Structural Racism/Framing the discussion on race with a grounding in history

From Slavery to Mass Incarceration:

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Here are the first 4,000 words.

Deadly Symbiosis

Rethinking race and imprisonment in twenty-first-century America.

Loïc Wacquant

8 Consider three brute facts about racial inequality and imprisonment in contemporary America:

(i)   Since 1989 and for the first time in national history, African Americans make up a
majority of those entering prison each year. Indeed, in four short decades, the
ethnic composition of the U.S. inmate population has reversed, turning over
from 70 percent white at mid-century to nearly 70 percent black and Latino
today, although ethnic patterns of criminal activity have not fundamentally
changed during that period.


(ii)   The rate of incarceration for African Americans has soared to levels unknown in any
other society and is higher now than the total incarceration rate in the Soviet
Union at the zenith of the Gulag and in South Africa at the height of the
anti-apartheid struggle. As of mid-1999, close to 800,000 black men were in
custody in federal penitentiaries, state prisons, and county jails—one male out
of every twenty-one, and one out of every nine between twenty and thirty-four.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">1 On any given day, upwards of one third of
African-American men in their twenties find themselves behind bars, on
probation, or on parole. And, at the core of the formerly industrial cities of
the North, this proportion often exceeds two thirds.


(iii)   The ratio of black to white imprisonment rates has steadily grown over the past two
decades, climbing from about five to one to eight and a half to one. This
rising "racial disproportionality" can be traced directly to the War
on Drugs launched by Ronald Reagan and expanded under George Bush, Sr. and Bill
Clinton. In ten states, African Americans are imprisoned at more than ten times
the rate of European Americans. And in the District of Columbia, blacks were
thirty-five times more likely than whites to be put behind bars in 1994.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">2


Students of crime and justice know these grim facts but disagree about their
explanation. Most analysts account for the sudden "blackening" of the
the carceral system—
Georgia"">comprising jails, state prisons, federal prisons, and private
detention facilities—in terms of trends in crime and its judicial treatment
(arrest, prosecution, sentencing); a few have considered such non-judicial
variables as the size of the black population, economic factors (the poverty
rate, unemployment, income), the value of welfare payments, support for
religious fundamentalism, and the dominant political party. But these factors,
taken separately and in conjunction, simply cannot account for the magnitude,
rapidity, and timing of the recent racialization of U.S. imprisonment,
especially as crime rates have been flat and later declining over the past

Black hyperincarceration

To understand these phenomena, we first need to break out of the narrow "crime
and punishment" paradigm and examine the broader role of the penal system
as an instrument for managing dispossessed and dishonored groups.13.0pt;color:#0022E4;text-underline:#0022E4;font-style:normal"">4
And second, we need to take a
longer historical view on the shifting forms of ethno-racial domination in the
United States. This double move suggests that the astounding upsurge in black
incarceration in the past three decades results from the obsolescence of the
ghetto as a device for caste control and the correlative need for a substitute
apparatus for keeping (unskilled) African Americans in a subordinate and
confined position—physically, socially, and symbolically.


In the post-Civil Rights era, the remnants of the dark ghetto and an expanding
carceral system have become linked in a single system that entraps large
numbers of younger black men, who simply move back and forth between the two
institutions. This carceral mesh has emerged from two sets of convergent
changes: sweeping economic and political forces have reshaped the mid-century
"Black Belt" to make the ghetto more like a prison;
and the "inmate
society" has broken down in ways that make the prison more like a
resulting symbiosis between ghetto and prison enforces the socioeconomic
marginality and symbolic taint of an urban black sub-proletariat. Moreover, by
producing a racialized public culture that vilifies criminals, it plays a
pivotal role in remaking "race" and redefining the citizenry.

A fuller analysis would reveal that this increasing use of imprisonment to shore
up caste division in American society is part of a broader "upsizing"
of the state's penal sector, which, together with the drastic
"downsizing" of its social welfare sector, aims at enforcing a regime
of flexible and casual wage labor as a norm of citizenship for unskilled
segments of the postindustrial working class.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">5 This emerging government of poverty
weds the "invisible
hand" of a deregulated labor market to the "iron fist" of an
omnipresent punitive apparatus. It is anchored not by a "prison industrial
complex," as political opponents of the policy of mass incarceration
maintain,6 but by a system of gendered
institutions that monitor, train, and neutralize populations recalcitrant or
superfluous to the new economic and racial regime: men are handled by its penal
wing while (their) women and children are managed by a revamped welfare-workfare
system designed to buttress casual employment.

