On Colonialism and Prison Reform: A Reflection on Political Economy and Race

Share to Google Plus
Image of United States as a prison cell featuring political prisoners held in U.S. jails and other images of oppression.
Image by Rashid Johnson. Source: www.usprisonculture.com.

Note: The following piece is writing as a provocation. The author invites debate and rebuttal. A dialog is sought. Please reply in the comments or, preferably, submit your rebuttal as a blog post/critical essay to Uprooting.

The room was packed. We sat in our linked-together conference chairs shoulder-to-shoulder as the temperature of the room crept incrementally towards mildly uncomfortable. Despite these circumstances, we were presented with an outstanding panel on critical prison transformation from Judah Schept, Michelle Brown, Tony Platt, Jonathan Simon, and Patricia O’Brien. With time quickly waning during the after-presentation Q&A session, one questioner inserted themselves into the queue, getting slightly confrontational.  This attendee insisted that these panelists needed to first and foremost connect the current state of prisons (and its problems of inequality and oppression) with the history of colonialism. When this was first uttered, I found myself agreeing with her. Yes! We do need to situate prisons in the broader history of colonial expansion and resource extraction. But then the attendee followed up the statement, “we need to address first and foremost the problem of whiteness.”

My enthusiasm deflated like a sabotaged set of bagpipes. I would hear this critique brought up time and time again throughout this conference (more than once by the same person). It makes sense why this would occur; public and academic attention is turning hard to the intersection of racial inequality and prisons. This perspective on colonialism and race, however, is woefully incomplete.

It’s not that I think that race and whiteness is unimportant to address—dear J.R.R. Tolkien, no! That is most certainly not the case!  With racial disproportionalities evident throughout every component of the criminal justice apparatus, to deny the contemporary reality of race would be like flying a 747 blindfolded—foolish and bound to hurt others. What I mean is that the history of race—particularly the history of race in criminal justice—it is more than the history of discrimination based on phenotypic characteristics and ancestry. Now, the intrepid reader may be wondering how can this be? Is this not the history of race by definition? Not so fast.

Let’s talk a bit about colonialism. For many, colonialism is the history of geo-spatial domination divided along racial/ethnic lines. This understanding is flawed, however. It is partially true. But let us not forget that the colonists did not set out from their countries on disease-ridden barges solely to dominate others based on race. Instead, we have to remember that race was constructed as a mechanism to legitimate domination. The whole colonial project, however, was first and foremost about oppression for the purposes of resource extraction and exploitation—an endeavor so thorough that bodies were converted into resources for exploitation (of course, capitalism does this with most workers, but slavery was the most intense manifestation of this tendency). In other words, we have to remember that colonialism is not just a process of racial domination—is a political economic regime of social, cultural, spatial, and—as Frantz Fanon would remind us—psychological oppression as well.

To state that the contemporary state of prisons is a legacy of colonialism is absolutely valid. But to subsequently equate colonialism with only the project of whiteness and racial domination alone is not. After all, while racial inequalities are prevalent in prison, let us not forget that even greater disproportionalities exist along class lines. While race has taken on its own vitality, its genesis and maintenance is intricately and thoroughly linked to political economy. Slavery was a project of forced labor.

As demonstrated by Howard Zinn, early racial conflicts among free African American and White laborers were erected to prevent both parties from turning on the landed elite. During early industrialization, racial minorities were oppressed partially as a means of maintaining a surplus population to erode the power of organized labor and drive down wages. In other words, racial tension—like before—helped suppress wages and fragment the working classes. The political economic process of gentrification of urban areas broke apart and reconfigured impoverished communities—with inner city minorities bearing the lion’s share of the burden (a process that continues to this day).

In addition to gentrification, impoverished regions were further impacted by the deinstitutionalization of mental health and other social welfare services—neo-liberalism came down hard on the poor. With poor communities already devastated by these changes (among others), the marginalized were laid prostrate. At this critical juncture, politicians began orchestrating the wars on crime and drugs as methods to expand state power. When crack was introduced, disproportionately hitting poor inner city minority communities, politicians lunged at the opportunity to use crack cocaine to construct the problems of inner-city minority poverty as a crime problem.

In such a neo-liberal context, mass incarceration—wrought through the wars on crime and drugs—were legitimated on racialized moral panics. State power expanded and only the politicians and the crime control industry seemed to benefit: the rich get richer and the poor get prison, as the old critical criminological saw goes (Reiman & Leighton, 2012; Christie, 2000). Across history, race has coincided with economic domination.

