The Evolution of Racism and Its Effect on Rates of Incarceration and Recidivism for Minorities
By Diana Ortiz-Beaudet
In 1954, segregation in education became illegal, teaching an entire generation that racism would no longer be tolerated in the most important institution of America. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we could further deduce that the United States was moving closer to a discrimination-free society as a whole (Graglia 104). In 2015, with 70% of the prison population being African American and Latino, this cannot be further from the truth (Martenesen 212). The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid; this is staggering and further supports how much work is left to be done in U.S. societies. In this analysis we will look at how systemic racism has developed in the government, the media, corporate America, and the judicial system and has contributed to incarceration rates, specifically for minorities in struggling communities.
Racism has evolved into a more subtle means of discrimination stemming from historical and current events. In the 1930’s, after the collapse of the stock market followed by the depression era, Congress established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to assist homeowners facing foreclosure. This federal agency implemented an appraisal process that encouraged lenders to rate neighborhoods for mortgage risk based on undesirable residents defined as racial or ethnic minorities and low-income inhabitants (Woods 1038). This “scientific appraisal”, titled Red-Lining, could deem an entire community as a hazardous bank investment, contributing to disinvestment and racial discrimination (Harris 2661). Between the years of 1934 and 1962, the US government backed 120 billion dollars of home loans though the FHA, made available only to non-minorities and only if they did not live close to minorities (Woods 1038). While the United States was expanding the American dream of home ownership to millions of middle-class whites, African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities, including low-income individuals, were barred from full access to home ownership and were trapped in slums with an inadequate and finite amount of inhabitable space (Woods 1039). As a result of red-lining, entire communities gradually lost resources and access to basic needs as was documented in Nashville in 1950 when “29 percent of all dwelling units were dilapidated or had no running water, for the nonwhite population that proportion was much higher at 70 percent” (Woods 1045). These types of conditions have proven to lead to a disenfranchised mentality and an eventual sense of being indirectly subjugated. At a time when minorities were just beginning to exercise their rights to live free from segregation and discrimination, this process further forced them into poor urban centers, establishing ghettos, segregation, and further deterred investments in their communities. Red-lining fostered an impoverished community environment whose current culture teaches a justification of “whatever it takes to survive” actions which more often than not lead to illegal punishable offenses.
As a result of red-lining, block-busting became another unscrupulous real-estate practice of the 1950’s that contributed to “white flight”, the phenomenon of white families moving from an area en masse, taking their middle-class income with them. Real-estate agents would buy a property in a white-only neighborhood by instilling the fear of the influx of minorities, re-sell the homes to eager minorities at inflated prices, and finally finance their purchases at a higher rate of interest (Vitchek 339). With property taxes funding schools, the loss of the middle-class income resulted in the diminished quality of education in minority neighborhoods. Nicer areas with higher taxes would continue to have access to quality resources and more qualified teachers that lead to higher education and better opportunities, more connections, and more jobs. In impoverished communities, “white flight” resulted in a lack of educational opportunities, leading to low-wage manual labor, further delving a person of color into poverty. These factors continue to contribute to the increased the risk of recidivism as poverty and lack of opportunity create desperation, stripping away a person’s sense of self-reliance and hope, resorting to acts of desperation that often land them in prison.
Once a minority has been incarcerated, their already diminished chance to establish a successful career is decreased dramatically. Employers and authority figures in corporate America are significant stake holders in the cycle of incarceration. Historically, resumes with a non-minority name have a higher chance of being asked for an interview (Bertrand 2004). This is exacerbated once a minority has been through the prison system. “I get turned away wherever I go; I can’t get a job, I can’t rent an apartment and can’t go for a nursing course because they say I won’t get a medical board license, all because they think I am still a dangerous person; so what’s the use of sending me to prison if I come out and have to go through all this, or what else so I need to do to replay my debt to society?” says one former inmate. “…you try everything possible and you are turned away everywhere; you can only go for so long before you have to make a choice and nine out of ten times you will stick up (commit a another crime) and end up going back to prison.” (Mbuba 243). The reformation goal that was originally intended in prison systems may be lost because of a professional community’s rigid stance on second chances for convicted criminals. Most companies will not hire a convicted offender. The inability to control this discrimination in corporate America contributes to a cyclical struggle among minorities, increasing the chances of re-incarceration.
