Racialized Mass Imprisonment: Counterinsurgency and Genocide
Mass imprisonment and the growth and concentration of increasingly militarized police in the oppressed communities are, like the slave patrols and racial terror of the old plantation slave system, weapons of counterinsurgency aimed at containing potentially rebellious social groups, in order to preserve and protect the political-economic ascendancy of the ruling class.
The distinction is that whereas yesterday the principal targeted group – namely New Afrikans/Blacks – were the driving labor force of the plantation system and therefore vital to the ruling class’s wealth and power, today their profit value is marginal at best, while the desperation and insecurity of their collective social-economic condition makes them potentially the most rebellious internal group and thus most threatening to the status quo.
So containment today has a genocidal dimension much like the planters’ and subsequent systems’ policies toward the First Nations.
The racialization of slavery
As a counterinsurgency strategy the racialization of slavery was deliberate. It began in the late 17th century in response to frequent slave revolts that rocked the English colonial slave system here in Amerika, in which Afrikans, Europeans and Natives were equally enslaved and united in resisting. One such revolt (Bacon’s rebellion) overthrew the colonial government of Virginia in 1676 and burned down the capitol.
After putting down the revolt, the colonial rulers passed laws – beginning in 1682 – which created the racialized classifications of ‘white’ and ‘Negro,’ and began phasing out the enslavement of ‘whites’ while making ‘Negroes’ permanent hereditary slaves. The ‘Negro’ was defined as anyone having a single drop of Afrikan blood, with the slave status passing from mother to child. The slave patrol system was created to enforce and reinforce this social order.
As slave patrols, all whites were induced to serve as a collective policing force of the plantation system, to enforce the racial order and curb slave rebellions through imposing exceptionally brutal public terror by beatings, maimings and lynchings of slaves. Such public brutality was the norm of plantation social life and served as a pressure release for the frustrations of poor whites that might otherwise have been directed at the ruling class that was the actual cause of their misery and insecurity.
The Civil War only reformed this system. The 13th Amendment legalized slavery as punishment for crime rather than as an explicitly race-based condition. However, racial stratification as an element of social control was not to end. Immediately upon passage of the 13th Amendment, criminal laws were enacted across the South called “Black Codes,” with the purpose of preserving the enslavement of New Afrikans/Blacks and the racialized status quo.
The Union came to the aid of New Afrikans/Blacks by occupying the South and backing initiatives to invalidate the Black Codes. But this was done with the ulterior motive of creating an electoral base through which to develop US political ascendancy in the South. This gave rise to Reconstruction, with results very different from what the Union had aimed for, including economic, political, and educational ascension of New Afrikans and a class-based unity developing between them and many poor whites, creating the social base for a united struggle for power exercised from below.1
Southern backlash incited by the old plantation elite was swift and widespread, taking the form of white terroristic violence against New Afrikans and their white allies – especially against those New Afrikans seen as making political and economic gains – and enacting laws to disenfranchise New Afrikans and strip them of basic citizen rights. The Union soon joined the Southern backlash in undermining and ultimately betraying Reconstruction, and restoring racial reaction and the old status quo with the Southern plantation elite back in power.
Racially targeted criminal laws were again asserted as the basis to justify imposing slave-like conditions and segregation (Jim Crow) on New Afrikans/Blacks. Use of the name Jim Crow symbolized the underlying racial purpose of the Southern social practices while disguising them as racially neutral. The name was that of a character in a minstrel show. Minstrel shows were stage-productions popular among Southern whites of that era, where performers (primarily whites), made up in ‘blackface,’ acted out caricatures of New Afrikans/Blacks.
Texas – model of racialized prisons
During the Jim Crow era, chained-together groups of New Afrikan/Black prisoners, working on plantations and roadsides (chain gangs) and contract convict labor became a common scene in the South. Indeed, chain gangs – now called “hoe squads” – are still widely used alongside other unpaid forced labor in the Texas prison system, where I’m imprisoned.
