The Racial Economics of Mass Incarceration

A Critique of Clegg and Usmani

November 8, 2020

The struggle for Black lives  has re-emerged with force in 2020.1Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020. Galvanized by police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the vigilante murder of Ahmaud Arbery, mass uprisings across the US won major concessions in a matter of weeks and turned demands for defunding and abolishing the police into realistic options.2Brian Bean and Sean Larson, “Rebellions Get Results: A List So Far,” Rampant Magazine, June 8, 2020. Racist police brutality is the clear target of this movement and is increasingly seen as a systemic form of oppression.3Haley Pessin, “The Movement for Black Lives is Different This Time,” New Politics, July 4, 2020. Yet behind this frontline force stands an even more ominous phalanx: American prisons. These bloated institutions, along with the courts and Byzantine post-carceral surveillance networks, are widely recognized to be at least as racist and ruthless as the policing that feeds them. Many see racially biased policing as an accomplice to mass incarceration and both as part of a system of race-based social control.

Some, however, beg to differ, and not just the usual reactionary suspects. Sociologists John Clegg and Adaner Usmani counter this view in a recent Catalyst article, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration.” They expend considerable energy attempting to deflate and disprove what they call the “standard story” of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.4John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (2019): 9–53; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010). America’s swollen carceral apparatus and the punitive turn that created it are redefined by them as rational, largely race-blind responses by state and local governments to an objective crime problem. Clegg and Usmani also try to undermine any conception of US imprisonment as a racial control project or as the result of racially charged politics. Rather, in their view, America’s unparalleled human warehousing of Black and Brown men is simply the unfortunate outcome of a weak labor movement and uneven patterns of development. The practical implication of their essay is that economic demands should precede or replace those for racial justice.

We take analytic and activist issue with these claims. Primarily focusing on the former, we detail several areas—internal and external, empirical and theoretical—where Clegg’s and Usmani’s reasoning falls short. Whereas Alexander privileges US racial history and post-Civil Rights politics in the rise of mass imprisonment, Clegg and Usmani privilege economic forces and class relations. But Alexander is not a “race reductionist”: she does not attempt to obliterate any role for class, and her account can indeed be made to incorporate it. Clegg and Usmani, however, remain class reductionist. They downplay proximate race-related causes of imprisonment while ignoring major post-1970s economic changes (often subsumed under “neoliberalism”) that were deeply entangled with the prison boom. We counter their attack on Alexander with a point-by-point defense and economic elaboration, presenting a materialist outline of how race and class combined in the US context to engender mass incarceration. The practical implication of our essay is the inseparability of the struggles for racial and economic justice.5Sean Larson, “The Abolitionist Road to Socialism,” Rampant Magazine, July 23, 2020.

 

Clegg’s and Usmani’s Argument

Clegg’s and Usmani’s argument is complex. It relies on a series of historical claims, sweeping interpretations of US politics and institutions, and empirical inferences about crime and punishment. Boiled down to its essential elements, it consists of nine premises and one far-reaching conclusion. They argue that:

  1. US mass incarceration is not a racial control project because it hasn’t been characterized by rising racial disparities, only rising class disparities.
  2. The federal War on Drugs did not contribute significantly to mass incarceration.
  3. The uneven, racialized pattern of American modernization (long persistence of a pre-industrial “plantation economy” in the South) placed post-war urban Blacks in a precarious position, excluding them from post-war prosperity.
  4. This precarity and economic exclusion, exacerbated by the baby boom and slowing industrial growth, generated a surge in crime within Black communities.
  5. The rise in crime generated public anxiety and demands for political action from both Black and white constituents.
  6. The structure of American federalism militated against a socially redistributive response to the underlying causes of crime (poverty, unemployment, and so on).
  7. The American working class was weak and could not (or did not) effectively demand socially redistributive solutions.
  8. Penal policy is cheaper than social policy and more directly controlled by states and localities.
  9. State and local officials thus responded to public anxiety with increasing punitiveness. They created what appears to be a “system” of mass incarceration but is actually a collection of state and local sub-systems.
  10. Therefore, US mass incarceration has “economic” rather than racial-political origins. It “is the story of the underdevelopment of American social democracy.” It is not a system of race-based social control but the result of myriad political responses to crime in the absence of national redistribution and an organized working class.

There are several problems with this argument. Five of its premises (1, 2, 4, 5, and 6) are either empirically false or unsupported by Clegg’s and Usmani’s data. Three premises (3, 8, and 9) have only qualified validity. And their seventh, while true, carries such explanatory weight for Clegg and Usmani that it nearly reduces their argument to one of causation by absence—without the rigorous cross-national comparison needed to support it. Their conclusion, therefore, does not follow. We unpack these deficiencies in the following six steps: 1) internal inconsistencies, 2) the timeline of Black oppression, 3) crime and urban rebellions, 4) the War on Drugs, 5) the neoliberal offensive, and 6) reductionism and rational choice. We then conclude with a non-reductionist counter that extends Alexander’s argument into the sphere of class relations.

 

1 – Internal Inconsistencies

Despite presenting their case as a hard-nosed examination of “facts,” Clegg and Usmani commit multiple empirical errors. To start, they claim, “mass incarceration has not been characterized by rising racial disparities in punishment, but rising class disparity.” They cite Figures 1 and 2 (below) to support this. Figure 1, however, clearly shows racial disparity rising in the same period as the prison boom. It is less pronounced than rising educational disparities (which the authors quickly equate with “class”) but jumps from a ratio of about 5-to-1 (Black-to-white) in 1980 to about 7-to-1 in 1990. Figure 2’s disaggregated charts show this even more starkly. Black men without a high school diploma go from a 4 percent incarceration rate in 1980 to a 15 percent rate in 2000 while their white counterparts barely edge up from 2 to 4 percent. This divergence is decreasingly pronounced but still evident among the other three groups.

Figure 1: Disparities in Rates of Institutionalization by Race and Education, 1850–2018

Figure 2: Rates of Institutionalization, by Education and Race, 1970–2018

These considerations also undermine two claims that follow:

If American mass incarceration were a system of race-based social control, we should expect to see a rise in racial inequalities in punishment corresponding to the punitive turn…Yet white incarceration increased just as rapidly as black.

Black incarceration overall and within education groups did increase substantially over and against barely rising and essentially flat white rates. White incarceration rates never approached those of Black people—neither overall nor in the most represented groups. Clegg and Usmani attempt to obscure this: “in 2017, a white high school dropout was about fifteen times more likely to be in prison than a black college graduate.” But this is to compare apples to oranges. In that same year, Black high school dropouts were nearly four times as likely as white high school dropouts to be in prison while Black college graduates were still more likely to be locked up than white college graduates.

The authors seem impervious to the insight that biases on one variable (race) may be more or less pronounced on the gradient of another (education or class). This in no way negates the existence of such bias. And why must a “racial control project” consist in suddenly rising disparities? If racial disparity already exists, as it clearly did in US prisons, wouldn’t simply expanding such institutions without adding more disparity constitute racial control? Clegg and Usmani never consider this.

They also claim that the War on Drugs had little effect on the prison boom. Why? Because “only a minority of American prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes.” Since drug offenders constitute 21 percent of current prisoners (in 2019, according to their sources), the War on Drugs is almost negligible (“may have made some difference on the margins”) as a contributor to late-twentieth-century incarceration. This claim is prima facie false. One cannot use current prisoner-conviction shares to undermine the role of one type of conviction in a boom that began more than forty years ago. Moreover, if we were to judge the War on Drugs only by the drug-prisoner share right now, we would have to conclude it contributed substantially—more than property crime prosecution, which accounts for only 17 percent of current prisoners, according to their data.

