Racial Incarceration and Mass Injustice
September 28, 2016
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” - Martin Luther King, Jr.
I will no longer be silent about the racial injustice of mass incarceration.
The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population and one-third of all incarcerated women. Over 2 million people in the United States are behind bars, and nearly 6 million are heavily restricted under penal control, making America the world's leading jailer.
Sexual assault, juvenile abuse, state-sponsored executions, mental illnesses, brutal solitary confinement, drug addiction, gang violence, and for-profit incentives run rampant inside prison walls. Americans pay over $80 billion annually to support mass incarceration, a budget that’s been growing faster than education, housing, and mental health care.
While the criminal justice system plays a crucial role in civil life – and is comprised of good people with good intentions – the cumulative dysfunctions of this system are worsening crime, breaking up families and communities, oppressing people of color, and perpetuating generational trauma.
Truth comes before reconciliation. The uncomfortable truth is that mass incarceration acts as a system of racial control. It’s a continuation of America’s long history of oppression and violence against blacks, dating back to our country’s colonial founding.
“It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system - slavery - while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites... Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.” - Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
With nearly one million African Americans behind bars – arrested and sentenced in both structurally racist and unconsciously discriminatory ways, and a majority of whom are nonviolent offenders – mass incarceration has sadly become nothing short of a modern day apartheid.
More African American adults are in prison, jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. More black men are disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that deny voting rights on the basis of race. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and ten times more often for drug offenses. If these trends continue, one in three black men born today will spend time behind bars.
In her groundbreaking best-seller, “The New Jim Crow”, Michelle Alexander clearly frames the issue. The Ford Foundation senior fellow and former Stanford law professor shows how the criminal justice system operates as a “racial caste system”, much like slavery and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the south decades after the Civil War ended.
“If someone were to visit the United States from another country (or another planet) and ask: Is the U.S. criminal justice system some kind of tool of racial control? Most Americans would swiftly deny it... The visitor would be told that crime rates, black culture, or bad schools were to blame. “The system is not run by a bunch of racists,” the apologist would explain. “It’s run by people who are trying to fight crime.” Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system. The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.” - Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
In other words, overt bigotry isn’t a required component of structural racism. And because of society’s widespread embrace of “colorblindness,” the issue of racial control in mass incarceration has been largely hidden from public view – just like the 2.2 million people currently locked up.
Michelle Alexander continues (emphasis added):
“This, in brief, is how the system works: The War on Drugs is the vehicle through which extraordinary numbers of black men are forced into the cage. The entrapment occurs in three distinct phases... The first stage is the roundup. Vast numbers of people are swept into the criminal justice system by the police, who conduct drug operations primarily in poor communities of color. They are rewarded in cash - through drug forfeiture laws and federal grant programs - for rounding up as many people as possible, and they operate unconstrained by constitutional rules of procedure that once were considered inviolate...
The conviction marks the beginning of the second phase: the period of formal control. Once arrested, defendants are generally denied meaningful legal representation and pressured to plead guilty whether they are or not. While under formal control, virtually every aspect of one’s life is regulated and monitored by the system, and any form of resistance or disobedience is subject to swift sanction. This period of control may last a lifetime, even for those convicted of extremely minor, nonviolent offenses, but the vast majority of those swept into the system are eventually released. They are transferred from their prison cells to a much larger, invisible cage.
The final stage has been dubbed by some advocates as the period of invisible punishment... These laws operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives - denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Unable to surmount these obstacles, most will eventually return to prison and then be released again, caught in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality.” - Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
Those words prompted a chilling recognition. My brother and I started a company called Inflection, which organizes government records and provides employment screening. We've witnessed how that industry perpetuates many of these systemic inequities.
I consider myself a loving and respectful person. I have black friends. I strive to be kind and treat people equally. I do my best to serve my family, community, and the common good. And yet I was undeniably part of the problem. How did that happen?
The truth is that my actions weren’t the problem – my inactions were the culprit. I wasn’t racist; I was indifferent.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” – Desmond Tutu
The Mis-Education of Being White
I grew up in rural Illinois, near the state’s largest maximum-security prison. Illinois has some of the worst disparities in the criminal justice system: more than half of prisoners are African American and black people are jailed nearly nine times more than white people.
My parents were from the Chicago area, one of America’s most segregated cities. My mother worked in a public defender’s office, where she witnessed the constant unfairness inside courts. Like many families in the area, ours struggled financially – which meant things like spotty health insurance and grocery shopping through coupons – so I was somewhat familiar with the hardships of being poor.
Yet despite these surroundings, I had remarkably little appreciation for the plight of African Americans. Being in proximity to the problem is not the same as experiencing it. My own preoccupations and unconscious privilege shielded me from the realities of racial injustice. I had food on the table, college to aim for, and a bright future ahead.
“There were little white boys with complete collections of football cards, and their only want was a popular girlfriend and their only worry was poison oak.” - Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between The World And Me
I believed the narratives handed to me in school: slavery (racism) is over, everyone is treated equally under the law, and the American Dream is alive and well. We celebrated Black History Month with tokenized homages to MLK; Columbus Day meant a three-day weekend. There was no need to dwell on America’s legacy of hundreds of years of human slavery – the bondage, chains, whips, lynching, rapes, hangings, auctions – or the mass atrocities committed against indigenous groups and first peoples. That was the past.
