New Jim Crow, Capital, and the Fool’s Game of “Public Consensus”


Michelle Alexander’s recent sensation The New Jim Crow reveals a pattern of racial oppression repeatedly reconstituting itself. Just as Jim Crow replaced slavery, the criminal justice system quickly evolved to replace Jim Crow as the dominant mechanism of racial oppression.  The question Alexander poses is how we are to overcome this New Jim Crow once and for all, along with all its second lives and zombies. Alexander’s story is complex, but her diagnosis boils down to something as vague as it is simple:  “a flawed public consensus” (222).

The system has a tendency to reconstitute itself, and our criminal justice system is just a reincarnation of last century’s Jim Crow. Each gain against racial oppression has been followed by a countervailing movement, redrawing the lines of political alliance to protect those in power. Those lines have tended to reproduce racial caste, relying on narratives explicitly or implicitly constructed around blackness to divide the oppressed, bribe some among them, and keep the others down and exploited. Thus, approximately, go the first few chapters of Alexander’s book. Chapter 6, the book’s concluding chapter, brings us to the hard questions. We’ve looked at the history, deconstructed some myths, revealed some shocking statistics and deeply disturbing patterns. Now what? Alexander brings her argument to a point: “to the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow” (222). We need a deeper change that does not just consist of legal reforms and “disconnected advocacy strategies” (221). It is clear we need a paradigm shift.

So far, so good.

This is when Alexander hits us with it: the pinnacle of her argument, the last lingering high note in a composition full of moments that ring clear. But it comes out muffled. And a little flat. We are not sure about that sound. They key thing, says Alexander, is “public consensus.”

“The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control of not?” (221). All those reforms, all those piecemeal cases, will get us nowhere, unless we build a movement through and around them: “reform work is the work of movement-building, provided that it is done consciously as movement-building work. If all the reforms mentioned above were actually adopted, a radical transformation in our society would have taken place” (223). So the question is: how serious are we? We collectively. Are we building a movement? Are we changing the public view? Do we, as a society, have the right attitude to see these reforms through? “A flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system,” Alexander tells us (222). So what do we need? A “truly egalitarian racial consensus.” Try chanting that one.

The problem with Alexander’s book is not that she does not provide us with a wealth of stunning details. It is not that she does not deliver an intriguing and intricate history. It is rather that she produces this history, this wealth of historical information, and then misses a critical pattern that her data itself suggests.

A continuing theme of Alexander’s book is the pattern of those in power finding ways to reconstitute their power. She herself mentions many a time the role of elite interests and class in maintaining racial caste systems. For example, the early deployment of racial stratification to break the bond of black and white laborers who joined Bacon for their own liberation (sadly, and reminding us of the need for complexity, liberation with Bacon meant taking Native American land). Or in the formation of Jim Crow, how “segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans,” who had been campaigning together against their shared exploitation (34); “As long as the poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them” (qtd 34). And further, that in the formative stages of today’s mass incarceration system, the law and order campaigns and Drug War were driven by a Republican elite working to gain power by once again channeling the economic frustrations of lower-class whites, “forced to compete on equal terms with blacks for jobs and status” while elite whites exploited them both. All these threads point to the role of economic power, of economic interests and exploitation, in the persistent reconstitution of the racial caste system. Alexander’s data provides the dots, but she fails to draw in the line of capitalism’s role in the New Jim Crow narrative.

This underlying narrative is one in which racialized castes consistently serve as the basis of cheap labor for capital. And one in which periods of discontent lead to political intrigue as new bribe structures and political alliances are set up. Attitudes are certainly a factor, but these grow up on the trellises of capital’s wheeling-and-dealing. Beginning with the slave system, which we all understand to be a system of providing cheap vulnerable labor for capitalist exploitation, we see capital’s role in setting up our “flawed public consensus.” Not only black and white castes, but the very notions of racial identity, were first solidified around a racial bribe. Solidarity arose spontaneously in a system of unsegregated workers laboring side-by-side, under the same exploitative conditions; racial stereotypes, though surely present, were permeable and not fixed to the categories we know today because they were not set up by larger forces in relationships of antagonism. As Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race explores in detail, these laborers did not identify as black or white. It was only with the quelling of Bacon’s rebellion, which mobilized both the black and white poor with the promise of land and freedom from bond-labor, that the governing classes, seeking to keep their workforce docile, drew a line of whiteness around some of their workers and singled them out for favorable treatment on the condition that they disassociate from their former fellows. The driving role of economic logic is apparent. Under Jim Crow, the division of the working class along racial lines kept economic frustrations and animosity directed inward. Blacks and whites competed for jobs and blacks functioned as a reserve labor force, to be cast off during periods of economic recession and tapped into when needed.