More importantly, Clegg and Usmani ignore a fact about imprisonment that they acknowledge elsewhere: the distinction between stock v. flow of prisoners. In a note to Figure 3 they state: “the crime rate is not correlated to a measure of the stock of American prisoners, but is substantially correlated to a measure of the flows in and out of American prisons.” This same distinction when applied to prisoner proportions reveals a much greater impact of drug crime conviction. Drug crime prisoners spend about half the time behind bars as violent crime prisoners—they flow out of prison more quickly. But they also flow in more quickly.

Jonathan Rothwell finds that between 1993 and 2009 “drug crimes [were] the predominant reason for new admissions into state and federal prisons” and accounted for a clear plurality (31 percent) of federal and state admissions.6 Jonathan Rothwell, “Drug Offenders in American Prisons: The Critical Distinction between Stock and Flow,” Brookings Institution Social Mobility Memos, November 25, 2015. Combine this with the more than two-thirds recidivism rate for all released prisoners—and more than three quarters for drug crime prisoners—and it’s easy to see how drug crime prosecution can generate future incarceration and in fact account for a potential majority (51 percent) of prison admissions over a multi-year timeframe.7Mariel Alper, Matthew R. Durose, and Joshua Markman, “2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014),” Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2018. We will say more about the War on Drugs below.

Figure 3: Levels and Changes of Incarceration and Crime Rates, 1960–2010

Figure 4: Trends in Punitiveness by Race, 1955–2014

Another cluster of claims pertains to the seeming overlap between rising crime, rising public “punitiveness,” and rising incarceration. Clegg and Usmani argue that the first caused the second which caused the third. Evidence is presented in Figures 3 and 4 (previous). The standard story, they assert, “gets the causal sequence of the 1960s backwards. The public panicked not because [right-wing] political entrepreneurs emerged, but because crime rose precipitously.” Aside from questionable links in this chain—that public opinion flows directly from aggregate, micro-level events, and that politicians respond directly to constituent preferences when crafting policy—it is in fact the authors who confuse the sequence. As their data clearly show, crime began rising around the mid-1960s; white “punitiveness” began rising earlier, in the late 1950s and in sync with Civil Rights agitation; conservative “entrepreneurs” emerged on the national scene with Wallace and Goldwater in the early 1960s, followed by Nixon in 1968; it was only in the late 1970s that incarceration rates reached new historic heights.

The rise in public punitiveness, meanwhile, has a clear racial divide: whites are more punitive. By the time Civil Rights protests decline in the late 1960s, “law-and-order” rhetoric is firmly established, with much of it directed at urban rebellions and Black militancy rather than individual “crime.” More than a decade separates the emergence of right-wing public figures from statistical evidence of the carceral turn—plenty of time for their discourse to shape public opinion and for federal policy to influence state and local law enforcement. These facts are more consistent with what Clegg and Usmani argue against than what they argue for.

They also commit an ecological fallacy. Clegg and Usmani argue that rising punitiveness was due to rising crime. But according to their own data, white punitiveness was always higher and rose faster than Black punitiveness while whites were less and in fact decreasingly exposed to crime. “Victimization,” they state, “coincided with high and often rising inequalities in the distribution of violence” which “was concentrated in urban areas with African Americans disproportionately likely to be both offenders and victims.” Punitive attitudes cannot, therefore, be a straightforward reaction to crime. If Clegg and Usmani are instead implying that white punitiveness rose because of public discourse or media coverage of crime, rather than through direct exposure, they open themselves to obvious objections about bias in such coverage, including conservative “law-and-order” framings.

Here and in many other places we see undifferentiated moves from “crime” to “violence” and back. No serious distinction is made.

Another puzzling inconsistency is their repeated conflation of crime with violence and assertions of American “exceptionalism.” “Some states ignore crime waves,” they write, “others seek to attack the root causes of violence.” Here and in many other places we see undifferentiated moves from “crime” to “violence” and back. No serious distinction is made. Yet Clegg and Usmani approvingly cite the work of Zimring and Hawkins who rigorously disentangle the two.8Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). Their book shows that US crime rates are in fact not exceptional among international peers, only US levels of lethal and near-lethal violence, which they attribute to the widespread availability of firearms.

Are Clegg and Usmani unaware of this argument and the findings that support it? This would be odd, since they cite their main authors. Furthermore, the alleged symmetry Clegg and Usmani identify between US crime and punishment, despite their tautological concession that “the state’s response was political,” contradicts their assurance that “this is not to resurrect old arguments that American punishment is the necessary consequence of American crime.” The only difference is their removal of “necessary.”

The other major “exceptionalism” they point to is the stinginess of American welfare, measured in the volume of social spending vis-à-vis penal spending and GDP. These ratios, depicted in Figures 5 and 6, show the US near or at the bottom of developed country packs. Its ratio of social to penal spending is about 12 to 1, compared with about 13 to 1 in Switzerland, 15 to 1 in Spain, 16 to 1 in the UK, and so on. The OECD average is 22 to 1. They derive from this the claim that “American exceptionalism in punishment is but the flip side of American exceptionalism in social policy.”

Figure 5: Ratio of Social to Punitive Spending as a Share of GDP, Developed Countries

Figure 6: Social Transfers as a Share of GDP, Developed Countries, 1878–1998

But these are false equivalencies. Switzerland, Spain, the UK, Netherlands, Italy and Belgium are only marginally more social than penal with regard to spending but nowhere close in incarceration. Switzerland’s 2018 incarceration rate (per 100,000 population) was 81; Spain’s was 126; England’s and Wales’s was 140; the Netherlands’s was 61; Belgium’s was 88; Germany’s was 75. In the same year, the US incarceration rate was 655, towering over Russia’s (402), China’s (about 164) and Brazil’s (324).9Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List, 12th Edition,” World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2018). Clegg and Usmani frame this as “exceptionalism here” leading to “exceptionalism there.” But what we really see is relative social meagerness here and absolute exceptionalism there. The former cannot explain the latter.

Another weakness concerns Clegg’s and Usmani’s emphasis on the alleged inability of states and localities to respond socially to crime. “The perverse consequence of American federalism,” they tell us, “is that it is those areas in which violence concentrates that have the least resources to fight it.” “The costs of fleeing the federal state,” they continue, “are much higher than the costs of fleeing local taxes, since the rich only have to jump across jurisdictional boundaries (e.g., move to the suburbs).” There are two problems here. First, they make an immediate leap from the local to the federal level as states are conflated with localities. But states are obviously larger than localities, ensconcing most or all of their suburbs, and are thus less vulnerable to tax flight.

Second, states have formal taxation and redistributive powers equal to those of the federal government. Such legal parity is the essence of federalism. States can and do levy income, property, wealth, and sales taxes. States and many localities set minimum wages above the national level. They can even create new revenue streams by legalizing and taxing businesses that are illegal elsewhere (cannabis, gambling, sex work, and so on). If anything, federalism empowers states more than equivalent regions in unitary systems such as France. Germany, for example, also has a federal structure and is neither particularly stingy nor carcerally excessive. Clegg and Usmani ultimately concede this weakness:

States and municipalities do attempt to craft their own social policies. They can raise taxes and spend in redistributive ways. Thus…they were subject to the same constraint that bound the federal government: the absence of a constituency that could force the rich to give to the poor.

