The horrible events in Charlottesville this past weekend should serve as a reminder that addressing racism and White Supremacy is essential to unpacking the incredibly complicated and powerful systemic structure of mass incarceration.   The two are deeply intertwined and inseparable, especially considering one in three Black men will go to prison in their lifetime as compared to one in seventeen White men.  With the United States as a supposed World leader, to accept that the plight of one-third of all Black men is prison, is also acceptance of the premise that Black lives matter less in the United States.

Not only does the way we massly incarcerate Black men have historical roots in slavery and Jim Crow, but many current justice policies serve as perpetual reminders of our horrid past of White Supremacy.

Especially in the South, past lawmakers and law enforcement were almost all White Supremacists at one time, and the DNA of those resulting laws and policies are manifestations of that White Supremacy with contemporary disparate consequences.   The way we police communities, the way law enforcement interacts with communities of color and legally may use race as a means of profiling for criminal activity, and the way that we literally cage people even before they have been convicted of doing anything wrong, are all remnants of slavery and Jim Crow just to name a few.   These practices are all okay today because Americans largely accept the parts of American culture heavily derived from White Supremacy.   45’s failure to immediately and swiftly disavow the Charlottesville events and murder are merely a very prominent example.   The push-back of political leaders on dismantling monuments honoring members of the confederacy are another (in 2013 Tennessee passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act and it was amended to make removal even harder in 2016).

Not only is White Supremacy a truth in federal and state laws and law enforcement, but it is also a truth in current thinking, even for many that do not believe they are racist.   Implicit bias research has illuminated that the racialized way that Americans have been conditioned to see crime is very much rooted in White supremacist ideology, and has serious implications for both law enforcement and American penal philosophy generally.    It’s why we have to “analyze” whether victims of police shootings have criminal histories or whether an officer was rationally “fearful” in unnecessarily taking the life of an unarmed civilian.

While I would love this group to simply move forward with bright-eyed proposals for criminal justice reform solely focused on pushing those critical changes forward, ignoring the issue of race is impractical and impossible in this work.  How do you push such policies forward when American thinking is deeply entrenched in a racist, sexist and violent past that has only lightly recognized its transgressions against People of Color?

That White life is supreme, that it is privileged, is an unfortunate truth for non-White Americans. It can also be infectious and terroristic when that privileged is boldly embraced and hurled into mainstream culture as demonstrated in recent months and this past weekend.

Accordingly, we should proceed with an abundance of caution with ANY criminal justice reform that does not address racism, bias, and racial disparity.   The mass incarceration reform movement has only gotten some (weak) wind now that an economic case can be made to incentivize reform and the U.S. is spending Billions of dollars a year on corrections federally and locally.  Although this economic reality has been one of the greatest sources of bi-partisan support, ignoring the highly racialized aspects of mass incarceration, or failing to address these issues at the forefront is a mistake.

Further, it is hard to imagine how reforms can be addressed in a bi-partisan way when many on the Right refuse to acknowledge the critical role that White Supremacy plays in the current criminal justice climate.  The inability of this country to face the lie of White Supremacy seriously constrains the thought possibilities of meaningful justice reform.   It is a mistake that Conservatives make often–the willingness to ignore how race has permeated the very fiber of every important system in this country–and it has recently caused the pirating of the GOP by 45.

Addressing by speaking truth to power is not enough.  We must have people power to make the difference.  It takes coalition work by those people who are brave enough to address it in the face of difficult times–often thankless and unfulfilling coalition work. Coalition work requires thinking about the interdependencies of oppression.  Such theories about how to challenge White Supremacy through coalition work can be used in transformative ways in our quest for justice.   As noted by Professor Mari Matsuda, work in coalitions is essential to challenging systemic oppression because oppressive structures are so interdependent that unless they are eradicated, others will grow back in new places.   Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, as well as other scholars, have detailed how we are currently reaping the atrocities of the previously sowed systemic structures of slavery and Jim Crow.

We are a diverse group, so addressing race is not easy, but we simply cannot do one without the other.    Doing what is comfortable, and ignoring racism and White Supremacy, will not protect the beneficiaries of our mission from oppression.  Our “colorblind” ideology of the past fifty years illustrates that it never has.


Please  join us for our 8/21 MI Institute-Justice League meeting, where we will discuss how the consequences of Americans’ strong association of crime with Blacks and Latinos extend far beyond policing.  For more info, click here.


Written by demefrank

mother, womanist, law prof, prison abolitionist. Demetria does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from the viewpoints expressed in this article or post.

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