Remembering the Dissapeared:The Prison Industrial Complex in a “Post-Racial Society”

by Timothy Malone

             We have elected an African-American President, and a refrain has begun, or is at least intimated in mainstream discourse on race: “Racism is dead. A black man has become president!” If a black person can become President, he/she the freedom to become anything. Sure, some people are still “racist,” holding outdated beliefs and prejudices, but for the most part, we as a country have almost completed the journey to equality, from the beatings in the street of civil rights protestors in Selma and the riots of the late 60’s. We are living in a “post-racial” society.

            This debate over race advances from mistaken assumptions, mistakes in core definitions. What is Racism? How does it differ from prejudice, or bigotry? Are they interchangeable terms?

            No, they are not. But they are often confused in mainstream discourse (which serves to obfuscate, more on that later.). We often here of people who are racist – Glenn Beck says “Obama is a racist. He hates white people.” Joe Wilson is a racist for blurting out “Liar!!!!” to a black president.. This is improper use of terms. Racism refers to structures in a society, the advantaging of one group of people over another by the institutions;  not individual acts, dispositions, beliefs, or attitudes. That’s prejudice. A bigot is a person that holds prejudiced conceptions. Beck should have employed the term Bigot, or said “Obama’s prejudiced” (regardless of the absurdity of the claim; I’m getting at something different here). By saying he’s racist, he is implicitly and subtly re-defining the term racist. We lose the tools of language for critique of structures conferring advantage to one racially based group of people over another. Racism gets individualized, as problems of individual attitudes, and structures of oppression become invisible.

            The reality that we live in a racist society is irrefutable. One need only look at statistics relating to incarceration. The United States, over the last 20 years, has become the most aggressive incarcerator of any nation on Earth (just recently surpassed China and Russia), with over 2 million people behind bars. People of color are victims of mass incarceration at a rate disproportionate to their percentage in the population. The prison as the system which “corrects and rehabilitates” individuals, criminals who have strayed from civility, law, and morality through making “poor choices” is steeped in a language of racist deception.

One in fifteen young white males are either in prison, or on parole/probation. For Latino males, the number jumps to one in ten. One out of every three young African-American males is either in prison or on parole/probation. Eight out of ten black males will come under the jurisdiction of the prison/correctional system at some point in their lifetime (Marable, 2001). To imply that blacks just make bad decisions at a much higher rate (greater than 33 times) would necessitate a prejudiced perspective. An outstanding achievement of post-racist society, to ignore structural realities to such a degree, that a glaring example of structural inequality can be attributed to .individual acts, transgressions, bad choices.

            Further statistics lend weight to a critique of our society as racist in its structure. 14% of drug users in this country are African-American, yet they make up 35% of all arrested for drug-related crimes. Blacks make up 55% of those convicted for drug offenses, and 75% of those who do time in prison for drugs. By 1989, black incarceration in the United States surpassed the Apartheid regime in South Africa. In the 1990’s, violent crime plummeted. Laws to punish less serious offenses were made more severe, and rates of incarceration sky-rocketed (Rockefeller drug laws, three-strikes). “At midyear 2008, there were 4,777 black male inmates per 100,000 black males held in state and federal prisons and local jails, compared to 1,760 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 727 white male inmates per 100,000 white males (Bureau of Justice Statistics,” The largest percentage of any racial group in prison as a percent of their population is Native Americans.

            It has been a spectacular achievement of Propaganda to divorce the history of brutal oppression, colonialism, slavery and genocide from the contemporary reality of structurally racist incarceration rates; to divorce the idea that history has any bearing on contemporary social realities.

            In more recent history, shifts in economic structures have contributed to massive increase in incarceration, disproportionally affecting people of color. As Nancy Reagan declared “The war on Drugs,” the economy was being “globalized.” What this translates to is an exporting of the manufacturing base; factories in South Central Los Angeles and Detroit, New York and Chicago, began to shut their doors and to manufacture all throughout the third world. With the rise of “reaganomics,” we see a simultaneous collapse of social spending, an ideological battle to defund education, job training, healthcare, and a variety of social programs constructed in Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and LBJ’s “Great society” program. The inner cities become marginalized, inhabited by a group of people who are non-conducive to the creation of capital. The rhetoric amps up, and become more divisive – we are told of “welfare queens” gaming the system; sold terrifying myths of young, angry black males committing violent crimes. This is not just republican malfeasance. Clinton, through his Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act, dismantled the welfare state, and by the year 2000, had cut welfare rolls in half. Most recipients disappeared into obscurity, and those who did get “work opportunities” got paid, on average, $5 to $7 an hour, well below the federal poverty line. With globalization and the creation of economic wastelands out of the former industrial centers, we see a simultaneous attack led by the right with democrats in tow, on any and all social spending that could mitigate the tragedy of the transition.

            A more recent phenomenon is the privatization of prison, what some are calling a “prison-industrial complex,” paralleling the military industrial complex in many of its functions. It costs the state about $75,000 dollars to build a prison cell. It also costs approximately $25,000 per year (the cost of a college education) to house an inmate, and private companies want in. Wackenhutt Corrections Corporation and the Correction Corporation of America tap into the public treasury to serve the “public need” of population control, for a profit. They hire and train their own guards, and incentivize the creation of a criminal population for profit. Like the state subsidy that goes to high tech industry to function as a diverting of tax money into private hands, the prison industrial complex can function as welfare for the rich. All the spending that once went in to education programs in public school, housing, healthcare for the historically oppressed and underprivileged, now circulates through the veins of a private system that incarcerates the same people at an increasing rate, funneling wealth upward to the owners and managers of privatized correctional corporations (all the while employing non-unionized labor).

            Youths of color suffer the most dramatically from structural racism. African American kids make up 15% of kids under 18 years of age. Yet they represent 26% of all the arrests in their demographic. 66% of white youths arrested are taken to Juvenile court, while only 31% of black kids… 46% of them are tried as adults. African American youths comprise 58% of all juveniles within adult correctional facilities. These numbers translate to this structurally racist reality: if you are a black youth of color arrested for the same crime as a white youth, you are six-times more likely to end up in an adult prison (Marable, 2001).

            The conversation has shifted over the last couple of decades in favor of those who favor the status quo, built upon a foundation of structural racism. The multinationals who export the manufacturing base and drive down wages, the intellectual apparatchiks who cover for them and a free-market driven media system are all complicit in eviscerating the very term racism, evacuating it of content. They have bamboozled us into accepting an argument with faulty assumptions – that racism has to do with individual attitude. How is it that when Obama has a discussion of race, the main impetus must be one of “personal responsibility,” a right-wing talking point to obfuscate the structural reality of racism, by blaming the victims of systematic repression for their predicament? The debate is so far right, that on social policy, Obama is to the right of Nixon. We of the left must recover our language, for language frames one potential of understanding the issues. And if one doesn’t even know what racism means, it is impossible to see it function. The prison is a monolith racist structure, a lynchpin in a system of interlocking oppressions that runs throughout our economics and politics. It is where we “disappear” social problems: poverty, hunger, prejudice, unemployment, by disappearing people of color.