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Jacqueline Johnson

Excerpted from: Jacqueline Johnson, Mass Incarceration: a Contemporary Mechanism of Racialization in the United States, 47 Gonzaga Law Review 301-318 (2011-2012)(109 footnotes omitted)


The election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency was heralded by some as a symbol of the demise of the Jim Crow era socioeconomic and cultural landscape that defined systems of justice, mobility, and daily life for millions of African Americans along racial lines. Yet in every state of the nation, a disproportionately high percentage of African American men presently live under some kind of state or federally mandated detainment. Just one year prior to the 2008 election, roughly 35% of incarcerated men in federal and state prisons and jails were African American, although they comprised just over 12% of the total non-incarcerated adult male population. Patterns of racial disparity in 2008 were even more dramatic in states such as Massachusetts, where African American men were incarcerated at eight times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. In 2010, the U.S. prison population declined for the first time since 1972, but this trend has not significantly changed racial disparities in imprisonment. According to recent estimates, African American males are imprisoned at an overall rate of nearly seven times that of white males.

The high rate of incarceration among African American men is part of an overall trend in punishment defined by a dramatic increase in the carceral system --a term used to characterize the legitimization and normalization of imprisonment as a factor of social life. Yet the collateral consequences of increased incarceration are most significant for African American men. According to author Michelle Alexander, More African Americans are under correctional control today--in prison or jail, on probation or on parole--than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began. Moreover, a long list of invisible punishments, such as housing loss, labor market exclusion, and political disenfranchisement, continue to plague former inmates long after release. Restrictions associated with felony convictions meant that nearly 1.4 million African American men were ineligible to vote in the 2008 presidential election which, ironically, has been identified as a major turning point in American race relations and has led many to conclude that race is no longer a significant factor in social or economic progress in the United States. But, this type of end-of-race rhetoric ignores the continued social and economic disenfranchisement of millions of African American men by recasting it as a racially neutral, color-blind occurrence that is the lone outcome of individual choice. The reality is that mass incarceration dominates the social and economic context of life for millions of African Americans, and continues a historical pattern of structural disadvantage that is defined by race. Scholar Manning Marable identifies the criminal justice system as one of three pillars forming a deadly triangle of institutional racism. Alexander agrees with this characterization, arguing mass incarceration has established a racial caste system in society, primarily driven by politics, not crime. Others claim that while historical Jim Crow barriers have been abolished, criminal justice policies and procedures that stress incarceration as a means of social control continue to challenge basic U.S. principles of democracy and justice, especially for the significant amount of affected individuals involved in non-violent crimes.

These critiques have led to calls for an evaluation of the cultural effects of prison expansion, both in terms of its emphasis on violence and dehumanization as a means for solving social conflicts, and the policing policies and political slogans that focus on a so-called war on crime. This is particularly problematic when such wars are disproportionately fought in communities of color and members of those communities are targeted as the primary criminals and victims. Others contend that the punitive ideology that justifies contemporary forms of punishment reify the eugenic arguments embraced by classical criminologists that there is a dangerous class of criminals. Such essentialist ideology is used not only to justify the unequal treatment of members of socially disadvantaged groups within systems of criminal justice, but also to justify their devalued status in all areas of social life.

This article examines the broader consequences of prison expansion by focusing on its contribution to contemporary racial ideologies and structures of economic disadvantage. Part II explores recent writings on racialization, criminal stigma, and incarceration. Racialization is defined as a process that reproduces and magnifies racial classifications as structures of inequality within interlocking ideologies, institutions, social systems, and everyday practices. While other scholars have argued that ideological beliefs about African American male criminality have facilitated their disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, this article argues that ideological beliefs about race are also informed by African American men's disproportionately high rates of incarceration. Correspondingly, the economic disadvantages that lead a large number of African American men to jail and prison cells are reproduced and magnified by mass incarceration to produce systemic economic disparities along racial lines.

Ultimately, this article proposes that contemporary ideas about race and structural-level racial disparities are heavily informed by the stigma and economic marginalization produced in mass incarceration. Part III illustrates this point by examining the impact of incarceration stigma on labor market exclusion. Research is presented to show that the ideological link between incarceration and race is so pervasive that race and a record of incarceration are often conflated as mutually reinforcing forms of labor market bias experienced by African American men. This article makes the case that the relationship between racial ideology and economic marginalization is made possible by mass incarceration's close structural relationship to other social systems, such as labor markets, which magnify these forms of racial disadvantage. In this light, mass incarceration operates as a contemporary mechanism of racialization.