Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,
“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”
I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.
The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.
Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.