months ago, 650 people attended the "Race-ing Justice" Conference in
New York, sponsored by the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at
Columbia University. In more than two dozen panels and workshops, black people
examined the destructive impact of the police, the courts and the prison system
upon the African-American community. Our current situation today, however, must
be understood against the totalitarian history of racial domination in America.
two centuries, the black community was confronted with the totalitarianism of
slavery. All people of African descent, slave or free, were oppressed and
subordinated by this structure of unequal racial power. For nearly a century
after the Civil War and Reconstruction, black people experienced the systemic
subordination of Jim Crow segregation. Regardless of one’s income, education or
social status, to be black under the totalitarian restrictions of Jim Crow meant
confinement to second class status. In the twentieth century, the construction
of the urban ghetto imposed another kind of social control on black development,
certainly less pervasive than slavery had been, but in some respects was more
destructive to the human spirit. Today, the new totalitarian mode of racial
domination has become the prison industrial complex, an ever expanding
archipelago of prisons across the American countryside.
the United States today, about four to five million Americans receive criminal
records every year. Roughly one in five U.S. citizens has a criminal record. In
a society severely stratified by race and class, most of those who are pushed
into the penal system are not unexpectedly black, brown and poor. One third of
all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrest, with the others
averaging less than $15,000 annual incomes in the year prior to their arrest.
About one half of the 1.8 million people in federal and state prisons and jails
are African Americans.
researcher J.W. Mason noted, "The proportion of black men in prison-about 6
percent-is approximately 20 times the corresponding rate for white men . . . In
Baltimore, 56 percent of black men are in prison or jail, out on bail, on
probation or parole, or being sought on an arrest warrant. At least 90 percent
of black men can expect to be arrested and jailed for a non-traffic offense at
some point of their lives." Although the majority of black prisoners are
young men in their twenties and thirties, the fastest growing sector of the
penal population consists of men fifty-five years old and above.
outside of the prison walls, the black community’s parameters are largely
defined by the agents of state and private power. There are now about 600,000
police officers and 1.5 million private security guards in the U.S.
Increasingly, however, black and poor communities are being "policed"
by special paramilitary units, often called SWAT ("Special Weapons and
Tactics") teams. Researcher Christian Parenti cites studies indicating that
"the nation has more than 30,000 such heavily armed, military trained
police unites." SWAT team mobilizations or "call outs" increased
400 percent between 1980 and 1995, with a 34 percent increase in the incidents
of deadly force recorded by SWAT teams from 1995 to 1998.
are the political consequences of regulating black and poor people through the
criminal justice and penal systems? Perhaps the greatest impact is on the
process of black voting. According to an October, 1998 study, "Losing the
Vote," produced by the Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, two
nonprofit research groups, about 3.9 million Americans, or one in fifty adults,
have currently or permanently lost the ability to vote because of a felony
conviction. In 32 states, convicted offenders are not permitted to vote while on
parole. In fourteen states, former prisoners who have fully served their terms
remain disenfranchised, and in ten of these states, ex-felons are prohibited
from voting for life. For African Americans, these figures can be translated
into 1.4 million men who are denied the right to vote, compared to 4.6 million
who actually voted in the 1996 elections. The racial impact of ex-felon
disenfranchisement cited by the study is truly astonishing
Alabama and Florida, 31 percent of all black men are permanently
five other states-Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming-one
in four black men (24 to 28 percent) is permanently disenfranchised. In
Washington state, one in four of black men (24 percent) are currently or
Delaware, one in five black men (20 percent) is permanently disenfranchised.
Texas, one in five black men (20.8 percent) is currently disenfranchised.
four states-Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wisconsin-16 to 18
percent of black men are currently disenfranchised.
nine states-Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska,
Nevada, Oklahoma and Tennessee-10 to 15 percent of black men are currently
effect, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed millions of African
Americans the right to the electoral franchise, is being gradually repealed by
state restrictions on ex-felons from voting. A people who are imprisoned in
disproportionately higher numbers, and then systematically denied the right to
vote, can in no way claim to live under a democracy
Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science and Director of
the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
"Along the Color Line" is distributed free of charge and appears in
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