The New American Apartheid

Randall G. Shelden and William B. Brown

Introduction

Modern prisoners occupy the lowest rungs on the social class ladder, and they always have.[1]  The modern prison system (along with local jails) is a sort of ghetto or poorhouse[2] reserved primarily for the unskilled, the uneducated, the powerless and, in increasing numbers it is being reserved for racial minorities, especially blacks, which is why we are calling this system the New American Apartheid.  This is the same segment of American society that have seen their incomes drastically reduced and have become more involved in drugs and the subsequent violence that extends from the lack of legitimate means of goal attainment (Fowles and Merva, 1996).

An argument could certainly be made that blacks, especially males, are superfluous and expendable in American society (that is, not really needed for corporate profits).  With the constant corporate downsizing and deindustrialization during the past couple of decades came the elimination of millions of occupations that used to lift minorities out of poverty.  Thus, some form of social control has been needed.  The criminal justice system currently fills this need (Parenti, 1999).  Consider these facts:

<                    whereas in 1986, 5.2% of all blacks were either in jail or in prison (versus only 0.9% of all whites), in 2001 (the latest figures available) this percentage stood at 8.9% (versus only 1.4% of all whites); for white males these percentages were 1.7% in 1986 and 2.6% in 2001, compared to 9.9% and 16.6% of black males respectively (see Table 6-3); 

<                    the total incarceration rate (in prisons and jails) for black males in 1980 was 3,544 (versus 528 for white males); black females had a rate of 183 (versus 27 for white females); in 2002 the rate for black males was 4,810 and for females it was 349 (versus 649 for white males and 68 for white females) (Kurki, 1999; Harrison and Karberg, 2003); 

<                    in 1990 one in four black males in their 20's was under some form of control within the criminal justice system; in 1995 the percentage had increased to one-third (Mauer, 1995); 

<                    the jail incarceration rate for blacks stood at 368 in 1985 (73 for whites); in 2002 the rate was 740 (147 for whites) (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999a; Harrison and Karberg, 2003); 

<                    the number of blacks incarcerated for drug offenses alone increased by 799% between 1986 and 1997, versus a more modest increase of 205% for whites (Kurki, 1999); whereas in 1983 the number of those in prison on drug charges was virtually the same for whites, blacks and Hispanics (less than10,000 each), by the end of the 1990s more than 90,000 blacks compared to just over 40,000 whites and about 20,000 Latinos were incarcerated on drug convictions (Travis, 2002);  

<                    A Human Rights Watch report noted that in 1991 the rate of incarceration for black men for drug offenses was 482 per 100,000, compared to only 36 per 100,000 for white men.  Put somewhat differently, that's one out of every 207 black, versus one out of every 2778 white men; the report also noted that nationally, 62 percent of all imprisoned drug offenders were black males. In some states these percentages were as high as 80 or 90!  This is despite the well-publicized fact that there are few racial differences as far as illegal drug use is concerned (Human Rights Watch, 2000);

<                    13% of all adult black men are disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction (1.4 million; one-third of all disenfranchised adults); in some states the percentage is more than 30 (e.g., Alabama and Florida), while in many more states over 20% are disenfranchised (The Sentencing Project/Human Rights Watch, 1998). 

These are just some of the horrendous numbers that describe the plight of blacks in this country.  While the "old" apartheid of residential segregation (Massey and Denton, 1993) continues unabated, a “new” apartheid has risen along side of it.  It is apparent that the criminal justice system has been engaged in a systematic attack on blacks and that going to jail or prison has become a common event in the lives of millions of racial minorities.  The “new American apartheid” is the modern penal system.        

     The most recent imprisonment data reaffirm this.  At the end of 2002, blacks constituted 45.1 percent of the total prison population (with an incarceration rate more than seven times greater than whites); Latinos were 18 percent and whites only 34 percent.  In other words, racial minorities made up two-thirds of the entire prison population (Harrison and Beck, 2003: 9).  It is interesting to note that in the 1930s whites were overwhelmingly the numerical majority of all prisoners, constituting around 70 percent of the prison population (Donziger, 1996).  Table 1 shows the differences in incarceration rates.  Note not only the vast racial differences for both males and females, but also the huge increases for women of both races.  More will be said about women in another section.  

Table 1.  Rate of Sentenced Prisoners in State and Federal Prisons, by Race and Gender, 1980-2002. 

Gender and Race

                           Incarceration Rate 

 

1980

1990

2002   

% Increase,1980-2002

Males  

  White

   Black           

 

168

1,111  

 

339

2,376  

 

450

3,437  

 

168

209

Females

  White

  Black

 

6

45

 

19

125

 

35

191     

 

483

324

Black/White ratio

   Males

   Female

 

6.6:1

7.5:1

 

 

7.0:1

6.6:1

 

7.6:1

5.5:1

 

                                                                                          

 Source: Beck and Gillard (1995); Harrison and Beck (2003). 

 

            Racial differences are also evident in jail incarceration rates.  As shown in Table 2, blacks have consistently been found in jail at a rate of at least five times greater than whites during the past couple of decades. In 2002, blacks constituted 40 percent, while Latino were 15 percent.  The jail incarceration rate for blacks was 740, compared to only 147 for whites and 256 for Latinos.    

Table 2.  Jail Incarceration Rate, by Race, 1985-2002. 

Race

                     Incarceration Rate

 

1985   

1990

1995

2002

White

73

106

122

147

Black

368

569

700

740

Black/white ratio

5:1

5.4:1

5.7:1

5:1

                                                                    

 

 Source:  Bureau of Justice Statistics (199b); Harrison and Karberg (2003).

 The New American Apartheid

Apartheid is a policy that produces systematic racial segregation or discrimination and is usually associated with pre-Mandela South Africa.  The word apartheid was introduced to the world by South Africa in 1948.[3]   This term stems from the Dutch "apart" (which has the same English connotation), and "heid" (which translates as hood).  The term was adopted to soften the image of the harsh racial segregation polices practiced by the South African government.  World attention had focused on South Africa's segregation practices, and it was thought that through the substitution of the word apartheid for segregation, world attention would be diverted from their discriminatory practices.  Soon after the adoption of that term, however, the world realized that nothing had actually changed in respect to the treatment of blacks in South Africa.

There seems to be a pattern of contradictions by the United States concerning what is professed to be policy direction and what is actually supported by the U.S. government.  America has always been a country that professes to place high value on children.  However, in 1989, the United States refused to support G.A. Resolution 44/25, which was a product of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This resolution was for the adoption of basic rights of children, such as the right to life (Henkin et al., 1993).  As further evidence that the United States tends to differentiate between its public posture and its global voting record, the United States claims to be in favor of policing international criminals.  Yet America refused to ratify the United Nations= recent attempt to create an International Criminal Court in Rome (United Nations Press Release, 1998).  In fact, prior to the call for votes, the United States requested a non-recorded vote on the matter of adopting the Statute establishing an International Criminal Court.  More specifically, speaking to the issue of apartheid, in 1973, The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid debated the issue of apartheid as a crime against humanity, and therefore argued that apartheid should be treated as a crime against humanity, an international crime.  To date, the United States has not yet ratified this resolution (Lillich and Hannum, 1995).

Racial segregation is now a characteristic of many of America's inner cities.  Central cities now contain 80 percent of the urban non-white population, and one-third of the black urban population resides in the nation's ten largest central cities (Piven and Cloward, 1997).  There have been "symbolic" attempts to reduce racial segregation in American cities.  We use the term “symbolic” because these attempts have often been either politicized and skewed to serve the interests of the elite or these attempts have been grossly under-funded to insure their failure (Handler and Hasenfeld, 1997; Wilson, 1997; Massey and Denton, 1993; Harrington, 1962, 1984). 