Yes, race has been a mechanism for stratifying society and legitimating domination. Yes, race matters for this reason. But we cannot divorce the history of racial oppression from the political economy through which it was derived. The history of racial inequality, then, is fueled by capital accumulation and class domination. If we are truly to engage in transformative politics regarding the largest carceral complex the world has ever seen, we cannot attack racial inequality alone. I am reminded of the quote from Henry David Thoreau: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” If we address racial inequality in isolation—if we treat colonialism and its associated atrocities of history as an issue of race in isolation—we risk only hacking at the branches of domination. To solve the problem, one must deal with the root. It is time to return to what scholars like W.E.B. DuBois started—a sociology/criminology which understood class and race as forces of domination working together dialectically. Speaking of DuBois (1915, p. 708), perhaps this quote from his “African Roots of War” is appropriate:

That sinister traffic, on which the British Empire and the American Republic were largely built, cost black Africa no less than 100,000,000 souls, the wreckage of its political and social life, and left the continent in precisely that state of helplessness which invites aggression and exploitation. ‘Color’ became synonymous with inferiority, ‘Negro’ lost is capitalization, and Africa was another name for bestiality and barbarism. . . Thus the world began to invest in color prejudice. The ‘Color Line’ began to pay dividends.

Or perhaps a more contemporary quote is in order. A recent article published in Time Magazine speaks to these issues, written by none other than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2014):

This fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda distracts America from the larger issue that the targets of police overreaction are based less on skin color and more on an even worse Ebola-level affliction: being poor. Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor. . . And that’s how the status quo wants it.

He goes on to elaborate how focusing only on race pits White against Black in a way that leaves many power structures in society relatively intact. Race is important, but one must address it as a broader historical, social, political, and economic struggle.

If we want to transform prisons and other domains of the crime control complex, charting their trajectory from these roots seems like a good place to start. Then we—as a society—must actively work to dismantle the carceral complex, working to wean ourselves from the complex system of interdependencies between private industry and state power that fuels itself on fear of marginalized others, notably the poor and racial/ethnic minorities. Many scholars, like those panelists mentioned above, are working towards these ends and should not be derided for refusing to limit the scope of their vision to one variable of oppression.

Kevin F. Steinmetz
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work
Kansas State University

The author would like to thank Edward Green and Ashley Farmer for their comments on previous drafts of this post.


Christie, N. (2000). Crime control as industry: Towards gulags, Western style (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1915). The African roots of war. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://scua.library.umass.edu/digital/dubois/WarRoots.pdf

Reiman, J. & Leighton, P. (2012). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.


  1. This is an extraordinarily important scholarly critique. By all means let the debate begin. For my part, I think Dr. Steinmetz makes a compelling argument for situating criminological critiques of state power and state violence in the process of capital accumulation which necessitates that state violence.

  2. I’m trying to find some angle to critique Kevin’s piece here and I struggle to find the space to disagree with his analysis. Indeed for anyone who teaches about the emergence of capitalism and the race concept, Kevin’s argument should seem to suffer most acutely from its obviousness. The simultaneous emergence of the race concept and capitalist exploitation that enabled the colonial domination of the world are inextricably linked, both historically and contemporaneously. If there is any room for critique here it is only that Kevin fails to also take aim at those whose attention favors class over race, along with those who favor race over class. We should have understanding for those among us, especially colleagues of color, who at this particular point in time are particularly focused on the dynamic of racial oppression that the American criminal justice system continues to perpetrate, while gently reminding them that race alone is not sufficient to understand that the historical and contemporary oppression meted out by the American criminal justice system is a function of both class and race based domination. Furthermore we must constantly remind ourselves that the experience of marginalized criminalized people of color who cannot “pass” as white is even more acute than for those of us who can.

  3. I love the fact that this fantastic blog came as a result of a convergence under the banner of “Criminology at the Intersections of Oppression”. Dr. Steinmetz does a fine job of elucidating the importance of one such critical intersection, as well as encouraging thoughtful discussion. Too often the old horizontal hostilities sabotage honest efforts at radical thought and action. Reminds me of a quote: “Why is it that right-wing bastards always stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, while liberals fall out among themselves?” – Yevgeny Yevtushenko

  4. I fear the postmodern/post colonial left has the order of causation confused: the European empires in the 16th century set out looking for precious metals and exotic trade goods to fill their empty coffers, not to make race. Any decent scholar of Colonial history in the Americas knows the logic of accumulation preceded the genesis of the race concept. As well we seem to forget the modern slave trade was about raising cotton and maximizing the rate of surplus value extracted from labor. But I guess these are inconvenient facts. Much the same could be said of our treatment of race and the criminal justice system today: mass incarceration of racialized people only becomes logical in a financialized economy where their labor cannot be absorbed in commodity production and they are de jure citizens. Tell me how the optic of coloniality has purchase on this situation again?

