Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Constructing Criminality and Racing to Incarcerate

In case you've never noticed, in the right sidebar of this blog, just below my queen-of-spades profile picture, there's a spot where I list what I'm currently reading.

Right now it's the scholarly historical book The Condemnation of Blackness by Khalil Muhammad, which documents the way dark skin and socially constructed blackness came to represent criminality in the U.S.

This reality has direct implications for the War on Drugs and recent and ongoing killings of black people by police and civilians. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, John Crawford -- all were assumed to be dangerous and criminal because of what they looked like.

I wanted to read Muhammad's book because it connects with Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I've written about before. Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture, located in Harlem, is a somewhat frequent guest on the Melissa Harris Perry show. I'm always impressed by his ability to make connections in few words.

While reading his book, though, I came across a graphic retelling of another landmark book, Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer. This book, originally published in 1999, was news to me, and it sounds as though it might be on the academic side. An artist named Sabrina Jones recently worked with Mauer to turn it into a more accessible format.

It's pretty successful. Here are some facts from it that sprang out at me.

The increase in crime rates of the late 1960s and 1970s -- which was the excuse for the rise in incarceration rates and the War on Drugs -- was partly the result of increased reporting by local police agencies, which had received increased federal funding to track statistics. As with the autism rate, it's hard to say how much something has increased if you don't have accurate numbers for the earlier years. (page 26)

Reagan's War on Drugs meant federal money flowed everywhere. Twelve regional drug taskforces were set up with a thousand newly hired agents and prosecutors. (page 41)

A 1983 study by Reagan's justice department found that incarceration "does not appear to achieve large reductions in crime" even though it "can cause enormous increases in the prison population." But policy makers ignored that finding, preferring a flawed 1987 study that found each prisoner saved taxpayers over $400,000. The totality of the Reagan-Bush era, 1980 to 1993, saw a 521 percent increase in corrections spending, while cutting employment and training programs in half. (pages 46 and 47)

Bill Clinton danced along the sword blade of "tough on crime," while making noises about drug treatment and community policing. During the 1992 campaign, he flew home to Little Rock to watch an execution of a "mentally impaired black man, [who] had so little conception of what was happening to him [that] at his last meal"  he asked "Can I save my dessert for the morning?" Clinton didn't want to be seen as soft on crime, so too bad for that guy. He was executed.

Alberto Gonzalez, while counsel to George W. Bush as governor of Texas, never showed Bush mitigating evidence or presented a single petition for clemency in a death row case. 152 people were executed in Texas while Bush was governor, more than any governor in 50 years. (page 68)

New York City saw a huge decrease in crime, starting in the 1990s.

Despite this, New York's prison population grew much less than the nation's as a whole, and its jail population actually decreased. The book posits the idea that because the city had spent money stabilizing housing, it reaped the benefit, as compared with Chicago "which let its housing decay, and put its money in law enforcement." (pages 77 and 78)

Now it's time to get back to The Condemnation of Blackness, which supplies the footnotes and proof.

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