In 1960 the United States imprisoned people at about the same rate as other developed capitalist countries. Today the United States imprisons people at a far higher rate than any other country on which reliable statistics exist. Moreover, black people are currently imprisoned at about seven times the rate of white people.
What explains these grim realities? I will argue the basic cause is the weakness of the United States’ working class, which makes it extremely difficult to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. This means the pathologies induced by capitalist development are dealt with by an explosion of punishment rather than by the more expensive but compassionate route of correcting the root causes of crime.
The latter would involve social programs to create jobs, expand housing, improve education and increase welfare (as recommended by the Kerner Commission in 1968). And a major source of U.S. working class weakness is racism, which has always made it difficult to form a truly unified working class.
Imprisonment disparities between white and black people were established after the collapse of Reconstruction in the 1870s and have increased only modestly thereafter. By 1900, black people were imprisoned at about three times the rate of white people. But what has accelerated immensely over the last 70 years is the gap between the incarceration rates of rich and poor people. In 1950, high school dropouts were imprisoned at about eight times the rate of college graduates. Today the imprisonment rate of high school dropouts is 50 times that of college graduates. In 2017, for example, a white high school dropout was 15 times more likely to be in prison than a black college graduate.
What caused the explosion of imprisonment after 1960? The main cause was the economic devastation of U.S. central cities after 1960, a devastation which disproportionately impacted the black working class. After World War Two, U.S. industry began relocating from northern central cities to suburbs, to the south, and to foreign countries.
During this same period, white middle and working class people often moved to the suburbs, but racism hindered any such migration by black people. Simultaneously, the collapse of share cropping in the south prompted a surge of black workers into central cities of the north. Consequently, these cities experienced the dismal triad of job flight, enhanced ghettoization, and a plummeting tax base. Their plight became even more dire with the severe economic downturn of the 1970s.
Sociologists John Clegg and Adaner Usami say that “crime is an index of oppression” (“The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration”, Catalyst, Fall 2019, p. 49). The oppressive combination of joblessness, inadequate housing, and declining social services produced a sharp upsurge of crime after 1960. The upsurge of crime occurred among both white and black youth, but the latter, being more strongly impacted by joblessness etc., experienced a greater crime increase.
The post 1960 crime wave frightened the American public. It triggered widespread demands, from both white and black citizens, for effective remedial action. Our government could have responded with massive social programs such as those recommended by the Kerner Commission.
Indeed, this would have happened if the U.S. working class was strong and unimpaired by racism. Instead, our government (federal, state, and local) reacted with a vast expansion of the prison system, an expansion which has created incarceration capitalism. This punitive response occurred because (a) it was cheaper, because (b) our political leaders are infected by neo-liberal austerity ideology, because (c) the U.S. capitalist class refuses to redistribute its wealth, and because (d) the occupants of prisons are disproportionately non-white.
Full equality is not possible under a capitalist economic system, but the use of economic surplus can nevertheless vary greatly. In terms of welfare expenditures, the United States has always been among the stingiest capitalist countries. Many capitalist societies experienced a spike in crime during the 1960s. But other capitalist societies responded far less punitively than our own. In terms of the ratio of social spending to punitive spending, the USA ranks at the very bottom of all developed capitalist societies.
In our country social spending is 12 times as great as punitive spending. In Norway social spending is 30 times as great as punitive spending; in Finland it is 40 times as great, and in Denmark social spending is 50 times as great as punitive spending (Clegg and Usami, Figure 8).
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