Brown vs. Board of Education, recounted by Alexander as a narrative of  the “public consensus” not having adequately changed, is in fact a good example of the importance of recognizing the economic logics of oppression. As Alexander tells it, “’for ten years, 1954-1964, virtually nothing happened.’ … Brown did not end Jim Crow; a mass movement had to emerge first—one that aimed to create a new public consensus opposed to the evils of Jim Crow”.  But it is grossly obfuscating to say that the failure of Brown vs. Board to effect change was about public consensus; this makes it sound as though change just required convincing the broad public of the need to have integrated schools, the need to “really care across color lines” (222). To do so would be to ignore the structure that underlies the status quo. As Alexander herself recognizes, when we do not make active change, legal change make no difference. And “public consensus” alone is little more substantive, as in her own tale of those who bore no hostility to integration continuing to play into the system. What then is the barrier we must actively fight against? Is it just the inertia of public opinion? What Alexander mentions but fails to draw out is the theme of economic exploitation. It takes active bussing campaigns to overcome the geographic segregation encouraged by the political logics of a capitalist order. Why is it (or is it twisted to appear) in the interests of many whites to keep a predominantly black population segregated or under lock and key?  Because the system is set up such that a powerful class—including prison operators, their political supporters, and the corporations that purchase the cheap products of prison labor—benefits from prisoner exploitation and saves a little of the scraps for other segments of the proletariat that they also exploit.

To understand our current structures of racial caste, we must consider how the capitalist logic running through the criminal justice system feeds its pathologies and sucks efforts at reform back into its course. Most readers of Alexander’s work will be amply familiar with the concept of the Prison-Industrial Complex and the cluster of private prison contractors, construction companies, manufacturers and service providers who make a profit off the prison system. Unfortunately, Alexander spends a measly amount of time on explaining the economics of this system. The private prison system, symptomatic of the pathologies of mass incarceration, emerged in the early 1980s, concurrent with the boom in incarceration. The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO group, the two largest private prison contractors, formed in 1983 and 1984, respectively, following closely on the heels of the War on Drugs declaration (1982) and coming right before the flooding of working class black neighborhoods with crack (~1985).

Some analyses of the boom in incarceration see it as a means of locking away and controlling surplus population not able to be employed (e.g. Wright 1997). While this is surely part of the picture—the logic of capital tends to produce surplus population and lumpen economies which then become an excuse for marginalization and oppression—such an explanation misses several other strategic functions of the prison system under capitalism. As illustrated by the financial success of the private prison sector, making $3 billion in revenue a year (ALCU 5), the War on Drugs opened up a whole new sector for ever-hungry capital’s investment; the prison system, beyond acting as a cost to capital and a means of social control, became a new source of profit. This revenue comes in two forms: taxpayer money and contract labor. Taxpayer money essentially functions as a form of primitive accumulation, opening a new source of profit for capital by levying taxes through state power and funneling it into an industry that makes over a billion in profits annually.[1] Meanwhile, the labor of prisoners, which costs the capitalist 40 to 50 cents per hour (~5% of federal minimum wage) and no benefits (Smith and Hattery 282), takes a population previously too expensive to employ, and by subsidizing their living costs with taxpayer money, makes them once again profitable to employ. This is common practice not only in the private prison industry, which holds 130,000 of the US’s 2.3 million prisoners (ACLU 11-12), but also in public prisons. The Department of Corrections is known to skim as much as 50% off a prisoner’s paycheck to cut its own costs (Smith and Hattery 282). Other beneficiaries of prison labor include everyone from construction companies and textile manufacturers to IBM, Motorola, Texas Industries, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret, and Revlon, who exploit it for the same grunt labor capitalists usually contract to China for, at even cheaper rates (the average Chinese laborer received $1.68/hr in 2008).[2] Prisons represent a cheap 2.3 million-strong workforce to be drawn into work at will. Locked up, they can be employed at our disposal and disciplined too—the ideal flexible labor force. In short, our system of mass incarceration functions as a major subsidy for capital. By leveraging taxpayer money to pay for prisons, it opens up a new realm of investment for private capital. Conveniently for capital, prisons function both as a new realm of investment and a mechanism for dividing the proletariat by taking the most marginalized and locking them away, while the rest pay for their oppression and accept it. Making use of the color line was one of the easiest mechanisms for capital to do this. Criminality oriented around an implicit color bias not only makes it easier to “other” so-called criminals, but also has devalues the communities they come from as a whole, turning those communities into further pools of cheap labor.[3]

