Seeing black male humanity: How the president can take on the Prison-Industrial Complex

The ability to advocate for the lives of young black men shows why President Obama still has important work to do

By Brittney Cooper

Published February 4, 2014 12:45PM (EST)

Barack Obama                (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Barack Obama (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama managed to make one overt mention of racial disparities when he noted that one of his focuses for this year would be the creation of new initiatives to help “men of color” “stay on track and reach their full potential.” Despite the explicit nod to a racialized demographic, the president declined to be more specific about what these initiatives might entail. Then in a surprising move late last week, the Department of Justice reached out to defense attorneys nationwide and asked them to locate low-level drug offenders who had been targeted by drug laws at the height of the crack epidemic, in order to open the door for clemency proceedings.

The Obama administration has led the way in reducing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, which was initially 100 to 1. The disparity now stands at 18 to 1. And there is now a bill in Congress that would retroactively apply the DOJ's new sentencing guidelines, making up to 12,000 people eligible for reduced sentences.

Much of African-American support for President Obama has been predicated on the belief that in a second term he would address some of the social issues near and dear to our communities — which have been ravaged by the implementation of Rockefeller Drug Laws, mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes penalties. Coupled with the massive movement of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs out of urban areas, the drug epidemic preyed upon communities that were already economically and socially vulnerable in the late 1970s and 1980s. With little educational or career opportunity available, many young men turned to participation in the underground economy to make ends meet.

So much black male talent and possibility languishes behind bars. In fact, the Prison-Industrial Complex is one of the top civil rights issues of our times. Black and brown folks are locked up at disproportionate rates, are more likely to be arrested, more likely to have poor representation, and more likely to be given harsh prison sentences than their white counterparts. Many of these men then serve sentences in privatized prisons, where their labor is extracted while they are paid in some cases as little as 25 cents a day for building desks for college classrooms or making the proverbial license plates that we have all come to recognize as being prison labor.

The Prison-Industrial Complex, particularly given its ties to private corporations, is just a modern-day remix of the convict-lease system that took root at the end of slavery. Newly freed slaves roamed cities, with no place to go. So towns and municipalities passed vagrancy laws, which landed disproportionate numbers of formerly enslaved folks back in jails. Then local plantation owners would often come down to these jails and “rent” the labor of the prisoners from law enforcement officers. It was no stretch for enslaved folks to find themselves back doing unpaid labor on the very plantations they had left.

Legal scholars trained in critical race theory have long pointed out that the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not abolish slavery. It states: “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, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” In other words, slavery is perfectly legal as punishment for a crime in this country.

It turns out, then, that the color of folks who are primarily impacted by “get-tough-on-crime” policies looks remarkably similarly to the color of folks whose labor was involuntarily extracted through slavery less than two centuries ago.

This is no accident. Keeping huge numbers of black people in some state of “unfreedom” has been critical to helping the nation understand exactly what freedom looks like. In the 19th century, freedom largely took its definition from the ability to do everything enslaved people could not do: own property, move freely, have any bodily autonomy, make money, make families, go to school, and defend themselves. Today, our nation understands freedom largely through a kind of carceral logic, that pits those of us outside of prison against those of us who are inside of prisons.

But black and brown communities know these lines are more porous. When your close loved ones are locked away, you become connected to the Prison-Industrial Complex intimately. I have watched many male loved ones do time, and thus have spent many a holiday traveling to prisons in out-of-the-way places, to let those folks know that they are not forgotten. I have watched close male relatives dig and claw their way back to a viable future outside of prison, but not without a couple of relapses. I have other close male relatives who are locked up right now.

President Obama has been constrained by the dishonest and vitriolic racial climate of this country from making more than cursory nods to questions of race in the first five years of his presidency. However, it seems that the killing of Trayvon Martin helped turn the tide, such that he has since taken the opportunity, in much more public venues, to talk about black men’s experiences of racial profiling and criminal targeting in the U.S. body politic.

This call then is the second major one since the announcement of the Zimmerman verdict that attempts to make men of color visible to broader conversations about justice and equality. This is an important move and we should be taking notice.

But still, it is only a first step. Much as the convict leasing system took hold at the end of slavery and imperiled newly freed folks who existed without a social safety net to protect them, the men who will benefit from these shifts in crime policy will need lots of social support in order not to recidivate. They will need job skills, steady employment and stable homes in order to be successful. Thus we will need a comprehensive policy to make sure that President Obama’s gesture moves past the space of good intentions.

Black men have long been maligned through the myth of black male criminality. Such myths perform powerful kinds of ideological work in justifying the continued existence of structural inequality and white male dominance. Moreover, these black male criminals exist at the nexus of a kind of social hyper-visibility, which makes young black men like Trayvon Martin an ever present threat, and a kind of pervasive invisibility that makes the American populace incapable of seeing and acknowledging black male humanity and personhood. This ability to see and advocate for the lives of these men is evidence of the profound way in which President Obama’s blackness and maleness matters. And I, for one, am sighing with relief that finally, more than a full term in, he’s ready to acknowledge it.

Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon, and teaches Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.

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