Why Democrats and Republicans Won't Confront Black Mass Incarceration, and Why The Green Party Will

Although the phenomenon of black mass incarceration is at the center of African American life, it continues to be obfuscated or ignored. The bipartisan consensus is that the social policy of black mass incarceration may exist only the minds of black people, and is certainly off the table as a political issue. To get this very real concern of Black America on the table then, may require stepping outside the bipartisan consensus. In Georgia, the state with the third highest black population and the largest percentage of its adults in the correctional labyrinth, the Green Party proposes to do what Democrats and Republicans won't --- make black mass incarceration a central political issue.

 

 Why Democrats and Republicans Won't Confront Black Mass Incarceration, and Why The Green Party Will

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

With less than 5% of the world's population, the US accounts for a quarter of the world's prisoners. While African Americans are only an eighth the population, we account for almost half the locked down. America's widely acknowledged but rarely discussed social policy of black mass incarceration has been a decisive fact of African American family and community life for a generation. Four years ago in Black Commentator, this reporter wrote that

...Right now, the shadow of prison squats at the corners of, and often at the center of nearly every black family’s life in this nation.

Since 1970, the US prison population has multiplied more than six times...  despite essentially level crime rates over the last four decades.  This has only been possible because the public policies which enable and support locking up more people longer and for less have until now been exempt from analyses of their human, economic and social costs or from any reckoning of the relationships of spiraling imprisonment to actual crime rates and public safety.  Most tellingly, while public discussions of these policies are deracialized, their racially disparate impacts are a seldom discussed but widely known fact.  Thus even though the damning numbers are widely reported and well known, mass incarceration is practically invisible as a political issue, even in those heavily black communities which suffer most from its implementation.”

Little has changed since then. The number of persons in prisons, jails, on probation, bail, parole, pre-trial and post-conviction supervision continues to rise and according to a March 2009 Pew Center report is now one in 31 nationally, including one in eleven African Americans. An astounding three percent of all black Americans are in prisons and jails, the majority for drug charges, although black and white rates of drug use have been virtually identical for decades. While politicians in black constituencies are regularly obliged to wag their fingers at it, their misleading analyses often point to educational outcomes, and job markets as if these were causes of explosive growth of the carceral state rather than its outcomes. In fact, the policy of mass black imprisonment has functioned as a kind of reparations in reverse, curtailing the economic vitality of entire black communities, stressing and destroying the cohesion of millions of families and thousands of neighborhoods, worsening black health outcomes and more.

The pretense that black mass incarceration is the murky outcome of other social policies rather than a plainly failed and malevolent social policy by itself misdirects public attention and effectively takes the issue off the political table. If black joblessness, lack of family cohesion and health disparities are somehow supposed to cause black mass incarceration, there is no reason to examine the growth of the carceral state itself. Thus the social policy of black mass incarceration never has to justify itself, its costs or its outcomes, never needs to be publicly acknowledged, and can never become a political issue in and of itself. But this may be about to change.

Making mass incarceration a political issue

The ninth largest US state, Georgia leads the rest with one in every thirteen adults in its prisons, jails, on parole and probation, and various kinds of pre-trial and post-conviction court or correctional supervision. A generation of white and black politicians from both major parties have built their careers on stoking the fear of crime and the expansion and justification of the state's vast crime control industries. The state's current Republican governor, as well as the top two Democratic contenders who want to succeed him all had a hand in passing the state's three-strikes mandatory sentencing legislation under former Democratic governor Zell Miller. One of those Democrats is the state's African American attorney general, Thurbert Baker. The last Democratic governor Roy Barnes wanted to put a “two-strikes” provision into the state constitution.

But Georgia's Green Party, BAR has learned, will announce tomorrow that its major focus for the coming two years, including the 2010 election cycle, will be making a political issue out of black mass incarceration. The Green Party of GA intends to do this by running candidates for the state legislature and for district attorney and sheriff, not just in metro Atlanta, but in Augusta, Macon, Columbus, Savannah and elsewhere. Georgia's Green party will expect its candidates to put the fact of black mass incarceration squarely on the political table by advocating positions including but not limited to:

  • opposing in principle the trials of or incarceration of juveniles as or with adults;

  • repealing all mandatory sentencing legislation;

  • an end to all privatized prisons and jails, and the swift phasing out of piecemeal privatization of inmate health, food services and other functions;

  • an end to all privatized probation services --- Georgia has an almost uniquely corrupt and oppressive regime of fines with loan-shark interest payments collected by private sector probation companies;

  • ceasing the incarceration of juveniles for most or all nonviolent offenses and reexamining the “zero-tolerance” policies forced upon many school districts;

  • immediate cancellation of all the private contracts enabling well-connected corporations and corrupt politicians to collect exorbitant tolls on the money sent to and phone calls made to inmates and persons in custody;

  • the extension of meaningful educational opportunities beyond G.E.D. to people in the state's jails and prisons and its extensive community corrections networks;

I should say how BAR came to know this. We know it because I have been for the last few weeks a member of the GA state committee of the Green Party and its press secretary.