We concur. Yet for working class weakness to play such a central role in their explanation of US mass incarceration is to argue causation by absence. This can be done, but it requires a systematic comparison of multiple equivalent units (countries) that controls for many additional causes. Such a comparison must ultimately find that the presence or absence of one factor (working class strength or weakness) significantly contributes to the outcome in question (incarceration levels). Clegg and Usmani neither provide nor attempt this.

A final, significant oversight pertains to the underlying causes of crime. Aggregate crime is largely the result of economic desperation. Black urban residents were more desperate in the post-war period than their white counterparts. But why were they more desperate? “Cities were failing to absorb the black peasantry,” “American labor and housing markets were in no state to absorb the new migrants,” and “while the first wave of migrants…had largely been absorbed into industrial jobs, the second wave was invariably less likely to find work.” Past racism—slavery and Jim Crow—and attendant economic deficits are painted as the “main culprit[s]” of post-war Black poverty. Clegg and Usmani occasionally mention “segregated…urban labor markets” and “zoning restrictions,” but they heavily privilege inherited economic causes over active discriminatory ones.

This ignores a mountain of research showing the role of active housing discrimination in excluding Blacks from the suburban boom, the schools and jobs that went with it, and generations thereafter from wealth accumulation. Practices such as redlining, racial steering, and segregation in public housing played pivotal roles in confining Blacks to inner-city areas increasingly drained of capital, jobs, and services. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton make the most convincing and well known case for this, arguing that US residential segregation amounts to a form of apartheid and is the durable outcome of discrimination. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor extends this analysis to the predatory lending that replaced redlining and exploited a large share of Black homeowners in the run-up to the 2008 crash.10For example, see Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright;,2017); Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Norton, 2006). Clegg and Usmani are clearly aware of Massey’s work as they cite him in a footnote. Yet they sidestep the role of discrimination in creating post-war Black poverty.

These analytic and empirical inconsistencies add up and undermine Clegg’s and Usmani’s argument. They misinterpret their own data, claiming mass incarceration did not coincide with increasing racial disparity when it clearly did. They dismiss the War on Drugs as a major contributor by painting 21 percent of current prisoners as unimportant while eliding the distinction between stock v. flow of prisoners, which they acknowledge elsewhere. They claim public punitiveness was a simple reflection of crime when their own metrics show greater white punitiveness and far less white exposure. They point to three American “exceptionalisms”—high crime, low welfare, high imprisonment—though only the third is truly exceptional and therefore not explained by the first two. They point to federalism as an impediment to state policy when that system in fact empowers states more than equivalent regions in other systems; relatedly, they conflate “states” with “localities” as if the two are the same. Lastly, they ignore well documented discriminatory causes of post-war Black poverty. The sum of these internal faults is a fatally weakened argument. Historical oversights weaken it even further.

 

2 – The Timeline of Black Oppression

Clegg and Usmani argue that earlier forms of racial oppression contributed only indirectly, if at all, to mass incarceration. But this is an oddly sweeping statement: slavery, Jim Crow, convict leasing, and mass incarceration share multiple historical and institutional links as forms of Black bondage. Here we discuss the legacy of convict leasing, which Clegg and Usmani ignore, along with other policies that oppressed Black people and established precursors for mass incarceration.

First, slavery itself was a form of mass incarceration. It made most Black people the captive property of white people. Myriad individuals and institutions, public and private, owned slaves or profited from the slave trade and the slave-based Southern economy. The University of Chicago, for example, was built on land donated by Stephen A. Douglas who, through his wife, owned, managed, and derived income from a slave plantation. 11G.A. Peck, “Was Stephen A. Douglas Antislavery?” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 26, no. 2 (2005): 1–21; Jordan Caine, Guy Emerson Mount and Kai Parker, “The Case for Reparations at the University of Chicago,” Black Perspectives, May 22, 2017.Harvard University directly used slave labor in its early years, and a slave trader funded its first endowed chair.12Steven Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013) These institutions are far from exceptional in the US.13Zoe Thomas, “The Hidden Links between Slavery and Wall Street,” BBC News, August 29, 2019.

This process redefined many former slaves as convicts. The work they were subjected to was brutal, harsh, and unsanitary, and companies throughout the US, including US Steel, profited from it.

Second, convict leasing was an essential component of American punishment from the 1870s through to the 1940s. It was highly racialized, involved the coercive extraction of labor under state oversight, and served as a system of Black captivity. It was enabled by a loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States” (emphasis added). Southern law enforcement entities targeted Black men for arrest, imprisonment, and leasing out to companies, and this process redefined many former slaves as convicts. The work they were subjected to was brutal, harsh, and unsanitary, and companies throughout the US, including US Steel, profited from it.14Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2009). It was a major impetus for the Great Migration and it normatively criminalized Blackness.15Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

Third, Clegg and Usmani fail to consider nineteenth-century policy shifts that drastically curtailed Black political participation. Uggen, Manza, and Behrens16Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behren. “Felony Voting Rights and the Disenfranchisement of African Americans,” Souls 5, no. 3 (2003): 51. estimate that between the 1840s and 1870s, twenty-five states passed felony disenfranchisement laws. Many of these persist today and like then, disproportionately affect Black citizens. These authors demonstrate that passage of these laws was overtly racist: they were designed and justified as state-level reactions to the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the federal Constitution, which expanded citizenry and suffrage to Black people, respectively, and threatened white supremacy in the political realm.

Finally, ties between plantation slavery and contemporary incarceration run deep—sometimes even spatially overlapping. Louisiana State Prison, referred to as “Angola,” is located on the site of a former plantation, as are the Ramsey prison unit in Texas and the Cummins unit in Arkansas. Maurice Chammah identifies an entire archipelago of such spatial correspondence.17Maurice Chammah, “Prison Plantations: One Man’s Archive of a Vanished Culture,” The Marshall Project, May 1, 2015. And large shares of prisoners in several Southern states perform farm labor, which directly evokes the plantation system.18Maya Schenwar, “Slavery Haunts America’s Plantation Prisons,” Prison Legal News, April 15, 2009. Louisiana State prisoners produce four million pounds of produce per year that their captor institution advertises and sells.19Josh Auzenne, “Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola,” WAFB 9, May 14, 2010.

Clegg and Usmani discount such connections and continuities by ignoring them altogether. They invite us to think, tabula rasa, that late twentieth-century incarceration had few if any precursors and that explicit racial oppression was long gone by then, persistent only in Black economic disadvantage. We should reject this fallacious historical narrative.

 

3 – Crime and Urban Rebellions

Post-war exclusion of Blacks from suburban housing and labor markets perpetuated ideas of white supremacy and provided a base for white reaction. It was not simply rising individual crime that politicians responded to in the late 1960s, as Clegg and Usmani claim, but Black-led urban rebellions. They fail to engage these movements and their role as lightning rods of reaction. And they falsely conflate such upheavals and state responses to them with state-defined criminal behavior.

Both substantive research and Clegg’s and Usmani’s own figures suggest white punitiveness rose in response to Civil Rights advances and “law-and-order” framings.20Mark D. Ramirez, “Punitive Sentiment,” Criminology 51, no. 2 (2013): 329–64. The latter first appeared in the 1960s and were deployed by both liberals and conservatives in response to urban unrest.21Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016). Black Americans, however, experienced related state actions before the rhetoric became widespread. Non-violent, mostly Black Civil Rights protesters were regularly confronted and beaten by white mobs and Klan members, who were often supported by local law enforcement. In 1961, members of the Albany Movement in Georgia were met with mass arrest and charges of “disturbing the peace” by police chief Laurie Pritchett, who earned establishment praise for his use of detention.22Richard Spilsbury, Who Marched for Civil Rights? (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2014). In 1963, Eugene “Bull” Conner infamously used police dogs and fire hoses on protesters during the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. Only in 1964 did “law-and-order” discourse achieve national prominence in the presidential campaigns of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace.

