Monday, October 14, 2019


Article Index

II. Incarceration as a Mechanism of Racialization

[T]he role of the carceral institution today is different in that, for the first time in US history, it has been elevated to the rank of main machine for race making . Its material stranglehold and classificatory activity have assumed a salience and reach that are wholly unprecedented in American history as well as unparalleled in any other society.

In this statement, Loc Wacquant discusses the criminal justice system as a major site of racialization--a term defined by sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant as the extension of racial meaning to a previously racially unclassified relationship, social practice or group. Racial classifications are forms of inequality that use physical differences to define and rank groups on the basis of status, power, and access to resources. Racial classifications are realized through racial projects, which are described by Omi and Winant in the following manner:

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based upon that meaning.

In other words, racial projects are where racial ideology meets structural disadvantage to form structural patterns of racial inequality. Omi and Winant discuss slavery, Jim Crow laws, and exclusionary immigration policies as examples of racial projects within the United States that have used the legal system to reproduce and control essentialist notions of race in order to establish and maintain structures of social and economic hierarchy.

For some, the criminal justice system has simply replaced slavery and segregation as a contemporary racial project. Indeed, this perspective argues that the criminal justice system is inherently racialized as a result of the disproportionate representation of people of color as both victims and perpetuators of crime. Wacquant builds on this idea, but focuses on the race and class dynamics involved in the expansion of the carceral system. He argues that the term mass incarceration obscures race by erroneously conceptualizing African American men's disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system as an unfortunate, unintended consequence of widely cast policies and procedures, rather than the outcome of racially focused policies and practices:

[T]he expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class black African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society--including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans--practically untouched.

As Wacquant contends, high rates of incarceration are often driven by class dynamics, as poverty is a prevailing factor among the incarcerated. Although it often said, the poor get prison, statistics indicate that African Americans bear the brunt of punitive policies that feature incarceration. Studies have exposed large scale patterns of racial disparity in sentencing, where, as a consequence of departures from sentencing guidelines, African American males with low levels of education are more likely to be incarcerated, receive longer sentences, or are less likely to receive a no-prison option when it is available, than similar whites. Racial disparities in sentencing have been explained by some as a consequence of African American men's higher rates of arrest and participation in serious, violent crimes, rather than discriminatory policies or judgments. Yet, after reviewing forty studies published since 1980 that investigate racial bias in sentencing, a report compiled by the Sentencing Project maintains that type and severity of crime do not fully explain racial disparities in sentencing outcomes. On the contrary, the report found greater racial disparities in sentencing (in terms of type of judgment and length of sentence) for less serious crimes, such as low level drug offenses and property crimes. There is evidence of direct racial discrimination (against minority defendants in sentencing outcomes), the report concluded.

Using the discussion of racialization and racial projects as a foundation, we can think about mass incarceration as a racial project that operates as a mechanism of racialization. This view should be contrasted from one that conceptualizes the criminal justice system as a racial project and sees mass incarceration as an outcome of that process of racialization. As defined earlier, racialization is a process that reproduces and magnifies racial classifications as structures of inequality within interlocking ideologies, institutions, social systems, and everyday practices. The criminal justice system is comprised of a collection of institutions, processes, and procedures that facilitate mass incarceration. African American men's dis-proportionate relationship to the criminal justice system is a function of mutually reinforcing processes of race and class stratification that construct African American males, as a racialized group, in a position of devalued, marginalized social status in society. But it is mass incarceration--the outcome--where racial ideology meets structural disadvantage, thereby embedding African Americans in a web of social and economic disadvantage not experienced by other racial groups, regardless of their levels of criminal involvement.

Racial ideology is a key factor in how mass incarceration operates as a mechanism of racialization. Racial ideology is informed by status and power differentials and operates as both the facilitator and byproduct of the convergence of race and class stratification. Professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva states: Racial stereotypes are crystallized at the ideological level of a social system. These images ultimately indicate (although in distorted ways) and justify the stereotyped group's position in a society. When considering the lack of collective public concern over the excessive rates of incarceration among young African American men, the stigma of black-male criminality associated with their devalued status may act as a core part of the common-sense understandings that most Americans have about African American men. Thus, stigmatization is not merely the drawing of a negative surmise about someone's productive attributes, but instead involves the virtual social identity that stems from negative meanings ascribed to race and structured racial inequality. This has led some to point out that the collective identity of African American male criminality developed to justify slavery has now been ingrained in the structure of institutions, interactional conventions, and individual perceptions of reality within American society.