    • This is an important piece Kevin, well done. I’ve been trying to speak about these issues at community events myself (though with a focus on the Filipino community as that’s who I work with–but extending out to general society).

      I actually just did a talk this past weekend for Int’l HR Day that incorporates these themes: https://alexfelipe.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/linking-the-philippines-to-the-global-struggle/

      And also have a piece in the current issue of Briarpatch magazine about the connections between Filipino migrant labour and the Canadian working class: http://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/how-do-i-get-to-work-there-too

      • Alex, your work sounds interesting. I particularly like this quote: “Leftists often focus on corporate greed and the handful raking in record profits. But if we want to make sense of the way the global economy works, we need to look past greed to the structural dynamics of capitalism. It’s easy to be outraged by corporate immorality; it’s harder to accept that without neoliberal restructuring the crises of the ’70s would have resulted in a downturn akin to the Great Depression.”

  5. Kevin you have once again, “put it where the goats can get it”. In your thoughts I am reminded of the words of Harriet Tubman, “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves”. Perhaps its the movement that you ascribe to that will move us from dialogue to action….if only the sleep among us knew their state of inactivity.

  6. I get it, but no. This is written in a way that makes colonialism into just capitalism imported from the outside. Colonialism, especially in the USA, was not merely imported capitalism, but a process of delineating settlers who presumably would benefit from the imported capitalist exploitation and colonial subjects who would be the tools by which wealth would be extracted for those settlers. White workers may not have collected the benefits of colonialism immediately in a cash benefit type of sense, but the psychological aspect (as well as policy) always left them the hope that they too could steal land and own human beings. The minute that slavery was changed from a matter of being non Christian to a matter of being non white, European descended workers were given the hope of buying into the settler class by asserting their superiority over black people.

  7. Raylene:

    I get what you are saying. I don’t deny the importance of understanding colonialism as a racial project. My point is that its genesis and maintenance are propelled through political economy. Indeed, I think most Marxists would agree with you to at least some degree that “The minute that slavery was changed from a matter of being non Christian to a matter of being non white, European descended workers were given the hope of buying into the settler class by asserting their superiority over black people.” What is interesting is that this process of racialized “buying into” itself is a mechanism of maintaining class divisions. In other words, give white settles/workers a small piece of the pie and race will become the perceptibly predominant mode of inequality between the lower strata. But, as Tim Wise has stated, both white and blacks were still dominated by wealthy elites. Even DuBois discusses this in his African Roots of War–give the American middle class a cut of the pie and they will be content with the brutal exploitation of foreign others. My argument is that racial domination was historically formed as a method of legitimating a broader project of capital accumulation, as Aaron pointed out.

    So, in other words, I totally agree with you, but I argue all of this is propelled on the back of capital historically.

    As for the assertion that “this is written in a way that makes colonialism into just capitalism imported from the outside” I would say that this is certainly part of what I am saying–no argument there. I have a hard time seeing colonialism as entirely distinct from imperialist capital accumulation.

    But perhaps I have spent too much time reading Lenin

    Thanks for the comment, Raylene! I look forward to any rebuttals you may have.


    I think your comment is fair. I do want to emphasize that this is in no way to diminish the struggle that persons of color are going through. Race issues are real issues that all of us should be struggling with–particularly as there is a harsh material reality accompanying them (as demonstrated by recent events). My only point is that I do think that for radical change to occur, we have to also address what I consider to be the root problem historically and currently–capital.

    But perhaps I am being too vulgar a Marxist.

  8. “Everyone accepts the idea that the oppression of slaves was rooted in the class relations of exploitation under that system. Fewer recognize that under capitalism, wage slavery is the pivot around which all other inequalities and oppressions turn. Capitalism used racism to justify plunder, conquest and slavery, but as Karl Marx pointed out, it also used racism to divide and rule–to pit one section of the working class against another and thereby blunt class consciousness.

    To claim, as Marxists do, that racism is a product of capitalism is not to deny or diminish its importance or impact in American society. It is simply to explain its origins and the reasons for its perpetuation. Many on the left today talk about class as if it is one of many oppressions, often describing it as “classism.” What people are really referring to as “classism” is elitism or snobbery, and not the fundamental organization of society under capitalism.

    Moreover, it is popular today to talk about various oppressions, including class, as intersecting. While it is true that oppressions can reinforce and compound each other, they are born out of the material relations shaped by capitalism and the economic exploitation that is at the heart of capitalist society. In other words, it is the material and economic structure of society that gave rise to a range of ideas and ideologies to justify, explain and help perpetuate that order. In the United States, racism is the most important of those ideologies.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.