The racial composition of the American prison system is staggeringly unequal, with black people incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of white people, despite accounting for just 12 percent of the overall population. On the surface this system appears straightforwardly designed to enforce our society’s racial hierarchy. But new research suggests a more complicated picture. A 2018 study, for example, concludes that the racial inequality in America’s prison population is mostly a second-order effect of the racially unequal makeup of America’s poor. In other words, the problem of imprisoning racial minorities can’t be disentangled from the general exploitation and dispossession of America’s working class — who, due to the legacies of slavery and racist exclusion, are disproportionately black.
With racial undertones that frequently turn into overtones, Republicans blame incarcerated people and the communities they come from for their own misfortunes. On the other hand, Democratic politicians have recently grown more comfortable condemning the criminal justice system’s obvious racial inequalities. But as staunch proponents of capitalism, they refuse to openly acknowledge the link between economic inequality and the oppressive institutions set up to manage the effects of that inequality. They’re thus only capable of tepid critique and a lukewarm reform program. Most cling to a set of police accountability measures that are further proven insufficient with each new viral video of police violence. Others make performative declarations at demonstrations while covertly affirming the status quo.
The Democrats’ inconsistent and ultimately useless approach to police and prison reform owes in large part to an inability or unwillingness to acknowledge the economic function of American policing. To understand how it works, we can look at two examples separated by a century and a half: the rates of incarceration by race in the North and South after Reconstruction, and current New York City mayor Eric Adams’s strategy for policing the homeless today. Both reveal that under the capitalist economic system, the police function to manage populations excluded from the workforce and clear the human detritus created by the process of capital accumulation. If we want a world free of racist policing and incarceration, we will need to take capitalism itself to task.
The North-South Paradox
In a recent paper titled “Exclusion and Exploitation: The Incarceration of Black Americans from Slavery to the Present,” Christopher Muller, who researches the intersection between political economies and incarceration at UC Berkeley, provides some historical context for the relationship between capital accumulation and racial disparities in the prison population. In particular, he’s interested in what at first glance seems like an implausible historical fact: rates of black imprisonment were lower in the post-Reconstruction South than they were in the North. Muller writes:
In 1880, Black men in Georgia were least likely to be imprisoned in the cotton belt and most likely to be imprisoned in urban counties or in counties where Black Georgians had accumulated an unusually large amount of land. This pattern held only for property crimes — those crimes white Georgians had the most discretion to enforce — and did not hold for imprisonment among white men. Notably, the Black incarceration rate for property crimes remained comparatively low in the cotton belt despite historical evidence suggesting that agricultural workers often “chose to commit criminal trespass or petty larceny, in order to dispose of what they saw as their share of the crop without the landlord’s interference.”
It seems counterintuitive that a region where anti-black racism was an explicit part of the cultural identity and legal code would imprison fewer black people than the abolitionist North. For Muller, the key to decoding it lies in the political economy of the time.
The southern economy was largely dependent on uneducated black agricultural labor, Muller observes. When black prisoners were leased as labor, they were often sent to perform grueling and dangerous industrial work, as opposed to servicing the agricultural labor needs of southern planters. But it was the planters, not the industrialists, who held the most power in southern society and were subsequently most able to influence the enforcement of the laws that governed it. And they typically found black workers more useful outside of prison.
Some planters held onto accused workers by serving as character witnesses or using their influence over local courts to intervene in prosecutions. Others punished workers themselves, often using violence. But planters also used courts to procure a supply of forced labor. They gathered at courthouses and offered to pay the fines of “any defendants who seemed to be desirable workmen.” Then they forced these defendants to work to pay off the debt. Defendants faced the impossible dilemma of choosing between the brutality of the convict lease system and the trap of peonage.
Contrast this dynamic with the labor market in the North, where black people who had arrived in the first Great Migration found themselves in direct competition with white workers for jobs. In Muller’s analysis:
The first Great Migration had two kinds of effects on the Black incarceration rate. First, migrants left a region where planters routinely tried to keep agricultural workers out of prison and in the fields. The absence of a similar practice in the North meant that the Black incarceration rate was higher in the North than in the South even before the migration began. Census microdata can be used to compare migrants’ probabilities of incarceration to those of similar northerners and southerners who stayed in their respective regions. Moving north drastically increased migrants’ likelihood of being incarcerated, even though migrants had higher average levels of education than those who remained in the South.
Second, the scale of the migration provoked a punitive reaction. Black migrants were forced into competition with northern workers, particularly European immigrants who were both concentrated at the bottom of the northern labor market and overrepresented on northern police forces. Many of these workers blamed migrants for their plight and greeted them with hostility rather than solidarity.
The competition between black and white workers for scarce industrial jobs in the North generated a great deal of racism — and racism both justified capitalists’ exploitation of a large share of the workforce and made class solidarity against the wealthy all but impossible.
The narrative changed over time: what was once a matter of intractable biological deficiency was eventually attributed to a nigh-inescapable cultural deficiency, easily identifiable through skin color. Where black labor was needed, these deficiencies could be atoned for through hard work. Where it wasn’t, the law was used to repress and remove populations not needed in the workforce, whose lack of employment inclined them to crime and vagrancy or whose visibility was a source of unpleasantness to more privileged members of society. It is this dynamic that explains the high rates of black incarceration in the industrialized North.
The Modern Surplus
In early March, Mayor Adams began to make good on his promise to clear the New York City subway system of crime and the homeless. Because the nearby presence of homeless people can negatively affect property values, they must be removed — and Adams, who received massive sums of campaign money from New York City real estate interests, is just the man to do it. In the first week of the crackdown, the NYPD arrested 143 people and removed 455 from trains and stations.