We cannot understand the New Jim Crow or how to fight it without understanding the economic forces that drive it. The marginalization of a large, predominantly black population, their control and devaluation, is not at root a matter of a “flawed public consensus”; it is about an upper class maintaining its power and control, however masked and indirectly. And we will get nowhere with the fight to roll back our ravenous mass incarceration system if we treat it as a problem of public opinion. At best, if we are very lucky, we will have some changed view on prisons, a few reforms, a new status quo with a teeny bit more padding, and another displacement of capitalism’s wringing hand. At worst, we will get nothing much at all: economic divisions will break down our solidarity; some of us will grow more agitated; and capital will continue to pay for people in office who put those of us most militant about resistance into the prisons too. If we are going to fight the New Jim Crow, we must pay attention to the story between the lines in Alexander’s book: that this is a problem of class power and capital that must be fought as such.

In Seattle, and other cities, a movement is growing to fight the prison-industrial complex, and it is excited about Michelle Alexander’s book. The most radical segments of this movement are staunchly abolitionist. We are about getting rid of prisons. But even as this radical segment is convinced of the fundamentally flawed nature of our mass incarceration system, it does not necessarily recognize and is not explicit about the fight being a larger one of class and exploitation. We must bear in mind as we fight the fight for prison abolition that we are working in a capitalist system that has a tendency to pit the oppressed against the oppressed. Unless prison abolition is understood as a larger fight—against those who profit off prisons and by all workers in the prison-industrial complex, from prisoners themselves to those exploited to construct their facilities, look after their health, and provide their services—we will end up with another fight directed inwards, towards ourselves. Prison abolition alone could mean a flood of people back into urban ghettos, competition for already scarce jobs, loss of jobs for working class whites in prison-related industries, and renewed racial resentment. Job training and rehabilitation programs are not the solution for this. It requires something much more—a fundamental challenge to capitalist exploitation. Alexander’s “radically egalitarian public consensus” cannot be formed without radically egalitarian material relations and the reclaiming of resources by all those exploited. No public consensus except one that recognizes the nature of this exploitation and fights it can help us escape from another reconstitution of racialized class oppression.

The movement in Seattle today is shy in recognizing this. A new constellation forming in resistance to the city’s money-pumping into the juvenile detention system has started on an explicitly abolitionist basis, with a significant but not yet loud class conscious element in its core. There is a sense of the need to be prisoner led, an important factor if the movement is to be engaged in the full complexity of problems and oppressions that face prisoners and their communities. At last Thursday’s community forum, the majority of speakers spoke directly from their experience as inmates or relatives and friends of inmates in the prison system. But as a teacher and audience member at last Thursday’s community forum commented, there were few who would identify as black males sitting in the room. There were few from her community in Seattle’s South End, one of those most affected by this complex. To paraphrase her call, if this movement means business, when things get active in the South End, we need to show up and be there. Thursday discussion also failed to tackle class and capital as central frames of analysis. As Seattle’s movement grows we need to develop a clear understanding of the workings of the capitalist system that structures what we fight. We can only act effectively with that understanding in mind.


[1] Just one of these corporations, the CCA, made $1.2 billion in earnings in 2005.

[2] Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Manufacturing in China.” http://www.bls.gov/fls/china.htm

[3] For more info on the prison industry, visit http://www.prisonpolicy.org/research/. See also http://criticalresistance.org.

Sources Cited
American Civil Liberties Union. 2011. Banking on bondage: private prisons and mass incarceration. New York, NY: ACLU. http://www.aclu.org/files/assets/bankingonbondage_20111102.pdf.
Smith, Earl, and Angela Hattery. 2007. “If We Build It They Will Come: Human Rights Violations and the Prison Industrial Complex”. Societies Without Borders. 2 (2): 273-288.