It was especially in Texas that the racialized Southern prison model – now common across Amerika – developed out of the slave plantation. Also, it was Texas that set the model of “convict leasing” which saw prisoners rented out to US corporations under conditions akin to German Nazi labor camps. As Robert Perkinson reported in Texas Tough,
Recorded mortality rates in excess of 20 percent, in some instances, put U.S. Steel on par with German and Japanese companies that profited from slave labor in World War II. But while these corporations have been held to account, U.S. Steel has escaped unscathed. Although the Wall Street Journal recently probed the company’s shameful history, no reparations movement has emerged among former convicts or their descendants.2
The brutality that marked the old slave system has always plagued the US prison system, and especially Texas, of which I’ve written a bit.3 So the punishment industry in Amerika from its very beginning was devised not as a means of addressing or correcting crime, but rather as a system through which to exploit, and contain, select racialized social groups, with Texas still leading the pack:
Texas reigns supreme in the punishment business. With 173,000 inmates and more than twice as many paid employees as Google, Texas’s prison system is the largest in the United States, outstripping even California, which has an overall population 50 percent larger. By almost any measure, Texas stands out. The state’s per capita imprisonment rate (691 per 100,000 residents) is second only to Louisiana’s and three times higher than the Islamic Republic of Iran’s. Although Texas ranks fiftieth among states in the amount of money it spends on indigent criminal defense, it ranks first in prison growth, first in for-profit imprisonment, first in supermax lockdown, first in total number of adults under criminal justice supervision, and a resounding first in executions.4
Mass imprisonment as counterinsurgency
The US mass imprisonment model developed as yet another disguised system of racialized social control and counterinsurgency in specific response to the New Afrikan/Black Liberation movement of the 1950s-60s, that both challenged and discredited the old Jim Crow system of social control, and catalyzed the various rebellious social movements of that day (including the women’s, anti-Vietnam War, Native American, Gay-Lesbian, etc. movements). But this time the policy of containment included more explicitly genocidal dimensions, especially since New Afrikans, like the Natives of the slavery era, have proven to be not only the most persistently rebellious internal group, but a proven catalyst of more systemwide revolt. Plus they are no longer a needed labor force and thus offer little profit value to the ruling class.
Just as the old Jim Crow was devised to carry out a racialist program under pretence of racial neutrality, so too was the post-1960s New Jim Crow of mass imprisonment. This new stage of racialized social control again mobilized white society behind criminalizing the targeted group, this time under cover of a “tough on crime” policy.
This program began with President Richard Nixon’s bid to win white Southern voters over by using racist appeals. As his special counsel John Ehrlichman admitted of Nixon’s 1968 campaign strategy, “the subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”5 Nixon’s principal adviser, H.R. Haldeman, revealed much the same disguised racialist agenda, that Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”6 And here we have the hidden agenda that has colored the US “criminal justice” (sic) and political agenda since, and has been applied by both Republicans and Democrats. The racialist appeals and criminal stigma used by US politicians have been disguised with racially charged code words and stereotypes.
We see this game played from Ronald Reagan’s opening his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been lynched (everyone knew this was a cloaked appeal to those who opposed integration), to George Bush, Sr.’s using the Willie Horton ad in 1988 to rile up racist white opinion against his campaign opponent Michael Dukakis (the ad portrayed Dukakis as having released a convicted Black rapist on a furlough, leading to a young white woman being raped). Bill Clinton did it in portraying welfare recipients as Black women who refused to find work while driving Cadillacs, freeloading off taxpayers; he also created more police jobs than any prior administration and sponsored a number of new criminal laws targeted at the multitudes of poor New Afrikans whom his policies would deprive of ‘legal’ means of survival. Bush Jr. and also Barack Obama continued in this vein, playing to racist white anti-migrant hysteria, etc.
Each of these administrations backed the racially targeted selective drug laws and “Drug War” that saw the US prison population grow eight-fold since the 1970s, especially on account of imprisoning New Afrikans/Blacks, until the matter became the object of recent public and international scandal. This exposure and scandal came in large part from civil rights attorney and law professor Michelle Alexander’s 2010 exposé on the Drug War and mass imprisonment.7 During each of these administrations the government at all levels and media have joined together in criminalizing the image of New Afrikans, playing up criminalized racial stereotypes and concentrating increasingly militarized police forces in their communities, where, like the old slave patrols and white terrorist groups, they use routine murder and violent impunity to terrorize the populations into submission.8 And since the 1970s the government and media have stoked racialist fears to win society-wide white political support for these policies and consequent mass imprisonment targeted especially at New Afrikans.
These and similar practices have played out against Brown people and lower-class whites as well, but I focus here on New Afrikans/Blacks due to the genocidal implications presented in their case.
Poor whites are manipulated as the main shock troops of this process, as the vast majority of newly constructed prisons – especially the harshest and highest security-level prisons – have been located in rural white communities.
