Millions of individuals throughout the United States have the Pledge of Allegiance memorized and some even recite it every day. One particular line, however, is rather conflicting. “Liberty and justice for all.” The United States prides itself on being a utopian world of freedom and equality for all people, but the reality is that this is not the case. The country has been systematically oppressing countless groups since its founding, specifically African Americans. The nation gained almost all of its initial prosperity through the institution of slavery. Later on, the country ostracized African Americans from society and legally permitted this segregation. African Americans have been historically oppressed and it has not stopped today. The treatment of African Americans proves that this “all” in “liberty and justice for all” is not truly all people and that the country is putting up a facade of freedom and equality. Mass incarceration is a phenomenon that exists today that demonstrates how this oppression of African Americans has not ceased. Although institutions like slavery and Jim Crow have ended, a new breed of systematic racial oppression has emerged within the United States; mass incarceration. Through analysis of the emergence of mass incarceration and its consequences, the racialized nature of the criminal justice system is revealed, demonstrating the ever-present oppression that plagues the African American community.
A strong criminal justice system has long been at the forefront of United States policy and mindset, but the most shocking event of incarceration in the U.S. is the system’s growth beginning in the 1970s. This was the spark of what is known as the U.S. prison boom. The U.S. state and federal prison population rose from about 200,000 in 1972 to 600,000 in 1988 (“Trends in U.S. Corrections”). Much of this growth in the incarcerated population occurred during the peak of the War on Drugs, and this growth has sustained for years. In 2017, 47.3% of the federal prison population was drug offenders (“Trends in U.S. Corrections”). Between 1980 and 1990, the annual number of incarcerated individuals due to drug offenses increased tenfold (Pager, 18). Today, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. Although the U.S. only consists of 4% of the world’s population, it is responsible for 22% of the world’s prison population (“Mass Incarceration in America, Explained in 22 Maps and Charts”). The United States has become the world’s leading incarcerator and the incarcerated population is only increasing. The development of this mass incarceration is in large part due to the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs has been a primary contributor to the growth of the prison system, beginning under the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Officially announced by President Reagan in 1982, the War on Drugs was publicized as a response to the growing crack cocaine crisis that existed in inner-city neighborhoods (Alexander, 5). This war was largely placed in the public eye through a media campaign that flooded screens and papers with images of Black “crack whores,” “crack dealers,” and “crack babies.” This publicized nature of the War on Drugs confirmed negative racial stereotypes and emphasized the targeting of African Americans that existed under this war. Approximately half a million people are incarcerated today because of drug offenses, in comparison to an estimated 41,000 in 1980, which shows a massive increase of 1,100% (Alexander, 60).
This War on Drugs shifted drug policy from emphasizing rehabilitation and treatment to a focus on punishment (“Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences”). This led to major increases in funding for drug law enforcement and political focus on the drug war (Mauer and King, 3). This highly punitive nature can be seen through the development of harsher sentencing laws. For example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and 1988 established mandatory minimum sentences which increased the chances of being arrested for drug offenses and largely targeted communities of color (Mauer and King, 7). Five-year mandatory minimums were placed for first-time possession of five grams of crack cocaine, compared to a five year mandatory minimum for first-time possession of five hundred grams of powder cocaine. Crack cocaine was much more common in low-income, inner-city, often minority communities, whereas powder cocaine was more expensive and associated with whites. This War on Drugs sparked the emergence of mass incarceration and racialized it. The War on Drugs created a link between the Black community, drugs, and crime that would be cemented in American rhetoric, policy, and systems for years to come.
An analysis of incarceration in America cannot be done without acknowledging the clear racial disparities that exist within the system. As mentioned, the War on Drugs has greatly contributed to the disparate treatment of African Americans within the criminal justice system, and these disparities have persisted until today. In 2017, the rate of imprisonment per 100,000 individuals by race was 2,336 for Black men and 397 for white men. This translates into the fact that Black men are 6 times as likely to be incarcerated as white men (“Trends in U.S. Corrections”). Black Americans are also disproportionately arrested for drugs. In 2013 the drug-related arrests per 100,000 individuals were 879 for Black Americans and 322 for whites (“Mass Incarceration in America, Explained in 22 Maps and Charts”).
