Race, Incarceration,
And American Values

Glenn C. Loury
(Boston Review)
American's prisons represent a "quarantine zone," more racially biased than not. The black/white ratio of jails is eight-to-one (compared to a 2/1 ratio of infant-mortality and a 1/5 ratio of net worth).

    A black male resident of California is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college.

Do draconian laws work? Drug prices "have fallen sharply over the past twenty years." Hospital visits may offer more neutral figures. Recent statistics show that "drug-related visits to emergency rooms ... rose steadily during the 1980s and 1990s." Harsh drug laws were not "keeping drugs away from those who sought them." Furthermore, "white high school seniors reported using drugs at a significantly higher rate than black high school seniors." Crime and punishment in America, Loury suggests, "have a color."

    Among black male high school dropouts aged twenty to forty, a third were locked up on any given day in 2000.

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Incarceration here is seen not as a personal payment for a wrong, but as a path to "social hygiene." One writer refers to it as "frontlash," one that has grown out of the civil rights battles of fifty years ago. Rather than a fight for the continuation of "racial apartheid," the focus has been shifted to "the seemingly race-neutral concern over crime."

    This moves the debate from social reform to punishment.

The price is high, very high. The third largest employer in the United States, after Manpower and Wal-Mart, is "corrections." Expenditures for prisons went from $7,000,000,000 in 1980 to $57,000,000,000 in 2000. One writer here --- in the "Forum" section --- calls it "penal Big Government." Loïc Wacquant calls it hyper-incarceration, one that is aimed at a single particular class, "lower-class black men in the crumbling ghetto." Prison is a ridiculously expensive vocational training school, one that engulfs all --- those who have been jailed, the administration, even the guards.

    Incarceration begets more incarceration, and incarceration also begets more crime, which in turn invites more aggressive enforcement, which then re-supplies incarceration.

Tommie Shelby says that it might remind one of Max Weber's truism on human nature: "The privileged want to believe that they merit their advantages and that the disadvantaged deserve all their hardships."

Race, Incarceration, and American Values is a breath-takingly concise book, a mere eighty-four pages. It should leave the reader with sorrow ... the sorrow that we should have created such a vicious system that betrays all involved.

--- Lolita Lark
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