Sept. 9 is my 70th birthday (all first-person singular pronouns refer to Stephen) and also, as it happens, the first day of a national prison strike. Scheduled to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the brutally suppressed Attica Prison uprising — see Heather Ann Thompson’s powerful “Blood in the Water” — the strike takes aim at mass incarceration, the forced labor (“prison slavery”) that sustains it, the “school-to-prison pipeline” and “police terror.” Michelle Alexander has called mass incarceration “The New Jim Crow.” The Call to Strike states that, given its historical ancestry and the violent, coercive methods with which prisons enforce (often unpaid or virtually unpaid) labor, mass incarceration is new form of “Slavery in America,” and it calls on those of us on the outside to support prisoners’ taking direct action to end this slavery, as they say, “by ceasing to be slaves.”
A 70th birthday is a time to reflect, to contend anew with the events that have brought our country to this pass. Here are some thoughts. In the current moment, when the visibility of police violence requires us to proclaim the most basic truths, that Black Lives Matter, it is first necessary to recognize mass incarceration as both an effect and reproduction of race and radicalized violence in the United States.
I was born two years after the passage of the GI Bill in 1944, which cemented an entire generation of white Americans solidly in the property-owning middle class through federally backed, low-cost mortgages and business loans. African-Americans were systematically denied these benefits, as the Federal Housing Authority’s “redlining” policies refused to back the very same mortgage program in neighborhoods to which blacks were confined by discrimination, coercion and death threats from vigilante whites (generally with tacit or explicit support of local police). This left black families at the mercy of predatory lending schemes that operated without legal accountability or even fair market rivals. It is a reflection of this history that whereas median black household income is about 60 percent of that of whites, median black household wealth is less than 7 percent of that of whites ($6,349 to $88,599, according to the U.S. Census Bureau). This means that half of African-American households are, at best, a layoff away from dire exigency.
In my lifetime, I have seen the post-war era’s promise of a free, open, affluent society, to which all citizens can freely contribute and from which all citizens can fairly benefit, wither away. Under the pressure of increasingly conservative and neoliberal politics — seen in mass-scale public divestment and the evisceration of social programs — our nation’s poor have been trapped, denied access to proper education and job training, facing the double-bind of exclusion from the labor market and the criminalization of poverty.
It is true, of course, that the legislative and judicial victories won during the civil rights movement, like Brown v. Board of Education’s outlawing of formally segregated schools in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, pledged to secure African-Americans’ civil and political rights. But without the social and economic power to capitalize on these political gains, their benefits were largely never realized. Milliken v. Bradley (1974) effectively reversed desegregation in schools, so that de facto housing segregation now guarantees de facto school segregation. Similarly, hard-won voting rights, under constant attack since signed into law, are now threatened by restrictive voter ID laws — one described by the North Carolina judge who struck it down as “targeting African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
Struggling to survive without wealth accumulated through property ownership, African-Americans have been especially vulnerable to skyrocketing income and wealth inequality, predatory student-debt schemes and finally and most cruelly, to mass incarceration. Although about 10 percent of black males who did not complete high school were incarcerated in 1980, by 2008 the number had jumped to roughly 37 percent. Overall, the chances are roughly one-in-three that a black male will be imprisoned sometime during his life.
Forty-five years ago, incarcerated people being held in horrific conditions rose up at Attica, boldly reminding the American people that they were indeed human beings, worthy of basic human consideration and respect, rather than living conditions that sentenced them to slow and painful death behind bars. Thirty-three were slaughtered, and nine hostages killed in the crossfire, when the state abruptly ended negotiations and police and National Guard stormed the prison with guns blazing. Prison reforms over these last 45 years may have curbed the most egregious and unhealthy living conditions, but our nation’s prisons remain violent, grim, inhumane institutions to which too many African-Americans and people of color are confined, denied not only freedom of movement, but basic civil and human rights.
As neoliberalism’s promise of affluence for all has faded and been shown instead to breed massive inequality, global instability and insecurity; and with austerity economics delivering poverty to growing masses of the former middle class; new forms of hate, barbarism, xenophobia and violent racism are entering the public sphere in unpredicted and alarming ways, from legislated attacks on women’s health care to generalized xenophobia and the recurrent rise of white supremacy and the extreme right wing. As a world, we face a choice, as always, between humanity and barbaric violence, and we can only start to make that choice by recognizing the elements of barbarity we have already accepted as normal. On Sept. 9, 2016, we are challenged, again, to end slavery in America. Please accept the challenge and support the prison strike.
Stephen Darwall is a professor in the Philosophy department. He graduated Yale College in 1968. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org .
Will Darwall is a worker-owner atW/N W/N Coffee Bar. Contact him at email@example.com .