly. The convict lease system farmed black and a few white
prisoners out to work in factories, mines, and fields that built the New South. Through a gaping loophole in the 13th Amendment, politicians replaced slavery with a penal system designed to control black labor.
Joy Jones's excellent Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture (Minnesota: 1996) demonstrates that Michel Foucault, perhaps the most widely read theorist on crime and punishment, completely ignores the way in which deviancy has been defined in racial language. This may make sense in Foucault's homeland (I doubt it), but in the United States it is impossible to discuss the penal system without taking into account the racialization of crime. In the 1870s, Frederick Douglass claimed that many white criminals escaped punishment by blacking their faces during a robbery or a murder. Police always found an innocent black man to blame for the crime since, as Douglass pointed out, in the eyes of many white people, all Negroes look alike. Douglass's
claim sounds remarkably like the recent case of a white Boston man who claimed a black man had killed his wife and children. A black suspect was discovered and found guilty by a jury before the white man's brother came forward with the truth: the white man had killed his own family.
Davis pointed out that crime has not increased since the 1970s, and that the vast majority of prisoners are serving sentences for non-violent, often self-destructive crimes. Still, we have more young black men in prison than we do in college. The culture of incarceration has transcended prison walls, transforming the free world into a shadow of the penitentiary. Schools have become fortified, particularly schools for children who are expected to end up in prison. Prison supplies, construction, and services have become growth industries, and the morality of using prison labor is rarely any longer questioned.
We need a movement, Davis declared, on the scale of the Civil Rights Movement or the anti-lynching campaigns, to dismantle this prison industrial complex that has captured our nation. Why don't we connect, she asked, the struggle to defend affirmative action to a moratorium on prison construction? The same walls of racism that keep people of color in prison, after all, also keep us out of college. The struggle against the use of sweatshop labor in southeast Asia or the Caribbean should connect us to a struggle against prison labor at home. Our defense of welfare should lead us to question the imprisonment of the homeless or those physically or mentally unable to work. When Davis began fighting to free political prisoners in the late 1960s, she and other activists thought incarceration rates had reached critical levels. They could not have
imagined the levels we face today, and still this subject is rarely discussed in leftist circles.
The one case that raises these questions is that of Mumia Abu Jamal. Too heavily invested in his personality, however, this campaign has spent more time arguing over Jamal's innocence than it has devoted to exposing the obvious racism of the death penalty and the penal system in general. As much as we need to defend men and women on death-row, we will ultimately fail without drawing their cases into a broader movement for racial and economic justice.
In the Triangle, we have an opportunity to build such a movement. Six hundred people marched for Economic Justice in last year's 15th Annual Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP's Martin Luther King Day March. A few months later, 300 protested welfare cuts in a March Against Hunger at the State Legislature. Building upon the gains of the UNC Housekeepers Association, United Electrical Workers Union Local 150 has begun to build a statewide union for public employees. Students in Chapel Hill have rallied against sweatshops and corruption in the Board of Transportation.
They have organized to defend affirmative action, and to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Black Student Movement. Unions, welfare, affirmative action, and international labor standards all begin to address the systemic race and class biases that define our penal system. Our task is to unite these issues into an agenda for radical social change.
|Will Jones is a graduate student, and a member of the Carolina Socialist Forum and the Committees of Correspondence.|
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