The racist criminalization of African Americans

By Abayomi Azikiwe
April 13, 2016


When former President Bill Clinton spoke on April 7 in Philadelphia, protesters interrupted him, exposing Democrats’ role in the mass incarceration and state repression of oppressed peoples in the U.S. during the 1990s. He responded by trying to justify decades of criminalization of tens of millions of African Americans.

Clinton’s mere suggestion that African Americans were somehow responsible for the high rates of incarceration derived from racist assumptions. They deliberately ignore the ongoing legacy of slavery and Jim Crow manifested by pervasive racist discrimination in the labor market, educational system, housing sector and criminal justice system — and reflected in the corporate media.

Even though Bill Clinton later expressed his alleged regret for the confrontation, this does not absolve the U.S. ruling class for persistently targeting people of color communities and imprisoning 2.2 million women and men.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been confronted repeatedly over the legacy of Bill Clinton’s administration and his signing of several “criminal justice” bills that fostered the large-scale recruitment of police and construction of prisons to disproportionately house African Americans and Latinos/as.

Prison population up 500 percent since 1980

Jeff Guo writes that during Democratic and Republican administrations over the last four decades, “the prison population has quintupled. [Due to] disparities in arrests and sentencing, this eruption has disproportionately affected black communities. Black men are imprisoned at six times the rate of white men. … For some high-risk groups, the economic consequences have been staggering. According to Census data from 2014, there are more young black high school dropouts in prison than have jobs.” (Washington Post, Feb. 26)

What are the implications of an exponentially expanding system of incarceration where since 1980 the U.S. prison population has risen by 500 percent? Within the federal system alone, the 1980 to 2013 increase was 790 percent.

African Americans and Latinos/as are profiled, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and sentenced in disproportionately higher numbers than whites. This stems from the legacy of national oppression, institutional racism and economic exploitation.

Law enforcement’s brutality and terrorism, imprisonment and judicial supervision serve the capitalist ruling class’ interests. Demonization and criminalization of the nationally oppressed provide a rationale for their disparate treatment by the legal system.

Taking at least 2.2 million people out of society profoundly affects the rates of poverty and labor exploitation and further marginalizes large segments of the working class and poor by the U.S, ruling class.

Additionally, many prisoners work inside the prisons at slave wages, which drives down wages of those outside the system. If these men and women were not incarcerated, the capitalist system’s inability to provide adequate employment and housing for African Americans and other imprisoned population groups would be revealed.

Moreover, the underdevelopment of the African-American community is impacted by the absence of a large segment of its population and the fact that former prisoners face tremendous obstacles to their reintegration into community and family life.

Guo’s article notes that “mass incarceration’s ill effects are concentrated in places already in distress. In some inner-city neighborhoods, up to one-fifth of the young black men are behind bars. … [I]n their absence, their communities start to fracture. So when they get out … there are no jobs and no support networks.”

The inherent racial inequality in U.S. society is seen in the unemployment rate of African Americans, which is twice that of white workers. Guo states, “The truth [about unemployment], after accounting for incarceration, is even worse.” The jobs report should include “an extra chart to recognize the 1.6 million prisoners [in state and federal prisons] in America,” suggests Guo. “They don’t show up anywhere in the government’s measurements of economic activity, but their absence is dearly felt.”

Racist use of ‘law and order’ issues

These topics will continue to be a focus of the debate interjected from outside the Republican and Democratic campaigns’ official discourse. The capitalist class has much at stake here: It needs to socially contain and economically exploit large segments of the nationally oppressed, most of whom are members of the working class.

During many presidential election campaigns, “law and order” issues have been politicized in a racist way. The Republican and Democratic ruling-class parties have preyed on the fear of street crime and public corruption as political tools to win elective office. This tactic extends back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction era when former planters sought to justify denying civil rights to the former enslaved population.

Yet the ruling class’s crimes are not projected as a principal threat to the broader society. How many bankers have been imprisoned for their theft of trillions of dollars of wealth created by the U.S. and global workforce?

Wall Street and the Pentagon try to rationalize their massive crimes by claiming they are protecting people from “terrorism.” Imperialist wars of regime change and genocide have killed and displaced more than 60 million people in the last quarter-century. Yet they are not classified as egregious acts warranting tougher laws and stiffer prison sentences.

The instability of global capitalism is expressed in further militarization and privatization in both industrialized and developing states. Only a complete break with the financial institutions’ and transnational corporations’ dictates will provide the billions of impoverished people worldwide with an opportunity to live in peace and genuine security.