Slavery in America may have ended but the US state has reproduced it through mass incarceration of blacks and police violence in poor black communities due to its hidden economic gains
Recent events in the United States; where police shot and killed two black men in cold blood may have dominated the news but they are actually normal and regular. What was unusual was a lone black man who decided to take matters into his hands and strike back at America’s institutionalised system of racial subjugation and violence, killing five police officers and injuring seven more. Since then, there has been more outpouring of sympathy for the police, including from President Barack Obama, than to the daily victims of police terror.
When I was young and naïve, I was like many Africans, holding an idealised view of America as a nation that stands for democracy and human rights. As I grew older, lived in America and read extensively about racial issues in that country, I learnt that racial injustice against poor black people is a deeply rooted aspect of American life. Although police are the violent face of this racist state, racial subjugation is a bipartisan political strategy that is largely implemented through the American criminal justice system.
Widespread and blatant racial injustice has survived in America for over 400 years only because it is the logic of the state and its political and economic calculus. Its name and form have changed over time – from indentured servitude, to slavery, to Jim Crow (America’s name for apartheid), and now to mass incarceration. But its substance has remained the same. In spite of the different guises, racial subjugation relies on America’s democratic institutions to keep black people as a racial under-caste.
This indictment of America may sound harsh because that country has also produced Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Barack Obama, Condoleeza Rice, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, Denzel Washington, etc. If the American system can allow such black people to emerge and succeed, some people argue, surely the nation cannot be accused of being built on the subjugation of black people.
However, we must remember that in spite of slavery and Jim Crow, America produced many great blacks: Anthony Johnson, Samuel Francis (a rich businessman and friend of America’s founding father, George Washington), John Baptiste De’Sable (the man who founded Chicago in 1772), Granville Woods (called the “black Edison” for patenting the induction telegram system), Frederick Douglas, Jack Johnson (the first African American to win the world boxing heavyweight championship of the world), Ralph Bunche (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950) etc.
Yet the emergence of people like Obama at the top of the American system is the way the system legitimises its violence against black people. By allowing these few blacks to succeed against insurmountable odds (which they do by internalising white superiority and how to work around it to their benefit) these few blacks create the wrong impression that America is a post-racial society. Indeed these cosmetic black achievements may be the real impediment to dismantling the American racial caste system.
When people see police stalking black neighborhoods, stopping and searching black people and rounding them off to jail, they think America is fighting crime. Yet the U.S. criminal justice system is not a system of crime prevention and control but of racial subjugation and social control.
Let me first give the facts before analysing their implications. In that self-acclaimed democracy of high civic and moral values, a black man is killed by a highly militarised and racist police force every 28 hours – yes, every 28 hours. Today in 2016, there are more black people in the prisons of America than were enslaved in 1865 when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. Today in 2016, there are more black people who are disenfranchised (denied voting rights) than in 1870 when the 15th amendment prohibiting discrimination in voting rights based on race was passed.
Today in 2016, there are more black youth in prison than in college. For example, in 1999 in the state of Illinois, 902 blacks graduated from college; 7,000 graduated from its state prisons. In Chicago, the hometown of America’s first black president, 80% of the adult black male population has a criminal record. A black child in America today has less chance of being raised by both parents than under slavery. Today 70% of professional U.S. black women are not married because mass incarceration of black males has taken them out of the dating pool. The incarceration rate of black people in America today is ten times higher than in apartheid South Africa.
I can go on listing these tragic facts ad infinitum. Last week Obama read another long list of these racial biases in police stops, searches, seizures, arrests, sentencing etc. that I should not belabor them here. The aim of this article is to show that the political superstructure of America and the economic base on which it rests are both sustained and reproduced by this system of racial subjugation. To understand this system, we need to appreciate the fact that crime in America has a color – it is black.
Black people constitute about 10% of the U.S. population but over 50% of its prison population. Media talking heads in USA claim that this is because of violent crime in black communities. Yet 75% of blacks are in jail for drugs and study after study has shown that blacks and whites sell and use drugs at the same rates. In his book, `When Work Disappears’, William Julius Wilson found that after controlling unemployment, the differences in crime rates between white and black communities disappear.
There has always been crime in black communities in America but not the system of mass incarceration we see today. In 1964 (three years after the birth of Obama) white people constituted 70% of America’s prison population, blacks less than 25%. Today white people are less than 30% of the prison population, blacks 50% and Hispanics 20%. How did this change come about?
Mass incarceration was a response to the gains of the civil rights movement by those who sought to reverse them. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. Instead, today the system uses the criminal justice system to label poor black people criminals. Once one is labeled so, then the system can blatantly engage in all the practices of discrimination that had previously characterised slavery and Jim Crow. What has changed since Jim Crow is not necessarily the basic structure of American society but rather the language that is used to justify it.
