Black Mass Incarceration is Now a Political Issue

On the issue of America’s universal but seldom acknowledged policies of racially selective policing, racially selective prosecution and racially selective mass imprisonment, there’s good news and there’s bad news.

The good news is that members of America’s political elite from both parties are finally admitting that mass imprisonment of the Black poor is bad public policy, is inherently unjust, and ought to be some kind of political issue. Many also concede that the remarkable expansion of and the alarming racial imbalance within America’s prison population have nothing at all to do with rates of drug use or violent crime.

In a one-of-a-kind October 4 House and Senate Joint Committee hearing on the subject of mass incarceration, Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D) observed that the sevenfold growth of America’s prison population over the last generation was, “only nominally related” to crime rates. It was a point so important he repeated it in his very next sentence, quoting a high Justice Department official as saying that the increase in US prison population since 1975 “…wasn’t really about crime. It was about how we chose to respond to crime.”

It’s good news that politicians are willing at last to discuss the costs to Black families and communities of mass imprisonment of the Black poor.

The bad news is that many are inclined to blame the black poor themselves, directing attention away from the corporations who profit from the growth of the prison state, the politicians who built careers selling it to us, and the edifice of white American culture which fundamentally defines itself as the opposite in every way of its poor, unworthy, and now dangerous Black citizens.

As Berkeley’s Loïc Wacquant observed at Stanford University’s Tanner Lectures earlier this year, (Audio available free at it’s not unequal educational opportunities in Black communities that are feeding the prisons, joblessness, or the absence of two parent or the lack of suitable peer networks. Most of those indicators have been relatively stable for generations. In the mid 1960s, white men were the majority of American prisoners, and crime has remained relatively stable since then. But for every 1,000 crimes America now locks up five times as many people as it did in 1975. Most of that increase, as we all know, has been Black and poor.

In every era, Blacks have been viewed as apart, inferior and unworthy, as fringe players in the American narrative. But in the last 35 years the Black communities have been stripped of jobs, seen their poor isolated, resegregated, and redefined as unworthy and inherently dangerous. Government, the state itself has been refashioned into a punitive and carceral machine whose main function is to contain and control this unworthy, dishonored and dangerous poor and black population.

Physical isolation of the Black poor enables racially selective policing, prosecution and imprisonment without the need of special laws explicitly targeting blacks. And white America’s sense of itself as profoundly unlike and distinct from the Black and unworthy poor, along with the silence of our Black leadership class, make it politically possible.

It’s high time mass incarceration of the young Black poor is put on the political front burner and kept there till something changes. That’s what Jena was about. It’s time for a new mass movement in our Black communities that will expose the complicit silence of Black leadership on mass Black imprisonment, one that will begin to make continuation of these unjust public policies impossible.

Bruce Dixon is the managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.

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  1. deang said on October 14th, 2007 at 6:17pm #

    Bravo for trying to make this the big issue it deserves to be. This has been an outrage since Reagan started it in the 1980s. Speaking of whom, it would be another brick removed from the wall of the illusory St. Ronald Reagan Church if people were told that he’s responsible for initiating the mass imprisonment of Blacks that’s now considered eternally normal in the US.

  2. John said on September 7th, 2008 at 1:10am #

    As that great philosopher Sammy Davis once sang about: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” The problem in the black community is not white racism, the problem is moral decadence. Blacks, especially the men, need to take personel responsibility for their lives. The high out-of-wedlock birth rate, incarceration rates, welfare dependency rates…etc can only be resolved through repentance and turning away from sin.