Significant research shows that racial stereotypes play an important role in public perceptions of African Americans and crime. What may be surprising for some, however, is the demonstrated link between perceptions of race and support for punitive crime policies that result in incarceration. One study indicated that white respondents who embraced racial stereotypes were generally more likely to support harsh punitive sanctions, such as the death penalty and longer prison sentences. The study also found that support for harsh punishment measures varied with the race of offenders. In particular, whites are more likely to support punitive measures for African American offenders than white offenders for the same crimes.

No doubt, racial biases can be heavily influenced by media images that portray African Americans as criminogenic--especially local news broadcasts that display more images of African American suspects than other racial groups in handcuffs, receiving guilty sentences in court proceedings, or other images suggesting their culpability in serious crimes. In one study, white non-college educated adults were shown a local news broadcast of a crime story where the skin color of the male suspect was manipulated. Afterwards, they were asked a series of questions about crime control policies. Respondents were more likely to support punitive policies when the perpetrator was depicted as African American than when the perpetrator was racially ambiguous or white. In another study, researchers constructed a punitive index poll that included questions concerning support for three strikes laws, parole, trying juveniles as adults, and harsher penalties for violent offenders. Results of this study also revealed that whites are generally more likely than African Americans to support punitive crime policies. This same study claimed that racial prejudice can explain support for harsher penalties among whites, while perceived racial injustice helps explain African Americans' lack of support for such policies: Whites' and Blacks' attitudes towards crime policies are associated with their social structural location vis-à-vis the criminal justice system. In other words, perceptions of one's personal experiences and the experiences of other members of one's racial group within the criminal justice system inform one's perceptions about the individual and collective experiences of members of other racial groups within the criminal justice system. Thus, public perception is not only affected by racial stereotypes of perceived criminality, but also informs public support of incarceration along racial lines.

This raises an important point about the consequences of mass incarceration that has significant implications for race, particularly in the case of African Americans. While racialized perceptions of criminality may have a strong effect on attitudes about race or crime, criminality suggests the potential for criminal activity that may be associated with a multitude of racial or ethnic groups. For example, Italians are often associated with potential criminality based on stereotypes about their disproportionate involvement in organized crime, often as a consequence of popular characters in films and television shows. However, as stated in the aforementioned research, perceptions of criminality for African Americans are informed by devalued class status, devalued racial status, and a large-scale pattern of disproportionate involvement within a formal, institutionalized criminal justice system. Perceptions of incarceration are thus not simply about racially neutral perceptions of potential criminality. Instead, incarceration stigma is racialized and is most often directed towards African American men.

Race, then, is embedded in the very foundation of our criminal law . . . . [and] helps to determine who the criminals are, what conduct constitutes a crime, and which crimes society treats most seriously. For example, one study finds that evaluators pressed to estimate the race of former inmates are much more likely to identify them as black than other racial groups, even when the race of that inmate appears to be mixed or ambiguous. Moreover, the same study found that many ex-inmates who self-identified themselves as mixed or ambiguous before serving time were likely to self-identify themselves as black after being incarcerated. This finding led the researchers to conclude that incarceration has a racializing effect on individuals that can be linked to the proliferation of stereotypes about African American male criminality. I argue, however, that it is not the association with criminality that affects perceptions of race. Alternatively, it is modern processes and structures of institutionalization--in an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately features African American men--that have a significant impact on perceptions of race. It is incarceration, not criminality, where racial ideology and economic inequality intersect to magnify structural level racial disparities.

Because African Americans are disproportionately more likely to be institutionalized, their high rate of physical location in jails and prisons brings race to what might otherwise be racially neutral physical space, a process referred to earlier in this article as racialization. Their disproportionate presence in positions of social and economic disadvantage also racializes the processes, expectations, interactions, and stigma commonly associated with that space. Unlike the stigma of criminality, the stigma of incarceration is based on a perception of an individual or group that has been systematically accused, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for committing a crime. Embedded in this stigma is an assumption that formal, organized, and color-blind legal procedures can address any questions of criminality in a carceral system based on truth, justice, and consequences. Incarceration stigma, then, provides a rationale for stereotypes about potential criminality by grounding them in a structural, physical reality.

At the ground level, mass incarceration acts as a form of social and residential segregation--that is, the removal of large numbers of African American men from their communities to reside within penal institutions. Meanwhile, the removal of large numbers of African American men from urban underclass neighborhoods adds to the stigmatization of those neighborhoods, which, in turn, results in increased racial segregation and devalued status of those spaces. Recent legal disputes involving the political and social implications of how and where prisoners are counted for census and redistricting purposes provide evidence that this population is racialized and manipulated though formal social controls.

Because mechanisms of stratification do not operate in isolation, mass incarceration reproduces devalued status and patterns of racial disadvantage throughout other areas of society. Part III illustrates this by discussing how the ideological and physical constrictions of mass incarceration are reproduced in the labor market experiences of young, poor African American men.