To illustrate, the Housing Acts of 1949, 1954, and 1965, provided federal funding to local authorities to acquire slum property and begin redevelopment of that property.  In order to qualify for federal funds, local governments had to insure that affordable living accommodation would be provided for displaced families living in the redevelopment zones.  The process used was commonly known as urban renewal, and sometimes referred to as “negro removal.” The solution was high-density public housing.  Today, these public housing projects are often referred to as the “projects.”  Raising slum areas and the construction of public housing often resulted in an overall reduction in living accommodations (Massey and Denton, 1993).  In a study of black youth gangs in Detroit, it was noted that for that city there was a net loss of 31,500 homes between 1980 and 1987.  Today, many blacks find themselves once again involved in a "negro removal" program. But rather than being removed from one inner city slum area to a more high-density slum area, they find themselves removed from the inner cities entirely, and compartmentalized in America's prison industry (Brown, 1998).

 It is obvious from the examination of arrest and prison data that the groups being targeted by the criminal justice system are disproportionately drawn from the most marginalized populations.  Blacks, particularly males, are especially vulnerable. For example, in 1995, according the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., about one-third of all black males between the ages of 20 and 29 were, on any given day, either in jail, prison, on probation or on parole, a percentage that was up from 25 percent 1990.  In some cities these percentages were even higher, such as Washington, D.C., where the figure was about 60 percent (Donziger, 1996; Miller, 1996).  For comparison purposes, data from the early 1990s revealed that black males were far more likely to be in prison or jail than in college!  In California, in the early 1990s, blacks were imprisoned at a rate of 1,951 per 100,000, compared to only 215 for whites (Koetting and Schiraldi, 1994).

More recent studies further elaborate on the negative impact of crime control policies on the black population.  For example a study by Bruce Western and his colleagues examined the relationship between imprisonment in jail or prison and education and employment (Western et al., 2002).  Between 1980 and 1999, the percentage of  white males from 18 to 65 going to prison or jail increased by less than one percent (from 0.4 to 1.0); for black men the percentage went up by 4.4 percent (from 3.1 to 7.5%).  For young adult males (ages 22-30), the percentage in jail or prison went up by .9 percent for whites (from .7 to 1.6%), but increased by 6.2 percent for blacks (from 5.5 to 11.7%).  When considering young adult males who dropped out of high school, the percentage going to prison or jail went from 3.1 to 10.3 among whites (up 7.2%), but went from 14 to 41.2 percent among blacks (an increase of 27.2%). In other words, a little over four out of every ten black high school dropouts ended up in jail or prison.  (The reasons are many, but one is that many young blacks and Latinos are introduced to the juvenile justice system via detention at an early age.  More about this in a later section.)

Moreover, among men born between 1965 and 1969, 22.3 percent of all black men but only 3.2 of all white men had prison records by 1999.  Among high school dropouts, these percentages increased to 12.6 and 32.1 respectively.  Among those with either a high school diploma or a GED, only 4.3 percent of white men and 23.5 percent of black men ended up in prison.  For those who had at least some college, these percentages dropped substantially: only 1.1 percent of white males and 8.6 percent of black males had prison records by 1999.  While education has an obvious impact, the black-white differences remain high.

This same study also found that when tabulating the official unemployment figures, the government fails to include prisoners (curiously, the census bureau adds prisoners to many small towns around the country and the poverty status of such prisoners are added to the overall poverty rate for these same towns, resulting in qualifying for additional federal funding; Shelden, 2004).  Beckett et al. examined the employment situation for those in and those not in prison.  Not surprisingly, when they included the imprisoned population the numbers changed dramatically for black males.  For instance, in 1999, one-third of the black male population was unemployed (compared to 16% of the white males). Among high school dropouts between 22 and 30, these percentages changed dramatically: an astounding 70 percent of black males were unemployed (counting those in prison or jail compared to 27 percent of white males (Western et al., 2002: 172).

Having a criminal record, especially a prison record, has always been a barrier to seeking re-entry into society.  In recent years it has become even worse, with many new laws passed in the past decade resulting in, among other negative impacts, the denial of public housing, welfare benefits, and the ability to obtain an education.  Such laws impact millions, for according to recent estimates, about 13 million Americans are either serving time for a felony conviction or have been convicted of a felony sometime in the past.  Moreover, a total of about 47 millions (one-fourth of the adult population) have some kind of criminal record on file with a federal or state criminal justice agency (Travis, 2002: 18).

Jeremy Travis likens this to a form of “internal exile,” the domestic equivalent to those convicts exiled in to the American colonies (and Australia too) during the 17th and 18th centuries.  However, in these two cases they faced few barriers to participating in colonial life once they had served their sentence (Travis, 2002: 19, 295).  This has become, in Travis’ words, a form of “social exclusion.”  Such exclusions have further put a distance between “them” and “us” and, moreover, 

The principal new form of social exclusion has been to deny offenders the benefits of the welfare state.  And the principal new player in this new drama has been the United States Congress.  In an era of welfare reform, when Congress dismantled the six-decades-old entitlement to a safety net for the poor, the poor with criminal histories were thought less deserving than others….there was little hesitation in using federal benefits to enhance punishments or federal funds to encourage new criminal sanctions by the states (Travis, 2002:19). 

What Travis doesn’t say here (but says elsewhere) is that the group of offenders that feel the heaviest brunt of this exclusion are racial minorities.  Todd Clear has pointed out that in many urban, poverty-stricken neighborhoods as many as one-fourth of the adult male residents is either in prison or in jail at some time during the year (Clear, 2002: 184).

Part of the methods of controlling the surplus population is through legislation, which defines what a “crime” is and, moreover, through sentencing structures, defines what crimes are “serious.” Many sentencing structures have a built-in class and racial bias (Reiman, 2001; Shelden, 2001).  This is especially the case with drug laws, which have always targeted mainly the drugs used by minorities and the poor throughout history (Helmer, 1975; Musto, 1999).

            Most of the racial differences noted above, and also the dramatic rise in overall incarceration rates, can be explained by the “war on drugs,” which was escalated during the mid-1980s, just about the time that the prison population started its rapid rise.  The next section explores this topic. 

Race and the Drug War 

There is now little doubt that there is a close correlation between the "war on drugs" (and on "gangs") and the growth of the prison industrial complex.  This "war" was officially launched by President Reagan in the mid-1980s when he promised that the police would attack the drug problem "with more ferocity than ever before."  What he did not say, however, was that the enforcement of the new drug laws "would focus almost exclusively on low-level dealers in minority neighborhoods." Indeed, the police found such dealers in these areas mainly because that is precisely where they looked for them, rather than, say, on college campuses.[4]  The results were immediate: the arrest rates for blacks on drug charges shot dramatically upward in the late 1980s and well into the 1990s.  In fact, while blacks constitute only around 12% of the U.S. population and about 13% of all monthly drug users (and their rate of illegal drug use is roughly the same as for whites), they represent 35 percent of those arrested for drug possession and 74% of those sentenced to prison on drug charges.