See Also

Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California / Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Podcast: “The Punitive Turn”
http://www.againstthegrain.org/tag-directory/prisons

Private Prisons: The Public’s Problem
American Friends Service Committee, February, 2012
http://afsc.org/sites/afsc.civicactions.net/files/documents/AFSC_Arizona_Prison_Report.pdf

Too Good to be True: Private Prisons in America
Sentencing Project, January, 2012
http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_Too_Good_to_be_True.pdf

Gaming the System: How the Political Strategies of Private Prison Companies
Justice Policy Institute, June, 2011
http://www.justicepolicy.org/research/2614

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6 Responses to New Jim Crow, Capital, and the Fool’s Game of “Public Consensus”

  1. Noel Ignatiev says:

    I do not agree that the “criminal justice system is just a reincarnation of last century’s Jim Crow.” Alexander demonstrates the role of prison in giving rise to a caste system; but is it racial caste? Since the reviewer cited Ted Allen, I feel justified in recalling his definition of racial oppression as a system in which the most degraded member of the dominant group is exalted above any member of the subordinate group. I find his definition useful. Does the prison system affect all black people in the way that Jim Crow did in the past? Civil Rights altered the status of many black Americans (not just Obama, Colin Powell, et al); while poor black people used to be insulted and mistreated at the welfare office by white clerks, now they are insulted and mistreated by black clerks.

    This is not to deny the continuing relevance of color: it is obvious that black folk suffer disproportionately, and whites are still to some degree shielded, from the worst effects of the capitalist system. But statistics about the race gap do not demonstrate the value of “black” and “white” as analytic categories. While the caste Alexander speaks of is made up largely of black folk, not all black folk belong to it or live under its shadow. Maybe the Lucasville rebels knew something when they scrawled “convict race” on the prison walls. (A bit of evidence against me: Trayvon Martin’s mother is a corrections officer, a position she could not have held in 1960; had her son been white it is unlikely he would have died the way he did.)

    The discussion of the relation between “public consensus” and ruling-class interests is difficult and important. Like Ted Allen, the reviewer attributes racial oppression to a conscious decision by the plantation bourgeoisie of the tobacco-growing regions of the Chesapeake in response to specific problems of labor control. One problem with that explanation is the lack of documentary evidence of such a decision or any record of debate among the planters.

    There is a materialist explanation for the American color line that does not invoke a conspiracy. Initially lines between slavery and “freedom” were indistinct and of little importance; most laborers served under temporary indenture. As the planters codified slavery as a distinct form, and imported people from Africa and the West Indies to fill the slave spot¾both decisions motivated by purely monetary considerations, having nothing to do with “racial” preference¾the association of the black skin with slavery came to loom large, and by reflex all those not of African descent, and therefore not slaves, came to constitute a group or, in our terms, a race, on whose loyalty depended the stability of the social order. There is no need to attribute this development or the resulting breakdown in proletarian solidarity to conscious decision on the part of the Chesapeake planters.

    I agree with the reviewer that the struggle to abolish prisons must be linked to the fight against the capitalist system. But to say that something is the result of the capitalist system does not necessarily mean that it is the result of conscious decision by the owners of capital. The difference has implications for today: for example, the role of labor unions in containing the class struggle does not mean that capital created them for that purpose.

  2. nat kelly says:

    “Alexander’s “radically egalitarian public consensus” cannot be formed without radically egalitarian material relations and the reclaiming of resources by all those exploited.”

    Brilliant. This is such a complex, fraught issue. I think it is easy to get lost in the weeds as Alexander does. Thanks for crystallizing the importance of the broader struggle against capital in the prison abolition movement.

  3. I’m really happy that there are revolutionaries wrestling with the material dynamics of the modern prison system, but I can’t get down with the focus on private prisons. In “Golden Gulags” Ruth Wilson Gilmore points out that private prisons make up only 5% of the U.S. prison system. I don’t see any evidence that the rise of private prisons, while certainly significant, is causal in the expansion of the prison system and not simply reactive. In fact, I’d argue private prisons are one of the least significance factors in the initial growth of the prison system, and even today don’t have nearly the power that people seem to attribute to them.

    I’m much more compelled by the argument around various forms of surplus as the motivating factors driving the expansion of prisons. Gilmore examines four forms of surplus: population, land, finance capital, and State capacity (bureaucracy). She puts them in historical motion around the economic crisis of the ’70s and makes a compelling and complex argument that the development of prisons was an economically driven and organic historical development, not something that could be reduced on any level to being driven by private prisons.

