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Institutionalized Racism in Slavery by Another Name

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The keyword that I chose to focus on is “institutionalized racism.” This keyword has a rich history and is interconnected to many things. In this paper, I am going to focus on applying critical race theory to institutionalized racism as well as look at the effects of institutional racism using the prison system and mass incarceration as an example of this form of racism.

Instituonal racism is a form of race discrimination that is a direct result of racial hierarchies of power. White supremacy is often associated with neo-nazism and extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. However, when we apply Critical Race Theory, we quickly realize that institutional racism is rooted much deeper and works within institutional areas as a system where white people enjoy structural advantage that other racial groups don’t. Crenshaw, Gotanda, Peller, and Thomas state that critical race theory has always focused on how “the regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color” was created, produced, and maintained through the law (1995). Essentially, racism had been provided loopholes that were bound within social institutions. The 13th amendment is key when discussing institutional racism and structural violence. 

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The 13th amendment outlawed chattel slavery, but simultaneously stated that this didn’t apply during times in which slavery/involuntary servitude was being used as punishment for a crime in which the accused is convicted. Because of this, states resorted back to covert, or indirect, forms of racism. The 13th amendment became weaponized against black people by criminalizing behaviors that are more likely to impact people of color. Crimes enforced disproportionately against African Americans soon gave way to “convict leasing,” which was the selling of prisoners to the highest private bidder under the legal status of laborers. Douglas Blackmon (Slavery by Another Name) brought attention to the fact that thousands of African Americans were arrested during this time period. Burdened with high court costs, fines, and no means to pay off their debts, prisoners were then sold into forced labor. During convict leasing, incarceration grew ten times faster than the general population, and “prisoners became younger and blacker, and the length of their sentences soared”, says David Oshinsky author of Worse Than Slavery. As argued by Michelle Alexander, “The criminal justice system was strategically employed to force African-Americans back into a system of extreme repression and control, a tactic that would continue to prove successful for generations to come.”

Mass incarceration is both a product of institutional racism and supports institutional racism. In 2016, over 2.2 million people in the US were held in prisons or jails, with close to 7 million under supervision of the criminal justice system – a 500% increase over the past 40 years (The Sentencing Project, 2016). Following the 13th amendment, people of color began to face consequences due to discrimination in public areas and forms of transportation, prohibition of African Americans serving on jury duty, and discrimination in voter registration based on race (Miah, 2018). African Americans became incarcerated for petty crimes and offenses, and as times changed and certain forms of discrimination became outdated and prohibited due to Civil Rights Laws, new forms of discrimination took their place. Mass arrests during demonstrations and search and seizures became the new common (Peters, 2019). The criminal justice system blatantly targets African American populations in the US in particular, with systemic racial bias on all levels of the criminal justice process (Mauer, 2011; The Sentencing Project, 2016: 46; The Sentencing Project, 2017), leading commentators to proclaim the carceral system as being one of racial control (Alexander, 2012). 

Relatedly, as recent data have shown, the carceral state is largely about the ‘systemic management of the lower classes’, primarily affecting working-class communities (Lewis, 2018). African Americans make up almost 30 percent of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5 percent of all substance users (NAACP, 11). Simultaneously, African Americans are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts ( NAACP, 11) and almost 80 percent of people serving time for a federal drug offense are black or Latino (Drug Policy Alliance, 12) In the federal prison system, the average black defendant convicted of a drug offense will serve close to the same amount of time as a white defendant would for a violent crime (Mauer, King, 13). Institutional racism has become thoroughly ingrained over the course of generations and with time, only adapts. 

As stated by Feagin, “We are socialized into seeing the world from the perspectives of white people our entire lives,” (2013). The white racial frame is a theory that recognizes how we are socialized into seeing the world from the perspectives of white people our entire lives. It gives clarity on images, language, emotions, discrimination, and narratives that are central to stereotyping, bigotry, and racist ideology. When applying this theory, we find that the effect of white actors in private and public organizations in ways that uphold or increase white privilege and power has been to keep the system of racial oppression in operation for many centuries (Feagin, 2013). Because culturally accepted behaviors and patterns are based on white normativity, black people are discriminated against or silenced in a wide range of institutions: businesses, schools, .etc. 

A great example of this was the war on drugs (Wamsley, 250-251) and mandatory minimum sentencing laws against crack cocaine. People of color account for 70 percent of all defendants convicted of charges with a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for a black defendant than a white defendant charged with the same offense,16 and black defendants are less likely to receive relief from mandatory minimums.17 While sentencing for crack cocaine was harsh, sentencing for powder cocaine (often associated with white users) was so much more easy going- even though a lot of crack dealers also proved to be white. By 2001, over 80% of federal crack defendants were black (Human Rights, 1997) and possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine resulted in a 5 year long prison term while possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine resulted in the same amount of time for a prison term (Sourcebook, 2001).

Institutional racism is deeply embedded in our society and a threat to minorities everywhere. Mass incarceration and institutional racism are interconnected and in order to understand one, we must understand the other. The historical influences on mass incarceration are rich with detail and have affected many generations before us and will continue to affect many generations after us if society doesn’t begin to dismantle the systems of oppression that uphold institutional racism. 

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