Northern Blacks were also subjected to overt repression. Many 1960s urban rebellions were ignited by instances of police brutality against Black civilians. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed largely in response. The seventh of its  “Ten-Point Platform” states “an end to police brutality and the murder of black people.”23Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1970).  “These rebellions,” write De´qui kioni-sadiki and Sekou Odinga,

were the people’s pent-up rage and frustration at being forced to endure and scrape by under endless poverty, slum landlords, police terror/murder, mass unemployment, inferior parks, schools and playgrounds, lack of access to healthcare and decent housing, all the material discomforts a racist capitalist system reserves for poor and working class black/brown people. The rebellions caught the power structure by surprise. In their scramble to gain control, they did the only thing capitalists know to do: they threw money and of course, more police into the hood.24déqui kioni-sadiki and Sekou Odinga, “‘We Reserve the Right to Resist’: Prison Wars and Black Resistance,” Socialism and Democracy 28, no. 3 (2014): 88

The idea that government agencies targeted Black radicals is neither conjecture nor conspiracy. In 1971, activists uncovered documents from the FBI’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) that catalogued systematic targeting, surveillance, and disruption of groups deemed “subversive.” The vast majority were progressive and Black. An FBI whistleblower later stated the agency “coaxed local law enforcement across the country…into deadly clashes with heavily armed Black Panthers.”25William Lee, “In 1969, Charismatic Black Panthers Leader Fred Hampton Was Killed in a Hail of Gunfire. 50 Years Later, the Fight against Police Brutality Continues,” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 2019. It would be naive to think these were isolated cases.26Jeffery Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010); Marcus G. Raskin, “Democracy Versus the National Security State,” Law and Contemporary Problems 40, no. 3 (1976): 189–220.

“Law and order” was thus not simply applied to “crime” but to Black radicals, Black urban protest, and Black people more generally.27This relationship was clear at the time to participants. Just days after the Newark uprising in July 1967, the city hosted the Black Power Conference, at which Floyd B. McKissick gave a speech entitled “Why the Negro Must Rebel” aimed at politicians who condemned the rebellion. See Philip S. Foner, ed., The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1971 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernandez similarly see the “fear of crime beg[inning] to be used strategically by the New Right and Democrats alike to marginalize the influence of black radicals on a black working class” in this era. See Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández, “Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor: The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US,” Socialism and Democracy 28, no. 3 (2014): 4. Clegg and Usmani fail to differentiate rising individual crime from the collective urban rebellions that formed the main targets of state repression. They again mislead by proposing that the carceral boom took shape independently of less quantifiable but equally demonstrable and intimately connected social processes.

 

4. The War on Drugs

Michelle Alexander focuses on the War on Drugs to explain late twentieth-century imprisonment. Clegg and Usmani dispute this with an extremely narrow interpretation. But the federal War on Drugs encompasses not only drug arrests or the restructuring of drug laws (which was highly racially disparate). It was the spearhead of a seismic shift in law enforcement that incentivized heightened police patrol, arrest, prosecution, and confiscation of property and contributed toward more punitive non-drug enforcement within Black communities. One infamous outgrowth was New York City’s “Stop, Question, and Frisk” protocol that overwhelmingly targeted young Black and Latinx men.28Delores Jones-Brown, Jaspreet Gill and Jennifer Trone, Stop, Question and Frisk Policing Practices in New York City: A Primer, Center on Race, Crime and Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2010); Jan Haldipur, No Place on the Corner: The Costs of Aggressive Policing (New York: NYU Press, 2018).

We do not need to rewrite Alexander’s book but can point to examples within her text that Clegg and Usmani ignore. In chapter 2, for example, she discusses various ways that the War on Drugs reshaped connections between federal, state, and local enforcement agencies. Federal grants incentivized the latter two to make more arrests and aggressively criminalize communities to justify these tactics. Civil forfeiture—the ability of enforcement agencies to seize cash and assets—also incentivized police surveillance and prosecution of drug crimes. And it is far easier to surveil and find such activity in dense, open-air sites of exchange, like predominantly Black inner-city neighborhoods, than in predominantly white closed-door suburbs, despite equivalent rates of use and sale in both.29Alyssa Stryker, “Rethinking the ‘Drug Dealer,’” Drug Policy Alliance, December 17, 2019.

Policing, arrest, and individual histories of offense feed incarceration. Both policing and arrest are pursued far more aggressively in non-white neighborhoods, which is a direct outgrowth of War on Drugs incentives, and thus contribute toward longer histories of offense for many Black civilians. A 2020 report by the ACLU indicates that marijuana arrests, which are considered relatively “low level,” while the drug is increasingly decriminalized, display ongoing racial disparities. The average Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than the average white person, even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.30Ezekiel Edwards, Emily Greytak, Brooke Madubuonwu, Thania Sanchez, Sophie Beiers, Charlotte Resing, Paige Fernandez and Sagiv Galai, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” American Civil Liberties Union (2020). While overall imprisonment for marijuana possession has fallen, the Council on Criminal Justice still found a 5-to-1 ratio of Black-white disparities for drug offenses in state prisons in 2016.31William J. Sabol, Thaddeus L. Johnson and Alexander Caccavale, “Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 32, no. 3 (2020): 157–77.

The War on Drugs is thus wider in scope and contributes to mass incarceration in ways Clegg and Usmani refuse to recognize. It follows a longer trajectory of drug-use racialization in the US.32For instance, drug laws passed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries dealing with opium, cocaine, and marijuana were tethered to Chinese immigrants, African Americans, and Mexicans, respectively. See David F. Musto, “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History,” Scientific American 265, no. 1 (1991): 40–47. It has exacerbated racial disparities in prison sentencing33While some of these racial gaps are closing, they still exist and are not ending organically but through social movements and public demand. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the sentencing disparity between rock and powder forms of cocaine, leading to a 100:1 weight ratio disparity. It took nearly a quarter century to alter this piece of legislation that had clear racial disparities. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 shrunk the disparity to an 18:1 weight ratio, and despite the legislation’s name, it is still far from “fair.” These changes came about because of continued activism, research, and pressure for reform. and heightened the collateral consequences of police contact. Prosecutors often pressure defendants into taking guilty pleas, which leave many drug offenders with felony records that adversely impact their economic lives.34David M. Zimmerman and Samantha Hunter, “Factors Affecting False Guilty Pleas in a Mock Plea Bargaining Scenario,” Legal and Criminological Psychology 23, no. 1 (2018): 53–67. This is part of what Alexander refers to as a renewed caste system that keeps Blacks disproportionately out of the labor market, out of politics, and in prison.

