The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Hostility Toward Blacks

In the 1970s Richard Nixon began using crime and the need to control crime as an excuse for policing and incarceration practices that had disparate impacts on black people. Through the 1980s Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior continued to push the “tough on crime” narrative, hinting at race while appearing neutral in their approach to policy and problems in the United States. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander examines the evolution of these racialized messages and policies and describes the ways that anti-black sentiment spilled into the language that is still used to discuss politics and culture. I read Alexander’s book during the summer of 2016, before Candidate Trump had emerged as the Republican front runner, when racial attitudes in the United States felt like they could still take a major step forward.

 

Instead, what I believe we have seen in our country is backlash against President Obama and a return to the negative racial discussions that arose with President Nixon. Regarding Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Sr., Alexander wrote the following:

 

“Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for “get tough on crime” and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.”

 

We have fallen back to the same dangerous rhetoric today. President Trump has taken us to a place where the racial underpinnings of our politics are possibly more obvious. Lacking any policy understanding, he thrives on culture wars, and denounces black athletes, black protesters, and black politicians at any opportunity. He has used the NFL and NBA as targets for white resentment, especially rural white resentment.

 

I do not believe that facts like the ones presented by Alexander above will change the situation. I do not believe that demonstrating how white privilege has helped the core of the republican party will make a difference in where we are today. And I don’t believe that even the future (hopeful) election of another black president like Cory Booker will make a difference in where our country exists on race.

 

What will make a difference is for reasonable people to become more connected with racial minorities in our communities. Particularly within schools and youth groups, we must reach out and connect with those who have been disadvantaged. We must not flaunt our support for things like Black Lives Matter, though our support is crucial. We must not tell those opposed to racial equality that they are the bigots that they are, but we must quietly and rationally express our support for movements and policies that support diversity and individuals who have been victimized by race. Sharing these feelings with those closest to us will create a space where others can be more comfortable with movements supporting rights and policies that benefit minority populations. Demonstrating to our friend and family that people like them can also support diversity and minority populations will help them be more reasonable and less racially tribal in their decision making.

“Other”

David Sears and Michael Tesler start an important chapter of their book Obama’s Race with a quote from Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, written in a 2007 memo. The chapter headlined by the quote is titled, “Beyond Black and White” with a subtitle, “Obama as “Other”.” The quote is important because the thoughts and sentiments are still affecting our political system and lives today. Our current president, President Trump, first made a name for himself as a thorn in the side of President Obama by insisting that President Obama was not born in the United States and that he somehow did not belong and should be thought of as “other”. President Trump’s most clear objective was (and still is) to demonstrate that America is for white people who look like him and achieve material success. He vies the rest of the global population, Obama included, as simply “other”.

The quote to lead off the chapter in Sears and Tesler’s book reads, “All of those articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural … it also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited.”

What this quote reveals is a very strong tendency in the United States to think of multiculturalism and multicultural people as somehow not American. For the eight years that President Obama directed the nation, a group of people simply did not believe that he was fundamentally American at his core, and this shaped perceptions and thoughts about who our leaders were, about the direction they pointed the country, and about what people thought was good for society. I remember coming across a statistic that indicated that most black people did not think that President Obama had done enough to help black people, in terms of policy, but that most white people felt that President Obama had done too much to help black people. At a fundamental level I don’t think people were responding to a question about policy, even though  the question specifically asked about policy. I believe that people were actually answering a question about whether President Obama matched their ideal vision of an American and was signaling that he was part of their American culture.

People have a tribal nature baked into them that shapes who is viewed as being like them and who is viewed as being the other. In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in writing, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.” If we continue to think in ways that push people who are not like us or who have deep multicultural roots away from us, then we will risk driving to a place where we are harming others for our own gain and delegitimizing the humanity of people that are different. Our current president has shown a basic tendency toward this type of behavior, but as our country becomes more diverse we will need to shift course and shift what we think of others and what we think of Americans. Without reconciling those two distinctions, we will never be able to embrace democracy in a functional manner.