So the hypertrophic growth of imprisonment is one component of a more
comprehensive restructuring of the American state to suit the requirements of
neoliberalism. But race plays a special role in this emerging system. The
United States far outstrips all advanced nations in the international trend
towards the penalization of social insecurity. And just as the dismantling of
welfare programs was accelerated by a cultural and political conflation of
blackness and undeservingness,13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">7 so, too, the "great confinement"
of the rejects of market society—the poor, mentally ill, homeless, jobless, and
useless—can be painted as a welcome "crackdown" on them,
those dark-skinned criminals from
a pariah group still considered alien to the national body. The handling of the
"underclass" question by the prison system at once reflects, reworks,
and reinforces the racial division of American society and plays a key role in
the fashioning of a post-Keynesian American state.

Four peculiar institutions

The task of defining, confining, and controlling African Americans in the United
States has been successively shouldered by four "peculiar
institutions": slavery, the Jim Crow system, the urban ghetto, and the
organizational compound formed by the vestiges of the ghetto and the expanding
carceral system. The first three served, each in its own way, both to extract
labor from African Americans and to demarcate and ultimately seclude them so
that they would not "contaminate" the surrounding white society that
viewed them as irrevocably inferior and vile.


These two goals of labor extraction font-family:Georgia"">and social seclusion 16.0pt;font-family:Georgia"">are in tension: extracting a group's labor requires
regular intercourse with its members, which may blur the line separating
"us" from "them." Conversely, social isolation can make
efficient labor extraction more difficult. When the tension between
exploitation and exclusion mounts to the point where it threatens to undermine
either of them, the institution is re-stabilized through physical violence:
the customary use of the lash and
ferocious suppression of slave insurrections on the plantation, terroristic
vigilantism and mob lynchings in the post-bellum South, and periodic bombings
of Negro homes and pogroms against ghetto residents (such as the six-day riot
that shook up Chicago in 1919) ensured that blacks kept to their appointed
place at each epoch.

But the built-in instabilities of unfree labor and the anomaly of caste partition
in a formally democratic and highly individualistic society guaranteed that
each of these peculiar institutions would in time be undermined by the weight
of its internal tensions as well as by black resistance and external
opposition, and be replaced by its successor regime. At each new stage, the
apparatus of ethno-racial domination became less total and less capable of
encompassing all segments and dimensions of the pariah group's social life. As
African Americans differentiated along class lines and acceded to full formal
citizenship, the institutional complex charged with keeping them "separate
and unequal" grew more differentiated and diffuse, allowing a burgeoning
middle and upper class of professionals and salary earners to partially
compensate for the negative
symbolic capital of blackness through their high-status cultural capital and
proximity to centers of political power. But lower-class blacks remained
burdened by the triple stigma of "race," poverty, and putative

Slavery (1619–1865)

From the first years of the colony to the Civil War, slavery determined the
collective identity and individual life chances of Americans of African
parentage. Orlando Patterson has rightly insisted that slavery is essentially
"a relation of domination and not a category of legal thought," and,
moreover, a relation unusual for the inordinate amounts of material and
symbolic violence it entails.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">9 In the Americas (as opposed to, say, in the
Islamic world, where slavery served no productive purpose), this violence was
channeled to fulfil a definite economic end: to appease the nearly insatiable
appetite of the plantation for labor. The forcible importation of Africans and
West Indians, and the rearing of their descendants under bondage supplied the
unfree workforce needed to produce the great staples—tobacco, rice, sugar, and
cotton—that were the backbone of North America's preindustrial economy.

In the early colonial period, indentured servitude was economically more
advantageous than slavery but, by the second half of the seventeenth century,
demographic and economic factors conspired to make slavery the preferred source
of labor. After the Revolution, human bondage was abolished along the Eastern
seaboard and prohibited north and west of the Ohio River, but it spread and
solidified throughout the South, as the economic value of slaves rose in
concert with the increase in the demand for cotton and the scarcity of labor in
the new territories of the Southwest. Once generalized, slavery reconfigured
society, culture, and politics in its image, concentrating economic and state
power in the hands of a small slaveholder class tied to lower-class whites by
patronage relations and to their slaves by a paternalistic code that reinforced
the latter's lack of cultural autonomy and sense of inferiority.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">10

By the nineteenth century the sharp dichotomy between bondsmen and freemen had
been racialized: the militant defense of slavery generated an elaborate
ideology that justified the subhuman condition imposed upon blacks by their
inferior biological makeup. Particularly in the period between the Great
Awakening and the Civil War, the specter of insurrection and abolition resulted
in increased hostility toward manumission, miscegenation, and
"passing" by Negroes, and a rigid twofold racial schema based on the
mythology that God had created a separate species of blacks to be slaves and
that persons of mixed descent were against nature and fated to physical
extinction.11 In short, slavery as a
system of unfree labor spawned a suffusive racial culture. And that culture
remade bondage into something it was not at its outset: a color-coded
institution of ethno-racial division.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">12