 

5 – The Neoliberal Offensive

On the economic side, Clegg and Usmani also ignore massive changes that occurred after the 1970s and coterminously with the prison boom. It is hard to overstate these. Between 1980 and 2010, US manufacturing employment fell from nearly 24 percent to less than 11 percent. Union density crashed from 23 to less than 12 percent.35Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson, “Union Membership and Coverage Database from the CPS,” http://www.unionstats.com, 2020. See also Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition (New York: Verso, 2007); Michael Goldfield, The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Whole industries such as steel, auto, and rubber were drastically downsized and their associated cities and regions decimated in a very short period of time.36John Hoerr, And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988); Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Wages for nonsupervisory workers stagnated in real terms and were almost completely decoupled from productivity.37Economic Policy Institute, “The Productivity-Pay Gap,” July 2019, https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap. Income inequality skyrocketed while industry after industry was deregulated, public services cut or privatized, taxes on the wealthy reduced, and the federal minimum wage held below the rate of inflation.38Pew Research Center, 2020, “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” January 2020; Tax Policy Center, “Historical Highest Marginal Income Tax Rates,” https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/historical-highest-marginal-income-tax-rates Figures 7 through 9 display several of these divergences between the initial post-war and post-1970s periods.

Figure 7: US Productivity and Hourly Wages for Production and Nonsupervisory Employees, 1948-2014

Figure 8: US Union Membership (% of wage and salary workers) and Share of US Income Accruing to Top 10 Percent of Households, 1917-2013

Figure 9: US Federal Minimum Wage, Nominal vs. Real, 1938-2016

The sum total of these transformations has been characterized as “the great U-turn,” “the new Gilded Age” or simply, “neoliberalism.”39Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America (New York: Basic Booksm 1990); Ruth Milkman, “Back to the Future? US Labour in the New Gilded Age,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 51, no. 4 (2013): 645–65; David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). They contrast markedly with growth patterns from 1945 to 1973, which were essentially the inverse of these and collectively described as “Keynesianism,” “Fordism” or, in reference to declining inequality, “the great compression.”40Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (New York: Verso;,2006); Gordon Fletcher, The Keynesian Revolution and Its Critics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987), Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (New York: Verso, 1979); Claudia Goldin and Robert A. Margo, “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid- Century,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 1 (1992): 1–34. In his recent analysis of US imperialism, Richard Lachmann summarizes the changes that followed the 1970s and the vital assistance lent by the state:

The history of US governmental policy since 1968 is not only a story of the total absence of significant new programs until Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, but also of a government taking affirmative steps to weaken protections for workers…while altering regulations and tax policies in ways that increased inequality…All the strides of the New Deal and Great Society in reducing inequality were reversed in the three decades from Reagan’s election to Obama’s.

He concludes that:

The most consequential governmental initiative toward African Americans since the 1970s, joined by officials at the federal, state, and local levels and during both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been the extraordinary increase in black imprisonment.41Richard Lachmann, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (New York: Verso, 2020): 255.

Why do Clegg and Usmani fail to address broader post-1970s economic shifts? This is hard to answer. One would think any account of a large-scale social process would examine co-variates and conditioning factors, especially those causally implicated in that process itself.42Clegg and Usmani gloss over more specific research that shows direct trade-offs between neoliberal economic change and mass incarceration. See Bruce Western, Meredith Kleykamp and Jake Rosenfeld, “Did Falling Wages and Employment Increase U.S. Imprisonment?” Social Forces 84, no. 4 (2006): 2291; Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, “Incarceration and Social Inequality,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010): 8–19; Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69, no. 2 (2004): 151. But they effectively cease analysis right as the prison boom begins, as if the economy and politics of the Keynesian era set the process in motion and then froze as mass incarceration played out. This approach betrays a simplistic understanding of what we might call the billiard ball model of history.

This betrays a simplistic understanding we might call the billiard ball model of history.

6 – Reductionism and Rational Choice

Clegg and Usmani curate historical facts to fit what appear to be pre-existing theoretical commitments—namely, economic or class reductionism and rational choice modeling. Understanding these helps us to identify the limits of their argument at a deeper level, as well as the outlines of a plausible alternative.

By reductionism we mean Clegg and Usmani collapse one set of explanatory factors (racial, political, ideological) into another (class-economic), arguing that the latter constitutes the sole or ultimate cause of the outcome in question. They reduce the Great Migration to the pull of “American industry” and “movement…to cities in search of better-paying jobs,” ignoring the push of Jim Crow, Klan terrorism, and convict leasing. They reduce post-war Black poverty to inherited disadvantage and poor timing without seriously accounting for discrimination. They reduce public punitiveness to simple “fear of crime” glossing over clear racial gaps. And they reduce the carceral turn of state officials to simple vote pandering, the relative cheapness of punitive policy, and the absence of working class resistance. The result is an explanation of America’s racially skewed prison boom that assigns no direct role to race, the federal government, or ideology. Race only explains the pre-history of Black poverty and working class weakness.

Rational choice theory posits that individuals pursue high-utility actions after calculating payoffs among alternatives. It is often combined with methodological individualism (seeing individuals as the primary units of action), of which Clegg and Usmani also provide a heavy dose. According to them, poor urban Black residents turned more often toward crime than whites because they “face[d] more competition upon labor-market entry.” Members of the general public “panicked…because crime rose” and voted accordingly even though those less exposed (whites) panicked more and sooner. State and local officials, facing such electorates and social solutions that were costlier than penal ones, chose the former. Societal patterns—“criminality,” public punitiveness, conservative voting, carceral policies—are construed as epiphenomenal aggregates of individual utility-maximizing behavior. Ideological framings, as well as the political structuring of choices, are largely ignored.

There are myriad problems with these commitments. “The key” to overcoming them, according to Anwar Shaikh, “is to recognize that aggregate outcomes have ‘emergent properties’…an organic whole is more than the sum of its parts.”43Anwar Shaikh, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); 8, 75–119. For additional critiques of rational choice theory and economic reductionism, see Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, “Everythingism, or Better Still, Overdetermination,” New Left Review 195 (1992): 124–26; Darley Jose Kjosavik, “Methodological Individualism and Rational Choice in Neoclassical Economics: A Review of Institutionalist Critique,” Forum for Development Studies 30, no. 2 (2003): 205–45. Clegg and Usmani do not do this, however, and instead use such neoclassical reasoning to detract from Alexander’s more holistic account. It is thus useful to compare both theories at a higher level of abstraction.

Alexander points to a politically driven backlash against struggles for racial equality as the proximate cause of mass incarceration. She argues that right-wing politicians capitalized on white resentment to further their own careers as well as the prospects of the Republican Party. In service of this they formulated de jure race-neutral but de facto race-biased policies that incentivized state actors to lock people up, especially those Black, Brown, and poor. Some sociological jargon is illuminative here. DiMaggio and Powell describe three types of “isomorphism”—organizations doing the same things or taking similar forms: coercive, competitive, and mimetic.44Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 2 (1983): 147–60.

Alexander proposes a partially competitive, partially coercive isomorphism to explain why myriad states and localities did the same punitive things. Their leaders, from both major parties, competed in office for War on Drugs funding and in elections for votes from an emerging law-and-order bloc. They also increasingly followed sentencing and prosecution guidelines laid down for the federal court and prison systems—this is the partially coercive part. Alexander does not propose a “cabal” theory of “transhistorical” racism, as Clegg and Usmani accuse her of doing, but one that centers political agency in the context of evolving US history and voter realignment. By contrast, Clegg and Usmani propose a mimetic isomorphist account. They discount national processes, actors, and discourse and instead argue that state and local officials imitated each other in punitively responding to similar, unmediated problems: “crime.”

But Alexander is no reductionist. Though she privileges racial politics in line with her expertise as a legal scholar, she actually co- defines the targets of the prison boom as a “racial undercaste,” differentiating them from privileged Black elites whose existence supports “colorblind” ideology. This is in contrast to Clegg and Usmani, who expressly minimize, and even try to erase, any proximate role for race:

How should we think about the causal relevance of race to American mass incarceration? In our view, it matters mostly in ways both less direct and more basic…American slavery and then Jim Crow delayed the proletarianization of African Americans.