Sure, I feared the police. Like most of my classmates, I engaged in some underage drinking and marijuana use, but I only worried about the consequences, in the slim chance we got caught. I didn’t fear the police would wrongfully harass me or physically harm my body.
I felt grateful that my parents weren’t divorced, but it never dawned on me to be grateful that my father wasn’t missing.
Our culture taught me to fear black men and to feel pity for the impoverished. But African Americans seemed to be “making progress” just fine – they were exceptional athletes, best-selling rappers, and movie stars. Besides, any lingering unfairness was handled by affirmative action, right?
As long as people worked hard and followed society’s rules, I believed good things would happen. I failed to appreciate how the system was fundamentally designed in my favor – and that these “rules” weren’t actually the same for everyone.
My work at Inflection eventually shook that belief. Building technology for court records gave us a first-hand look at the heart-breaking stories, statistics, and revelations of how African Americans and Hispanics are disenfranchised in the U.S. courts and prison system. We realized how criminal records in background checks systematically cause people to be denied jobs, housing, education, voting rights, jury service, and public benefits – trapping millions in a vicious cycle of structural disadvantage.
More and more news reports and YouTube clips of police brutality emerged. Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Adriene Ludd, Philando Castile, countless other victims and the many loved ones left behind. I could no longer look away. The reality was inescapable.
Our company’s proximity to the criminal justice system meant that if we didn’t do something, we’d remain complicit in its injustice.
Indifference can be worse than bigotry. It gives permission for the status quo to continue. It says that structural racism is okay, as long as we don’t talk about it. It lets the wounds of the past perpetuate into the future, unloved and unhealed.
I’ll never know what it’s like to be black. I most certainly still possess unconscious bias due to societal conditioning. But through listening and education, we can gain awareness and avoid the tendencies of indifference. In our business, we’re taking action to humanize background checks and interrupt discriminatory patterns of behavior.
Let’s accept the realities of racial inequality – and from that place of acknowledgment, build a more inclusive and just world.
Fueling The Movement
“[N]othing short of a major social movement can successfully dismantle the new caste system. Meaningful reforms can be achieved without such a movement, but unless the public consensus supporting the current system is completely overturned, the basic structure of the new caste system will remain intact.” - Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
For people of color, these conversations and struggles are nothing new. They’ve been happening for hundreds of years, since Africans were first kidnapped and enslaved in America to produce tobacco. In fact, African Americans have been slaves in this country longer than they’ve been free.
Throughout this long river of struggle, civil rights leaders, humans rights activists, volunteers, and communities around the world have been sowing the seeds of change – identifying leverage points in the system and creating pathways for healing. The capacity for positive change exists, ready to be supported and embraced.
The moment is ripe. Social media has helped awaken us to the realities of police brutality. States are facing the economic breaking points of mass incarceration. Voters are seeing through politicians’ tough-on-crime rhetoric. The war on drugs has long since failed. Conversations about diversity and inclusion are at the forefront. We’re at a tipping point.
To support this movement, the Namaste Foundation is donating a total of $150,000 to over two dozen exceptional nonprofits involved in criminal justice reform.
We’ve based our gifts on the following selection criteria:
- Effective, diverse leadership. We prioritize nonprofits led by talented people of color, especially women of color. Like most of the economic system, philanthropic dollars are overwhelmingly controlled by whites and men, thus reinforcing the same biases that need to be addressed.
- Community-based. We favor organizations in our local community, northern California, as well as groups taking a community-based approach, both online and offline.
- Positive solutions. We look for organizations addressing root causes, building awareness, and pursuing bold new ideas in order to work toward inclusive, win-win solutions.
- Practical action. We look for groups that demonstrate skillfulness in getting things done while staying true to their mission.
- Reputation and referrals. We seek the advice of civil rights leaders, frontline community activists, and respected elders.
- Economic viability. As a small foundation, we search for ways our gifts can make a difference, even if just a modest one.
In our next post, we’ll profile these nonprofits and their inspiring stories.
The topic of criminal justice reform is heart-wrenching. Progress has been painfully slow and we’ve taken many steps backwards. But the grassroots work of so many offers fertile ground for hope. People everywhere are rising up, steadfastly working toward peace, healing, and reconciliation.
Compassionate action is the antidote to indifference. If we courageously come together, honoring our common humanity more than our failings and differences, a more beautiful world awaits. Let us start with a sincere embrace of our unforgiving past – in the fiery words of James Baldwin:
“This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt that he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible - this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering - enough is certainly as good as a feast - but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth - and indeed, no church - can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable... I am proud of these people not because of their color but because of their intelligence and their spiritual force and their beauty. The country should be proud of them, too, but, alas, not many people in this country even know of their existence. And the reason for this ignorance is that a knowledge of the role these people played - and play - in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.” - James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
1. "Mass Incarceration", American Civil Liberties Union
2. "The New Jim Crow", Michelle Alexander, page 180
3. "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet", NAACP
4. "The Color of Justice", The Sentencing Project
5. "Slavery in the United States", Wikipedia
Top photo by Jabin Botsford at Freddie Gray's funeral in Baltimore, MD.