The genocide factor
The genocidal dimensions of mass imprisonment and criminalization of New Afrikans are evident in many regards. Foremost there is the systematic depopulation of their communities, destroying of families, removal of mothers and principal caregivers from their homes – which in turn causes great numbers of New Afrikan children to be transferred to government custody or state-sponsored foster-care (as was done to Native children); imprisoning one third of all young New Afrikan males during their most productive years and thereby forcibly preventing procreation or meaningful intimate relationships; allowing deadly diseases to fester and run rampant within US prisons and denying prisoners standard levels of medical care and often any medical care at all; inflicting mental torture on prisoners with widely used solitary confinement, typically targeted at those who hold on to their culture or critical political beliefs (portrayed by prison officials as “gang” activity); confining prisoners at extreme distances from their families and communities, thereby denying them avenues for maintaining healthy family and community ties (again, repeating practices carried out against Native youth); returning prisoners to society under such conditions as to ensure their return to prison (denying them access to public housing and public benefits/services, thus pushing them to resort to ‘crime’ or to live under conditions that violate parole or probation); removal of male role models and independent leaders from New Afrikan communities so that the youth have no positive examples nor respected interventionists, and thus look to their peers, neighborhood gangs and the entertainment media for social examples and influence; again, police targeting of New Afrikan youth with routine brutality and summary murder to inflict terror and passive submission to a system and social order that denies them their basic needs and is violently destroying them and their communities; government-facilitated narcotics infestations of their communities and incitement of “gang” wars (much as was done to Natives with alcohol and inciting inter-tribal wars to destabilize their societies, weaken their resistance, and wipe them out); suppressing, coopting and replacing New Afrikan culture and history with an imported consumerist, hedonistic, degenerate Amerikanized subculture, which is blatant cultural genocide;9 persecuting, subverting, destroying, and actively angling to prevent the development of political groups – like the Black Panther Party – that seek to organize New Afrikans to defend themselves, meet their own needs, and gain a political voice.
Taken in whole and part, these measures and others meet the definitions of genocide as elaborated in international law. The International Convention on Genocide defines genocide as inflicting “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group such as”:
(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.10
The profit factor is secondary
So, although mass imprisonment is a profitable (multi-billion-dollar) enterprise, comparable to the Nazi concentration labor camp system and to the US government’s bounty-payments in the 19th century for the scalps of Native men, women and children (in its drive to seize their land and be rid of their insurgent threat), prison profit is not the driving force of mass imprisonment. Nor is rehabilitation or ‘correction’ of criminal behavior, which is why no one is rehabilitated (except by their own efforts) and recidivism is the scandalous norm. The purpose is containment. And unless we collectively recognize the genocidal as well as the political dimensions of this and act accordingly, we acquiesce not only in the perpetuation of an old scheme of racial divide-and-rule and the systematic destruction of a people, but also in the continued ascendancy of an anti-human imperialist system whose policies cannot but end in exterminating us all, along with the very environment that we need in order to survive.
Dare to struggle, Dare to win!
All Power to the People!
1. New Afrikans had by this point coalesced and evolved into a distinct nationality of people (culturally, psychologically, linguistically, economically, and in their corresponding internal class relations). With their acquisition of land under Reconstruction (land reform) and racial exclusion, both the objective conditions and the subjective strivings for their own identity and territorial independence were organically developing.
2. Robert Perkinson, Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (New York: Henry Holt, 2010), 105.
3. See e.g. Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “U.S. Prison Practices Would Disgrace a Nation of Savages: Texas – A Case on Record” at www.rashidmod.com and in Socialist Viewpoint, vol. 14, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2014); and “Razor Wire Plantations: Amerika’s Ongoing Addiction to Slavery, Cruelty and Genocide” at www.rashidmod.com.
4. Perkinson, Texas Tough, 4.
5. John Ehrlichman, Witness to Power: The Nixon Years (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970), 233.
6. H.R. Haldeman, The Haldeman Diaries (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994), 53.
7. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010/2012).
8. See Steve Martinot, “Probing the Epidemic of Police Murders,” Socialism and Democracy, vol. 27, no. 1 (March 2013).
9. In “National Liberation and Culture,” Amilcar Cabral analyzed the use of attempts to subvert a people’s culture and supplant it with one crafted by an imperialist power as a method of subduing a people.