Empirics to the side, we are faced with two candidate theories: one racial-political, another economic. The racial-political theory is largely complete on its own terms and open to economic elaboration. The economic theory is incomplete in that it ignores major post-1970s developments and is closed to racial-political elaboration. It is thus far more brittle. Identifying economic forces that also contributed to mass incarceration does not deflate Alexander’s argument. At most, it calls for enriching and expanding it. But identifying post-1940s racial-political causes undermines the entire thrust of Clegg’s and Usmani’s account. Our previous discussion identifies multiple such causes which they either fail to consider or fail to knock down. The real theoretical task is to reconstruct the historical relationship between race and class and how it, not just its components, contributed to the US prison boom. In what remains, we provide preliminary steps toward this.

 

Toward an Integrated Theory of Race and Class

If we depart from economic reductionism and rational choice theory, admitting there is a “society” or social “totality” whose dynamics are more than just aggregates of individual preference-seeking, we are confronted with a different set of questions than the ones Clegg and Usmani pose. Rather than asking “which individuals with what set of choices took which actions” that contributed to a particular outcome, like mass incarceration, we should ask “which groups are arrayed in which relationships with which institutional supports?” The causes of particular outcomes are then sought within group-relational change and/or their supporting institutions.

Individuals, of course, still have interests, perceptions and behavior, but the spectrum of possibility for each is largely determined by their position within a social structure. Their behavior, in turn, can only affect or alter that structure when it mobilizes large groups or institutions. Capitalist inequality, which largely constitutes that structure, is complex: it is multidimensional, drawing on and marbled with pre-capitalist divisions of geography, ethnicity, gender, and class;45Louis Althusser, For Marx (New York: Verso, 2005): 161–218. and it requires ideology, law, and organized repression (state or para-state) for its maintenance. Such holistic materialism imputes neither agency nor consciousness to systems, nor does it deny them of individuals. It is counterposed to Clegg’s and Usmani’s framework and shares much with Alexander’s.

Race, in such a conception, is a socially constructed group relation. It developed in colonial America over a century of struggle (involving physical, ideological, and legal repression) and came to serve the productive-exploitative ends of plantation owners.46Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York: Verso, 1994). It was thus a relation of production: it defined who could be forced to perform certain kinds of labor. But it was also a relation of reproduction, since heritable phenotypic traits were (and still are) the main identifiers. Slave-state laws became hyper-focused on proportions of “African,” “European,” and other ancestry and on preventing “miscegenation.”

The Civil War overthrew the productive, class-like part of this relation (slavery) but the reproductive part remained, as did the landed property and cotton economy on which slavery had been based. The withdrawal of federal troops from the former slaveholding states in 1877 paved the way for a renewed exploitative relationship (sharecropping) along entrenched racial-reproductive lines. Only in the mid-twentieth century was this exploitative relationship—and many of its legal and ideological supports—in turn overthrown.47Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1977): 181–263.

Class divisions predate but take a particular form within capitalism. Some contend that the US had a dual economic structure prior to the Civil War—capitalism in the North, something pre- or non-capitalist in the South.48Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class Structure, Economic Development, and Political Conflict, 1620-1877 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011). Here we will simply note that classes developed very differently in the antebellum North and South. In the North, and throughout developed wage labor systems, classes have rarely been as thoroughly raced as their plantation-economy counterparts. There are clear racial gradients to most developed capitalist class structures but rarely racial definition as in the antebellum South or pre-1888 Brazil.49Apartheid-era South Africa is a likely exception, as are potentially the class structures of some Latin American countries. See Mara Loveman, National Colors: Racial Classification and The State In Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

These gradients, however, are enabled by the inner workings of capitalism. As capitalists compete over cheap sources of labor and more productive techniques, they reproduce inequalities within the working class as well as between classes.50Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity under Capitalist Competition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018). This provides permanent footing for non-class divisions: gender, race, and nationality, among others. The most basic form of intra-working class inequality is between those who receive wages (have jobs) and those who don’t. Marx calls the latter the “reserve army of labor” and defines three segments: “latent” (outside of wage labor but poised to be drawn in), “floating” (moving between wage labor jobs), and “stagnant” (long-term unemployed).51Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin, 1992), Chapter 25.
In Marxist terminology, the “organic composition of capital” means, somewhat counter-intuitively, the value-proportion of machinery and materials over and against that of human wage labor in total production expenditures. For Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” see Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25.

He also identifies a two-pronged tendency for both the waged workforce as a whole and for the floating and stagnant segments of the reserve army to grow as capitalist firms combine, expand, and increase their “organic composition” of capital. This is his “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.”52It has also been convincingly argued that the lower wage tiers and particularly older plant jobs of post-war manufacturing industry were heavily racialized, though perhaps not to the same extent as the reserve army. The boundary between active and reserve armies is among the most likely—though by no means only53See William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), 47–60.—place for non-class divisions to gain economic foothold.

Prior to the Second World War, most women and Black people in the US were outside of capitalist waged labor. They were exploited and oppressed mainly through non-wage relations of domestic dependency, debt peonage or, in the case of convict leasing, direct state coercion.54Andrew J. Cherlin, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working class Family in America (New York: Russell Sage, 2014), 1–23. They were thus overrepresented in the latent reserve army. But the Great Migration, war-time industry, the rise of second wave feminism as well as of “reproductive” industries (healthcare, education, personal services) with high shares of “feminized” jobs, served to de-racialize and de-feminize that segment, bringing increasing shares of women and Black people into waged labor or the search for it.55Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (New York: Paradigm, 2009); Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (New York: Verso, 2013); Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987). Figure 10 shows this clearly for the former, less so for the latter since the Bureau of Labor Statistics only began recording Black identity in 1972 after migration from the rural South was largely complete.

Post-war development saw continued rise in the organic composition of US capital, as well as concentration and centralization.56Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (New York: Pluto, 2012); Michael Roberts, The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 43. This helped fulfill both prongs of Marx’s prediction: more workers (mostly women and nonwhites) were drawn into wage labor from nonwaged spheres while the relative demand for (mostly male) labor in mature, capital-intensive industries shrank. The latter is consistent with the steady downward trend in male labor force participation seen in Figure 10.57Figure 10 uses labor force participation, defined as all those civilians active in the US workforce or actively seeking work, as an inverse measure of true unemployment (nonparticipation in the capitalist workforce). The share not participating is thus roughly equivalent to the entire “reserve army” in Marx’s terms. But these figures do not allow for differentiation of specific segments of the reserve army—latent, floating, or stagnant—and thus growth or decline of its entirety cannot directly confirm or negate Marx’s predictions about growth of the latter two segments. Furthermore, not all labor force participants depicted in this chart are necessarily working class—some are self-employed (petty bourgeois), others are professional-managerial, and a small number are in fact capitalists. See Peter Ikeler and Laura Limonic, “Middle Class Decline? The Growth of Professional-Managers in the Neoliberal Era,” The Sociological Quarterly, 59, no. 4 (2018): 549–70. This underlying secular process, anticipated by Marx’s General Law and operating upon historically constructed divisions of race and sex, engendered a growing “relative surplus population.”