Despite these clear disparities, Black individuals are not more likely to use or sell drugs. Roughly 13% of drug users and sellers are African Americans, while roughly 65% are white (“The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color”). On top of being more likely to be arrested for drugs, Black individuals receive sentences as high as 13.1% higher than sentences against white people (“Mass Incarceration in America, Explained in 22 Maps and Charts”). If these trends continue, 1 in 3 African American men will serve prison time (Alexander, 9). Mass incarceration has become a prominent issue in America as U.S. imprisonment levels rise, with disparate effects on African Americans. It is without a doubt that this phenomenon has brought major consequences for the Black community.
The right to vote is arguably the most fundamental right of United States citizens. Due to mass incarceration, African Americans have been denied this right through what is known as felony disenfranchisement. The rate of disenfranchisement by race in 2016 was 7.44% African American compared to 2.47% for non-African Americans (“Trends in U.S. Corrections”). Every state in the U.S. except two have laws that restrict the voting rights of felons and former felons (Mauer and Chesney-Lind, ch. 2). As of 2016, one in every 13 Black American men have been disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction (Chung, 6). Voting rights have been torn away from African Americans through felony disenfranchisement, but this is not the only collateral consequence that the Black community faces due to mass incarceration.
Public benefits are crucial to former felons’ reinstatement back into society and journey away from recidivism. Convicted felons, however, have been legally denied these benefits and without these supports, it’s unrealistic to expect recovery without recidivism. As an ex-offender from Pennsylvania stated, “what do I need to stay off drugs and out of jail? I need…a home for me and my kids” (Mauer and Chesney-Lind, ch. 2). Although these benefits are crucial, they have been denied to felons through various forms of legislation. A 2002 Supreme Court decision ruled that public housing authorities could evict an entire family if someone in the household, or even a guest, used drugs (Gunja, 4). Other federal laws such as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 furthered this denial of benefits. This act got rid of individual entitlement to welfare and replaced it with block grants to states in the form of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Part of this act instituted a lifetime ban on eligibility for TANF assistance and food stamps for those with drug convictions (Mauer and Chesney-Lind, ch. 2). Convicted felons are denied countless public benefits, a crucial aid to their improvement of quality and path in life. On top of that, a criminal record proves to be detrimental in finding employment, so these individuals aren’t able to attempt to better their lives without these public benefits.
A criminal record leaves an ever-lasting mark on the individual and proves to have tragic consequences for employment. Employment is considered to be the centerpiece of the reentry process as steady work and income can help to reduce the incentives of crime (Pager, 25-26). Despite this, a criminal record carries a heavy stigma which greatly affects employment opportunities. Sociologist Devah Pager conducted a research study to help show the consequences of incarceration on employment opportunities. Her research question was as follows; “given two equally qualified job applications, how much does a criminal record affect the chances of being selected by an employer?” (Pager, 59). Pager answered this question through having four male testers, one team of two Black men and one team of two white men, apply to entry-level jobs. One member of each team had a fake criminal record which consisted of a felony drug conviction with eighteen months of served prison time (Pager 59-61). Each male had resumés with equal work and educational experience, but the results of the study clearly emphasize that those with the criminal record were negatively impacted in their job search.
Specifically focusing on the effect of a criminal record on employment opportunities for Blacks, Pager’s study saw 5% of the individuals with criminal records got called back, compared to 14% of those without criminal records (Pager, 70). The data for the team of white individuals saw 17% of those with a criminal record get called back and 34% for those without criminal records. This data shows that those with criminal records are one-half to one-third as likely as equally qualified non-offenders to be considered for employment (Pager, 71). Not only does this data show barriers to employment through offender status, but the vast racial disparities within incarceration and a comparison of the results for the team of Black men to the team of white men demonstrate that Blacks are doubly disadvantaged. They are more likely to be incarcerated and more strongly affected by the stigma of a criminal record when seeking employment (Pager, 71). Although more direct consequences on the lives of felons are present and problematic, informal and indirect consequences also exist.
Incarceration does not only affect the actual incarcerated individuals, but it also has grave consequences on the communities and families of those imprisoned. When increasing amounts of Black men are incarcerated, a multitude of consequences can result for the community. For example, the gender ratio of the community and within families is thrown off (“The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Communities of Color”). These increases in incarceration can lead to material and emotional stresses within familial relationships. Children are less likely to live in households with their fathers present and people are more likely to have children with multiple partners (Mauer and Chesney-Lind, ch. 7). This can lead to consequences such as diminished parental investment, increased risk of sexual and physical abuse, and an increase in the risk of the children’s involvement in crime. Children are at greater risk of poverty and violence and involvement in crime (Wester and Wildeman, 241). This demonstrates how the inequalities of mass incarceration are sustained between generations. Mass incarceration has a host of detrimental effects on both the incarcerated themselves and even the communities and families to which they belong. As discussed, mass incarceration has a disproportionate effect on African Americans. Because of this, observing these collateral consequences in addition to understanding racial disparities reveals mass incarceration for what it truly is, a new breed of racial oppression.