Jim Crow South (1865–1965)Times-Roman"">

Emancipation posed a double and deadly threat to Southern society: the overthrow of bondage
made slaves formally free laborers, which potentially eliminated the cheap and
abundant workforce required to run the plantation economy; black access to
civil and political rights also promised to erode the color line initially
drawn to bulwark slavery but subsequently entrenched in both North and South.
In a first phase, during Reconstruction, the Dixie ruling class promulgated the
Black Codes to resolve the first problem by establishing "forced labor and
police laws to get the freedman back to the fields under control."13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">13 In a second phase, through the 1880s, the
white lower classes joined with the plantation elite to demand the political
disenfranchisement and systematic exclusion of former slaves from all major
institutions: the Jim Crow regime of racial segregation was born which would
hold African Americans in its brutal grip for nearly a century in the Southern states
and beyond.14

This regime restricted economic opportunities for African Americans in the Southern
cotton fields and the emerging mining and industrial towns of the uplands by
limiting their employment to the most dirty and dangerous "nigger
work." Former slaves and their descendants were prohibited from attending
churches and schools with whites. And they were methodically banished from the
ballot box thanks to an assortment of residency requirements, poll taxes,
literacy tests, "grandfather clauses," and disqualifying criminal

Most crucially, Jim Crow curtailed social contacts between whites and blacks by
relegating the latter to separate residential districts and to the reserved "colored"
section of commercial establishments and public facilities, bars and movie
houses, parks and beaches, trolleys and buses, waiting rooms and bathrooms. Any
and all forms of interaction that might imply social equality between the "races,"
or, worse yet, provide an occasion for sexual contact across the color line
were rigorously forbidden. Any infringement, real or imagined, was savagely
repressed, as testified by periodic explosions of mob violence, beatings,
whippings, and rioting against blacks who failed to display proper caste
deference. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, some 2,060
African Americans were lynched, one third of them after being accused of sexual
assault or mere social improprieties towards white women. These veritable
carnivals of caste rage, during which the bodies of "bad niggah" were
ritually desecrated by burning, mutilation, and public exhibition, were fanned
by the press, tacitly supported by the churches, and encouraged by complicity
from the forces of order. African Americans could hardly turn to the courts for
protection since the latter openly put the law of caste above the rule of law:
as a Mississippi gentleman put it, "race is greater than law now and then,
and protection of women transcends all law, human and divine."13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">15

The Northern Ghetto (1914–1968)Times-Roman"">

The ferocity of Jim Crow as a system of labor extraction and seclusion sowed the
seeds of its eventual ruin, for blacks fled the South by the millions as soon
as the opportunity came. In part a result of economic causes—including a
booming demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor in Northern steel mills,
packinghouses, factories, and railroads—this Great Migration was driven by the
irrepressible will to escape the indignities of caste and its attendant
material degradation, truncated life horizons, and rampant violence. Indeed,
the outmigration of blacks was heaviest in those counties of the Deep South
where lynchings were most frequent. The trek north to Chicago, Detroit, New
York, and Philadelphia was thus undertaken by Southern blacks not only to
"better their condition" but also to board what Langston Hughes
called the "train of freedom," on a journey filled with biblical
imagery and political import: it was a race-conscious gesture of collective
defiance and self-affirmation.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">16

Though Northern cities did offer salutary relief from the harsh grip of Southern caste
domination and significantly expand the life chances of the former
sharecroppers, African Americans there came upon yet another device for
economic exploitation and social seclusion: the ghetto. As the Negro population
grew, so did the animosity of whites towards them. Previously informal patterns
of ethno-racial discrimination and segregation hardened in housing and schools,
as well as parks, playgrounds, and beaches. They were extended to the polity,
where the promotion of a small cadre of black politicians handpicked by party
leaders served to rein in the community's votes to the benefit of the
white-controlled city machine. They were systematized in the economy, where a
"job ceiling" set conjointly by white employers and unions kept
African Americans trapped in semi-skilled, manual, and servant work that made
them especially vulnerable to business downturns.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">17 And, when they tried breach the color
bar—by attempting to move outside their reserved perimeter, for instance—blacks
were assaulted on the streets by white "athletic clubs" and their
houses were bombed by "neighborhood improvement societies." They had
no choice but to take refuge in the secluded territory of the Black Belt and to
try to build in it a self-sustaining nexus of institutions that would both
shield them from white rule and procure the needs of the castaway community: a
"Black Metropolis" lodged "in the womb of the white," yet
hermetically sealed from it.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">18

Although this "black city within the white"—as black scholars from DuBois and
Frazier to Oliver Cox and Kenneth Clark have consistently characterized the
ghetto—served the functions of extraction and seclusion, it differed from the
earlier peculiar institution in the degree of organizational autonomy it
permitted black Americans.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">19 The urban Black Belt enabled African
Americans to fully develop their own social and symbolic forms and thereby
accumulate the group capacities needed to escalate their resistance to
continued caste subordination.

