Racism, Prisons and the Future of Black America

Manning Marable


are today over two million Americans incarcerated in federal and state prisons

and local jails throughout the United States. More than one-half, or one

million, are black men and women. The devastating human costs of the mass

incarceration of one out of every thirty-five individuals within black America

are beyond imagination. While civil rights organizations like the NAACP and

black institutions such as churches and mosques have begun to address this

widespread crisis of black mass imprisonment, they have frankly not given it the

centrality and importance it deserves.


leadership throughout this country should place this issue at the forefront of

their agendas. And we also need to understand how and why American society

reached this point of constructing a vast prison industrial complex, in order to

find strategies to dismantle it.


a variety of reasons, rates of violent crime, including murder, rape and

robbery, increased dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this increase

occurred in urban areas. By the late 1970s, nearly one half of all Americans

were afraid to walk within a mile of their homes at night, and 90 percent

responded in surveys that the U.S. criminal justice system was not dealing

harshly enough with criminals. Politicians like Richard M. Nixon, George Wallace

and Ronald Reagan began to campaign successfully on the theme of “Law and

Order.” The death penalty, which was briefly outlawed by the Supreme Court,

was reinstated. Local, state and federal expenditures for law enforcement rose



much of anti-crime rhetoric was a not-too-subtle racial dimension, the

projection of crude stereotypes about the link between criminality and black

people. Rarely did these politicians observe that minority and poor people, not

the white middle class, were statistically much more likely to experience

violent crimes of all kinds. The argument was made that law enforcement officers

should be given much greater latitude in suppressing crime, that sentences

should be lengthened and made mandatory, and that prisons should be designed not

for the purpose of rehabilitation, but punishment.


there was a rapid expansion in the personnel of the criminal justice system, as

well as the construction of new prisons. What occurred in New York State, for

example, was typical of what happened nationally. From 1817 to 1981, New York

had opened 33 state prisons. From 1982 to 1999, another 38 state prisons were

constructed. The state’s prison population at the time of the Attica prison

revolt in September 1971 was about 12,500. By 1999, there were over 71,000

prisoners in New York State correctional facilities.


1974, the number of Americans incarcerated in all state prisons stood at

187,500. By 1991, the number had reached 711,700. Nearly two-thirds of all state

prisoners in 1991 had less than a high school education. One third of all

prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests. Incarceration rates by

the end of the 1980s had soared to unprecedented rates, especially for black

Americans. As of December 1989, the total U.S. prison population, including

federal institutions, exceeded one million for the first time in history, an

incarceration rate of the general population of one out of every 250 citizens.


African Americans, the rate was over 700 per 100,000, or about seven times more

than for whites. About one half of all prisoners were black. Twenty-three

percent of all black males in their twenties were either in jail or prison, on

parole, probation or awaiting trial. The rate of incarceration of black

Americans in 1989 had even surpassed that experienced by blacks who still lived

under the apartheid regime of South Africa.


the early 1990s, rates for all types of violent crime began to plummet. But the

laws, which sent offenders to prison, were made even more severe. Children were

increasingly viewed in courts as adults, and subjected to harsher penalties.

Laws like California’s “three strikes and you’re out” eliminated the

possibility of parole for repeat offenders. The vast majority of these new

prisoners were non-violent offenders, and many of these were convicted of drug

offenses that carried long prison terms. In New York, a state in which African

Americans and Latinos comprise 25 percent of the total population, by 1999 they

represented 83 percent of all state prisoners, and 94 percent of all individuals

convicted on drug offenses.


pattern of racial bias in these statistics is confirmed by the research of the

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found that while African Americans today

constitute only 14 percent of all drug users nationally, they are 35 percent of

all drug arrests, 55 percent of all drug convictions, and 75 percent of all

prison admissions for drug offenses. Currently, the racial proportions of those

under some type of correctional supervision, including parole and probation, are

one-in-fifteen for young white males, one-in-ten for young Latino males, and

one-in-three for young African-American males. Statistically today, more than

eight out of every ten African-American males will be arrested at some point in

their lifetime.


latest innovation in American corrections is termed “special housing units”

(SHU), but which prisoners also generally refer to as The Box. SHUs are uniquely

designed solitary confinement cells, in which prisoners are locked down for 23

hours a day for months or even years at a time. SHU cellblocks are

electronically monitored, prefabricated structures of concrete and steel, about

14 feet long and 8 ½ feet wide, amounting to 120 square feet of space. The two

inmates who are confined in each cell, however, actually have only about 60

square feet of usable space, or 30 square feet per person.


meals are served to prisoners through a thin slot cut into the steel door. The

toilet unit, sink and shower are all located in the cell. Prisoners are

permitted one hour “exercise time” each day in a small concrete balcony,

surrounded by heavy security wire, directly connected with their SHU cells.