We know that the effects of the nation's policy of black mass incarceration are among the most deeply felt concerns of millions of African American families. We are confident that vigorous, competent, grassroots political campaigns that bring their concerns to the fore are the key to growing the Green Party in Georgia and bringing into existence a broader and more permanent movement for peace and justice than has ever existed before. With the third highest black population among US states, Georgia is uniquely positioned to lead the way on this issue.

Below is a 2005 list of US counties in order of their black populations. Efforts like the one we envision in Georgia can probably succeed or make major impacts anyplace the African American population is 30% or more.

 

Counties by Black Population

County Name

State

Total County Population

Total Black  Population

Percent

Cook County

IL

5,376,741

1,405,361

26.1

Los Angeles County

CA

9,519,338

930,957

9.8

Kings County

NY

2,465,326

898,350

36.4

Wayne County

MI

2,061,162

868,992

42.2

Philadelphia County

PA

1,517,550

655,824

43.2

Harris County

TX

3,400,578

628,619

18.5

Prince George's County

MD

801,515

502,550

62.7

Bronx County

NY

1,332,650

475,007

35.6

Miami-Dade County

FL

2,253,362

457,214

20.3

Dallas County

TX

2,218,899

450,557

20.3

Queens County

NY

2,229,379

446,189

20

Shelby County

TN

897,472

435,824

48.6

Baltimore city

MD

651,154

418,951

64.3

Cuyahoga County

OH

1,393,978

382,634

27.4

Fulton County

GA

816,006

363,656

44.6

DeKalb County

GA

665,865

361,111

54.2

District of Columbia

DC

572,059

343,312

60

Broward County

FL

1,623,018

333,304

20.5

Essex County

NJ

793,633

327,324

41.2

Orleans Parish

LA

484,674

325,947

67.3

New York County

NY

1,537,195

267,302

17.4

Jefferson County

AL

662,047

260,608

39.4

Milwaukee County

WI

940,164

231,157

24.6

Duval County

FL

778,879

216,780

27.8

Alameda County

CA

1,443,741

215,598

14.9

Marion County

IN

860,454

207,964

24.2

Hamilton County

OH

845,303

198,061

23.4

Mecklenburg County

NC

695,454

193,838

27.9

St. Louis County

MO

1,016,315

193,306

19

Franklin County

OH

1,068,978

191,196

17.9

Tarrant County

TX

1,446,219

185,143

12.8

St. Louis city

MO

348,189

178,266

51.2

East Baton Rouge Parish

LA

412,852

165,526

40.1

Orange County

FL

896,344

162,899

18.2

San Diego County

CA

2,813,833

161,480

5.7

Allegheny County

PA

1,281,666

159,058

12.4

Palm Beach County

FL

1,131,184

156,055

13.8

San Bernardino County

CA

1,709,434

155,348

9.1

Suffolk County

MA

689,807

153,418

22.2

Hinds County

MS

250,800

153,297

61.1

Jackson County

MO

654,880

152,391

23.3

Baltimore County

MD

754,292

151,600

20.1

Hillsborough County

FL

998,948

149,423

15

Davidson County

TN

569,891

147,696

25.9

Richland County

SC

320,677

144,809

45.2

Nassau County

NY

1,334,544

134,673

10.1

Mobile County

AL

399,843

133,465

33.4

Montgomery County

MD

873,341

132,256

15.1

Westchester County

NY

923,459

131,132

14.2

Jefferson County

KY

693,604

130,928

18.9

Clark County

NV

1,375,765

124,885

9.1

Wake County

NC

627,846

123,820

19.7

Erie County

NY

950,265

123,529

13

Guilford County

NC

421,048

123,253

29.3

Lake County

IN

484,564

122,723

25.3

Clayton County

GA

236,517

121,927

51.6

Sacramento County

CA

1,223,499

121,804

10

Oakland County

MI

1,194,156

120,720

10.1

Pulaski County

AR

361,474

115,197

31.9

Maricopa County

AZ

3,072,149

114,551

3.7

Cobb County

GA

607,751

114,233

18.8

Richmond city

VA

197,790

113,108

57.2

Caddo Parish

LA

252,161

112,483

44.6

Montgomery County

OH

559,062

111,030

19.9

Union County

NJ

522,541

108,593

20.8

Montgomery County

AL

223,510

108,583

48.6

Charleston County

SC

309,969

106,918

34.5

Cumberland County

NC

302,963

105,731

34.9

Jefferson Parish

LA

455,466

104,121

22.9

Norfolk city

VA

234,403

103,387

44.1

New Castle County

DE

500,265

101,167

20.2

Monroe County

NY

735,343

101,078

13.7

Bexar County

TX

1,392,931

100,025

7.2

Hennepin County

MN

