Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Redesigning Racial Caste in America Via Mass Incarceration

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Redesigning Racial Caste in America Via Mass Incarceration

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: This article argues that the era of mass incarceration can be understood as a new tactic in the history of American racism. Slavery was ended by the Civil War, but after Reconstruction, the gains of the former slaves were eroded by Jim Crow (a rigid pattern of racial segregation), lynching, disenfranchisement, sharecropping, tenantry, unequal educational resources, terrorism, and convict leasing. The Civil Rights Movement struck down legal barriers, but we have chosen to deal with the problems of poverty and race not so differently than we have in the past. The modem version of convict leasing, is mass incarceration. This article documents the dramatic change in American drug policy beginning with Reagan's October, 1982 announcement of the War on Drugs, the subsequent 274 percent growth in the prison and jail populations, and the devastating and disproportionate effect on inner city African Americans. Just as the Jim Crow laws were a reaction to the freeing of the slaves after the Civil War, mass incarceration can be understood as a reaction to the Civil Rights Movement.

REDESIGNING RACIAL CASTE IN AMERICA VIA MASS INCARCERATION

Americans know that we have a history of slavery in this country, yet, how much do we really know? The trauma literature lists the Holocaust, floods, earthquakes, sexual abuse, rape, etc., but includes neither slavery nor racism. Of the two highly regarded texts on trauma, Herman (1992) and Janoff-Bulman (1992), only Herman lists slavery in the index, and even she "does not explicitly mention American slavery" (Gump, 2000, p. 624). Only recently has psychoanalysis turned any attention to slavery and racism. Instead sexuality has been the "central organizing formation of identity, to the exclusion of other forms of social difference" (Suchet, 2004, p. 423). In a similar way, Americans know about the current phenomenon of mass incarceration, but do not really know. We do not mention prison when we wonder, "Where have all the black men gone?" or "Where are all the black fathers" (Alexander, 2010, pp.178180)? We know; however, we would prefer not to know. Yet, the era of mass incarceration can be understood as a new stage in the history of American racial inequality (Western and Wildeman, 2009, p. 221, Alexander, 2010, p. 58).

The end of slavery did not end the trauma and shame for African Americans.. What followed slavery was the "old" Jim Crow (a rigid pattern of racial segregation), lynching, disenfranchisement, an economic system-sharecropping and tenantry-that left little room for ambition or hope, and perpetuated unequal educational resources, terrorism, racial, caricatures, and every form of humiliation and brutalization imaginable (Litwack, 2009, p. 6). In the late 19th and early 20th century, some two or three black Southerners were hanged, burned at the stake, or quietly murdered every week. These events were generated by a "belief system that defined a people not only as inferior but as less than human." White people "posed for photographs beneath black bodies hanging from a tree or beside the charred remains of a Negro" (Litwack, 2009, pp. 23-24). Litwack states:

This is not an easy history to absorb. The images and details can numb the mind, deaden the senses: they tax our sense of who we are and who we have been. No wonder lynchings occupy such a small place in our historical literature and textbooks. The omission has been called a "double lynching" because it also murdered any memory of the crime (Litwack, 2009, p. 24).

Thus, not only have slavery and racism been absent from trauma literature and psychoanalytic literature until recently, but the lynchings of African Americans "only occupy such a small place" in our historical literature and textbooks.

In addition to the horrors described by Litwack above, convict leasing, which originated in Mississippi and soon spread to other Southern states, ensured that "a generation of black prisoners [in Mississippi] would suffer and die under conditions far worse than anything they had ever experienced as slaves" (Oshinsky, 1996, p 35). …

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