In America, there are two systems of justice under the law: one for the rich and politically powerful, and then one for everyone else. Under this corrupt, two-tiered system of justice, few U.S. bankers (and none of the most high-ranking ones) were sent to prison in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, despite how big U.S. banks largely caused the global crisis that happened around ’08. This is noted as millions of Americans have been arrested (and some imprisoned) for relatively innocent activities such as the nonviolent possession of marijuana.
IT’S A FACT that African-Americans are disproportionately represented in America’s prisons. In state prisons, where the majority of prisoners are held, African-Americans are incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of white Americans.
But what remains an open question is what explains this racial incarceration gap; what needs to change to eliminate that gap? Is it a racist economic system that produces a disproportionate population of impoverished African-Americans who then are ground up by a criminal justice system that targets the poor? Or is it better explained by racial bias in policing and sentencing?
A new report from the People’s Policy Project argues that while both exist, it’s economic oppression that matters most — or, at least, matters first.
Researcher Nathaniel Lewis sought to examine the role of both race and class in male incarceration as they impact four different outcomes:
- Whether or not men aged 24-32 years have ever been to jail or prison
- Whether or not men are jailed after being arrested
- Whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison
- Whether or not men have spent more than a year in jail or prison
Ultimately, Lewis concluded that his data showed that the primary reason we see overrepresentation of African-Americans in the criminal justice system are factors related to poverty.
“I think that people are used to hearing the statistics about glaring racial disparities in the justice system, and police brutalization and the police murder of black individuals, plus the long history of stark racism in America, and they add this all up and, quite reasonably, the New Jim Crow framework of explaining mass incarceration as a racist system designed to oppress black people seems inarguably correct,” he told us. “But most of these studies and statistics don’t control for socioeconomic status, and the ones that do, I would say, do so inadequately. It could be that mass incarceration is primarily a system of managing poor people, rather than black people, and the racial disparities show up mostly because black people are disproportionately represented in the lower classes. This is what my study finds.”
Lewis concluded that his research suggests that one of the best ways to reduce the total prison population would be to embrace social democratic policy that would address poverty, the education gap, and other class divides.
“One implication, at least to me, is that policies aimed at alleviating class disparities may be the most effective way of helping black people, and all people, subject to being ground up by the criminal justice system,” he said.