From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Necessary Extremes
Of the supplementary readings provided, I found “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration” by Loïc Wacquant the most intriguing. This particular article is based on “rethinking the ‘race question’ in the US” and the disproportionate institutions set apart for African Americans in the United States. The volatile beginnings of African Americans presented obvious hardships for future advancement, but Wacquant argues that they still suffer from a form of modern slavery.
Wacquant introduces four “peculiar institutions” that are responsible for the “control” of African Americans throughout United States history: chattel slavery, the Jim Crow system, the ghetto, and arguably the dark ghetto and the carceral apparatus. Chattel slavery was the origin of African American existence and the ultimate foundation of racial division. Jim Crow legislation provided “legally enforced discrimination” after the abolition of slavery. The ghetto is the concept of the urbanization of African Americans in Northern industrial areas, creating racially divided metropolitan areas. The final institution, the dark ghetto and carceral apparatus, refers to the “caste” of urban blacks and their mass incarceration epidemic.
Chattel slavery in the United States took place from 1619 to 1865. Immediately upon arriving in America, Africans were placed in a lower and inhuman caste in society. As Wacquant states, “[a]n unforeseen by-product of the systematic enslavement and dehumanization of Africans and their descendants on North American soil was the creation of a racial cast line separating what would later become labeled ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’” (2002:45). Also, the concept of “race” was planted in Americans’ heads. The biblical theory that Africans were inferior and worth less than whites – three-fifths of a man, to be precise (Wacquant 45) – provided plantation owners with a source of free, dehumanized laborers. The truth in these statements is undeniable.
With the abolition of slavery, the South took up a new way to maintain white superiority: the Jim Crow system of legislation. These segregating laws were enacted in 1865 and remained in place until1965. African Americans were no longer enslaved by law, but became sharecroppers, dependent on their employers and vastly without property. In addition to the lack of basic freedoms, African Americans were still lower-class citizens (Wacqaunt 2002:46). Violating the segregation laws led to what Waquant calls “ritual caste murder” (2002:47), or whites murdering African Americans who, with or without intention, breached either the formal or informal segregation laws. Slavery may have been abolished, but the ability to dehumanize black individuals remained.
Beginning in 1915, African Americans began to flee the South in great numbers, hoping to escape the brutal discrimination. The promise of work in the industrialized North provided enough incentive to emigrate. However, the myth of equality and citizenship led to the establishment of the ghetto, Wacquant’s third institution. Although African Americans were better off in the North, they were still marginalized for their cheap labor and flexibility (Wacquant 2002:48). African Americans were not assimilated into the white culture, nor were they considered social equals. Wacquant compares the “ghettoization” of African American industrial workers to that of previous bearers of the exclusionary cross: Jews. The concept of an “ethnoracial prison” is not a new one.
Wacquant attributes ghettos’ existence to the existence of an “outcast group” (2002:51). In addition to an outcast group, stigma, constraint, territorial confinement, and institutional encasement contribute to “ethnoracial control,” resulting in the formation of ghettos. Wacquant goes on to elaborate upon the prison system as a “judicial ghetto” (2002:51). A prison system containing the “outcast group,” within which it develops “their own argot...
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