The evidence of racial disproportionality in the drug war is overwhelming. For instance, arrest rates for minorities went from under 600 per 100,000 in 1980 to over 1500 in 1990, while for whites they essentially remained the same.  As far as prison sentences go, studies of individual states are telling.  For instance, in North Carolina between 1980 and 1990, the rate of admissions to prison for nonwhites jumped from around 500 per 100,000 to almost 1,000, while in Pennsylvania, nonwhite males and females sentenced on drug offenses increase by 1613% and 1750% respectively; in Virginia the percentage of commitments for drug offenses for minorities went from just under 40 in 1983 to about 65 in 1989, while for whites the percentage actually decreased from just over 60 percent in 1983 to about 30 percent in 1989 (Donziger, 1996: 115; Tonry, 1995; Mauer, 1999; Cole, 1999).

There has been a dramatic increase in the number and percentage of blacks who are incarcerated in America's prisons, amply documented in numerous sources (Currie, 1998, 1993; Donziger, 1996; Higginbotham, 1996; Miller, 1996; Tonry, 1995; Mauer, 1999; Mauer and Chesney-Lind, 2002).  Drug convictions accounted for almost half (47.5%) of the total prison growth between 1995 and 2001 in the federal system (Harrison and Beck, 2003:11). One recent estimate is that convictions for drugs accounted for almost one-half of the increase in state prison inmates during the 1980s and early 1990s (Beck and Brien, 1995: 54).  According to the latest federal prison figures (year-end 2002), drugs accounted for 55 percent of all offenders (Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics, on-line, Table 6.53).

One might assume that this is largely a result of the “unintended consequences” of the ongoing drug war in American society.  On the other hand, given the fact the drug war has been ongoing since at least the early 1980s, we are concerned that the reason for the increase in the number of blacks incarcerated is more sinister than simply the result of a failing drug war, and questionable racist laws (e.g., crack v. powder cocaine).  It may be plausible to argue that the “war on drugs” (and the “war on gangs”) has actually been a “success” if the aim was to control the surplus population, especially blacks.[5]  We are suggesting that this apparent onslaught may actually be attributed to institutional segregation or apartheid practices.    The “war on drug” began to have its effects on jail and prison populations by the late 1980s and early 1990s (Baum, 1997; Miller, 1996; Reinarman and Levine, 1997; Currie, 1993).[6]

Data on court commitments to state prisons during the 1980s and early 1990s clearly show the dramatic changes for drug offenses.  Between 1980 and 1992 sentences on drug charges increased by more than 1000 percent!  In contrast, there was a more modest increase of 51 percent for violent offenses.  Race played a key role in these increases, especially during the late 1980s and early 1990s as the number of blacks sentenced to prison for drug charges increased by over 90 percent, almost three times greater than white offenders (Maguire and Pastore, 1996: 550).  Between 1985 and 1995 the number of black prisoners who had been sentenced for drug crimes increased by 700% (Currie, 1998: 12-13).

Not only were more blacks sentenced for drug crimes, but the severity of their sentences increased compared to whites.  In 1992, in the federal system, the average sentence length for black drug offenders was about 107 months, compared to 74 months for white drug offenders.  There has been a huge discrepancy when comparing powder and crack cocaine sentences in the federal system.  In 1995, for instance, blacks constituted a phenomenal 88 percent of those sentenced for crack cocaine, compared to less than 30 percent of those sentenced for powder cocaine (Maguire and Pastore, 1996: 492).

Sentencing in the federal system for drug offenses shows some startling changes during the past half century.  Between 1945 and 1995, the proportion of those going to prison for all offenses rose from 47 percent to 69 percent, compared to a decrease of those granted probation (from 40% to 24%), while the average sentence has risen by over 300 percent.  The changes in the sentences for drug law violations are most dramatic.  Whereas, in 1945 the percentage of drug offenders going to prison was high enough at 73 percent, by 1995 fully 90 percent were going to prison!  And the average sentence for drug cases went from only 22 months in 1945 to almost 90 months in 1995, an increase of 300 percent!  Finally, while in 1980 the most serious offense for those admitted to federal prison was a violent crime in about 13 percent of the cases and a drug offense in just over one-fourth of the cases, by 1992 in almost half of the cases (48.8%) the most serious offense was drugs, compared to a violent crime in less than eight percent of the cases.  In the meantime, the average maximum sentence declined for violent crimes (from 125 months to 88 months) and almost doubled for drug offenses (from 47 months to 82 months) (Beck and Brien, 1995: 59).

The most recent data show that in 2002 over half (55%) of all federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, compared to only 16 percent in 1970 (a 244% increase between 1970 and 2002) and 25 percent in 1980; of all black males in the federal prison system 60 percent are in for drug offenses, compared to 51 percent of white males; blacks currently constitute 46% of all drug offenders in the federal system.  It is interesting to note that the proportion of both white and black females in federal prison for drug offenses is about the same – 67% of white women and 65% of black women are in for drugs (Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics, on-line, 2002, Tables 6.53 and 6.54; http://www.albany.edu/sourcebook/).

Table 3 shows sentenced prisoners in state prisons by race and major offense in 2001.  As noted here, drugs constitute about 20 percent for all prisoners.  The racial differences are rather obvious, as one-fourth of sentenced blacks are in prison for drugs and 23 percent of Latinos are, but only 13.5 percent of whites are. 

Table 3.  Sentenced prisoners by race and offense, 2001. 

Offense

Total

White

Black

Latino

 

100%

100%

100%

100%

Violent

49.3

49.1

48.8

50.0

Property

19.3

24.0

16.8

15.8

Drugs

20.3

13.5

25.5

22.9

Other

11.1

13.4

8.9

12.3

 Source: Harrison and Karberg, 2003: 10

 

Although somewhat dated, one of the most recent sources of data on court cases comes from a U.S. Department of Justice report which examined felony defendants in the largest 75 counties in 1994 (Reaves, 1998).  Here we can see the effects of the “war on drugs” and its impact on the nation's court system; we also can clearly see the effects of race.  The most serious charge in just over one-third (34.6%) of the cases was a drug offense, with non-trafficking drug offenses being the most common (58% of all drug charges), followed closely by a property crime (31.1%), with about one-fourth (25.7%) being violent offenses, mostly assaults (constituting 45% of all the violent crimes).  During fiscal year 2001, there were 24,299 drug offenders sentenced in U.S. District Courts. The most common drug, not surprisingly, was marijuana (one-third of all cases).  Whites constituted only 26 percent, while Hispanics made up 43 percent and blacks were 31 percent (Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics, on-line, 2002, Table 5.39).

Not surprisingly, race figured prominently in the cases in the 1994 study.  Blacks constituted over half (56%) of all defendants and 62 percent of those charged with drug offenses.  Another study noted that almost all (99%) drug trafficking defendants between 1985 and 1987 were blacks (Baum, 1997: 249).  In some cities, the proportion of felony defendants who were black was incredibly high.  For example, blacks constituted 93 percent of all felony defendants in Wayne County (Detroit), 90 percent in Baltimore and 85 percent in Cook County (Chicago) and Kings County (Seattle) (Reaves, 1998: 43).

A common illustration of the racial bias in drug laws is “crack” cocaine.  The penalty for possession and/or sale of crack cocaine is far greater than for the powdered variety of cocaine.  It just so happens that crack is far more likely to be associated with blacks.  Little wonder that the enforcement of drug laws have been one of the major reasons the prison population has increased so rapidly in recent years (Irwin and Austin, 2001).  In fiscal year 2001, of all of those sentenced to federal prison for crack cocaine, 83 percent were black, compared to only 7 percent for whites and 9 percent for Latinos.  For powder cocaine, the discrepancies are not nearly so stark: half of those sentenced for this drug were Hispanics, while only 31 percent were black and 18 percent were white.  Put somewhat differently, of all blacks sentenced to federal prison for drugs, 59 percent were convicted for crack cocaine; only 5.5 percent of whites were sentenced for this drug (Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics, on-line, Table 5.39).

