Despite the progress seen in the United States throughout the 20th century regarding equal rights for all, the unfortunate reality is that the curse of racism is still running strong. On the larger scale one may assume the issues surrounding racial inequality are extinct; after all the country has elected a black president, and African Americans as well as all minorities have the exact same right in America as the white citizens. However, it is the less pleasant areas in life that society needs to examine in order to see the problem. Inner cities are full of the African American and Hispanic population, in addition to which, the two most likely racial groups to be incarcerated by the criminal justice system of the United States of America. It would be a disgrace to call it a coincidence, because it truly is not. The following essay will focus on how incarceration of the black and Latino populations is a form of racial inequality that conflicts with the core American values identified by Wright and Rogers; what Durkheim would say about this “function” of inequality in modern society; as well as Marx and DuBois’ perspectives on the issue if they were to be present.
The current prison industrial complex is one of the most unfair aspects of racial inequality to exist in America in the 21st century. According to Alexander (2010), “The mass incarceration of poor people of color in the United States amounts to a new caste system—one specifically tailored to the political, economic, and social challenges of our time. It is the moral equivalent of Jim Crow”(2010: 7). The concept of the practice of a racial caste system is controversial and troubling for the modern American society, and would go against the core American values of Wright and Robin. If one were to examine the most obvious of the core values that racial inequality through incarceration conflict most with are fairness and democracy. In “Contemporary American Society” (2009), the following definitions are given in regard to fairness and democracy according to Wright and Robin:
Fairness- the idea that people should be treated justly and that they should have equal `opportunity to make something of their lives without unfair privileges and unfair disadvantages.
Democracy- the idea that our public decisions should reflect the collective will of equal citizens rather than of powerful and privileged elites.
The nature of the prison system attacks the poorest members of society who are already struggling against the unfair circumstance preventing them from providing themselves and their families with the bare necessities. Meanwhile the privileged members who sit back and shun these ‘hoodlums’ are often financially and politically gaining from the prison system, which has become “big business” due to privatization.
If Durkheim were to contribute to the conversation of the horrors of racial inequality that is evident from the prison system, he would say that it facilitates the flow of what is necessary for society to function efficiently. Durkheim may have seen the prison industrial complex responsible for the mass incarceration of African American and Hispanic populations as a type of division of labor that was essential to balance the economic status of the nation as it progresses at a rapid rate that otherwise would not be kept us with. However, Marx would have said that although it is a type of division of labor that is occurring through the mass incarceration of minorities, one must understand that this inequality of circumstances is not just by chance, but that it has been deliberately implemented for social stratification and will create further division in social class. Despite which of the two views are most accurate, the one area of agreement that must be acknowledge is that in the midst of the discussion had by Marx and Durkheim, there must be one group that has the power and privilege, which clearly belongs to the white race. Hence racial inequality is present and despite the justification of any sociologist.
Finally, I would like to explore the topic of racial inequality through incarceration from the ideas and concepts of the great African American scholar and author, WEB DuBois. The current traumatic condition of the prison system filled with an enormous number of African American prisoners is something that DuBois would have correlated to the lives of slave. Slavery involved the complete lack of rights and freedom, which is no different from the position of the prisoners who are incarcerated, often for blue-collar petty crimes. These colored men and women who are born into unfortunate low socio-economic conditions that have been the only reality for generations before them are the most likely victims of the criminal justice system. Not only are these individuals desperate for the basic necessities of life, but often suffer with mental and emotional diseases that are not addressed. These are the people that the system is taking advantage of to fill their private prison for profit as they use the free and cheap labor of these poor individuals who never had a proper chance to excel as their privileged white counterparts did.
In addition to the numerous reasons for how racial inequality is prevalent through the mass incarceration of colored people, there is the vicious cycle that is trapping and reinforcing these hopeless conditions. Once the felons are freed, the opportunities for employment and progression are further hindered throwing them back into the loop of desperation where drugs, violence, and theft are abounded. Society must recognize this inhuman practice of racism and classism that is continuing to progress with no end in sight.
Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of
Colorblindness. New York, New York: The New Press.
Mills, Wright, and Joel Rogers. 2009. Contemporary American Society. Retrieved July 10, 2015