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
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.