Going to Prison is Becoming the Norm for Blacks and Latinos

 An estimated 9.4 percent of all black males between 25 and 29 were in prison in 1999, compared to only 3.1 percent of Latino males and just 1.0 percent of white males.  More importantly, however, is the fact that going to prison or jail seems to have become a normative feature in the lives of blacks and Latinos.  Tables 4 and 5 demonstrate this. 

In table 4, we find the percent of the adult population incarcerated at least once in their lifetime.  In 1970, less than 1 percent of all whites had experienced a term in a federal or state prison, compared to 4.5 percent of all blacks and 1.3 percent of all Latinos.  About 10 years later (1986) whites were still less than 1 percent likely to go to prison, but over 5 percent of blacks and two percent of all Latinos were.  By 2001, the latest estimates available, whites still had a low percent of ever going to prison (1.4%), but almost 9 percent of blacks and over 4 percent of Latinos did.

            Even more revealing are statistics concerning the lifetime chances of going to prison.  As noted in Table 5, all blacks born in 1974 had a 7 percent chance of going to prison sometime in their lifetime, compared to only 1.2 percent of all whites.  For white males born in 1974, the chance of going to prison stood at only 2.2 percent, but it was 13.4 percent for black males and 4 percent for Hispanic males.  Seventeen years later, with the drug war in full swing, these percentages had changed dramatically: for all blacks born in 1991 there was a 16.5 percent chance of going to prison, compared to 2.5 percent of whites; however, for black males the chances of going to prison had more than doubled to 29 percent, with a more modest increase for white males to 4.4 percent (technically, it doubled for white males, but the starting percentage was so low as to make this meaningless compared to black males).  Perhaps the most dramatic changes, and largely unnoticed in the press and within criminology, was the fact that the chances of going to prison for Latino males quadrupled from 4 percent to 16.3 percent. By 2001, a black male child born that year had an almost one-third chance of going to prison, compared to just fewer than 6 percent for a white male child and a 17.2 percent chance for a Latino male child. 

            The fact that so many blacks have been sent to prison in recent years has a significant impact on their voting rights.  A recent study found that while two percent of all adults have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction (mostly drug convictions), about 13 percent of all black men have been! In six states the percentage of black men disenfranchised is 25 percent or more, going higher than 30 percent in Alabama and Florida (Fellner and Mauer, 1998). 

Table 4.  Percent of adult population ever incarcerated in a State or Federal prison, by gender and race, 1974-2001. 

 

1974

1979

1986

1991

1997

2001

Gender

  Male

  Female

 

2.3%

0.2

 

2.4%

0.2

 

2.8%

0.2

 

3.4%

0.3

 

4.3%

0.4

 

4.9%

0.5

Race

 

 

 

 

 

 

  White

     Male

     Female

0.8%

1.4

0.1

0.8%

1.5

0.1

0.9%

1.7

0.1

1.1%

1.9

0.2

1.3%

2.3

0.2

1.4%

2.6

0.3

  Black

    Male

    Female

4.5%

8.7

0.6

4.6%

8.9

0.7

5.2%

9.9

0.8

6.2%

12.0

0.9

7.9%

15.0

1.3

8.9%

16.6

1.7

 Latino

    Male

    Female

1.3%

2.3

0.2

1.4%

2.6

0.2

2.0%

3.6

0.3

2.7%

4.9

0.4

3.8%

6.7

0.6

4.3%

7.7

0.7

 Source:  Bonczar (2003:5).

 

Table 5.  Lifetime chances of going to State or Federal prison for the first time, by gender and race, 1974-2001. 

 

1974

1979

1986

1991

1997

2001

Gender

  Male

  Female

 

3.6%

0.3

 

4.1%

0.4

 

6.0%

0.6

 

9.1%

1.1

 

10.6%

1.5

 

11.3%

1.8

Race

 

 

 

 

 

 

  White

     Male

     Female

1.2%

2.2

0.2

1.4%

2.5

0.2

2.0%

3.6

0.3

2.5%

4.4

0.5

3.1%

5.4

0.7

3.4%

5.9

0.9

  Black

    Male

    Female

7.0%

13.4

1.1

7.2%

13.4

1.4

9.3%

17.4

1.8

16.5%

29.4

3.6

17.7%

31.0

4.9

18.6%

32.2

5.6

 Latino

    Male

    Female

2.2%

4.0

0.4

3.3%

6.0

0.4

6.2%

11.1

0.9

9.5%

16.3

1.5

10.5%

18.0

2.2

10.0%

17.2

2.2

 Source:  Bonczar (2003: 8).

We need not elaborate the obvious any further, for the fact remains that the "war on crime" and the "war on drugs" targets disproportionately racial minorities, who find themselves in alarmingly increasing numbers behind bars and generally subjected to the efforts of the criminal justice system.  The situation is not likely to improve, especially as long as federal, state and local governments continue to increase the money used for the crime control industry, instead of for prevention.  With increasing attention given to our reaction to crime, the attention given to the ultimate sources of crime will decrease, only exacerbating the problem further.[7]

Anyway you look at it, going to prison has become a very common experience for racial minorities.  And these figures do not include their chances of being arrested and booked into jail or a detention center in the case of a juvenile.  The next section explores the racial gaps in juvenile detention rates.

Jailing Minority Kids

 Growing numbers of African-American youths are finding themselves within the juvenile justice system.  They are more likely to be detained, more likely to have their cases petitioned to go before a judge, more likely to be waived to the adult system and more likely to be institutionalized than their white counterparts (Shelden and Brown, 2003: Ch. 13). As noted in several studies, black youths are more likely to be detained than white youths, regardless of offense charged.  Data shown in Table 6-6 illustrate this.

As shown in Table 6, no matter what the most serious offense charged happens to be, black and Latino youths are far more likely to be detained that whites.  For blacks, the detention rate for all offenses is about five times that of whites and about double that for Latinos.  For index crimes against the person, the black detention rate is just over 5 times greater than whites, while the Latino rate is about 2 and one-half times as great.  The rate difference is the greatest for those charged with drug offenses: black youths are seven times more likely to be detained than white youths.  The importance of being detained cannot be denied, for studies have shown that those who are detained are far more likely to receive the most severe final disposition (Shelden and Brown, 2003: 339).  This last point is further underscored by commitment rates, as shown in Table 7.

 As noted in Table 7, the rate differentials are similar to detention rates.  Here we find that: 

·     The overall rate for black youths is four times greater than for whites; the Latino rate is about one and a half times greater than whites;

·     Even when considering the offenses, these rates remain the highest for black youth in each case, with Latinos ranked second;

·     In the case of drug offenses, black youths were more than six times more likely to be committed than whites and Latinos were more than twice as likely as whites to be committed. 

The ranking of both detention and commitment rates – blacks first, Latinos second, and whites last for each offense type – reminds us of a phrase heard repeatedly during the civil rights movement: “If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re brown, stick around; if you’re black, stay back.” 

Table 6.  Offense Profile of Detained Juveniles by Race (rate per 100,000 juveniles), 2001. 

Most Serious Offense

Total

White

Black

Latino

All Offenses

  Total Delinquency

88

85

52

50

225

218

111

106

Personal

  Violent index

  Other personal

27

17

 10

14

  7

  7

74

51

23

34

24

  9

Property

  Property index

  Other property

21

18

  4

13

11

  2

52

45

8

25

20

  5

Drug

  7

  3

22

8

Public Order

  9

  5

22

12

Technical Violation

21

14

47

28

Status offense

  4

  3

7

  4

Source:  Sickmund et al. (2004).

