Growing incarceration rates for African Americans

Beyond police bullets and chokeholds

Since the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, and then the failure of a grand jury to indict white police officer Darren Wilson, mass demonstrations and rebellions have erupted across the country, bringing national and international attention to the plight of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement, the grand jury system and prosecutors.

Missouri is a southern border state with a long history of racial segregation. But in the But in New York City’s Staten Island borough, African Americans have also been unable to win justice, as illustrated by a grand jury’s refusal to indict another white police officer in the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner, despite the officer’s illegal chokehold being caught on videotape and seen by millions.

Assumptions surrounding the criminality of African Americans are deeply rooted in the period of slavery. After the Civil War, mechanisms were put in place to continue the containment, oppression and exploitation of the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Despite the heroic and pioneering role of African Americans in making social gains during the period of Reconstruction, the system of racialized subjugation was reinstituted through a series of structural barriers, including unjust laws, police terrorism, lynching and penal labor camps.

The Civil Rights and Black Power movements created the conditions for the formal dismantling of segregation laws, but the actual structural barriers and methods of repression have continued, often more sophisticated and insidious. Assumptions related to the inherent criminality of African Americans provide a rationalization for police violence against the community, as well as discriminatory treatment within the overall criminal justice system.

Study substantiates continuing trend

The most recent figures on incarceration rates in the United States, based on the 2010 census, further confirm that the U.S. imprisonment rate for African Americans reveals a deeply racist society.

A report released in 2011 by the Aspen Institute, entitled “Race, Crime and Punishment: Breaking the Connection in America,” illustrates how the racist assumptions still prevalent in the criminal justice system serve to perpetuate a racially stratified society. Civil rights laws may imply that all are equal before the system, but the culture of law enforcement and the grand jury system work to imprison African Americans and exonerate the police.

The introduction to this study says: “More than 2.3 million people in America are in jail or prison. Sixty percent are African American and Latinos.”

Moreover, nearly 7 million people are under some form of correctional supervision through probation, parole or community service. This means the U.S. has the largest per capita prison population in the world.

Official census figures indicate that African Americans constitute approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population but 40 percent of the prisoners. Those designated as “Latinos” represent 15 percent of the overall population but are 20 percent of those imprisoned.

The Aspen Institute report states: “Black-white differences in incarceration rates are most dramatic: an estimated 4,777 black males were locked up for every 100,000 black males in the free population, compared to about 727 per 100,000 white males. A stunning 11.7 percent of black men in their late twenties were incarcerated. … Black men of all ages are five to seven times more likely to be incarcerated than white males of the same age. These racial patterns hold up across gender, criminal offense and regional categories.”

The rates of imprisonment for this oppressed nation within the confines of the U.S. reflect a systematic racial targeting of the community. The rates of incarceration have accelerated over 500 percent since 1970, despite a series of civil rights bills and executive orders between 1957 and 1968 that ostensibly outlawed discrimination in voting rights, access to public accommodations, employment and housing.

The broader social implications of this disparate rate of incarceration are acknowledged by the Aspen Institute report: “Of all the statistics portraying racial inequity in our country, this is the most alarming: it indicates the failure of so many of our society’s institutions; it predicts dire consequences for millions of children and families of color who are already at socioeconomic disadvantage; and it challenges the very definition of our democracy.”

Worse than apartheid

In fact, the rates of incarceration for African Americans are far higher than what existed in South Africa at the height of the struggle against apartheid, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a series of articles entitled “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.”

Despite the existence of civil rights laws, there has been a sharp rise in the use of lethal force against African Americans. The growing awareness and sensitivity to such levels of police and criminal justice system violence will inevitably necessitate ongoing anti-racist demonstrations.

These mass protests and rebellions will result in further actions of repression by law enforcement agencies, which are heavily equipped with military hardware supplied by the Pentagon. No matter how many “retraining” exercises the police are subjected to, unless there is a fundamental transformation in the system of national oppression and economic exploitation, the conditions of African Americans cannot change for the better.

The Obama administration and its Wall Street and Pentagon backers have no intentions of addressing these issues. Only a mass revolutionary movement can wage an effective struggle against racism in all of its manifestations.