Biased laws with history in President Reagan’s War on Drugs, legal racial profiling that triggers excessive use of force and police brutality, and prisons becoming for-profit businesses all have been credited to mass incarceration. Laws that were passed with regards to sentencing in the War on Drugs particularly targeted black communities. One example is the sentence for possession of crack which is 100 times harsher than the sentence for possession of cocaine. Minority communities are policed more harshly. The laws that allow officers to stop and question anyone based on suspicion (Show me your papers & Stop and frisk) has led to minorities being twice as likely to be arrested for doing the same things non-minorities do and twice as likely to get pulled over. NYPD made 686,000 stops in 2012 with only 12% resulting in arrest. After the privatization of the prison systems, the prison population increased from 200,000 to 2.4 million, more than any country in the world. The US represents 4.4% of the total world population. We house 22% of the world’s prisoners (Travis). More African American adults are in prisons today than were enslaved in 1850 (Martensen 212). Varying reports list the imprisonment ratio to be six to eight times the rate of white men. The difficulty of measuring the quality of a prison itself is a factor in re- incarceration as comparatives studies of public vs. private prisons, done over decades, yield unimpressive results. The reasons for these results are noted in the article as performance results being rarely measured (no accountability), compensation is not performance based (no incentive to improve process), and prison models do not allow for flexibility in their processes to test different models (Volokh 339). Recent exposure of corruption in the justice system found a Pennsylvania judge under investigation for receiving monies from private prisons where he had sentenced offenders to these same prisons from which he received money. The prison system is a powerful institution affected by 400 years of slavery, 100 years of outright discrimination, and 50 years of covert discrimination.
The media holds a certain responsibility for the cycle of re-incarceration. Alarming post-Ferguson statements, made by White Americans, in congressional gatherings and the media, state that the challenges faced by people of color are self-imposed; that their malaise is the result of a bad culture, bad values, violent and lazy individuals and broken families (The Truth About Ferguson 2014). Current discussions send the message that to be black is to be inferior; this message by definition is racist and contributes to systemic racism. When these types of messages are reported by the media, it goes beyond telling a news story as this sharing of opinions greatly influences how the general population views minorities, affecting where they shop, where they live, and how they vote.
It will take a grand interdisciplinary approach from all factors affected by systemic racism to address recidivism in communities that are already struggling to hold their heads above water (Tafia 283). The government can begin undoing the trauma they inadvertently caused in the maintenance of racism and re-incarceration by creating historically aware integration planning without negative gentrification or displacement and also support the sponsorship of higher education and mentorship for citizens that are interested in politics. Another light in the dark for the issue of this evolution of racism and recidivism for minorities would be the establishment of diversity training concerning affirmative action presenting the benefits of a diverse workforce. As was seen recently documented by the death of Kalief Browder, there is a desperate need to overhaul the prison system (Schwirtz). Their needs to be tangible accountability in the prison systems with advocates for inmates, a strong education in the history of racism and prison systems provided to law enforcement working towards an overhaul of generational conditioning of racist thought patterns. Another step towards changing the thought patterns of the general population would be to delineate a clear division between what is considered news and what is considered info-tainment in the media. The media is so powerful and they can easily sway an entire demographic into action if images and stories are presented in an emotional or biased way, as is frequently done in News Talk Shows such as The O’Reilly factor among others. Racism is no longer the idea of stodgy elder folk plotting the ill-fated futures of minorities; it has become a system of forces in our community that makes it very difficult for minorities and people of color to climb out of, to transcend their second class status.
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