    Gilmore, as well as Christian Parenti in his book “Lockdown America,” also make compelling arguments that the organic nature of prison development was related directly to the insurgent self-activity of the working class. Capital, having lost its Keynsian strategy to effectively control the working class, developed prisons as a dynamic strategy to cope with both the various forms of surplus as well as working class insurgency.

    Also, it is important to understand the Drug War not only from a one-sided perspective. The violence and crime surrounding the crack epidemic was very real, though definitely sensationalized in the media. With the collapse of both the industrial base in major cities like Detroit and Baltimore as well as parallel collapse of the vehicles of struggle that workers, particularly Black workers, had built over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, the drug game came to be the replacement for the struggle over access to social wealth that marks class struggle. I would argue a much more important struggle inside prison abolition would be ending the Drug War, rather than focusing on private prisons.

    Also, I particularly appreciate Mr. Ignatiev’s reference to the rebellion of Lucasville. It is a book I very much wish I would have been able to read while I was in prison. The inmates’ organic development of a new caste identity, the “convict race,” was mindblowing to me. It was incredibly exciting to me to see that develop from the minds and struggle of inmates themselves, and I also think it shows a very powerful way of various sectors of the class overcoming divisions in struggle. One of the things I’ve noticed since I’ve been out has been the very serious lack of anyone paying any attention to the struggles of inmates themselves. Everything is written about inmates, but rarely to them, in the sense of trying to develop a fighting strategy. Our history of struggle is totally lost.

    I think this is really important because I got to witness some really exciting things while I was in prison. One of the most important things that I saw was an attempted wildcat labor strike by the trustys in a different unit from the one I was in. Upon talking to inmates, I learned that it wasn’t the first attempt by inmate workers to strike, and it was one of the main reasons why the prison had a policy of rotating inmates to different units every 90 days, with no movement between units inside that time. Prison abolition must work to develop the organizational capacity of inmates in struggle and build a circulation of that struggle both inside and outside the walls.

  4. Robert Sharp says:

    There is no doubt that the war on drugs is criminal and unjust in and of itself, but blacks are not the only one’s targeted in this. It is the poor who turn to alternative means of raising money. As far as the republicans driving the incarceration rates of blacks up themselves, it is grossly inaccurate.When public housing projects came into existence, which were a white liberal response to aiding poor blacks down on their luck, they became war zones for drug dealers. Black community leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton demanded the congress take immediate action to end the crack scourge in inner cities. So they did. Along with the help of several democrats like Joe Biden. Name a democrat that says end the war on drugs. The only politicans that come to mind are Ron Paul and Jim Web.
    Can anyone seriously believe it’s the agenda of the evil republican racists to lock up all the blacks in America? How about the war on drugs being a response the the endless senseless violence against poor ppl having to live in these war zones? No one looks at it this way. These laws were put in place to save blacks, the ones not selling crack and shooting ppl in public housing project hallways.
    I spent 9 years in a federal prison for selling crack, and I’m white. Many thousands of whites are in prison for unjust sentences for meth. And the sentencing is more harsh than for crack. When crack offenders got very limited relief from the urging of the Obama administration, this didn’t effect the thousands of white serving unjust sentences. So in a way, the crack reductions were racist, but black racism.
    This has nothing to do with the capitolist system. It has to do with the reaction to black violence. The media played a roll in this by sensationalizing the inner city violence, along with Hollywood making a new generation of Blacksploitation movies like New Jack City. Young black kids are fed this idea they can’t succeed which is another lie created by the liberal press. Blacks have more advantages than any of their counterparts. How many exclusive white colleges are there? How many exclusive white college funds are there? How many Planned Parenthoods are in upper class neighborhoods offering free health care? The advantages blacks have here because of white guilt are numerous.
    In closing, Jim Crow is dead. While the flaws in our society are obvious with crony capitalism and the ever expanding military industrialized complex, being black is no longer one of them. America overwhelmingly elected a black president. Affirmative action protects people based on race regardless of performance. A black man sits on the supreme court. Many of our larger cities have black mayors. This notion of black inequality needs to be put to rest. Capitalism is about making money, regardless of the color of the person spending it.