1,116,200

99,943

9

Hartford County

CT

857,183

99,936

11.7

Richmond County

GA

199,775

99,391

49.8

Oklahoma County

OK

660,448

99,241

15

Suffolk County

NY

1,419,369

98,553

6.9

Riverside County

CA

1,545,387

96,421

6.2

Chatham County

GA

232,048

93,971

40.5

King County

WA

1,737,034

93,875

5.4

New Haven County

CT

824,008

93,239

11.3

Camden County

NJ

508,932

92,059

18.1

Genesee County

MI

436,141

88,843

20.4

Contra Costa County

CA

948,816

88,813

9.4

Fairfield County

CT

882,567

88,362

10

Durham County

NC

223,314

88,109

39.5

Jefferson County

TX

252,051

85,046

33.7

Fairfax County

VA

969,749

83,098

8.6

Pinellas County

FL

921,482

82,556

9

Hudson County

NJ

608,975

82,098

13.5

Muscogee County

GA

186,291

81,488

43.7

Virginia Beach city

VA

425,257

80,593

19

Delaware County

PA

550,864

79,981

14.5

Forsyth County

NC

306,067

78,388

25.6

Gwinnett County

GA

588,448

78,224

13.3

Lucas County

OH

455,054

77,268

17

Travis County

TX

812,280

75,247

9.3

St. Clair County

IL

256,082

73,666

28.8

Bibb County

GA

153,887

72,818

47.3

Summit County

OH

542,899

71,608

13.2

Newport News city

VA

180,150

70,388

39.1

Fort Bend County

TX

354,452

70,356

19.8

Leon County

FL

239,452

69,704

29.1

Mercer County

NJ

350,761

69,502

19.8

Greenville County

SC

379,616

69,455

18.3

Middlesex County

NJ

750,162

68,467

9.1

Anne Arundel County

MD

489,656

66,428

13.6

Polk County

FL

483,924

65,545

13.5

Hampton city

VA

146,437

65,428

44.7

Henrico County

VA

262,300

64,805

24.7

Passaic County

NJ

489,049

64,647

13.2

Burlington County

NJ

423,394

64,071

15.1

Madison County

AL

276,700

63,025

22.8

Escambia County

FL

294,410

63,010

21.4

Hamilton County

TN

307,896

62,005

20.1

Tulsa County

OK

563,299

61,656

10.9

Denver County

CO

554,636

61,649

11.1

San Francisco County

CA

776,733

60,515

7.8

Solano County

CA

394,542

58,827

14.9

Dougherty County

GA

96,065

57,762

60.1

Chesapeake city

VA

199,184

56,823

28.5

Montgomery County

PA

750,097

55,969

7.5

Orangeburg County

SC

91,582

55,736

60.9

Douglas County

NE

463,585

53,330

11.5

Spartanburg County

SC

253,791

52,775

20.8

Prince William County

VA

280,813

52,691

18.8

Will County

IL

502,266

52,509

10.5

Kent County

MI

574,335

51,287

8.9

Portsmouth city

VA

100,565

50,899

50.6

In Georgia, our Green Party will look a lot like a red, black and green party. We are confident that with black majorities or near majorities in many of the state's largest counties, including several outside metro Atlanta, that some of these contests are eminently winnable by Green candidates willing to place the issue of mass incarceration squarely on the political front burner. We will be recruiting and training those candidates and the people who want to work with them to change this failed and destructive social policy.

By comparison, the mobilization achieved by the Obama campaigns last year was superficial, a mile wide and an inch deep, its imperatives dictated from the top down rather than from the bottom up, and its activists dispersed and demobilized immediately after the election. Establishment campaigns, such as Democrats usually conduct, are not “movements”. They are where movements go to die, or are betrayed misdirected, and disbanded. To be successful the fight to change and reverse the national policy of black mass incarceration must be closer to a real mass movement than anything seen in a generation, directed and inspired in large part from below. As far as Georgia's Green Party is concerned it will not be the slave of any candidate's political career. It won't go away after a few, or maybe quite a few people get elected, or not. It aims at nothing less than explaining, confronting and curtailing the carceral state with the power of organized people.

Bruce A. Dixon resides in metro Atlanta and is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. He is also press secretrary for the Green Party of Georgia, and can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com, and bdixon(at)georgiagreenparty.org.