The Body’s Experience of Inequality

In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coats describes the physical toll of racism. He looks at how we make abstractions and create philosophical thought out of ideas, reactions, and prejudices. In his view, violence and physical manifestations of inequality are hidden and explained away in our thought processes and communication, saving us from having to acknowledge the true human cost of racial tribal behaviors.

 

“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing—race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy—serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.”

 

Coats’ passage above has numerous points that accurately describe the world we live in today and the state of racial violence and injustice on our planet. In our country we are struggling with how we choose to remember the men and women of the Confederacy who were not just Americans, but were soldiers, mothers and fathers, and even patriots. This is the idea of heritage that is meant to be preserved and honored by their current day descendants, but Coats reminds us that this heritage is built on a legacy of violence against black people. A violence that existed at the whims of men in power one hundred and fifty years ago and a violence that selectively destroyed the human bodies of black men, women, and children. The reality, which Coats’ quote does not directly address, is that the heritage and legacy being protected today, is a heritage of fighting to preserve a place of honor for men who fought to preserve a system in which black men were enslaved, controlled, and tortured for the economic benefit of white men. There was no divine truth or scientific backing for the racist behaviors of men in the past, there was only tribalism, instincts of self preservation, and exploitation.

 

What Coats’ passage is truly meant to focus on, however, is the way in which our prejudices, known or unknown, manifest in the real world, outside of our minds. When we marginalize groups of people, we begin to look at them as less then human, as less than a whole human being. In this context, the human rights that we defend in our Bill of Rights and claim to protect for all people, are discounted and discredited for those who we view as less than ourselves. This happens to minorities, poor people, and those who serve as scapegoats to pacify the tribal part of our brain that wants to protect our group and denigrate those who are others.

 

Once we have established that the outsiders no longer have rights that matter, and that they are less than human, we can stop respecting their physical body and the space in which they exist. We can physically abuse them because our moral standards do not extend to this person who is less than human. Our excuses about human nature, about economics, and about personal responsibility are just thoughts, but they are brought into the world through our physical actions, landing on the body of the oppressed as described by Coats. Our thoughts may live inside us, fully justified in the echo-chamber of our mind, but our actions (and our inaction) bring about physical realities and consequences stemming from the mental models we harbor.

Profound Connections

“Profound connections exist between all; interdependency so manifest that perceived separation is a delusion.” Senator Cory Booker writes to start one of the chapters in his book United. Throughout his book, Senator Booker examines the way society is organized, the relation between personal responsibility and to social responsability, and how truly dependent we are on everyone else. We do not exist in a vacuum and no matter how much one may try, we cannot live isolated lives away from other people. We depend on those around us, often much more than we realize.

 

The idea that we are connected drives Booker’s political ideas and shapes the way he approaches the people he represents, the neighborhoods he has lived in and represented, and who he has looked to as role models and mentors. Throughout his book however, he tries to show that recognizing and understanding the power of our connections is important not just for politicians, and not just for professors or people on television, but for everyone, every day. The collective understanding of how much we need each other and the ability to empathize with those around us who face challenges is diminishing as we become absorbed by social media which shows us what we want to see and allows us to share the highlights of our lives, creating misrepresentative online versions of ourselves. In an age of technology and hyper connectivity, we have become less aware of how truly connected we have always been, and how dependent on others our lives have always been.

 

Booker’s quote is important because it runs against our tribal nature. Human beings seem to be able to associate with only a few hundred people at most, a mental hangover from our tribal ancestry. We are constantly, whether we recognize it or not, looking for those who are like us, finding groups that think like us, act like us, and believe the things we believe. We create random borders and develop identities for those living within those borders. Without realizing it, we assign good qualities and traits to the group within our border and negative qualities and traits to the group beyond our border.

 

If instead we bring awareness and reflection to this “us versus them” mental process, we can begin to see how dependent we are not just on the people within our border, but on the people beyond our borders. We can begin to see that we all share one planet, and share more as humans than typically recognized. The connections that run through humanity don’t stop at the gate of a neighborhood, at a freeway exit, at a national boarder, or even on the shores of a continent. We are deeply connected by the entire planet and by years of evolution. Tribalism in our ancestry has geared us to ignore these connections, but just below the surface our connections exist, and the more we search the more we see that we are all united.