Analyzing the workings of the ghetto as mechanism of ethno-racial control highlights its kinship
with the prison.

Thus the ghetto is a kind of "ethno-racial prison" in that it
encloses a stigmatized population with its own distinctive organizations and
culture. And the prison functions as a "judicial ghetto" relegating
individuals disgraced by criminal conviction to a secluded space harboring the
social relations and cultural norms of a "society of captives."13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">20 So when the capacity of the ghetto to
ensure caste domination was undercut in the 1960s by economic restructuring
that made African-American labor expendable and by the mass protest that
finally won blacks full voting rights, the carceral system began to function as
a substitute apparatus for enforcing the shifting color line and containing
segments of the African-American community devoid of economic utility and
political pull. As the ghetto became more like a prison (what I call the
"hyperghetto") and the prison became more like a ghetto, the two
institutions increasingly fused to form the fast-expanding carceral system that
constitutes America's fourth "peculiar institution."

"Prisonization" of the ghetto

The hyperghetto presents four main characteristics that differentiate it sharply
from the communal ghetto of mid-century and converge to make its social
structure and cultural climate akin to those of the prison. I will consider
each in turn by drawing a schematic contrast between the mid-century
"Bronzeville" depicted by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton in Black
the South Side of Chicago as I observed it some forty years later through
fieldwork, statistical analysis, and survey data.


Class segregation over racial segregationfont-family:Times-Roman"">

Mid-century American ghettos contained a full complement of classes, for the simple reasons
that the black bourgeoisie was barred from escaping while a majority of adults
were gainfully employed in a gamut of occupations. True, from the 1920s onward,
Chicago's South Side featured clearly demarcated subdivisions stratified by
class, with the small elite of black doctors, lawyers, teachers, and
businessmen residing in the more stable and desirable neighborhoods adjacent to
white districts at the southern end, while the families of laborers and
domestic workers massed themselves in areas of blight, crime, and dissolution
towards the northern end.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">21 But the social distance between the classes
was limited by physical proximity and extensive family ties; the black
bourgeoisie's economic power rested on supplying goods and services to its
lower-class brethren. Moreover, "brown" residents of the city were
united in their rejection of caste subordination and an abiding concern to
"advance the race," despite internecine divisions and the mutual
panning of "big Negroes" and "riff-raff."13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">22 As a result, the postwar ghetto was
integrated both socially and structurally.

Today's black bourgeoisie still lives under strict segregation and its life chances
continue to be curtailed by its geographic and symbolic contiguity with the
African-American sub-proletariat. Nonetheless, it has gained considerable
physical distance from the heart of the ghetto by establishing satellite black
neighborhoods at the urban periphery and in the suburbs. Its economic basis has
shifted from the black community to the state; employment in public
bureaucracies accounts for most of the growth in the number of professional,
managerial, and technical positions held by African Americans over the past thirty
years. The genealogical ties of the black bourgeoisie to the black poor have
also grown more remote and diffuse. Moreover, the historic center of the Black
Belt has experienced massive depopulation and deproletarianization, such that a
large majority of its residents are no longer employed: two thirds of the
adults in Bronzeville did not hold a job in 1980, compared to fewer than half
thirty years earlier, and three out of every four households were headed by
women, while the official poverty rate hovered near 50 percent.

These shifts in the social composition of the ghetto make it socially akin to the
prison, dominated as the latter is by the most precarious fractions of the
urban proletariat: the unemployed, the casually employed, and the uneducated. In
1991, fully 36 percent of the half-million people housed by U.S. jails were
jobless at the time of their arrest and another 15 percent worked only
part-time or irregularly. One half had not finished high school and two thirds
earned less than a thousand dollars a month; in addition, half the inmates were
raised in homes receiving welfare and only 16 percent were married.13.0pt;color:#0022E4"">23 Residents of the hyperghetto and clients of
the prison system thus present similar profiles in economic marginality and
social disintegration.

Loss of a positive economic functionfont-family:Times-Roman"">

The transformed class structure of the hyperghetto is a direct product of its
evolving position in the transformed urban political economy of the past three
decades. From the Great Migration of the interwar years to the 1960s, the
ghetto served a positive economic function as reservoir of cheap and pliable
labor for the city's factories. By the 1970s, the engine of the metropolitan
economy had passed from manufacturing to business- and knowledge-based services
and to factories relocated in suburbs and exurbs, in anti-union states in the
South, and in foreign countries.

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