 

Table 7.  Offense Profile of Committed Juveniles by Race (per 100,000 juveniles), 1997. 

Most Serious Offense

Total

White

Black

Latino

All Offenses

  Total     Delinquency

246

233

155

145

634

608

253

247

Personal

  Violent index

  Other personal

85

59

26

50

32

18

231

166

65

89

66

23

Property

  Property index

  Other property

73

61

12

49

41

  8

176

146

30

74

63

12

Drug

22

11

70

25

Public Order

25

16

61

28

Technical Violation

28

18

69

30

Status offense

12

10

26

  7

 Source:  Sickmund et al. (2004).

 

It is apparent from the available evidence that juvenile detention centers and youth “correctional” institutions have become part of the “new American apartheid.”  What should be noted in particular in both Tables 6-6 and 6-7 is the rate differentials for drug offenses.  Part of this must be explained by examining who is targeted for arrest in the war on drugs.  Clearly, like their adult counterparts, black juveniles are the most heavily targeted.  A comparative look bears this out.  Whereas in 1972 white youths had a higher arrest rate for drugs than blacks, by the early 1980s (at roughly the beginning of the "war on drugs") the difference was reversed.  By 1995 the change was incredible: the arrest rate for black youths was almost three times greater than for whites! During the period between 1972 and 1995 there was a more than 400 percent increase in arrest rates for black youth on drug charges (Shelden, 2001:223). 

As the research by Jerome Miller has shown, young African-American males have received the brunt of law enforcement efforts to "crack down on drugs."  He notes that in Baltimore, for example, African-Americans were being arrested at a rate six times that of whites, and more than 90% were for possession (Miller, 1996: 8; see also Currie, 1993; Tonry, 1995; Mann, 1995; Chambliss, 1995; Lockwood, Pottieger and Inciardi, 1995). 

In Miller's own study of Baltimore, he found that during 1981 only 15 white juveniles were arrested on drug charges, compared to 86 African-Americans;  in 1991, however, the number of whites arrested dropped to a mere 13, while the number of African-Americans skyrocketed to a phenomenal 1,304, or an increase of 1,416%!  The ratio of African-American youths to whites went from about 6:1 to 100:1 (Miller, 1996: 84-86).

Another study found that "black youths are more often charged with the felony when [the] offense could be considered a misdemeanor..."  Also, those cases referred to court "are judged as in need of formal processing more often when minority youths are involved."  When white youths received placements, such “placements” are most often “group home settings or drug treatment while placements for minorities more typically are public residential facilities, including those in the state which provide the most restrictive confinement” (Kempf, 1992, quoted in Miller, 1996: 257).  A study by Edmund McGarrell found evidence of substantial increases in minority youths being referred to juvenile court, thus increasing the likelihood of being detained.  But, cases of the detention, petition and placement of minorities nevertheless exceeded what would have been expected given the increases in referrals.  There has been an increase in the formal handling of drug cases, which has become a disadvantage to minorities.  “Given the proactive nature of drug enforcement, these findings raise fundamental questions about the targets of investigation and apprehension under the recent war on drugs” (McGarrell, 1993, quoted in Miller, 1996: 258).  As noted in a study of Georgia's crack-down on drugs, the higher arrest rate for African-Americans was attributed to one single factor: "it is easier to make drug arrests in low-income neighborhoods...Most drug arrests in Georgia are of lower-level dealers and buyers and occur in low-income minority areas.  Retail drug sales in these neighborhoods frequently occur on the streets and between sellers and buyers who do not know each other.  Most of these sellers are black.  In contrast, white drug sellers tend to sell indoors, in bars and clubs and within private homes, and to more affluent purchasers, also primarily white" (Fellner, 1996: 11).

A recent publication by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention called Juveniles in Corrections noted that in 1999 minorities accounted for 65 percent of those placed in private juvenile facilities and 55 percent placed in public institutions nationwide. For drug trafficking, black youth accounted for 65 percent in juvenile institutions, compared to only 18 percent Latinos and 16 percent whites (Sickmund, 2004).  The custody rates were given for each state and there existed wide variations.  For the United States as a whole, the custody rate for black youths was 1,004 compared to a rate of only 212 for whites and 485 for Latinos (Sickmund, 2004: 11).  In other words, black youths are placed in custody (detention facilities and correctional institutions) at a rate that is about five times that for whites and more than double than for Latinos.  Custody rates for blacks range from a high of 2,908 in South Dakota to a low of 87 in Hawaii.   

            What is often overlooked in the discussion of these recent trends is the impact these "get tough" policies and the "war on drugs" have had on women. The next section will review some rather disturbing trends in the incarceration of women offenders.

 The Growing Incarceration of Black Women

One thing that cannot be overlooked in any analysis of women, crime and criminal justice is the interrelationship between class and race. Indeed, the vast majority of female offenders, especially those who end up in prison, are drawn from the lower class and are racial minorities (Daly, 1992; Miller, 1986; Chesney-Lind, 1997). 

One specific example of the role of class and race is demonstrated in a very detailed study by Daly of a sample of women offenders in a court system in New Haven, Connecticut.  From a larger sample of 397 cases, this study focused in depth on a smaller sample of 40 men and 40 women who were sentenced to prison (that is, they went through all of the stages of the criminal justice process).  Of the forty women, twenty-four (60%) were black, five (12%) were Puerto Rican and the remainder (28%) were white.  Half of the women were raised in single-parent families, and only two of the women were described as growing up in "middle class households."  Most of these women were described by Daly as having grown up in families "whose economic circumstances were precarious," while in about two-thirds of the cases their biological fathers were "out of the picture" while they were growing up.  Only one-third completed high school or the equivalent GED (General Education Diploma).  Two-thirds "had either a sporadic or no paid employment record" and over 80 percent were unemployed at the time of their most recent arrest (Daly, 1992:23-24).

It has often been claimed that the main reason so few women end up in prison is because the criminal justice system practices "chivalry."  Chivalry, however, is largely a racist and classist concept in that such lenient treatment is typically reserved for white women from the higher social classes.  Moreover, any "lenient" treatment granted to women is due largely to the fact that their crimes are so minor compared to men and the criminal careers are not nearly as lengthy as men, two variables that are highly predictive of treatment in the criminal justice system (Moyer, 1992).  Additional support for the argument that black female offenders are treated more harshly came from a study in California of a sample of all felony cases in 1980 where it was found that the odds of women being arrested ranged from a high of 1 in 42 for black females in their 20s to a low of 1 in 667 for white females 70 years or older (Wilbanks, 1986).

The most dramatic illustrations of the lack of chivalry toward black and other minority women comes from examining who gets sentenced to prison.  And this has been, in recent years, a direct result of the "war on drugs.  As already noted, there is little relationship between race and illicit drug use, yet blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be arrested and sent to prison.  For women, the poor in general and blacks in particular have been singled out.

While women constitute around 20 percent of all those arrested and only about six percent of those in prison, their numbers and their rate of incarceration has been dramatically increasing during the past twenty years.  As of December 31, 2002, there were 97,491 women in federal and state prisons (compared to only 8,850 in 1976), constituting 6.8 percent of all prisoners, versus 3.6 percent in 1976 (Shelden, 1982: 347; Harrison and Beck, 2003: 5).  These latest figures represent an incredible numerical increase of more than 800% and their proportion among all prisoners increased by more than 75% during the past quarter century.  Moreover, the incarceration rate of women went from 8 per 100,000 in 1975 to 60 per 100,000 in 2002, for an increase of 650% (Shelden, 1982: 347; Harrison and Beck, 2003: 5).  Recall from Table 1 the incredible increases in incarceration rates for both black and white women.  These figures are shown in Tables 8 and 9. 

