VII. Overlooking Race

The Jim Crow analogy also obscures the extent to which whites, too, are mass incarceration's targets. Since whites were not direct victims of Jim Crow, it should come as little surprise that whites do not figure prominently in the New Jim Crow writers' accounts of mass incarceration. Most who invoke the analogy simply ignore white prisoners entirely. Alexander mentions them only in passing; she says that mass imprisonment's true targets are blacks, and that incarcerated whites are collateral damage.

Many whites--most of them poor and uneducated--are now behind bars. One-third of our nation's prisoners are white, and incarceration rates have risen steadily even in states where most inmates are white. That's a lot of collateral damage. Those white prisoners are sometimes subjected to ghastly mistreatment, as an ACLU attorney recently alleged in a lawsuit challenging conditions of confinement in a prison in Idaho, where 77% of the prisoners in state facilities are white. He reported, In my 39 years of suing prisons and jails, I have never confronted a more disgraceful, revolting and inexcusable case of mass abuse and federal rights violations than this one. For some categories of offenses where our laws are especially severe, such as possession of child pornography, most of the defendants are middle-aged white men. Prosecutions for sexually explicit material offenses have risen by more than 400% since 1996. In addition to the dramatic rise in the number of cases filed, the sentences imposed for all child-pornography related offenses have become increasingly severe, rising from an average of 2.4 years in 1996 to almost 10 years in 2008. Moreover, although whites remain relatively underrepresented as drug offenders, the percentage of drug offenders who are white has risen since 1999, while the percentage of drug offenders who are black has declined.

Hispanic prisoners also receive little attention from the New Jim Crow writers, even though they constitute 20% of American prisoners. The fact that quality data on Hispanics in the prison systems is often lacking may be partly to blame for this omission. But it is important to remember that during the Jim Crow years, Hispanics in many jurisdictions were subject to forms of exclusion, segregation, and disenfranchisement not unlike those inflicted on African Americans. And given what we do know about current Hispanic incarceration rates, it is clear that Hispanic prisoners deserve the attention of all who write about the prison system. The Hispanic prison population climbed steadily during the 1990s, to the point where one in six Hispanic males born today can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. The available data suggest that Hispanic incarceration rates are almost double the rates for whites, and many observers believe that these data undercount the true rate at which Hispanics go to prison. Most Hispanic prisoners, like most blacks and whites, are serving time for violent offenses, and about 20% are in prison for drug offenses.

Thus, the data on white and Hispanic prisoners reminds us that while African Americans are incarcerated in numbers grossly disproportionate to their percentage of the overall population, the fact remains that 60% of prisoners are not African American. As I will argue in the conclusion, anyone analyzing mass incarceration must keep that 60% squarely in mind.