Figure 10: US Labor Force Participation Rates by Race and Gender (ages 16+), 1948-2019

The Keynesian phase of economic stewardship, which encompassed the first thirty-odd years of this timeframe, witnessed the exclusion of newly urban Blacks from growing suburbs (and attendant jobs and wealth) through politico-legal, as well as ideological mechanisms. Some argue this was no simple byproduct or “oversight” but an integral part of the New Deal framework.58Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White. Whether integral or not, such exclusion during this phase considerably racialized the stagnant and floating segments of the US reserve army (the unemployed).59Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged; Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (New York: Polity, 2008); Massey and Denton, American Apartheid.

While systems present options, they don’t make choices. Individuals and movements do.

Neoliberal stewardship, which came to the fore in the late 1970s and consisted in deregulation, privatization, and general social austerity, exacerbated these trends and reframed the role of government as a more punitive guarantor of market efficiency. The stage was set either for expansion of social programs and industrial policy to offset unemployment—both antithetical to neoliberal principles and requiring a strong labor movement to be implemented—or for organized repression to “disappear” large shares of an increasingly racialized reserve.

These were systemic options. They were presented to the US in the 1970s by an evolving matrix of group relations and acute political, economic, and social crisis. In the contingent crucible of that era’s mobilizations, mass incarceration emerged as a racialized political response.

But while systems present options, they don’t make choices. Individuals and movements do. Alexander provides a convincing account of who made which choices with regard to mass incarceration, and how they were realized through which political processes. She does not detail the economic and class forces that overdetermined their success. We identify these as 1) the underlying concentration and rising organic composition of post-war US capital, 2) the racialization of unemployment through active discrimination during its Keynesian phase, aided by the segmenting tendency of capitalist competition, and 3) the punitive austerity of neoliberal state-craft. We concur with Clegg and Usmani that working class weakness was a general negative determinant of the carceral turn, as well as of the broader neoliberal turn (which they don’t discuss). Yet general reference to the absence of a broad-based left does not adequately explain the specific outcome of unprecedented mass imprisonment in the US. Furthermore, this weakness was itself co-created by racial exclusion and uneven economic development—and not just in the pre-war past.60Public health researcher Justin Feldman recently came to a very similar conclusion of racial-economic bicausality with regard to police killings in the US. In his original statistical analysis, he finds that “in addition to confirming previously documented racial/ethnic inequalities in the United States, the analyses above identify strong socioeconomic inequalities in rates of police killings…Higher poverty among the black population accounts for a meaningful, but relatively modest, portion of the black-white gap in police killing rates.” Justin Feldman, “Police Killings in the US: Inequalities by Race/Ethnicity and Socioeconomic Position,” People’s Policy Project, June 23, 2020, 10.

Here we offer only a theoretical outline that inevitably requires historical addition and fine-tuning. But against Clegg’s and Usmani’s economism and in concert with Alexander’s robust racial-political account, we assert the multidimensional character of US society as a racial capitalism.61“Racial capitalism” as a concept was most robustly formulated by Cedric J. Robinson in his Black Marxism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). There, he poses it as a global, thorough-going corrective to classical Marxism. By using the term here we are neither endorsing nor rejecting that broader critique but simply noting the concept’s particular applicability to US history and social structure. Neither do we deny the deeply gendered nature of US and global capitalism: “patriarchal racial capitalism” might be an equally valid descriptor. Where they dismiss Alexander out of hand, we defend and build upon her model. Where they offer class reductionism, we offer a materialist analysis of actually existing capitalism. And if race and class are both implicated in the explosion of late twentieth-century incarceration, this underlines the need for simultaneous resistance. Perhaps #DefundThePolice moves toward the practical synthesis our moment requires.

