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The Problem of the Intersection of Race and Gender in the American Prison System

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Policing race is something that has been around in the United States since the times of slavery and now exists in the form of the prison system. It’s been put before us by those in power that some people are more human than others, but this fact isn’t something we have to accept, it’s something that needs to be challenged if we want to see anything done about it. This dominant view that black men are less human and therefore deserve less humanity, is something that’s been legitimized by those who hold the most power in our society so therefore people believe that it’s a just a fact of life.

In the case of police brutality, the “power trip” stereotype is proven to be very true. It seems that many of the officers feel as though they can treat people, especially black individuals, as lesser than because they’re in the uniform and the individual is not and because of the color of their skin. They feel so empowered by the institution they are a part of and the uniform that comes along with it that they feel they can treat these black men as though they are undeserving of any kind of humanity or privacy at all. These officers are using the power of white supremacy to make sure that there is an even bigger bridge to cross for those black individuals to have the same access to wealth and opportunities that come with white privilege. Many people continue to believe that the police force is there to protect us, but in reality, it’s only there to protect those in power or those who the people in power tell them to. Also, because of this trust, the force feels as though they can do whatever they want because that level of trust will still be there. It’s been socially constructed that these white people are more human than those of African American descent and it’s become something that many people accept as a fact of society. This isn’t a fact, it’s something that those in power want us to believe is a fact so we don’t pose any kind of challenge to them and their authority. This is something that’s been legitimized for such a long time by so many people that society would just rather believe and accept it than do something to change it.

Even though it has become commonplace to just accept the fact that black individuals are deviant solely because of their skin color and go on with life, there are people refuse to accept this fact and have even created a social movement dedicated to changing it. The Black Lives Matter movement is something that has only gained traction in the last decade as a result of many fatal incidents involving police officers and black individuals in the United States. Despite its popularity, you rarely see those with the power addressing it, especially President of the United States, Donald Trump. There is barely any news footage of him talking about this movement, this could be because he knows that if he is on camera talking about it, then it will gain more attention and he will have to acknowledge and do something about it. However, if it is brought up, he will talk about it because he wants the population to believe that it is something that he believes in and supports. It is easy to say that the main reason he doesn’t talk about it is because he wants to protect his power. He knows that if he talks about something that the broad majority of his supporters don’t believe in, then he will lose them as potential votes in the next election. He’s more concerned with pleasing those who keep him in power than addressing an issue that’s affecting a good proportion of the United States. By picking on it, he is trying to appeal more to those who can keep him where he is rather than acknowledge that it is actually a step towards changing the way we view black lives in the United States.

In retaliation, there is actually “counter movement” called White Lives Matter (“White Lives Matter,” n.d.). This phrase was born not long after the Black Lives Matter movement was created. It’s been made even more popular by the notorious Ku Klux Klan, an organization known for its staunch white supremacist stance. The fact that a counter movement or phrase even had to be created just shows the sheer terror that appears in people when they are faced with the unknown. These white supremacists are so deeply entrenched in their values that they refuse to accept anything other than the fact that they are better just because of their skin color. They are scared of the sheer fact that these black individuals are different than them and they believe that because they are different then it automatically makes them bad. This movement was a culmination of the belief by white people that they, in fact, are not any more of a human than black individuals. White people also are more predominant in government, which only furthers the extent of the oppression that black individuals experience in different institutions of society, like the prison system.

The prison system has all of the characteristics for a governmental system of power. They use punishment, they are legitimized by the law, it is an institution created in the interest of society, it takes away rights and it touches the soul. This power trip taken by police officers seen in everyday life is only made worse on the inside, particularly for black men. They seem to be the ones who have become the scapegoats for all of America’s problems, so in the interest of society, they are all placed in these prisons to “keep society safe”. In the news today, it is not common to see black men getting much longer prison sentences for similar crimes committed by white men. When it comes to drug related offenses, a black man will likely serve a sentence that is seven months longer than white man charged with the same thing (Rowell, Wu, Hart, Haile & El Bassel, 2012). Although, there are many things that can be factored into the length of a prison sentence, the number shows it all. The fact that black men make up almost half of the prison population of people serving time for drug offenses shows how powerful the idea of black equals bad is (Rowell et al., 2012). It is something that has been engrained in the minds of our society for so long that we do not think anything of it and just accept it. The prison and justice system are legitimized by the law, which is something that people put a lot of trust in. This is why people feel like they do not need to challenge anything the prison/justice system is doing to these black men because they believe that the justice system is always fair and because they are saying that something’s the case, then it must be. Not only are black men used as scapegoats for a lot of America’s problems, they are used for its capital gain too.

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The labor of black men is something that has been exploited since the times of slavery. The current prison industrial complex or justice system has done nothing to change this. The Rockefeller Drug Laws were implemented to “deter citizens from using or selling drugs and to punish and isolate from society those who were not deterred” (Smith & Hattery, 2010). These laws also had a policy that resulted in longer sentences for those who possessed crack cocaine over powder (Smith & Hattery, 2010). It is not hard to see that when these policies were made, the creators wanted to keep as many black men out of the labor force as they could. They made the assumption that black men were more likely to possess or sell crack cocaine over powder, so they paired the charge with a longer sentence as a legal way of kicking these men off the labor force and out of society. Research by Smith and Hattery (2010) supported the idea that by putting these men in prison, they removed what they saw as competition, kept all of the possible capital and jobs for themselves and the white individuals still left in society. They are taking advantage of these men for their own capital gain and it is at the expense of these individuals, their families and communities. They are made to do jobs in prison for industries that are a part of the prison industrial complex and these jobs are often not paid and things that nobody else in society wants to do, like picking up roadkill or trash off the side of highways. All of these different parts of the industrial complex are working against these black men, trying to keep them down and out of society just so it can be better for them and their businesses. This complex makes it very easy to compare the prison system as a whole to slavery.

