Manning Marable: Racism, Prisons and the Future of Black America: Part Two of a Two-Part Series

What 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 week.


What 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 week.

The 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.

The 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.

After 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.

For 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.

What 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.

The 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.

For 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.

Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of History and Director of the, Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, New York City. He is the author of thirteen books, including Black Leadership (1998), Black Liberation in Conservative America (1997), Speaking Truth to Power: Essays on Race, Radicalism and Resistance (1996), Beyond Black and White (1995), The Crisis of Color and Democracy (1992), Race, Reform and Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction in Black America, 1945-1990 (1991), African and Caribbean Politics (1987), W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat (1986), Black American Politics (1985) and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983).

Dr. Marable’s forthcoming books include: editor, Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal: An African-American Anthology, with co-editor Leith Mullings (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000); editor, Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); editor, No Easy Victories: An Anthology of Black Radicalism from 1968 to the Present (London and New York: Verso, 2000), with co-editor Leith Mullings and associate editor Johanna Fernandez; editor, The Columbia Reader of African American History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), with associate editors Nishani Frazier and John McMillian; and What Black America Thinks (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2001). He has also written over two hundred articles for academic journals, edited volumes and other scholarly publications.

Since 1976, Dr. Marable has written “Along the Color Line,” a syndicated commentary series on African-American politics and public affairs. The series is regularly published in over three hundred and twenty-five newspapers and magazines in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, the Caribbean and India.

Author: Manning Marable

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