In America today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was perfectly legal to discriminate against black people during slavery and Jim Crow. Once labeled a felon, all the old forms of discrimination like denial of voting rights, exclusion from jury service, discrimination in employment and public housing etc. suddenly become legal. Basically, once you have a criminal record you are like a black man in Alabama in 1940. The point is simple but fundamental: America has not ended racial discrimination. It has simply redesigned it.
Thus, when you get out of jail, you cannot get a job, in many states you cannot vote, you are denied access to public housing, you are denied a scholarship to study, you are denied food stamps etc. The few who manage to get jobs, up to 100% of their salary can be garnished to pay for their prison time, court fees and legal costs. So how does the system expect such a person to survive? Well, they commit another crime and then go back to jail. So the system keeps shuffling black people in and out of jail.
There is a profit angle to this tragedy. Many prisons in America are owned by private corporations that are listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). The prison industry in America is the largest employer – employing more people than the combined workforce of America’s largest corporate employers – Walmart, General Motors, and Ford. If America were to reduce her prison population to its 1980 number (300,000 compared to 2.3m today), over one million people would lose their jobs and private companies that own prisons and are listed on the NYSE would go bankrupt.
Police in America is the main contact between the state and poor black people. Instead of building better schools, hospitals and creating jobs in black communities, America builds prisons for them. America spends nearly $300 billion on prisons per year. With such a financial war-chest, police stalk black neighborhoods daily hunting for young poor black males to send to jail.
Many of these police operations are funded by corporations that own prisons under the guise of “Corporate Social Responsibility”. The more prisoners they get, the higher the corporate profits – and share price on the NYSE. Consequently, everyday scores of black youths are moved from poorly funded and collapsing public schools to well funded high tech prisons. In conducting this racist campaign of terror against black people, police in America have been aided by Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Congress and state legislatures have passed draconian anti-drug laws including lengthening the jail period for minor criminal offenses. In nearly all its rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and literally granted police a license to constantly stop and search and send scores of black people to jail. Plea Bargaining has allowed U.S. prosecutors to achieve a conviction rate of 95% – unheard of anywhere in the world. The federal government has given police large quantities of military hardware including Apache helicopters, armored personnel carriers and other lethal weapons to combat drugs i.e. to terrorise black communities.
This campaign of terror has only succeeded because it targets poor black people. White police know that if they stalked white neighborhoods (or rich black neighborhoods) for victims of their relentless hunt for people to send to jail, there would be a political backlash. Many Americans would object to this racial injustice. The system uses its weapons of mass propaganda, especially television, to create an impression that crime in America is black.
Watch evening television news and you will be bombarded with images of black people being rounded up for one crime or another. Crime movies, documentaries, and reality TV are filled with stories of suspects in almost every crime being “black males.” This campaign has been so successful in creating this social consciousness that even black people believe crime is black. Thus black communities cannot ask for and get decent schools, hospitals, or jobs. Instead all they get are more police violence and prisons.
Both Republicans and Democrats have contributed to this tragedy. Indeed many of the draconian laws that have sent millions of black youths to jail and later denied them federal aid for school and banned them from public housing and food stamps were actually championed by the Bill Clinton regime. Clinton was desperate to win back poor white swing voters in the south who had defected to the Republican Party in the wake of the Lyndon Johnson government supporting the passing major civil rights legislation in 1965.
But to appreciate how much America has not changed its racial attitude, we need to recall the 1787 “Three-Fifth Compromise”. This was a compromise reached between the delegates from the slave holding southern states and those from the north. The issue was whether to count slaves in determining the population of an area. This decision was important because population size determines the number of legislative seats. Slaves were not voters but it was agreed that a slave would be counted as three-fifth of a human being. The effect was to give southern states a third more seats in Congress. This is how slave-owner interests came to dominate the government of the USA until slavery was abolished.
Today, the U.S. constitution limits the size of the House of Representatives to 435 members. Because populations of many areas keep changing, America is always re-demarcating districts (legislative constituencies). In America prisoners are counted as part of an area. However, they are not allowed to vote. So, all too often, prisons are built in rural rust belt states occupied largely by white people. The presence of large numbers of black prisoners qualifies such areas for a congressional district in the same way the 1787 “Three-Fifth Compromise” on slaves did. So blacks in prison are counted but are not allowed to vote. This is one way through which the prison system has been used to bolster the congressional weight of, especially, the Republican Party.
From the foregoing, we can conclude that America’s democratic institutions and their underlying economic structures are the means through which racial injustice is designed, sustained, and reproduced. Therefore they are not capable of ending it. They can only keep repackaging it under different forms and names. Indeed, America’s democratic institutions failed to end slavery. They sustained it. It took a gruesome civil war lasting four years and costing 600,000 lives to end it. Even then, the Emancipation Proclamation was a dictatorial decision by a president using emergency powers. America will need another endogenous or exogenous shock if it is to ever think of ending racial injustice against its black citizens.