Race and Incarceration

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 23, 2008

People are talking about people in jail but people aren’t talking about which people are in jail. The United States has a quarter of the world’s prisoners, the Times reported , and 1 in every 100 Americans is behind bars. But, as we know (though it can’t hurt to be reminded), people of color, especially Black people, are incarcerated at much higher rates. One in every 15 Black men between 18-35 is in jail. This compared to 1 of every 106 white men of the same age. The only mention the Times article makes of race is that the US’ disproportionate rate of incarcerating people of color is not unique; apparently it’s the same in Canada, England and Australia. The fact doesn’t make me feel any better. Another point about these numbers is that they do not actually include all prisoners. The 1 in 100 number does not include juvenile prisoners held in juvenile facilities. They also neglect to report on those immigrants who are detained in the growing complex of immigration prisons in this country. The article in the Times mentions that official numbers of Chinese prisons, which has the second largest number of incarcerated people, do not include those held in administrative detention as political prisoners. Somehow it neglects to point to the North American equivalent of these extra-legal detention centers that detain hundreds of thousands of immigrants facing deportation. Meanwhile, the article’s neglect of race means that when it reports that Maine, my home state and the whitest state in the nation, has the country’s lowest rate of incarceration, it doesn’t tell us that as of 2000, Blacks were 8 times more likely to be in jail. This is a trend that is likely growing as the number of Black people in Maine increased 37% between 2000 and 2005, probably as a result of a relatively large number of East African refugees who have arrived there in recent years. The growing attention being paid to incarceration rates is nothing but positive, but as we put the pressure on we need to remember who is behind bars. If we don’t and we follow the Times by ignoring race and racism we’ll miss the point and, I suspect, change very little. It’s racism, the actual and ideological criminalization of people of color, that has underwritten the policies that place people of all races behind bars. These policies, most notably drug sentencing laws, three strikes legislation and immigrant detention and deportation, are built upon racial and racist foundations. We’ll need to start here.