Incarceration Nation For Young Black Males
by Seth Sandronsky
April 19, 2003
Behind bars in America? Your chances are highest if you’re a young black male.
For the year ended last June 30, 12 percent of the U.S. black male population between 20 and 39 years old was incarcerated, the Justice Department recently reported. For males in the same age group, Hispanics were four percent of the prison population, while whites accounted for 1.6 percent.
Last June, the total U.S. prison population reached 2.1 million, a record.
This isn’t what democracy looks like.
The number of people incarcerated in the nation has quadrupled since the mid-1970s, the New York Times editorialized on April 9. Editorially, our newspaper of record blamed mandatory prison sentences for low-level drug sales and use.
The racist war on drug is certainly a factor. However, what the paper’s editors didn’t say about it is worth noting.
This drug war has removed a section of the working class from the nation’s job market. What has caused this class war on a “community of color?”
In brief, America’s post-World War II boom ended with the Vietnam War. Since the mid-1970s, the U.S. economy has grown more slowly than it did during the so-called “Golden Age” of growth, 1945-73.
Under capitalism, slow growth means that investment capital has a problem finding profitable investments. This creates surplus capital, which, in turn, creates surplus workers.
As the last hired and the first fired, black workers became increasingly expendable in the U.S. after the 1945-73 era. In brief, the labor-power of young black males was needed less and less by commercial interests.
Currently, these imprisoned human beings with black skin would be earning an hourly wage if they could be profitably put to work by employers. These potential employees aren’t working for a wage now because the economy is unable to match idle hands with needed work, unless there’s a profit to be made.
Consider the quadrupling of the U.S. prison population during the past 30 years and the slow deindustrialization of the American economy. Jails and prisons have boomed as industrial corporations have and continue to cut thousands of well-paying jobs.
This trend has had a huge impact in cities such as Detroit, home to Big Auto, and the industrial Northeast generally. It has been a long, slow process of U.S. factories closing to re-open in low-wage countries, creating a kind of internal Third World here.
U.S. car makers, for instance, “took two decades to reduce employment from 1.5 million to 732,000,” wrote historian Robert Brenner. American workers in related industries have suffered likewise.
Examples include the glass, rubber and steel sectors, hit hard by layoffs.
This downward trend is ongoing, with 36,000 manufacturing jobs disappearing in March, the Labor Department said.
For February and March, the U.S. economy shed nearly a half-million jobs. The institution of employment reflects the color line.
The official March jobless rate was 5.8 percent, the Labor Department reported. Strikingly, the unemployment rate for blacks was 10.2 percent versus 5.1 percent for whites and 7.5 percent for Hispanics.
Racism in capitalism. It’s more American than apple pies.
On that note, the politically powerless get capitalism without much of a helping hand from strong institutions. Case in point is the Federal Reserve, which is considering an “emergency economic rescue plan” for commercial banks and financial markets if the current recovery falters.
The politically powerful get the opposite. Where is the consideration of a monetary rescue plan for America’s black underclass?
They would benefit greatly today. Think of what an “Operation Black Freedom” could do for unmet human needs in African-American communities from “sea to shining sea.”
But a multibillion aid package for them isn’t in the cards any time soon. Currently, the Bush White House is far too busy waging what it terms an occupation for freedom in Iraq.
Meanwhile, one group of Americans with weak job market leverage is disproportionately locked up in the nation’s jails and prisons. This is mainly why young black males are so likely to be incarcerated now.
To maintain this racist state of affairs, politicians and pundits alike must try to keep the public confused about the role played by the economic system. Officially, blame must be the lot of victimized, not the victimizer.
Nothing could be further from the truth, which in the American propaganda system ensures that there will be little or no public awareness or discussion of the roots of today’s prison crisis for young black males.
Unless, of course, we decide to take a stand and speak out.
Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento/Yolo Peace Action, and an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive newspaper. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org