Part of Adams’s strategy involves sending social workers into the subway along with officers to help homeless people find somewhere else to go other than jail. A 2019 estimate by the NYC Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE) put the number of New Yorkers living in train cars and stations at 2,178, although that number is likely an undercount. In that first week, the outreach teams assisting officers in sweeping the subway were able to connect only twenty-two people with shelters. At the same time, Mayor Adams has decided to balance his budget by cutting a fifth of the funding for the city’s already inadequately funded homeless services agency.
New York has one of the country’s largest shelter networks, buoyed by the city’s right-to-shelter statute, established in 1979. In January, 48,413 individual people spent their nights in the city’s shelter system. But not everyone turns to shelters in times of homelessness. There are lots of reasons why homeless people choose to eschew shelters in favor of keeping warm on the subway. In New York City, shelters are administered through a consortium of connected nonprofit and for-profit companies, which unsurprisingly has produced a fair amount of grift and abuse. Advocates for the unhoused have long maintained that shelters are not a comprehensive solution to the problem: a housing-first strategy is more effective and would be more than feasible given the city’s staggering number of vacant apartment units.
Black people make up 40 percent of the homeless in New York City, even though they constitute just 13 percent of the general population. This looks like racism, and it is. Contemporary personal biases and the legacies of institutional racism work together to ensure that black and brown Americans are always hit hardest by economic downturns.
However, if all bias and legacy disadvantages disappeared overnight, homelessness would still be necessary for the New York City housing market — which relies on tenants to pay rent on threat of eviction and potential homelessness — to function as it does now. Homelessness would remain even if liberals were somehow able to “end racism” while leaving the economic structure untouched, especially if the only tools used to fight it were the police and the shelter system, as they are currently.
It is not illegal for people without housing to sleep on the street, but homelessness is criminalized in practice anyway. Police frequently sweep away homeless encampments, confiscating or destroying the few possessions held by the people who live there as part of a paradoxical program of “helping” the homeless. When it comes to those who live in the subway system, New York City has made breaking the transit system’s code of conduct a criminal offense — meaning you can be taken to jail not just for fare evasion but for playing music or taking up more than one seat. What’s more, city officials are asserting that the very act of attempting to seek warmth during the cold winter months by sleeping on the subway justifies involuntary commitment to a mental health facility.
None of this helps the homeless find homes, but that isn’t the point anyway. We know this because it’s entirely possible to end homelessness in New York City virtually overnight by matching people without shelter with empty apartments — but that won’t happen, because those vacant apartments are more valuable empty. Instead, the point is to make homeless people disappear, because their presence suppresses property values and market-rate rents, not to mention rankles people who earn more, own more, and pay higher taxes. Thus just as in the post-Reconstruction North, the policing of largely black populations serves the interests of elites rather than the public writ large.
Racism provides a justification for the exploitation and violence that are the natural consequences of capitalism. It changes the question from, “Why are so many people harmed under capitalism?” to “Why are these particular people harmed under capitalism?” For conservatives, the answer is cultural deficiency and a lack of traditional moral values. For liberals, the answer is racist barriers and institutional bias. But the most convincing answer is that capitalism by design requires dispossession and exploitation of some portion of the population and that harm becomes more palatable when disproportionately doled out to an easily identifiable subgroup, whom others in society can be compelled to fear on account of their difference and blame for their own condition.
Empirical evidence points to a causal relationship between unemployment and crime. Likewise, one 1998 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research identifies the racial wage gap as explaining the differences in rates of criminal participation between races, as well as the age distribution of crime. The neoliberal model of economic management demands a certain level of unemployment to control labor costs — and thus demands conditions favorable to criminal activity. This economic driver of crime works in tandem with racial biases that ensure that minorities are arrested more, convicted more often, and sentenced to longer jail terms. The system creates a color-coded class of market rejects, allowing politicians on either side of the debate to attribute the size of the prison population to either cultural deficiencies in marginalized populations or racists within law enforcement acting with bias. Either way, the benefits to capitalism that our criminal justice system provides go unremarked upon.
Following the economic hollowing effects of deindustrialization, white working-class men have found themselves increasingly relegated to the status of surplus labor. This has corresponded with a rise in midlife mortality for white men living in states of economic precarity; poverty not only increases a white person’s chances of being locked up but also their chances of being murdered by police. However, even when economic status is controlled for, black people are still at higher risk of having their lives irrevocably changed (or ended) through interactions with law enforcement. Working-class people of all races have an interest in ending mass incarceration and violent policing. But the coding of these issues as black issues, a perception supported by the demographic facts themselves, makes the necessary solidarity difficult to come by.
Eric Adams won his election appealing to working-class minority voters by promising to be tough on crime — a sobering fact for social justice and civil rights activists who may have believed the discourse around policing was turning a corner following the George Floyd protests and their aftershocks. In reality, crime is a serious problem that dramatically affects the lives of the people it touches. While most minority and working-class voters believe that racist policing is a serious issue and want to see it addressed, they don’t necessarily associate it with the need for capitalism to exploit and exclude in order to function. They think of policing as a necessary and proper response to crime.
Joe Biden has vociferously denounced the notion of defunding the police, and his position isn’t unpopular. A majority of Americans want police funding to remain the same or increase. Policing is still viewed as an institution chiefly concerned with public safety rather than the maintenance of favorable property and labor relations. Any successful counternarrative to the pro-policing status quo that Adams and Biden endorse must articulate that crime and racist policing are not the product of individual choices but necessities of a political economy based on exploitation and exclusion. Black people may bear the brunt, but everyone who doesn’t belong to the wealthy minority suffers the consequences.