The Class Politics of Mass Incarceration

Across the United States today, communities are commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  While many of those observations recount the history of King’s inspiration and leadership in the civil rights movement, many will – like the one here in Youngstown – urge us to be inspired by King’s legacy to fight the continuing problems of poverty and inequality.  Some of that discussion will focus on race, but much of it will, rightly, recognize that race and class often work together.

I spent many hours thinking about that confluence this past summer and fall, as part of a community book group reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The strongest theme in our discussions was the persistence of racism.  Across different races, ages, professional backgrounds, and personal histories, we shared a deep frustration that decades of conversation, activism, policy-making, and education had not eradicated racism.  Instead, we agreed, as Alexander argues, it had become more indirect and therefore even harder to fight.

Alexander traces how the war on drugs established and legalized discriminatory practices that have permanently disenfranchised and economically marginalized tens of thousands of African-Americans, mostly men. According to Alexander, more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850.  They are targeted, mistreated by the “justice” system, sent to jail in disproportionate numbers, and legally discriminated against when they are released. She explains that it’s now practically impossible to appeal or challenge this discrimination, because the standard of proof is intentional, conscious behavior, and in a world where we’ve all learned that colorblindness is the ideal, most people are convinced that they are not racist.

Her critique of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black men is convincing in itself, and the book is well worth reading.  (For a quick take, you can listen to my interview with Alexander on Lincoln Avenue). But as someone who studies social class, I’ve also been thinking about why the problems Alexander lays out are issues of economic justice as well as racial justice.

Both Alexander and Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who has been studying mass incarceration through the lens of the Attica uprising, point out that the war on drugs took aim at African Americans because Republicans were trying to garner support from southern white Democrats, including many in the working class.  Going back as far as the Nixon administration, but especially under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, conservatives used racial imagery to foster a culture of fear and blame, defining African-Americans as criminals (think Willie Horton) and setting more stringent sentencing guidelines for crack than for powder cocaine. As both Alexander and Thompson point out, urban areas and especially African Americans were targeted in the war on drugs even though clear evidence showed that they were not the ones most involved in drug trafficking. Sadly, this strategy worked politically in part because it tapped into the same white working-class racial resentments that Nixon had successfully leveraged in his presidential campaigns.

Though some white working-class voters thought they were protecting their interests by supporting the war on drugs, the effect was quite the opposite.  Thompson argues that the mass incarceration of blacks contributed to the decline of the labor movement over the past four decades.  She writes, “prisons have long been some of the most exploitative workplaces in America, and thus, the fate of American workers and the history of the American justice system are inexorably linked.” As incarceration rates rose, regulations limiting the use of prison labor were overturned in many states, allowing companies to hire prisoners for far less the minimum wage.  So not only were prisoners exploited as workers, but jobs that might have yielded something close to a living wage in the community were moved into prisons.  As Thompson claims, “There was clear evidence that free-world wages had been cut and jobs had been eliminated as a result of prison labor.”

The expansion of prisons did create some jobs, especially for white workers in the largely rural areas where the new prisons were built.  Of course, those jobs were usually not unionized, nor did they pay well.  In Youngstown, the escape of six prisoners from a medium-security Corrections Corporation of America prison on the edge of the city was tied, in part, to the low wages paid to guards, who were easily bribed to look the other way as a hole was cut in the fence.  When guards at that prison organized a union, CCA temporarily shut it down.  Certainly, the Youngstown story shows that the prison economy does not, in the long run, yield significant numbers of good jobs.

Of course, mass incarceration has the most direct, dramatic impact on economic conditions in African-American working-class communities. Blacks have the highest poverty rates in the U.S. – 27.4%, compared with 9.9% for whites, according to 2010 data from the Institute for Research on Poverty. High rates of imprisonment among African-American men, often for relatively minor offenses that would yield little or no prison time for whites, don’t just undercut household economies while someone is in prison.  Being convicted of a felony creates long-term economic marginalization. Once labeled as a felon, an individual’s chances for employment of any kind are severely limited.  Nor do most ex-convicts qualify for any form of public assistance, and in many cases, they cannot even return to their families, because public housing bans residents with criminal records. Alexander notes that with so few economic options, becoming more involved in the drug trade becomes the only reasonable option for many ex-convicts – an option that makes them vulnerable to a return to prison or a violent death.

As many in working-class studies have argued, though, class is not only a matter of economics.  The working class has historically developed and relied upon strong communal ties that help individuals and families get through hard times and that create the conditions for collective action for social and economic change.  Perhaps the most moving part of Alexander’s book is her discussion of how individuals, families, and communities struggle to deal with the shame of imprisonment.  Families don’t speak openly about their relatives who are in prison, she writes, and those who have been in jail often break ties with old friends and relatives. Alexander writes that the stigma associated with criminality “has turned the black community against itself, destroyed networks of mutual support, and created a silence about the new caste system among many of the people most affected by it.”

