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This article, the first in a four-part series, previously appeared in Znet.

Modern prisoners occupy the lowest rungs on the social class ladder, and they always have.  The modern prison system (along with local jails) is a collection of ghettos or poorhouses reserved primarily for the unskilled, the uneducated, and the powerless.  In increasing numbers this system is being reserved for racial minorities, especially blacks, which is why we are calling it the New American Apartheid.  This is the same segment of American society that has experienced some of the most drastic reductions in income and they have been targeted for their involvement in drugs and the subsequent violence that extends from the lack of legitimate means of goal attainment.

An argument could certainly be made that blacks, especially males, are superfluous and expendable in American society (that is, they are not direct contributors to corporate profits).  With constant corporate downsizing and deindustrialization during the past couple of decades came the elimination of millions of jobs that previously helped minorities to get out of poverty.  Specific social control apparatuses have been deemed necessary to control human frustrations in the aftermath of diminished opportunities.  The criminal justice system has been selected as the primary apparatus to apply social control mechanisms on the unskilled, the uneducated, the powerless and ethnic minorities.

While residential segregation continues unabated, policies that reek of apartheid have risen alongside 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 modern penal system accommodates the “new American apartheid.”

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 constituted 18 percent and whites only 34 percent.  In other words, racial minorities made up two-thirds of the entire prison population.  This is in direct contrast to the 1930s, when whites were overwhelmingly the numerical majority of all prisoners, constituting around 70 percent of the prison population. 

Racial differences are also evident in jail incarceration rates. 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, the jail incarceration rate for blacks was 740 per 100,000 persons, compared to only 147 for whites and 256 for Latinos.  

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.  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.  (More recent figures are not available for this age group, but see the discussion about lifetime chances of going to prison, in Part II of this series.)

Recent studies further elaborate on the negative impact of crime control policies on the black population.  For example a study by sociologist Bruce Western and his colleagues examined the relationship between imprisonment (both jail and prison) and education and employment.  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 Part III of this series.)

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).  Western’s study also compared 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.

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.

Criminologist Jeremy Travis likens this to a form of “internal exile,” the domestic equivalent to those convicts exiled 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.  This has become, in Travis’ words, a form of “social exclusion.”  Such exclusions have further put a distance between “them” and “us” and, moreover, Travis notes that:

“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.”

The ex-offenders that feel the heaviest brunt of this exclusion are racial minorities.  Another criminologist, Todd Clear, has pointed out that in many urban, poverty-stricken neighborhoods as many as one-fourth of the adult male residents are either in prison or in jail at some time during the year.

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.  This is especially the case with drug laws, which have always targeted mainly the drugs used by minorities and the poor throughout history.

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.  This term stems from the Dutch Aapart (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 United Nations General Assembly 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.  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.  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.

American apartheid is alive and well, as racial segregation remains a common characteristic of virtually every of American city.  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. 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. 

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.  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 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.

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.  Part II explores this topic.

Click here to read Part 2 of this series.

Click here to read Part 3 of this series.

Click here to read Part 4 of this series.

Randall G. Shelden and William B. Brown are Professors of Criminal Justice at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and Western Oregon University respectively.  They have written several books on crime and criminal justice. This essay is part of a forthcoming book on the prison industrial complex. Shelden may be contacted via his web site:  A more detailed version of this series, including references and footnotes, can be found on this web site.



July 8 2004
Issue 98

is published every Thursday.

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