15 Case: The Tangible Effects of Racial Capitalism in United States Social Structuring

In order to interrogate mass incarceration’s links to racial oppression, we can look to the fictional stories of two incarcerated Black men. Yaa Gyasi dedicates a chapter in her novel Homegoing to H, a formerly enslaved man who is incarcerated for looking at a white woman, and James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk details protagonist Tish’s fight to free her fiance, Fonny, who has been wrongfully imprisoned for a rape he didn’t commited. Each of these literary works can be treated as a case study of the U.S. prison system’s criminalization of populations based on race–in order to analyze each story further, we must first examine some key pieces of evidence.

When looking for instances of racial capitalism, one should look no further than wealth disparities in America. According to OXFAM America (2020), the average wealth of all white Americans in 2016 was approximately $933,700, while Black Americans had an average wealth of $138,200 and Latine Americans an average of $191,200. Based on median wealth for the same year, Black household had only 10 cents for every dollar of white households. In fact, the 400 richest white Ameicans families have more wealth than the entire Black community (8). These inequalities have only worsened with time. Although white American were 60% of the U.S. population in 2020, they owned 92% of corporate shares. Black Americans, who make up 13% of the population, and Latine Americans, who represent 18%, each owned only 1.6% of corporate shares (9). The COVID 19 pandemic has only exacerbated racial wealth disparities, disproportionately affecting working Black and Latine families (5).

In addition to keeping people of color in poverty, racial capitalism maintains its hierarchy through criminalization. The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, and much of this incarceration is racially motivated. In her study on the relationship between American poverty and crime, Ehrenreich (2011) writes, “…by far the most reliable way to be criminalized by poverty is to have the wrong skin color” (6). Ehrenreich describes how Americans of color, and specifically Black Americans, are denied resources by both economic systems and the state, kept in cycles of poverty, and then criminalized for that poverty. “Flick a cigarette and you’re ‘littering’; wear the wrong color T-shirt and you’re displaying gang allegiance. Just strolling around in a dodgy neighborhood can mark you as a potential suspect. And don’t get grumpy about it or you could be ‘resisting arrest,’” (Ehrenreich 2011: 6).

The racial disparities present in mass incarceration have become even more salient in recent years. As of 2019, at least 1 in every 20 inmates is Black in eleven states. More than half the prison population of Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia is Black. Maryland, whose state population is only a third Black, has a 72% Black prison population. The state of Oklahoma has the highest overall Black incarceration rate in the United States; one in every 15 Black men over 18 is incarcerated. At the state level, Black Americans experienced an incarceration rate that is 5.1 times higher that of whites; in the states of Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Vermont the incarceration rate is 10 times higher. The incarceration rate for Latine Americans is 1.4 times higher than that of whites–disparities between white and Latine populations are especially high in the states of New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania (Nellis 2019).

In her ethnography of Chicago’s Cook County Jail, Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve (2020) describes the “Jim Crow–style social arrangement on the outside perimeter of the courthouse” (16)–racial inequity is built into the very layout building. Gonzalez Van Cleve points to the courthouse’s two entrances that separate the mostly Black and Brown defendants, families, witnesses, and children from the white professionals. Indeed, an overwhelming majority of the handlers of Cook County cases are white; 84% of state’s attorneys, 69% of public defenders, and 74% of trial court judges. This is in stark contrast with the racial make-up of Cook County felony defendants in 2004, 69% of which were Black (17). The seperate entrances of Chicago’s most populated jail struck Gonzalez Van Cleve as the “first clue of a double system of justice—one for people of color and the poor, and one for wealthy whites” (16). This segregation affected even the researchers of color on Van Cleve’s team, one of whom was asked if he needed help finding out where his case was by a sheriff–the researcher’s racial identity marked him as criminal in the space of the courtroom. “In contrast to the privileges extended to white researchers, blacks and Latinos—including researchers from this study—were mistaken for defendants and treated like criminals” (25).

Gonzalez Van Cleve’s research also reveals the way that prisons are systematically constructed next to majority Black and Brown populations. “The vast majority, 67.3 percent, of those admitted to the jail are young African American males between the ages of twenty-one and thirty from Chicago’s South Side and West Side—creating a perversely convenient arrangement whereby the jail is closest to its target population” (19). It is both quantitatively and qualitatively evident that the United States carceral system criminalizes populations on the basis of race.



Power: Origins, Instances, and Protest Copyright © by Candy Lucero-Sanchez; Leah Rivera; Leslie Paz; and Liam Madigan. All Rights Reserved.

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