Alexander closes The New Jim Crow with a call to action: we need a new civil rights movement, she writes, bringing together people of all races and classes, who will fight against mass incarceration on the basis of human rights and justice.  Such a movement will not succeed, she argues, if it involves only African Americans, nor can it succeed if whites and others are encouraged to participate solely on the basis of their self-interest.  Just as with the marches and voter registration drives across the South in the 1950s and 60s, the efforts we commemorate with this week’s MLK holiday, people of conscience must come together to fight injustice simply because it’s wrong.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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8 Responses to The Class Politics of Mass Incarceration

  1. Pingback: USW Blog » Blog Archive » The GOP, Black “Underclass,” and Working-Class Studies

  2. Pingback: The GOP, Black “Underclass,” and Working-Class Studies | Working-Class Perspectives

  3. Varg Freeborn says:

    The war on drugs has been a complete failure. It does disproportionately affect blacks and other minorities. It has militarized our police to the point of extreme brute military force in our neighborhoods by heavily armed and armored SWAT and Task Force foot-soldiers. It has destroyed communities and families, and wasted nearly $1 trillion.

    However, throughout over 40 years of Republican and Democrat presidents, not one has addressed the problem in any way. In fact, in the current race, only one candidate across both parties is talking about this very issue and it’s inherent racial bias, and surprisingly that candidate is a Republican, although he is shunned by the “old party”. He addressed this very issue, in much the same manner it is presented in the above article, in more than one presidential debate already.

    He’s also addressed the issue of the undeclared wars that disproportionately affect the working class, the poor and minorities. As well as the issue of corporate cronyism, which if you look is what leads to most privately run prison deals. Remember V Corp in Ohio?

    While members of the current administration were botching illegal sting operations and allowing thousands of assault weapons to go to the Mexican drug cartels untracked, Ron Paul has been consistent on his position concerning this war on drugs, it’s invasion of our privacy, the militarization and misuse of authority, and very specific about how it is disproportionately worse on black and other minority communities.

    I sincerely hope that Americans truly listen to these candidates in these elections. Stop letting them sell us a dream, then do the opposite. Look at track records on spending, undeclared wars, Draconian laws that violate everyone’s civil rights, the drug war (the war against the poor and minorities). If we care enough about these issues to have dialogue about them, then we should care enough to demand of our leaders real solutions, or at the very least that they even talk about it, like Ron Paul does. It is way past time to seriously address this war on drugs and all of it’s ill-effects on our communities.

    Varg Freeborn


  4. Sherry Linkon says:

    Hi Todd,
    Thanks for the question about the book group. Ours emerged out of an ongoing partnership between the Center for Working-Class Studies and a local community organizing group, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative. This kind of project always rests on relationships, so the best way to begin might be simply reaching out to a few individuals in a relevant community group. Get to know them, find out what they’re working on, and see what happens from there. — Sherry


    • Yulanda, Director, Equal Opporunty and Diversity, YSU says:

      Dr. Linkon, very well said and written. I was very fortunate, through YSU’s Community Diversity Program Series, to lead the efforts to bring Atty. Alexander to our campus with the help of many partners, like Working Class Studies, MVOC, MLK Planning Committee, and others. I will say that I have gotten nothing but rave reviews and it has opened the eyes of many. In his last days, I know that Dr. King, also realized much, much more that the ills of this world had to do with fighting for basic human rights and true respect (not tolerance) for people regardless of race/ethnicity, sex, disability, religion, age, national origin, sexual orientation, class, etc. We can no longer be divided – we must stand together, work together and pray together no matter what your faith, creed or belief.


  5. Todd says:

    Thank you for this. I’m going to be teaching the Alexander book in an upper division course on “The American Dream” this coming semester, so I appreciated your discussion.

    If you don’t mind a brief tangential question, I’m curious about your community reading group. I’ve been thinking of trying to work with the local library (or find another way, maybe through local churches?) to form monthly reading groups in under-served communities (working class, poor, of color, etc.). But I’m having a problem figuring out how to get started or set it up. And also having anxiety about being the highly educated white guy who swoops in to “teach” these people. Any thoughts would be much appreciated.


  6. DaveO says:

    This is a great post summarizing the problem of mass incarceration. While I certainly see the need for a mass movement addressing the imprisonment of so many people, it seems distant from our political discussions. Those out protesting these days seem primarily interested in inequality or taxes. Furthermore, the full spectrum of our politicians (except for very few) have signed on to the police state and seem to fully endorse the maintenance of the drug war. I am left wondering how long we will continue to imprison people for this foolishness.


  7. Kelly Ohler says:

    An excellent and timely article and interview in many ways. It is often curious to me also, why cultural and racial narratives, multi-cultural studies, do not equally advance behavior as well as knowledge in terms of our lives personally and the acquiescent [un]consciousness of society at large.

    Part of the problem, a large part that white people simply do not understand, it seems, is the notion that “in a world where we’ve all learned that colorblindness is the ideal, most people are convinced that they are not racist.” The notion that people of color WANT to be viewed through a lens of no color is absurd. Yes, everyone agrees that as far as the workforce goes, the most qualified should get the job. But if you are not “seeing” color when you look at someone personally, is that not a denial and a form of disrespect in itself? People of color want their “color,” their race, their ethinicity to be recognized! The hook is that they want their color, their race, their ethnicity to be Respected as a result of such recognition. If you are not seeing someone’s “color,” then you are not seeing the whole person. Nay, you are denying reality itself! If you are not seeing reality, it does seem easier, does it not, to not deal with issues of respect, and all that goes with the recognition of reality.

    One could even go so far as to suggest, as stated in the interview, “there are basic human rights that have to be honored,” including the right to be respected for the mere fact of one’s humanity. Once we begin respecting human beings for the mere fact of being human, then the notions of respect based on socio-economic positions and, yes, race, will surely change.


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