It’s maybe not terribly surprising that, as a middle-class white woman, I haven’t had many encounters with the police. Legitimately, the story that springs to mind most clearly is the time I had stopped after dark in a library parking lot with a friend after a hayride was closed (I recognize that this story is white AF). Lost, we pulled into the lot to regroup, and a police officer drove up…to ask if we were having car trouble.
There’s a reason my experience with law enforcement is completely different from the experiences of many people of color; comedian Amber Ruffin recently shared several of her encounters. And it’s much more intentional, insidious, and downright racist than you may realize (even knowing that the way the US handles crime or perceived crime is pretty fucking racist). Ava DuVernay’s modern classic documentary is this week’s film, and it outlines how the problem of mass incarceration grew to become a widely accepted form of slavery today.
Combining archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars, director Ava DuVernay’s examination of the U.S. prison system looks at how the country’s history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America.
In a world where the prison population has skyrocketed from a bit over 350,000 to 2.3 million in less than 50 years, this documentary critically analyzes how and why the racist system of mass incarceration evolved in the United States.
As history professor Kevin Gannon reminds us, “History is not just stuff that happens by accident,” and the problem of mass incarceration is very much included, as the States represents approximately 5% of the world’s population yet houses 25% of the world’s prisoners.
The particular phrase making the incarceration of a disproportionate number of black people possible comes from a surprising place: the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery. Key is the exception allowing the nation to deny freedom as punishment for a crime…and a system that frames free blacks as dangerous criminals who need to be locked away from the rest of society develops almost immediately following the Civil War.
While the racism of the KKK and Jim Crow segregation has its roots in the establishment of slavery in the States in 1619, the film The Birth of a Nation served as a spark igniting racist violence in the early 20th century. This film spawned many of our modern conceptions of the KKK, including cross burning and the narrative of the South as a place of noble martyrs. In addition to inspiring violence, the film was incredibly effective in communicating an idea that would shape policies leading to mass incarceration: that of the black man as a threat to white women.
As Jim Crow and segregation replaced lynchings as the primary method of inflicting racist violence on the black community, the Civil Rights movement gained momentum. Conveniently for racists, crime also happened to be on the rise at the time, thus creating an opportunity to spin the narrative that there was a relationship between civil rights, the black community, and violent lawbreaking.
Beginning with Nixon, politicians in the States felt empowered to promote law and order, aggressively pursuing criminal behavior, more often than not using “crime” to stand in for “race.” By framing the issue of crime around the chaos of major urban areas, the Republican party began to sway poor and working-class people to their way of thinking.
Escalating law and order policies, Reagan’s approach to the so-called War on Drugs led to even greater rates of incarceration in black and Latinx communities. The arbitrary distinction between crack and cocaine, along with mandatory sentencing, led to huge disparities in convictions between black and white people charged with possession.
During this time, the incredibly problematic phrase “super predator” emerges to describe criminals–very often, people of color. George H.W. Bush very likely won the presidency based on exploiting white fears surrounding one such individual who committed murder while out on a weekend prison pass.
But don’t worry if all of this seems like an unfair attack on conservatives (if you do, though, IDK what you expect from this blog): there are plenty of shameful policies and decisions the Democrats can take credit for. Bill Clinton really leaned into the image of being tough on crime, providing significantly greater funding to the police and incentivizing drug arrests, effectively building the modern infrastructure of the US police.
This leads us to the present, in which ALEC, a lobbying group, is responsible for a disturbing number of Republican bills related to crime and mass incarceration. One of the largest supporters of ALEC was a private prison corporation (CCA), which had an interest in keeping prisons full.
And this is really just the tip of the iceberg here. As an arrested person, you are under immense pressure to accept a plea deal rather than go to trial; as a result, 97% of incarcerated people never had a trial. In prison, it’s very possible you will work for abysmally low wages making products for many different private corporations. And, in some states, if you are convicted of a felony, you permanently lose the right to vote.
Suffice it to say, the president (affectionately known to many as Agent Orange) has done nothing but make the situation worse, frequently inciting violence in his speech and denying the conspicuous presence of racism in virtually every sector of society. One of our featured commentators puts our current reality in stark terms: there are more black people incarcerated today than who were enslaved in the States in the 1850s.
5/5 Pink Panther Heads
Just watch the film, won’t you? It’s streaming for free on YouTube (at least in the States), and contextualizes the issue of mass incarceration much more effectively than I do on this blog. The timing couldn’t be better for white people in particular to understand why protesters responding to police violence are so angry and why the black community is so tired of waiting for the rights they’ve been promised for generations.
With insight from Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stevenson, Angela Davis, Van Jones, and many other thinkers and activists (including those formerly incarcerated), the expert analysis comes from historical, cultural, contemporary, and personal experiences. The impact of mass incarceration is revealed in stark numbers, but also through stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been irrevocably changed or ended as a result.
To learn more, I highly recommend Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and the podcast Ear Hustle, recorded (in non-pandemic times) inside San Quentin State Prison.