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The Mythology of Black Criminality

By: Sheyenne White

The U.S population accounts for less than 5% of the world population but almost 25% of the world prison population. Over the past four decades, incarceration rates have soared and the United States now has the highest prison population in the world, at 716 per 100,000 people. In light of the cries for racial justice around the world, we must re-evaluate the role carcerality plays in perpetuating racial hierarchies.

Carcerality, as a system, is entrenched in a racial framework underpinned by neoliberal capitalism. The expansion of carcerality along the lines of race can be traced back to Nixon’s “War on Drugs” which doubled as a rhetorical war on poor communities of color through an amplification in policing and penalties. It is important to note that the War on Drugs was nothing but a political tool designed to protect Nixon’s fragile presidency amidst a controversial war abroad and a civil rights movement. In fact, Nixon’s former domestic policy advisor admitted, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and Black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The Nixon administration’s success in racializing drug dependencies exploded into an era of mass incarceration and brought upon a “tough on crime” wave for the next few presidencies. Republicans and Democrats alike created a political environment driven by fear of crime. Interestingly, Bill Clinton’s infamous Three Strike laws and mandatory minimums proved to be the most destructive in their production of hyperincarceration. Although such policies were paraded to the public as efforts to free communities from crime, they had little to no effect on official crime rates. This leaves many to wonder why politicians across the political spectrum would push for such draconian criminal justice policies. Given the saturated history of racism in this country, it is unsurprising that remnants of systemic and institutional racism pervade both mainstream political parties. Considering the unbridled capitalism and avaricious neoliberalism salient in the United States, racism is guilty of triggering the growth of the private-prison industry.

To say that the privatization of punishment yields financial gain would be a gross understatement, as hyperincarceration generates massive profits for private prison companies. While the private prison industry reaps the lucrative rewards, governmental, communal, and taxpayer resources are being depleted. The for-profit bail bond industry fuels mass incarceration and contributes to racial and economic inequalities. In the United States, millions of people are forced to pay cash bail after their arrest or face incarceration before trial. This flawed system fails to consider that such individuals are presumed innocent and have not been convicted of a crime. In order to avoid imprisonment, people who can not afford bail must pay a non-refundable fee to a for-profit bail bond company. This financial burden disportionately affects BIPOC and low-income communities. The culprits are the large insurance companies who sit atop the two-billion dollar for-profit bail bonds industry, which is both unaccountable to the justice system and unnecessary to justice itself. Although the U.S regards the for-profit bail bonds industry as an inevitable and permanent feature of society, it is quite the contrary. In fact, it is a global anomaly used only in the Philippines and the United States. Considering this, we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

However, the destructive forces of capitalism are not excluded to the legal processes that take place before incarceration, as the loophole in the 13th amendment reads “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. This exception clause can only be seen as an extension of slavery as it strips the humanity of those convicted without taking into account the implicit biases riddled within the justice system. Nearly 900,000 men and women are exploited by a $2 billion a year industry that pays them a few cents an hour in some states, and nothing at all in others. Given that the 13th amendment maintains the practice of slavery, we can no longer regard slavery as an instiution of mere cruelty but the driver of broader American prosperity. Simply put, racism and slavery may only come to an end upon the destruction of the political-economic system of capitalism.

Nonetheless, many disparage mass incarceration as a byproduct of Black criminality and therefore justify their dismissal of the other injustices at play within American carcerality. Along these lines, the notorious Black-on-Black crime fallacy is used to derail conversation. Although this is a tired and banal argument, it’s pernicious in its fabrication of Black criminality. A mythology that marginalizes and de-victimizes the Black community. After all, the Black community is subjugated by the very systems in place sworn to protect them. The carceral state  perpetuates racialized violence and therefore, must be abolished.