Table 8.  Rate of Female Adults Held in State or Federal Prisons or Local Jails, by Race, 1985-2002

Year

Black

White              

Ratio

1985

183     

27

   6.8:1

1990

329     

48

   6.9:1

2002

349

68

   5.1:1

% increase
1985-2002

 
91    

 
152

 

 Source: Kurki, 1999; Harrison and Karberg, 2003.

 

Table 9.  Rate of Incarceration in State or Federal Prisons, by Gender and Race, 1980-2002. 

                                                                            Male                                                                          Female 

Year    

All

White

Black

All

White

Black

1980

275

168

1,111

11

6

45

1990

575

339

2,376

32

19

125

2002

912

450

3,437

61

35

191

% Increase

232

168

209

455

483

324

 Source:  Snell (1993); Harrison and Beck (2003).

 

            If this is not bad enough, a large percentage of women sentenced to prison on parole violations have not committed any new crimes, but rather were returned for not passing their urine tests.  Moreover, the proportion of women sentenced to federal prison has zoomed upward because of drug offenses.  In 1989, 44.5 percent of women in federal prison were in for drugs, and this figure went up to 68 percent in just two years. (More than one-third of the women doing time in prison on drug charges had been convicted of drug possession.) About twenty years ago about two-thirds of women convicted of felonies in federal court were given probation, but in 1991 only 28 percent were.  Further, the average time served for women on drug offenses went from 27 months in 1984 to 67 months in 1990 (Chesney-Lind, 1997:147-148). 

Overall, the proportion of women offenders in prison because of drug offenses went from 12 percent in 1986 to 32.8 percent in 1991. In fact, the percentage increase in women sentenced to prison for drugs have been much greater than for men sentenced for drugs.  For instance, between 1987 and 1989 in the state of New York the number of women sentenced for drugs increased by 211 percent, compared to only an 82 percent increase for men.  In Florida, during the 1980s admissions to prison for drugs increased by a whopping 1,825 percent; but for female offenders this increase was an astounding 3,103 percent! (Donziger, 1996:151)

Much of the increase in women prisoners comes from the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, passed during the 1980s crackdown on crime.  Under many of these laws, mitigating circumstances (e.g., having children, few or no prior offenses, non-violent offenses) are rarely allowed.  One recent survey found that just over half (51%) of women in state prisons had one or only one prior offense, compared to 39 percent of the male prisoners (Donziger, 1996:152).

Thus, this society's recent efforts to "get tough" on crime has had a most negative impact on female offenders, as more and more are finding their way into the nation's prison system.  As a matter of fact, largely because of the war on drugs, the number of new women's prisons has dramatically increased in recent years.  Whereas between 1940 and the end of the 1960s only 12 new women's prisons were built, in the 1970s a total of 17 were built and 34 new prisons were built in the 1980s (Donziger, 1996:148).

These increases do not match the increases in women's crime as measured by arrests, except if we consider the impact of the "war on drugs" along with greater attention to domestic violence.   During this period of time there has been a very dramatic change in the criminal justice system's response to female drug use (as it has for all illegal drug use) as well as domestic violence.  In the latter case, such increased attention to domestic violence has led to an increase in arrests of women for both aggravated assault and "other assaults" (Chesney-Lind, 1997). 

The Impact on Black Families and Communities

Although precise data are hard to come by, we can easily infer from the above discussion that recent developments have had a negative impact on black communities in general and families in particular.  The inner-cities of America have been the most negatively affected by these changes.  The movement of capital out of the inner cities ("capital flight") corresponded to the phenomenon of "white flight" and the exodus of many middle class minorities, the decline of the tax base for these areas and the increasing concentration of the poor were left behind.  There has also been a corresponding decline in federal funding for social programs, particularly those targeting the urban underclass.   This largely occurred during the 1980s with the dawn of a "privatization" movement, a system aiming to replace federal assistance with private sector methods of solving urban problems.  Among the specific types of programs that suffered included aid to disadvantaged school districts, housing assistance, financial aid to the poor, legal assistance to the poor and social services in urban areas in general (Cummings and Monti, 1993: 306).

There has been a marked decline in job opportunities, especially for minorities.  Many jobs have shifted to the suburbs, as have many basic services and the tax base as well.  It used to be common for many minority youth to be able to find unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.  Today these jobs are disappearing and being replaced by either low-wage service jobs or high-wage jobs requiring advanced skills and education.

            A closely related development has been described as the feminiza­tion of poverty. This refers to the increase in female-headed households that are most likely to be living in poverty.  This has been especially true for black women for according to the 2000 census 48% of all black families are headed by women (up from 43% in 1990) and 40% of these families are living under the poverty level, 14% higher than white single mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1990, 2000; Zopf, 1989; Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 2003 - http://www.iwpr.org/pdf/PovertyNumbers.pdf).  Overall percentages of children under 18 living below the official poverty level have been dropping since the early1990s.  Thus, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), whereas 46.6% of black children (compared to 17.8% of white children and 40% of Latino children) were living in poverty in 1992, by 2000 the percentage was down to 31 (13% for white children and 28% for Latino children).  Still, the rates for both blacks and Latinos are more than twice that for whites (http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/ojstatbb/html/da096.html.). International comparisons shows the United States ranked number one in terms of the overall child poverty rate among industrialized nations, according to several studies. Some individual states have excessively high rates of child poverty, with New York leading the way at 26.3 percent, followed by California with 25.7 percent.[8] 

The National Women’s Law Center recently reported that: “While the proportion of female-headed families living in poverty declined between 1997 and 1998 and is now at its lowest since 1979, nearly 4 out of 10 families headed by women still live in poverty.”  They further observed that as of 1998, among families with children headed by a black woman, 47.5 percent were living in poverty, while more than half of the female-headed Latino families with children lived under the poverty line (http://www.nwlc.org).

A recent study by the National Center for Children in Poverty (http://www.nccp.org/) found that: “More than one-third of children in the United States live in low-income families, meaning their parents earn up to double what is considered poverty in this country. The federal poverty level for a family of four (2004) is $18,850.”  The study also found that:

With regard to race, the NCCP study also found that: “While the largest group of children in low-income families is white, black and Latino children are significantly more likely to live in families with low incomes, and they account for the increase in low-income children.”  (“Low-income” is defined in this report as twice the official federal poverty level, or $37,700 for a family of four.) Further, 58 percent of all black children (up 4% from 2001) and 62 percent of all Latino children (up 1% from 2001), compared to only 25 percent of white children, lived in low-income families in 2002 (down 2% from 2001). (See the following web site: www.nccp.org.)

The "welfare reform" movement ushered in during the Clinton Administration in 1996 significantly reduced the number of citizens on the welfare rolls.  Specifically, as of 1999 about 7 million were receiving welfare, compared to just over 12 million in 1996.  There has been a negative impact, however, as millions of single mothers who have left welfare are working at poverty wages.  One study found that the average wage of these mothers was $6.60 per hour.  More than one-fourth of these mothers were working nights, while two-thirds have jobs without health insurance.  Also, more than half of them are having trouble getting decent and affordable child care and paying for such necessities as food and rent.  Still another report noted that whites were leaving welfare at a much faster pace than minorities.  One example was in Ohio, where in 1995 just over half of the welfare recipients (54%) were white and 42% were black, by 1999 theses percentages were reversed: 53% black and 42% white.  Research has also shown that it has been much easier to leave welfare for those living away from the inner cities, which obviously helps whites since they are most likely to live in the suburbs (Associated Press, 1999). 