Not only have men experienced the unfair exploitation of the American prison system, but it also has had a damaging effect on African American women as well. The same capital greed that is taking jobs away from African American men is doing the same thing to women. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty that these when it comes to finding and keeping jobs and the impact that this has on their families as a result. Like the Rockefeller Drug Laws, the law saw groups like The Black Panthers as a way of criminalizing black individuals because they are already doing something that was seen as deviant, so it was easier to justify putting them in jail (Sudbury, 2002) . The deviant thing in this case would have been being proud of being black. Sudbury (2002) states that as the white population saw it, these black individuals protesting could be equated with violence and lawlessness. Criminalizing these men and women was seen as the easiest way to deal with them rather than fixing the social issues that they were protesting about. This criminalization also is not something that has just taken place in the United States. It has been stated by Elkins et al (2001) that certain British officials have actually even changed the way that they report on someone’s ethnicity, so the actual number of black men and women incarcerated is reduced compared to what it actually is. Also, much like how the male prisoners are exploited for their labor in the American prisons, the same thing is done to black British women. As a part of the prison industrial complex, keeping these women in prison is helping to make sure that the capital stays exactly where they want it, in the hands of the wealthy, white men. Back in the United States, minorities like black and Latina women are more likely to be given a minimum sentence that they have to serve (Waters, 1998). There are more black women being charged with possession of crack because of its low price and its invasion into poorer neighbourhoods, where the black individuals live. This also supports the fact that black women are seen as a cog in the working machine that is the industrial complex. They are seen as something to help increase the wealth of the white man in America. They are basically kept away from the rest of society as a way to keep them of gaining their own capital that the white man so desperately wants to keep. Not only are black men and women subjects of this oppression by the treatment system, transgender individuals in prison are the victims of this horrible treatment both inside and outside of the prison walls.

Although this is not unique to this group of people, it is important to acknowledge that transgender individuals also experience unfair treatment by society and those in power, especially those in the prison. Our society sees transgender individuals as being deviant for a couple reasons. One being that they identify as something other than heterosexual. Also, there is an increased number of black transgender individuals that do sex work, so their deviance is masked as being because of their sex work when it’s really about their race. The fact that they do not conform to one gender is also seen as a problem and a way to deem them as deviant (Marksamer, 2008). These people are only seen as deviant because they are doing something to survive that is not deemed by society as acceptable, for black people anyway. Their transgender identity often makes it difficult for them to find jobs, which leads them to resort to unsafe means like sex work. The police often treat them differently because of their sex work and because of this, many black transgender sex workers are physically assaulted and blamed by police officers (Graham, 2014). Actions like this make it very difficult for them to have any sort of positive relationship with the police and even if they are having a serious problem, they will not talk to law enforcement about it (Graham, 2014). This stems from a fear of being further stigmatized or becoming a victim of another sexual or physical assault at the hands of someone who is supposed to protect you no matter your skin colour, gender identity, socioeconomic status and so on. Instead, they use the fact that these individuals are doing sex work, something that is illegal no matter what, to hide their closeted racism and transphobia and criminalize them for it.

The theory of intersectionality can also be applied in this case of black transgender individuals. This is because these individuals are black, transgender and do not identify as straight so there are multiple systems of oppression at work here. In the case of the transgender black individual, the layers of oppression are piled on top of each other. In terms of intersectionality, the more systems of oppression that are at work as a result of powerful institutions, the more likely it is that your life is going to be negatively impacted by it. When it comes to all three roles of being black, transgender and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, all three intersect in many ways. All of them face oppression from the governmental power/prison system. The prison system/prison industrial complex keeps them all in prison as holding the labor force in the hands of white people because white people want to keep the black individuals from gaining any sort of capital over them. The people in power, in this case society and the prison institution want them to have less of a voice. They are all seen as being deviant solely because of their skin color but other things are conveniently used (laws, protesting behaviour) so the racism is not as blatantly obvious. The people in power want us to view them as bad because in this case, being normal is being a straight, white, wealthy man so being transgender, black, a woman or all 3 goes against the “normal”.

The systematic oppression of these groups is not something that we need to accept as a society even though that idea has been legitimized by those in power for so long.

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The Problem of the Intersection of Race and Gender in the American Prison System. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-problem-of-the-intersection-of-race-and-gender-in-the-american-prison-system/
“The Problem of the Intersection of Race and Gender in the American Prison System.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-problem-of-the-intersection-of-race-and-gender-in-the-american-prison-system/
The Problem of the Intersection of Race and Gender in the American Prison System. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-problem-of-the-intersection-of-race-and-gender-in-the-american-prison-system/> [Accessed 9 Dec. 2022].
The Problem of the Intersection of Race and Gender in the American Prison System [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 01 [cited 2022 Dec 9]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-problem-of-the-intersection-of-race-and-gender-in-the-american-prison-system/
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