Even as the U.S. officially celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans make up the largest portion of this country’s enormous prison population.
The great hopes generated by that document brought a flood of Black men escaping from chattel slavery into the ranks of the Union Army, thus turning the tide of the Civil War. But their hopes for real freedom were dashed in 1877 when the government, dominated by Northern industrialists and bankers, made their “Great Compromise” with the wealthy Southern landowners. Northern troops were withdrawn, allowing Ku Klux Klan-type terror to force Black farmers back onto the plantations in a new kind of slavery, the sharecropping system.
This brutal history and the generations of both official and extra-legal racial discrimination that followed partially explain why today, of the 2.6 million men and women caught in the U.S. “justice” system, the largest group is African Americans, with Latinos/as, Native people and poor whites making up almost all the rest.
Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” examines this ugly reality in profound depth and is a great contribution to rising consciousness on the true character of U.S. “democracy.”
Even such a brutal legacy can be overcome, however. Certainly, tens of millions hoped it would be when they voted in the first African-American president four years ago, and then re-elected Barack Obama this past November.
What stands in the way? It is the decline and degeneration of the capitalist system itself.
When the U.S. went through a great industrial boom after World War II, it looked as though the new opportunities opening up for Black people in cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York and Oakland, Calif., would undermine the hold of racism in the country. And the movement of millions for civil rights overcame segregation and Jim Crow.
But today capitalism is in a jobless crisis that has torpedoed the hopes of workers in these and many other cities and towns. With massive, permanent unemployment, racism becomes a major factor in how the state disposes of “surplus” workers by throwing many of them behind bars.
There is now great potential for a united fightback, led by the most militant and conscious workers, those who have suffered the most. It must take on the issue of the racist state and demand: Mass emancipation, not mass incarceration!