The Families County Fact Book recently commented that, according to a 1999 study conducted by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,

between 1995 and 1997 the income of the poorest 20 percent of female-headed families with children fell an average of $580 per family. The study included the families' use of food stamps, housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and other benefits. Even when these benefits are included, these families have incomes below three-quarters of the poverty line. Additionally, studies have found that single mothers on welfare rarely find full-time, permanent jobs at adequate wages. Recent welfare legislation has focused on child support enforcement. However, full payment of child support only constitutes a small portion of the total cost of raising a child. (http://www.dekidscount.org/familiescountoverview.html).

The study also found that about 39 percent of female-headed household with children were living in poverty.  The report further noted that about 1.3 million more people were poor in 2001 than in 2000 -- 32.9 million versus 31.6 million. The number of poor families increased from 6.4 million in 2000 (or 8.7 percent of all families, a record low rate) to 6.8 million (or 9.2 percent) in 2001. For whites the poverty rate rose from 7.4 percent in 2000 to 7.8 percent in 2001, but poverty “remained at historic lows for blacks (22.7 percent) and Latinos (21.4 percent).” Among these groups, only “whites (up 905,000 to 15.3 million) and Latinos (up 250,000 to 8.0 million) saw an increase in the number of poor” (Ibid.).

The declining social and economic position of blacks, especially as this relates to young black males whom one author has called an "endangered species." is significant (Gibbs, 1988).  The impact on one particular city, Louisville, is described by Cummings and Monti.  They describe the underclass in this city as being "comprised largely of minorities who are increasingly marginal to the city's economy.  The neighborhoods populated by the underclass are characterized by high rates of crime, institutional instability, and impoverished households headed by females. Louisville's new urban poverty is exacerbated by severe dislocations in the manufacturing and industrial sectors of its regional economy."  The unemployment rates among black s in Louisville rose from 6.9% in 1970 to more than 20% by the end of the 1980s.  Also, in 1970 45% of births by black women were out of wedlock, whereas in 1988 the percentage was 70 (Cummings and Monti, 1993: 312-313).

It is not very difficult to lay part of the blame on the devastation of poor, black communities on the shoulders of the criminal justice system and those who design the policies. A recent study by one of the co-authors of this book underscores this point.  Brown (1998) interviewed some of the families of gang members in Detroit to identify some of the effects of not only participation in gang life, but the impact on the family when a gang member goes to prison.  All of these families are black, mostly poor (including many "working poor"). The families in Brown's study had no "material" luxuries.  One father of four, wearing the scars of rejection and humiliation, stated: 

We ain't got much of anything anymore, but maybe we're luckier than some I guess.  I worked at Chrysler for eight years, but they laid me off four years ago.  They never did hire none of us back.  I tried finding another job like that one but I never did get one.  There just weren't none to be had.  Now I'm just good for laboring I guess. 

Holding his wife's hand (she works in a laundry for minimum wages), he looked up and said, "Me and this old woman is about wore down now."  His wife in an attempt to lighten the subject and offer inspiration for her husband, said, "When they build that new stadium [Detroit Tigers' baseball stadium] here you can make some money then.  Well," he replied, "they is just going to hire us niggers for the laboring jobs, so don't go counting on that new stadium to help us none."

The father of another gang member has two full-time, minimum-wage, jobs.  His wife works part-time.  They have three children.  "I've tried to get me a full-time job," she stated, "but they ain't none around here.  We only got one car, and he's [husband] got to use it because his other job is a long way from the shop."

One mother of four, whose husband had abandoned her and the children several years earlier, lives in a deteriorating two-bedroom apartment with an inefficient heating system.  During one visit, Brown  heard gun shots very close by, and quickly moved his head toward the window.  Obviously accustomed to the sound, she never moved.  They began talking about the subject of "hope."  This woman revealed, 

I used to think about the future all the time; that was before my husband lost his job.  He started drinking heavy when he couldn't find no work.  Then one day he just got up and left me and these kids.  I used to think someday I'd have me a house and plant a garden.  I love fresh tomatoes.  I wanted my kids to get what I never got--a house of their own and a good education.  Well, those times is gone now.  I don't think much about what they ain't got because the biggest trouble is just feeding them mouths and having them a place to sleep...We manage though, but it sure ain't easy none.  I ask the Lord for some help everyday.  Guess He is listening because we still got a roof over our head and something to eat. 

Thus, there is a sense of resignation, and a feeling that her life could be worse.  When asked why she never left the neighborhood.  She answered, 

Where do you want me to go live?  I ain't got no other place to live.  I ain't got no skills to get no job--at least one that can pay the bills.  The only real job I ever had was working downtown once, but downtown is all gone now.  Do you know someone who's going to help some old black woman with no education and has four kids?  I sure don't.  I live here because this is all there is.

Ten gang members live in households where a grandparent is the primary breadwinner.  In eight of these cases, most of the family income comes from social security and/or very modest retirement benefits.  Rather than the elderly being assisted by their children, many grandparents find themselves in a position where they must raise a second family.  One elderly woman, who has lived in the same neighborhood for more than 40 years, shares her two-bedroom house with her daughter-in-law, three grandchildren, and "boots," the family feline.  Rags are stuffed around the windows to fill gaps that run her heating bill "through the ceiling."  The middle step leading to the front door is broken.  She leans back in an overstuffed chair, once belonging to her husband who died more than ten years ago, and started to talk about her "boys" who are both in prison. 

Both my boys is in prison, and Bobby's[9] [name of one son] wife and kids stay here with me because they can't live no other place.  What they going to do?  I can't work no more because I got a bad leg, and besides, who's going to hire an old black woman anyhow? I get my check [social security].  Kathy gets some money from the state; it sure ain't much.  She can't work because she's got these kids to take care of.  I help take care of them, but I'm old and can't do it by myself.  Besides there ain't no jobs around here and we ain't got no car.  We are doing the best we can do.  I don't know what's going to happen to us. Engler [governor of Michigan] say he's going to cut welfare some more.  If he do then I don't know what's going to happen.  Sometimes I think that dying is about all that's left to do.  But who is going to help Kathy with them kids if I ain't here?  That oldest boy is a handful now.  He's good to me and his mother though.  He runs wild but I understand.  He ain't got much else to do.  There ain't no jobs for him.  I worry about him all the time.  He going to end up like his daddy--in prison some day.  It's going to happen I tell you. 

Bobby, who once was a member of a gang in this neighborhood, was prosecuted and convicted on auto theft and drug charges.  He received 5 years and 15 years (consecutive) sentences.  The woman was asked about her husband and she responded as follows: 

Them boys= daddy was a good man.   He bought this house for us when he worked at General Motors.  We had a real good life then.  Well, he killed himself off working all kinds of jobs when he got laid off from the plant.  He managed to pay for this house before he died--God, bless him.  My boys was always mad about what happened to their daddy.  Now I see Johnny mad about his daddy being taken away from him.  He's running with the same crowd his daddy ran with.

All adult family members Brown interviewed expressed concern about their children's, or grandchildren's, involvement in youth gangs.  Most attempted to control their children's activities.  "I tell him all the time to stay away from them kind of kids," says one mother.  A father stated, "I don't like him running wild out there, but we [including his wife] both got jobs.  We just can't watch him all the time."  Another concerned parent said, 

I do the best that I can do to get him to stay in school.  I work hard, but, as you can see, I don't seem to get nowhere.  He's not dumb.  He can see that this family is never going to get ahead.  He respects me and his little sister, but he knows that what I am doing ain't getting his family nowhere. 

