Is mass incarceration a form of racialized social control?

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

Last night the Nashville Humanist Association hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic of race, more specifically the topic ("What is the new Jim Crow?") was about mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control. As a co-founder of NHA, myself and others have aimed to encourage vigorous and thoughtful conversation and dialogue about the topics we address, and to formulate meaningful paths of action. Last night's roundtable discussion was Part Two of a roundtable discussion we had a couple weeks ago on the topic, Is Race America's new religion.

In anticipation of last night's meeting we encouraged participants to explore a few resources, including the reading of the first chapter of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Alice Goffman's Ted Talk, "How we're priming some kids for college - and others for prison."

There's a lot to educate oneself about in terms of our criminal justice system and mass incarceration to get a fuller picture.

Here are a couple quotes from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander on the topic:

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that's why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“Arguably the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Indeed, a primary function of any racial caste system is to define the meaning of race in its time. Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.”

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

The two discussions we've organized on the topic of race have been racially, ethnically and generationally diverse, men and women. Last night we opened the meeting by asking participants to write down their thoughts as follows:

On the topics of: (A) Slavery; (B) Racism; and (C) Mass incarceration, we asked participants to fill in the blank for themselves on these three statements:

1. Something I know ....

2. Something I believe ....

3. Something I wonder ....

The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing five questions:

How does mass incarceration function as a form of racialized social control?

Have you ever witnessed or experienced the repercussions of incarceration?

How do you think the War on Drugs has affected your generation? Do you think your response is influenced by your race and your family's socioeconomic class?

Do you hear and see stereotypes today similar to those mentioned in the book excerpt, such as "welfare queens," "crack babies," and "gangbangers"? What are some present-day ways of sending racialized messages and stereotypes about people of color without using explicitly racial language?

Based on what you read from chapter one of The New Jim Crow, why do you think she's naming the phenomenon of mass incarceration in this way?

After discussing these questions, we ended the evening by asking participants to return to their "I know... I believe... I wonder..." reflections and ask:

Has anything you thought you knew changed?

Have any of your beliefs changed?

Were any of the things you wondered about answered?

What new questions do you have?

Participants were also given some information, answering the question: "What you can do about it." Some useful resources and ways to get involved are offered here on the website. There is also a useful article written by Bree Ervin at about talking to your kids about race.

How does the lifestance and values of humanism relate to matters of race? Anthony B. Pinn offers a thoughtful article on the subject at At the American Humanist Association conference in 2015 there was a very meaningful panel discussion on humanism and issues of race.

Last night in our discussion I shared that I know I cannot fully appreciate the impact of slavery, racism and mass incarceration on people of color. Even if I could somehow quantify the impact in areas such as education, economics, and opportunity, I can never appreciate the personal life experiences and psychological impact that slavery, racism and mass incarceration has had. This point was driven home to me in the meeting as a I listened to a young black man describe his personal experience in the criminal justice system and the time he spent in prison. It struck me that this is the point where empathy breaks down. I cannot truly put myself in his shoes and relate to his personal experience. I think this point of empathy is something to explore more deeply. A good place to explore i further is Paul Bloom's book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

I am committed to preventing and alleviating human suffering, and promoting and aiding human flourishing. This presses into matters such as social justice, equality and human rights. I cannot turn a blind eye where injustice and oppression is causing suffering and preventing flourishing. I realize this must begin first by scrutinizing my own beliefs, mindsets, narratives and actions (or lack thereof) that are complicit (knowing or unknowingly) in perpetuating social injustice. Secondly, I understand that I am responsible for educating myself about where human society breaks down. The first act of compassion is to care enough to understand what the reality actually is and the systemic factors and dynamics that feed into and perpetuate it. Compassion will not let me sit quietly, comfortably and conveniently in ignorance, inadequate understanding and half truths. As Elie Wiesel wrote, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference."

As a white educated male I think I know more than I actually I do as a result of reading articles and opinion pieces by other white educated males. Last night I got an education I could not have received anywhere else from a young black man who shared his experience of life before, during and after prison. I know I have a lot more listening and learning to do, and less talking and pontificating. When it comes to the subject of mass incarceration as a form of racialized social control, it's complicated. The question is, do I care enough to sort through it and formulate a response and do something about it.

There is much that could be said about secularism and social justice. It's an area I'm particularly interested in. For a season of my life I directed an inner city agency that provided programs and services for at-risk youth and their families. I describe some of my experiences in my first book, Divine Nobodies, as I was first starting my journey out of religion. I was confronted by the crisis in education for black youth, the absence of fathers in families, and the impact of drugs and incarceration. I spent a lot of time in the Davidson County Juvenile Detention Center talking with black teens as they expressed the impossibility of getting a job at McDonalds as a reasonable alternative over selling drugs in order to earn income for their family. As a Humanist Chaplain, I continue to invest my time and energy in these kinds of issues of social justice in my city.

©  2009 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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