Educational and rehabilitation programs for SHU prisoners are prohibited.


of 1998, New York State had confined 5,700 state prisoners in SHUs, about 8

percent of its total inmate population. Currently under construction in Upstate

New York is a new 750-cell maximum security SHU facility, which will cost state

taxpayers $180 million. Although Amnesty International and human rights groups

in the U.S. have widely condemned SHUs, claiming that such forms of imprisonment

constitute the definition of torture under international law, other states have

followed New York’s example. As of 1998, California had constructed 2,942 SHU

beds, followed by Mississippi (1,756), Arizona (1,728), Virginia (1,267), Texas

(1,229), Louisiana (1,048) and Florida (1,000). Solitary confinement, which

historically had been defined even by corrections officials as an extreme

disciplinary measure, is becoming increasingly the norm.


introduction of SHUs reflects a general mood in the country that the growing

penal population is essentially beyond redemption. If convicted felons cease to

be viewed as human beings, why should they be treated with any humanity? This

question should be elevated and discussed in every African-American and Latino

neighborhood, community center, religious institution and union hall across this

country. Because the overwhelming human casualties of this racist leviathan are

our own children, parents, sisters and brothers. Those whom this brutal system

defines as being “beyond redemption” are ourselves. 


are the economic costs for American society of the vast expansion of our

prison-industrial complex? According to criminal justice researcher David Barlow

at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, between 1980 and 2000, the combined

expenditures of federal, state and local governments on police have increased

about 400 percent. Corrections expenditures for building new prisons, upgrading

existing facilities, hiring more guards, and related costs, increased

approximately one thousand percent. Although it currently costs about $70,000 to

construct a typical prison cell, and about $25,000 annually to supervise and

maintain each prisoner, the U.S. is currently building 1,725 new prison beds per



driving ideological and cultural force that rationalized and justifies mass

incarceration is the white American public’s stereotypical perceptions about

race and crime. As Andrew Hacker perceptively noted in 1995, “Quite clearly,

‘black crime’ does not make people think about tax evasion or embezzling

from brokerage firms. Rather, the offenses generally associated with blacks are

those . . . involving violence.” A number of researchers have found that

racial stereotypes of African Americans—as “violent,” “aggressive,”

“hostile” and “short-tempered”—greatly influence whites’ judgments

about crime. Generally, most whites are inclined to give black and Latino

defendants more severe judgments of guilt and lengthier prison sentences than

whites who commit identical crimes. Racial bias has been well established

especially in capital cases, where killers of white victims are much more likely

to receive the death penalty than those who murder African Americans.


greatest victims of these racialized processes of unequal justice, of course,

are African-American and Latino young people. In April 2000, utilizing national

and state data compiled by the FBI, the Justice Department and six leading

foundations issued a comprehensive study that documented vast racial disparities

at every level of the juvenile justice process. African Americans under age 18

comprise 15 percent of their national age group, yet they currently represent 26

percent of all those who are arrested.


entering the criminal justice system, white and black juveniles with the same

records are treated in radically different ways. According to the Justice

Department’s study, among white youth offenders, 66 percent are referred to

juvenile courts, while only 31 percent of the African-American youth are taken

there. Blacks comprise 44 percent of those detained in juvenile jails, 46

percent of all those tried in adult criminal courts, as well as 58 percent of

all juveniles who are warehoused in adult prison. In practical terms, this means

that for young African Americans who are arrested and charged with a crime, that

they are more than six times more likely to be assigned to prison that white

youth offenders.


those young people who have never been to prison before, African Americans are

nine times more likely than whites to be sentenced to juvenile prisons. For

youths charged with drug offenses, blacks are 48 times more likely than whites

to be sentenced to juvenile prison. White youths charged with violent offenses

are incarcerated on average for 193 days after trial; by contrast,

African-American youths are held 254 days, and Latino youths are incarcerated

305 days.


seems clear is that a new leviathan of racial inequality has been constructed

across our country. It lacks the brutal simplicity of the old Jim Crow system,

with its omnipresent “white” and “colored” signs. Yet it is in many

respects potentially far more devastating, because it presents itself to the

world as a system that is truly color-blind. The black freedom struggle of the

1960s was successful largely because it convinced a majority of white middle

class Americans that it was economically inefficient, and that politically it

could not be sustained or justified.


movement utilized the power of creative disruption, making it impossible for the

old system of white prejudice and power to function in the same old ways it had

for decades. For Americans who still believe in racial equality and social

justice, we cannot stand silent while millions of our fellow citizens are being

destroyed all around us. The racialized prison industrial complex is the great

moral and political challenge of our time.


several years, I have lectured in New York’s famous Sing Sing prison, as part

of a master’s degree program sponsored by the New York Theological Seminary.

During my last visit several months ago, I noticed that correctional officials

had erected a large yellow sign over the door at the public entrance to the

prison. The sign reads: “Through these doors pass some of the finest

corrections professionals in the world.” I asked Reverend Bill Webber, the

director of the prison’s educational program, and several prisoners what they

thought about the sign. Bill answered bluntly, “demonic.” One of the M.A.

students, a 35-year-old Latino named Tony, agreed with Bill’s assessment, but

added, “let us face the demon head on.” There are now over two million

Americans who are incarcerated. It is time to face the demon head on. 


Manning Marable is Professor of History and Political Science, and the

Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, Columbia



Leave a comment