How does the current system of mass incarceration in the United States mirror earlier systems of racialized social control?

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In many ways, mass incarceration is similar to other racialized social controls in the past. Black and Hispanic males are locked up more than any other age demographic in the United States. In many cases, police patrol black and Hispanic neighborhoods more than they do upper-class white neighborhoods, thus making...

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In many ways, mass incarceration is similar to other racialized social controls in the past. Black and Hispanic males are locked up more than any other age demographic in the United States. In many cases, police patrol black and Hispanic neighborhoods more than they do upper-class white neighborhoods, thus making it more likely that these demographics will be caught. If a person is convicted of a minor offense that is worthy of probation, it often leads to a downward spiral as the person loses their job or cannot pay court costs, thus leading to continued incarceration and the greater probability of being accused of harsher offenses. Minorities are arrested more often for minor drug offenses and given harsher sentences than whites. The longer one spends in prison, the harder it is to reintegrate back into society; this contributes to increased rates of recidivism as people go back to prison due to a lack of opportunity on the outside.

These social controls existed in the past as well. African Americans in the post-Civil War South often had to have proof of employment or else they were arrested for idleness and put on chain gangs which were actually slavery for municipalities and states. African Americans were forbidden to travel and many were also arrested or otherwise harassed for loitering when a white person could do the same thing without any punishment.

Due to increased policing and bias in all levels of society, African American and Hispanic males are suspected of committing crimes even if they are innocent. Once caught, they serve longer jail sentences than other groups and are more likely to be re-arrested. This only follows a pattern that has existed in American history.

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Michelle Alexander has recently written that the current system of mass incarceration "looks and feels a lot like an era we supposedly left behind." What she means is that the current criminal justice system, both in effect and, she argues, by design, sets African American men and women aside as a class, discriminating against them on a vast scale. In effect, African Americans are criminalized by a society.

The numbers support this contention. According to data collected by the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men, in numbers vastly disproportionate to the percentage of the population. Despite the fact that African Americans represent 12% of the overall adult population of the United States, they make up over one-third of the people incarcerated. This is largely due to systemic poverty and laws that have had the effect of criminalizing certain drugs, for example, but it is also due to overt discrimination against people of color in the criminal justice system.

The effects are dramatic—a sizable percentage of the African American male population is statistically likely to wind up in prison. For each person involved, this takes away many of their most productive years and makes finding a job more difficult, if not impossible. Because many states do not allow former felons to vote, it disfranchises huge swaths of the black community. It also sets black men in particular apart as a criminal class.

Each of these has the effect of perpetuating discrimination in ways as powerful as the African American community faced amid the depths of Jim Crow segregation.

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