by Carl Dix
Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow takes us in the right direction to understanding mass incarceration – but it doesn’t go far enough. “It is essential to not fall into seeing the necessary resistance movement being a rerun of the movement that broke the back of Jim Crow.”
Mass Incarceration + Silence = Genocide
by Carl Dix
This article is a response to Bruce Dixon’s March 27 piece, “Black mass Incarceration – Is it New? Is it Jim Crow? …”
“Genocide must be understood as a process that goes thru stages.”
Mass Incarceration is the 2.3 million people held in prisons across the country, almost 1 million of them Black and about another ½ million of them Latino. (This doesn’t count immigrants held in detention centers.) But it is also much more than that. It encompasses the 5 million formerly incarcerated people who are treated like 2nd class citizens despite having paid their “debt to society.” When you add to this the families and loved ones of all these people – because when someone goes to jail the lives of their whole family revolves around their incarceration – you have tens of millions of people forced to live their lives enmeshed in the web of the criminal injustice system.
The unjust incarceration of Black people on a mass scale is certainly not new. In addition to the post-Civil War Black Codes that Dixon cites (which were used to continue the enslavement of Black people under another name), incarceration was used disproportionately against Black people throughout the 20th century. (See Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Gibran Muhammad) But as Dixon says, incarcerating this many people is unprecedented, not only in US history, but in world history.
“Incarceration was used disproportionately against Black people throughout the 20th century.”
This mass incarceration amounts to a slow genocide targeting Black and Latino people. This is not exaggeration – it’s a scientific assessment. People being put in camps or marched to death chambers are final acts of genocide, but genocide must be understood as a process that goes thru stages. The international definition of genocide is putting a people in whole or in part in conditions that make it impossible to survive and thrive as a people. In his book, Drug Warriors and Their Prey: From Police Power to Police State, Richard Lawrence Miller identifies 5 stages of the process of genocide. 1) Identification. 2) Stigmatization. 3) Segregation. 4) Theft of property. 5) Extermination. He drew this off of a study of Nazi Germany’s handling of Jews during World War Two. There are likely to be variations in the process of genocide in other situations, but Black people have already been put through a number of these steps. And when you look at the way mass incarceration has already affected Black people (and Latinos as well) in the inner cities across the US, you see that a slow genocide is in progress, one that could easily be speeded up. (Developing this is outside the scope of this article, but consider the fact that for a sizeable section of the base of the Republican Party slavery is seen as a gift to African-Americans, and people without health insurance should be left to die.)
“The international definition of genocide is putting a people in whole or in part in conditions that make it impossible to survive and thrive as a people.”
Why is this happening? Let’s pull back the lens and look at the larger picture. The skyrocketing incarceration rates in the US began in the 1970’s, in the aftermath of the urban rebellions of the 1960’s which spearheaded the development of a revolutionary movement that rocked the US government back on its heels, and as the process of searching for greater profit margins was driving the shift of manufacturing out of the US to countries around the world. From one end, the US rulers felt a need to exert greater control over Black youth to ensure they would not be in position to spark another round of uprisings and all that could mean. At the same time, the shift of manufacturing was leaving growing numbers of young Black people without legitimate means to survive and raise families.
A Prison Industrial Complex?
It was at this point that the Nixon administration launched a war on drugs and a war on crime. Both these wars were to be waged primarily in Black communities. Later in the 1980’s, the US Congress passed laws that disproportionately targeted people in the inner cities, like the 100 to 1 disparity in penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaine. What we had here was a combination of conscious government policies and the very operation of the US capitalist system that led to the mass incarceration we see today.
How conscious were these policies? Nixon is reported to have said at a cabinet meeting in the early 70’s, “The problem is the Blacks, and we have to devise a solution that doesn’t acknowledge that this is what we’re dealing with.” And as the de-industrialization of the US proceeded, the ruling class was increasingly confronted with large numbers of Black (and increasingly Latino) youth who the system offered no future. The solution to this problem was heightened racial profiling – stop & frisk, gang injunctions, etc. – that served as a pipeline to prison for so many of our youth.
The reason it is incorrect to conceive of this as a prison industrial complex is that all this was launched well before there were any forces pushing this agenda in order to profit from it. The for-profit prison industry developed much later. It wasn’t prison guard unions or construction companies or rural areas looking to revive their economies by building prisons driving this. It was a ruling class developing policies to deal with a section of people they hated and feared.