“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (Alexander, 2). Mass incarceration has proved to be a new type of racial discrimination. Similar to earlier forms of oppression based on race, mass incarceration targets African Americans and legally discriminates against that community. Racial caste can be defined as stratification where people of color, in this case, African Americans, are kept in an inferior position. Slavery in the U.S. is a perfect example of racial caste. Black individuals were captured and treated as objects, used for free labor, and had no rights. Jim Crow is also a form of racial caste. After the abolishment of slavery, the nation found new ways to ensure the subordinate status of Blacks. State and local laws passed from 1877 through the mid-1950s denied African Americans basic social, economic, and civil rights. A criminal record today authorizes discrimination that was supposedly left behind leaving African Americans to be discriminated in similar ways. The unique history of slavery, Jim Crow, and general historical oppression of African Americans make the disparate treatment of African Americans through mass incarceration particularly noteworthy. Racial oppression has been reborn in a new form and African Americans are continuing to be placed in an inferior position to the rest of society.
One of the strongest parallels between mass incarceration, Jim Crow, and slavery is the idea of legalized discrimination. Under slavery, colonial laws discriminated against Blacks by permitting their punishment, forbidding them to meet up and socialize, restricting their opportunities for commerce, restricting their mobility, and more. In Jim Crow, laws were created that provided a legal basis for the discrimination of African Americans in employment, housing, public benefits, public accommodations, and even voting. Today, the mark of a “felon” identity that plagues the African American community allows for these same forms of legalized discrimination. During Jim Crow, African Americans were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and the grandfather clause (Alexander, 192). Today, felon disenfranchisement laws are doing the same thing. The idea of “separate but equal” facilities took away housing, jobs, benefits, and more from Blacks (Alexander, 191-192). Having a criminal record takes away these same things today. Certain laws allow housing authorities to discriminate against felons, or deny public benefits, and a criminal record affects job opportunities. Both slavery and Jim Crow used legislation to legally discriminate against African Americans. Today, various forms of discrimination are legal against felons and large racial disparities in mass incarceration show that this legal discrimination targets the Black community.
In addition to legalized discrimination, there are parallels between Jim Crow, slavery, and mass incarceration in terms of the symbolic production of race and maintenance of racial segregation. Jim Crow laws mandated segregation and today prisoners, who are largely African American, are being segregated from mainstream society (Alexander, 195). Jim Crow, slavery, and mass incarceration have all served to define the meaning and significance of race (Alexander, 197). Slavery defined that to be Black meant to be a slave, Jim Crow defined being Black as being a second-class citizen, and today mass incarceration defines Blackness in America as being a criminal. Mass incarceration is producing the same racial stigma and forced shame around being Black that existed before. The parallels between mass incarceration and slavery and Jim Crow are difficult not to notice. These strong comparisons prove that mass incarceration is heavily racialized and is a new breed of racial discrimination. Like slavery and Jim Crow, mass incarceration proves that the idea of “liberty and justice for all” does not apply to everyone, especially excluding African Americans.
An observation of mass incarceration and its deeply racialized nature tears the curtain back, revealing the unending discrimination that plagues African Americans. As mentioned, the idea of “liberty and justice for all” is crucial to the ideals of the United States. Mass incarceration’s true identity as a new form of racial oppression, a reimagined slavery or Jim Crow, is showing that this is not true. The “all” is not all people in the nation. Countless people are left out of the equation, particularly African Americans. It is important to notice these disparities and the facade of this statement of “liberty and justice for all,” because without noticing the problem, it will be impossible to improve. This discrimination cannot be moved from if we try to mask it with a glorification of the freedom, opportunity, and equality that is claimed to exist within the United States. Strong racial oppression existed for thousands of years and still exists today. The United States has found a new way to create the underclass of African Americans through the phenomenon of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration exposes the perpetual discrimination of Black Americans and fallacy of freedom and equality through the large racial disparities in incarceration and collateral consequences that result.