Graham Boyd in (2001) asserted that the “war on drugs” is the New Jim Crow. His use of this metaphor is to illustrate the erosion of rights African Americans are subjected to under this pernicious campaign. Moreover, many of the same rights fought for during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and the 19th Century by the abolitionist are being fought today because of this campaign Boyd opines. He predicted that by the year 2017, more black men would be under bondage than they were during the zenith of slavery in 1860. Michele Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow has been quoted as saying more black men are in prisons, probation and parole than they when they were enslaved. Her statement appears to confirm Boyd’s prediction.
Much has been made in regards to the inimical impact hyperincarceration has on the African American community, especially the impact on African American males. Michele Alexander builds on the earlier work of Graham Boyd and offers an interesting line of reasoning in regards to the impact incarceration has on the African American community. When she characterizes mass incarceration as a racial caste system, she inserts a different and interesting viewpoint, which has not been explored to the degree her new tome has forced scholars to examine. This caste system she defines is one where the stigmatized group is relegated to serfdom as a result of law and custom according to her. She goes on to aver that the residual affects of incarceration locks incarcerates out of mainstream society and the economy.
Both authors make excellent cases in regards to how the prison system resembles Jim Crow in the way it circumvents rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Additionally, they both underscore how incarceration decreases life chances for gainful employment, successful college matriculation and a host of other life enhancing opportunities averted once ensnared by the criminal justice system. However, I assert that they have placed the cart before the horse and have failed to credit the educational system with being the most salient reason for a permanent racial caste in the United States. Lack of education is the gateway to a lifetime of limited opportunities and a pathway to prison and poverty.
The educational system creates the caste system and prepares students for incarceration by reproducing social inequality via cultural and structural mechanisms, which researchers such as Ewert and others have demonstrated.
School practices such as tracking hamper future social and economic mobility. A byproduct of tracking is decreased skill level and low educational attainment, both salient factors in regards to contact with the criminal justice system. Educational attainment enhances occupational mobility and mitigates disadvantaged background and in many instances provides an upward path toward economic and social mobility. As a result, we should treat the symptom of incarceration and not the cause of hyperincarceration.
I strongly believe that the African American community should focus its energy on improving the educational system before attempting to get laws changed to mitigate the collateral consequences of a felony conviction. Why? Because researchers have found that schools socialize students to assume their position in the class structure through a myriad of mechanisms according to Ewert (2010) et al. The authors, along with various other researchers, “contend that schools reflect the occupational structure and expectations found in society.” Thus, the underclass is prepared by the educational system to remain in the underclass and the mechanisms used to maintain their mediocrity are tracking, socialization and inadequate school funding.
Many authors have shown the link between lack of educational attainment and contact with the criminal justice system. Tracking, dropout, carve-out, and push-out mechanisms are the real culprits in creating fodder for the criminal justice system. As iterated, years of research have unequivocally established a connection between education, employment and criminal involvement. Furthermore, the inability and unwillingness of the government and schools to educate students has led to an unprecedented number of dropouts.
The Center for Labor Studies at Northeastern University found that “nearly twenty-three percent of all young Black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution in America.” The dropout problem is worse than we realize because the Current Population Survey which does not count the incarcerated population underestimates the dropout rate among African American males by as much as 40% according to Ewart and others.
So when you consider that fifty-four percent of the nation’s dropouts ages 16 to 24 were jobless on an average month during 2008 and you consider the link between educational attainment and contact with the criminal justice system, reforming the educational system has the most potential to mitigate the impact of mass incarceration on the African American community and provide a pathway to economic and social mobility.
Byron E. Price is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University and the author of Merchandizing Prisoners: Who Really Pays for Prison Privatization?