One father admitted, "I beat the hell out of him when I found out he was banging.  But he keeps right on doing it.  I can't just keep beating him--then they'll come and arrest me."  Another father stated, "I try to tell him that he's going to end up dead or in prison some day.  He just won't listen.  I want him to get a job, but there ain't none around.  I'm lucky to be working myself."  One grandmother said, 

I know he is in a gang.  I ain't dumb.  But I also know that until all them kids lay down them guns then he's got to protect himself somehow.  The police sure ain't going to protect him none.  Those who is blaming the parents for these here gangs don't know much about life down here.  We have to survive however we can.  Them kids is surviving the only way they knows how to survive.  They're just kids you know.

 Some Concluding Thoughts 

We live in times of great uncertainty as millions just barely eke out a living while a small minority becomes richer and richer, despite proclamations from politicians and the media about the "economic recovery" and the booming stock market (Piven and Cloward, 1997; Phillips, 2002).  We find more and more of our citizens relegated to the ranks of what Marx once described as the "surplus population," a population rendered unneeded or "superfluous" as far as creating profits are concerned.  Along with more and more corporate "downsizing" there is the ominous disappearance of semi-skilled and unskilled jobs once filled by urban minorities, especially black males.  But this group is still very much with us and, from the point of view of those in power, they need to be "managed" in some way.  One way that has been used to manage or control this population is to confine them to inner city ghettos, while another way is to use the prison system as a mechanism of this form of "management."

It is especially ironic that we are experiencing what politicians are calling the "end of welfare as we know it."  This is true.  We previously had a welfare system that patronized the poor; we now have a welfare system that can be described in a single word B mean.  The irony is that a component of this new form of welfare is called the prison system.  And since there has not been a significant rise in the kinds of crimes that have historically resulted in prison sentences (burglaries, larcenies, robberies, murder, etc.), and we cannot use the crude techniques of control common in totalitarian societies (e.g., torture), we have invented new "crimes" and new "criminals" to justify prison expansion, namely drugs.  But of course only certain kinds of drugs, used by certain classes of people are targeted (Gordon, 1994; Reinarman and Levine, 1997).

More and more women are finding themselves completely left out of the recent "economic upturn" American society has experienced.  Like earlier generations, minority women have suffered the most, as they find themselves mired in poverty with the sole responsibility of child rearing.  Even among women who are working, times are getting harder and harder.[10]  Given the continuous "war on drugs" along with efforts to "end welfare as we know it," women, especially minority women, are going to continue to experience being processed by the criminal justice system.

           The "war on drugs" and the "war on gangs" have intentionally targeted the most marginalized Americans.[11] Is this not also a form of slow genocide and a disenfranchisement of urban minorities and a form of "ethnic cleansing"?  Have we not created a new, more modern form of apartheid?  To do this it is necessary to use certain scientific-sounding labels, like "sociopath" or "criminal personality."  Of course the traditional, gut-level terms are also used, like "dangerous classes," "predators," "thugs," "gangs" and the like.  It is not "our kind" that are being sent to prison, it is "them," "those people," etc.  This way we can wash our hands of any responsibility (Miller, 1996).[12]

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Notes


[1].  This view hardly needs referencing, since it is common knowledge (or should be) among academics.  For those who question this assertion, see the works already cited, but especially Currie (1998), Donziger (1996), Irwin and Austin (1997) and Tonry (1995).

[2].  For more detailed treatment of the notion of jails and prisons as "poorhouses" see Morris and Rothman (1995).

[3].  In 1948, the same year that the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa and instituted apartheid, the Mississippi Supreme Court, in Murray v. State, decided that segregated seating in courtrooms was not a constitutional violation.  Rather, the court argued that such seating arrangements were actually grounded firmly in community custom.  It was not until 1963, in Johnson v. Virginia, that the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated seating in a courtroom constituted a denial of equal protection (Higginbotham 1996).

[4].  A Delaware prosecutor is quoted as follows:  "Sure, it's true we prosecute a high percentage of minorities for drugs.  The simple fact is, if you have a population, minority or not, that is conducting most of their illegal business on the street, those cases are easy pickings for the police" (Mauer, 1999: 142).  An excellent history of the war on drugs is provided by Baum (1997).

[5].  Noam Chomsky, among others, has argued that the war on drugs has been "successful" for the reasons stated here.  For a good summary of this view see recently published interviews he did with David Barsamian (Chomsky, 1994, 1996, 1998). Parenti (1999) has made a similar argument.  Concerning the "war on gangs" and how it has concentrated on African-Americans and Hispanics, see Shelden, et al. (2004) and Klein (1995).

 

[6]. It should be emphasized that the "war on gangs" could easily be included in this analysis, however space does not permit such an inclusion.  However, it is certainly no coincidence that the "gang problem" emerged as a "law enforcement" problem as well as a "media problem" during the mid-1980s, almost exactly the time that the "crack epidemic" emerged.  Shelden, Tracy and Brown noted that newspaper and magazine coverage of gangs went from a mere 33 articles in 1984 to 159 in 1985 and thereafter underwent dramatic increases: to 249 in 1988, 403 in 1989, 533 in 1990 and up as high as 1,313 in 1994 - an increase of almost 4,000 percent!  Similarly, the actual number of "gangs" and "gang members" shot up almost as dramatically, despite the fact that there never has been a consensus among even law enforcement experts on what constitutes a "gang" and a "gang member."  Not too surprisingly, in every major city the number of gangs and gang members has consistently risen since the mid-1980s, along with federal funding for special "gang units" within police departments.  Also, not coincidentally, in every urban area the vast majority (as high as 90%) of "gang members" are racial minorities.  See Shelden, Tracy and Brown (2004). 

[7].  An even more alarming trend comes from another piece of legislation that clearly targets African-Americans, namely the recent "Three Strikes" law in California.  As reported by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the results of this law are part of what they have called the "new apartheid."  Their analysis of data on cases after the enactment of this law show that while African-Americans make up only 7% of the California population, they constitute 23% of all felony arrests, but have so far constituted 43% of the state's "Three Strikes" prisoners (a rate that was 13 times that of whites).  A detailed analysis of three strikes prosecutions in the counties of Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento show that 90% of the cases were African-Americans!  The rate (per 100,000 population) for African-Americans was 43.6, compared to only 2.6 for whites (Davis et al., 1996; Hewitt et al., 1992; Schichor and Sechrest, 1996).

[8]. International child poverty rates are taken from Miringoff and Miringoff (1999: 83-84) and data from a study known as the Luxembourg Income Study, the product of 45 different authors from three continents (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/mar2001/pov-m14_prn.shtml).

[9]. The names of all individuals quoted here have been disguised.

[10].  Between 1970 and 1990 there was a 500 percent increase in the number of women who held more than one job.  Most of these jobs have been in the lowest paying sectors of society: service and retail trade.  Women suffer the most as a result of a divorce: while men realize an average increase in income of 43 percent, women's income drops by an average of 73 percent.  Only one out of six divorced women receive alimony and only 13 percent with preschool children receive child support.  The majority of single-parent households are run by women and the majority of these are living at or near the poverty level (Parenti, 1994: 146-148).

[11].  Drug laws have historically targeted racial and ethnic minorities in particular and the poor in general.  For documentation see Musto (1973) and Helmer (1975).

[12].  A classic statement about the responsibilities that we as academics have to expose such oppression was made by Noam Chomsky back in the late 1960s (Chomsky, 1987).

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