  1. Larry Buchanan, Quoctrung Bui and Jugal K. Patel, “Black Lives Matter May Be the Largest Movement in U.S. History,” New York Times, July 3, 2020.
  2. Brian Bean and Sean Larson, “Rebellions Get Results: A List So Far,” Rampant Magazine, June 8, 2020.
  3. Haley Pessin, “The Movement for Black Lives is Different This Time,” New Politics, July 4, 2020.
  4. John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (2019): 9–53; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
  5. Sean Larson, “The Abolitionist Road to Socialism,” Rampant Magazine, July 23, 2020.
  6. Jonathan Rothwell, “Drug Offenders in American Prisons: The Critical Distinction between Stock and Flow,” Brookings Institution Social Mobility Memos, November 25, 2015.
  7. Mariel Alper, Matthew R. Durose, and Joshua Markman, “2018 Update on Prisoner Recidivism: A 9-Year Follow-up Period (2005-2014),” Bureau of Justice Statistics, May 2018.
  8. Franklin E. Zimring and Gordon Hawkins, Crime Is Not the Problem: Lethal Violence in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  9. Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List, 12th Edition,” World Prison Brief, Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2018).
  10. For example, see Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright;,2017); Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Norton, 2006).
  11. G.A. Peck, “Was Stephen A. Douglas Antislavery?” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 26, no. 2 (2005): 1–21; Jordan Caine, Guy Emerson Mount and Kai Parker, “The Case for Reparations at the University of Chicago,” Black Perspectives, May 22, 2017.
  12. Steven Craig Wilder, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013).
  13. Zoe Thomas, “The Hidden Links between Slavery and Wall Street,” BBC News, August 29, 2019.
  14. Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor, 2009).
  15. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  16. Christopher Uggen, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behren. “Felony Voting Rights and the Disenfranchisement of African Americans,” Souls 5, no. 3 (2003): 51.
  17. Maurice Chammah, “Prison Plantations: One Man’s Archive of a Vanished Culture,” The Marshall Project, May 1, 2015.
  18. Maya Schenwar, “Slavery Haunts America’s Plantation Prisons,” Prison Legal News, April 15, 2009.
  19. Josh Auzenne, “Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola,” WAFB 9, May 14, 2010.
  20. Mark D. Ramirez, “Punitive Sentiment,” Criminology 51, no. 2 (2013): 329–64.
  21. Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).
  22. Richard Spilsbury, Who Marched for Civil Rights? (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2014).
  23. Philip S. Foner, ed., The Black Panthers Speak (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1970).
  24. déqui kioni-sadiki and Sekou Odinga, “‘We Reserve the Right to Resist’: Prison Wars and Black Resistance,” Socialism and Democracy 28, no. 3 (2014): 88.
  25. William Lee, “In 1969, Charismatic Black Panthers Leader Fred Hampton Was Killed in a Hail of Gunfire. 50 Years Later, the Fight against Police Brutality Continues,” Chicago Tribune, December 3, 2019.
  26. Jeffery Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010); Marcus G. Raskin, “Democracy Versus the National Security State,” Law and Contemporary Problems 40, no. 3 (1976): 189–220.
  27. This relationship was clear at the time to participants. Just days after the Newark uprising in July 1967, the city hosted the Black Power Conference, at which Floyd B. McKissick gave a speech entitled “Why the Negro Must Rebel” aimed at politicians who condemned the rebellion. See Philip S. Foner, ed., The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1971 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernandez similarly see the “fear of crime beg[inning] to be used strategically by the New Right and Democrats alike to marginalize the influence of black radicals on a black working class” in this era. See Mumia Abu-Jamal and Johanna Fernández, “Locking Up Black Dissidents and Punishing the Poor: The Roots of Mass Incarceration in the US,” Socialism and Democracy 28, no. 3 (2014): 4.
  28. Delores Jones-Brown, Jaspreet Gill and Jennifer Trone, Stop, Question and Frisk Policing Practices in New York City: A Primer, Center on Race, Crime and Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (2010); Jan Haldipur, No Place on the Corner: The Costs of Aggressive Policing (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
  29. Alyssa Stryker, “Rethinking the ‘Drug Dealer,’” Drug Policy Alliance, December 17, 2019.
  30. Ezekiel Edwards, Emily Greytak, Brooke Madubuonwu, Thania Sanchez, Sophie Beiers, Charlotte Resing, Paige Fernandez and Sagiv Galai, “A Tale of Two Countries: Racially Targeted Arrests in the Era of Marijuana Reform,” American Civil Liberties Union (2020).
  31. William J. Sabol, Thaddeus L. Johnson and Alexander Caccavale, “Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 32, no. 3 (2020): 157–77.
  32. For instance, drug laws passed in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries dealing with opium, cocaine, and marijuana were tethered to Chinese immigrants, African Americans, and Mexicans, respectively. See David F. Musto, “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History,” Scientific American 265, no. 1 (1991): 40–47.
  33. While some of these racial gaps are closing, they still exist and are not ending organically but through social movements and public demand. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created the sentencing disparity between rock and powder forms of cocaine, leading to a 100:1 weight ratio disparity. It took nearly a quarter century to alter this piece of legislation that had clear racial disparities. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 shrunk the disparity to an 18:1 weight ratio, and despite the legislation’s name, it is still far from “fair.” These changes came about because of continued activism, research, and pressure for reform.
  34. David M. Zimmerman and Samantha Hunter, “Factors Affecting False Guilty Pleas in a Mock Plea Bargaining Scenario,” Legal and Criminological Psychology 23, no. 1 (2018): 53–67.
  35. Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson, “Union Membership and Coverage Database from the CPS,” http://www.unionstats.com, 2020. See also Kim Moody, US Labor in Trouble and Transition (New York: Verso, 2007); Michael Goldfield, The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
  36. John Hoerr, And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988); Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison, The Deindustrialization of America: Plant Closings, Community Abandonment and the Dismantling of Basic Industry (New York: Basic Books, 1984).
  37. Economic Policy Institute, “The Productivity-Pay Gap,” July 2019, https://www.epi.org/productivity-pay-gap.
  38. Pew Research Center, 2020, “Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority,” January 2020; Tax Policy Center, “Historical Highest Marginal Income Tax Rates,” https://www.taxpolicycenter.org/statistics/historical-highest-marginal-income-tax-rates.
  39. Barry Bluestone, The Great U-Turn: Corporate Restructuring and the Polarizing of America (New York: Basic Booksm 1990); Ruth Milkman, “Back to the Future? US Labour in the New Gilded Age,” British Journal of Industrial Relations 51, no. 4 (2013): 645–65; David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  40. Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence: The Advanced Capitalist Economies from Long Boom to Long Downturn, 1945-2005 (New York: Verso;,2006); Gordon Fletcher, The Keynesian Revolution and Its Critics (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987), Michel Aglietta, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation: The US Experience (New York: Verso, 1979); Claudia Goldin and Robert A. Margo, “The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid- Century,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 107, no. 1 (1992): 1–34.
  41. Richard Lachmann, First-Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Politics and the Decline of Great Powers (New York: Verso, 2020): 255.
  42. Clegg and Usmani gloss over more specific research that shows direct trade-offs between neoliberal economic change and mass incarceration. See Bruce Western, Meredith Kleykamp and Jake Rosenfeld, “Did Falling Wages and Employment Increase U.S. Imprisonment?” Social Forces 84, no. 4 (2006): 2291; Bruce Western and Becky Pettit, “Incarceration and Social Inequality,” Daedalus 139, no. 3 (2010): 8–19; Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Becky Pettit and Bruce Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review 69, no. 2 (2004): 151.
  43. Anwar Shaikh, Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); 8, 75–119. For additional critiques of rational choice theory and economic reductionism, see Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, “Everythingism, or Better Still, Overdetermination,” New Left Review 195 (1992): 124–26; Darley Jose Kjosavik, “Methodological Individualism and Rational Choice in Neoclassical Economics: A Review of Institutionalist Critique,” Forum for Development Studies 30, no. 2 (2003): 205–45.
  44. Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review 48, no. 2 (1983): 147–60.
  45. Louis Althusser, For Marx (New York: Verso, 2005): 161–218.
  46. Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, Volume 1: Racial Oppression and Social Control (New York: Verso, 1994).
  47. Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage Books, 1977): 181–263.
  48. Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism: Studies in Class Structure, Economic Development, and Political Conflict, 1620-1877 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).
  49. Apartheid-era South Africa is a likely exception, as are potentially the class structures of some Latin American countries. See Mara Loveman, National Colors: Racial Classification and The State In Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  50. Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity under Capitalist Competition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018).
  51. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin, 1992), Chapter 25.
    In Marxist terminology, the “organic composition of capital” means, somewhat counter-intuitively, the value-proportion of machinery and materials over and against that of human wage labor in total production expenditures. For Marx’s “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation,” see Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25.
  52. It has also been convincingly argued that the lower wage tiers and particularly older plant jobs of post-war manufacturing industry were heavily racialized, though perhaps not to the same extent as the reserve army.
  53. See William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Manning Marable, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (Chicago: Haymarket, 2015), 47–60.
  54. Andrew J. Cherlin, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working class Family in America (New York: Russell Sage, 2014), 1–23.
  55. Hester Eisenstein, Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World (New York: Paradigm, 2009); Nancy Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis (New York: Verso, 2013); Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987).
  56. Andrew Kliman, The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (New York: Pluto, 2012); Michael Roberts, The Long Depression: Marxism and the Global Crisis of Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 43.
  57. Figure 10 uses labor force participation, defined as all those civilians active in the US workforce or actively seeking work, as an inverse measure of true unemployment (nonparticipation in the capitalist workforce). The share not participating is thus roughly equivalent to the entire “reserve army” in Marx’s terms. But these figures do not allow for differentiation of specific segments of the reserve army—latent, floating, or stagnant—and thus growth or decline of its entirety cannot directly confirm or negate Marx’s predictions about growth of the latter two segments. Furthermore, not all labor force participants depicted in this chart are necessarily working class—some are self-employed (petty bourgeois), others are professional-managerial, and a small number are in fact capitalists. See Peter Ikeler and Laura Limonic, “Middle Class Decline? The Growth of Professional-Managers in the Neoliberal Era,” The Sociological Quarterly, 59, no. 4 (2018): 549–70.
  58. Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White.
  59. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged; Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (New York: Polity, 2008); Massey and Denton, American Apartheid.
  60. Public health researcher Justin Feldman recently came to a very similar conclusion of racial-economic bicausality with regard to police killings in the US. In his original statistical analysis, he finds that “in addition to confirming previously documented racial/ethnic inequalities in the United States, the analyses above identify strong socioeconomic inequalities in rates of police killings…Higher poverty among the black population accounts for a meaningful, but relatively modest, portion of the black-white gap in police killing rates.” Justin Feldman, “Police Killings in the US: Inequalities by Race/Ethnicity and Socioeconomic Position,” People’s Policy Project, June 23, 2020, 10.
  61. “Racial capitalism” as a concept was most robustly formulated by Cedric J. Robinson in his Black Marxism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). There, he poses it as a global, thorough-going corrective to classical Marxism. By using the term here we are neither endorsing nor rejecting that broader critique but simply noting the concept’s particular applicability to US history and social structure. Neither do we deny the deeply gendered nature of US and global capitalism: “patriarchal racial capitalism” might be an equally valid descriptor.
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