“As the de-industrialization of the US proceeded, the ruling class was increasingly confronted with large numbers of Black (and increasingly Latino) youth who the system offered no future.”
We are dealing with a problem that is built into the very fabric of US capitalism. You can’t uproot it by countering the political influence of these forces that Angela Davis identified when she developed the PIC concept.
(As an aside, you have to wonder about using Eisenhower’s Military Industrial Complex as a model to understand mass incarceration. The MIC was wrong and unscientific too. Here you had the outgoing main political representative of US imperialism, who had presided over the invasion of Lebanon, CIA engineered coups in Iran and Guatemala and more, telling us the problem was something other than US imperialism!)
This leads you in a reformist direction when where you need to go is to making Revolution – Nothing Less – to get rid of the system that is responsible for mass incarceration, wars for empire, brutality and degradation of women and so much more. (For an in depth polemic of the Prison Industrial Complex conception go to Revolution #259, February 12, 2012.)
There is a lot more to say about the need for Revolution-Nothing Less to end the horror of mass incarceration once and for all. Let me direct those who want to dig further into this revolution I’m talking about here to the following web site: www.revcom.us/movement-for-revolution/BAE/film.html. There you can find info about a film of a recent talk by Bob Avakian, leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, titled: “BA Speaks: Revolution-Nothing Less!” This film is about the very real possibility of ending once and for all the madness, degradation, brutality and more that is so much a part of life today.
A New Jim Crow?
Michelle Alexander has done a great service by calling this a New Jim Crow. While this falls far short of a fully scientific assessment of what mass incarceration comes down to, she does make clear that she’s using the term to make clear that we are dealing with a new form of social control, one that results from the criminalization of whole sections of people and not from the criminal activity of those people who end up incarcerated. This gets at a central question we have to break through on – the Bill Cosby/Barack Obama line that the horrible conditions Black people are faced with stem from their lack of taking personal responsibility for their lives. I.e., the young men won’t pull their pants up, the parents won’t turn off the TV and make the kids do their homework, the dads are absent, etc. Alexander does well on that last point by saying where the absent dads are is warehoused in prison because they have been criminalized.
The point here is that the New Jim Crow (NJC) has you going in the right direction to understand what we’re dealing with here. But it doesn’t take you far enough to fully understand it.
“We have to pose that revolution is the hope of the hopeless.”
Dixon is correct that NJC thought can mislead you on how to build resistance to mass incarceration. It is essential to not fall into seeing the necessary resistance movement being a rerun of the movement that broke the back of Jim Crow. One thing we ran into very quickly in moving from taking on Stop & Frisk in New York City to squarely targeting mass incarceration, is that some folk couldn’t make the pivot with us. They saw people who got stopped and frisked as being innocents who were unfairly targeted, but when we started going after mass incarceration, even some of the people who got arrested with us over Stop & Frisk were like, “Hold up, CD. Those guys in there are criminals.” We’re finding it necessary to get into the mechanics of how the system has criminalized these youth – sucked the jobs and other means of legitimate survival out of the community and geared the educational system to fail our youth, thus facing them with futures of hopelessness. And we have to pose that revolution is the hope of the hopeless.
Let me wind this up by addressing Bruce’s discussion of who’s going to take this on. We are going to have to double-team them on this one – going first and foremost among those who are being targeted by mass incarceration and unleashing them to stand up and resist. At the same time, we have to go to people who aren’t up against this horror, bring out the reality of what is being done to people and challenge them to join in the opposition to this horror. Here I don’t just mean better off Blacks and Latinos, but also white people who are essentially being told that inflicting these horrors on Blacks and Latinos is necessary to keep them safe. This is secondary to going to the people who are forced to live their lives enmeshed in the web of the criminal “injustice” system, but it is an important complement to doing that.
I’m going to get into all of this in more depth at a conference at Columbia University on April 5 and 6 on Alternatives to incarceration. (Angela Davis is one of the featured speakers at this conference, while I will only be on a panel the following day. I’m expecting that the PIC analysis will be in the air, and I will have to engage it in some depth.) And again at the SAMI National Conference at Howard University, in Washington, DC, on April 19 and 20.
I hope to update people as the details on these two conferences become clearer.
Carl Dix is a leader in the struggle against mass incarceration. He is a long time revolutionary leader and a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party.