  5. Pingback: Black Orchid: New Jim Crow, Capital, and the Fool’s Game of “Public Consensus” | GREY COAST ANARCHIST NEWS

  6. zisel says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. I learned a lot from them. I am not an expert on any of this and this piece was a critique based on flaws that seem obvious to me. I appreciate especially Noel Ignatiev’s pointing me to the Lucasville rebels and the “convict race” and dirtroadrevolutionary’s explication of Gilmore’s 4 forms of surplus.

    There are a couple of issues I want to respond to. The first the question of private prisons’ centrality, the second the one of political conspiracy, and the third, back to the original subject of whether this is really a New Jim Crow.

    Rereading this I agree there is too much focus on private prisons. I did not mean to discount control of surplus population as a reason for booming incarceration. I like what has been laid out of Gilmore’s theory, which someone mentioned to me earlier but I have not yet read. To clarify though, I didn’t say that private prisons were the cause of the initial growth of the prison industry, but that they were “symptomatic” of the underlying problems. I was attempting to describe how the profit motive–in Gilmore’s terms, the surplus capital factor–is as much if not more the driving force of incarceration today. I actually agree w/ dirtroadrev that we “don’t see any evidence that the rise of private prisons, while certainly significant, is causal in the expansion of the prison system.” I would disagree that it is “simply reactive” though. The factor of surplus capital, and thus privatization, is central to the logic of prison expansion, definitely not a reactive factor. But I make those claims largely on gut feeling and my sense of how capital works rather than historical data, so I did some research to make sure they check out.

    First of all, re surplus population control being central to the rise of the prison industry, US unemployment rates (http://www.data360.org/dsg.aspx?Data_Set_Group_Id=44) would seem to confirm this. They shoot up in 1980-1981, just as the prison industry starts booming. Lots of surplus population to control all of a sudden. But even more interesting is this sociological analysis by Bruce Western & Becky Pittit, “Black-White Wage Inequality, Employment Rates, and Incarceration” (http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/soc/faculty/western/pdfs/western_ajs.pdf). Western & Pittit find, contrary to claims about the black-white economic gap closing post-Civil Rights as measured by shrinking wage gaps, the gain in wages for some of the black population is more than offset by rising joblessness and rising incarceration among blacks. Tables 2 & 4 are revealing. While the wage gap is shrinking from 1980-1999, the ratio of black unemployed to white unemployed is rising (from 197 blacks per 100 whites to 211 blacks per 100 whites), meaning more blacks are being thrown into the ranks of the unemployed even as some other blacks get better wages. To add to this, the rates of incarceration among the unemployed is dramatically higher, and growing faster, for blacks than for whites; in 1980 3% of unemployed whites were incarcerated, 11% of blacks; in 1999, 6% of whites, 23% of blacks (table 2). If you also look at table 4, you see that in general incarcerated blacks come out of worse economic situations that incarcerated whites. This supports the idea that the black working class suffers the brunt of unemployment and is shunted into the lowest wage labor when the economy contracts; it is the first to become surplus; which parallels it being the most locked up. The authors point out that “High incarceration rates have the effect of concealing poor young men in conventional labor force statistics.” All this corresponds to what dirtroadrev said about the Drug War being very real, with all this unemployment in the black community. Thank you for that point.
    On the other hand, unemployment and locking up surplus population, I believe is no longer the central force of prison expansion. It is now the profitability of the prison industry, which feeds off this once surplus population. As a lot of studies that specifically target private prisons point out, the push on stricter incarceration laws has largely come from the private prison industry. This study, highlighting how Louisiana, which is dominated by private prisons, has the highest rates of incarceration, is great: http://www.nola.com/prisons/
    Here is commentary on it: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/06/06/imprisonment-in-louisiana-profit-driven-system-makes-it-1st-in-the-world/
    Also, job loss (i used that rather than unemployment b/c unemployment figures don’t account for incarceration, which is precisely the point) as shown here (http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/03/job_losses.html) does not appear to correspond to incarceration, as shown here (http://static.thesocietypages.org/socimages/files/2012/06/4.jpg), which is what you would expect if it were predominantly a means of dealing with surplus labor. That is a really simplistic comparison, but it is at least something to think about.
    So it seems surplus population was a major factor in initial prison expansion, but i wouldn’t discount how quickly private prisons got in on the game (1983-4) as I said. That also is central to the logic of prison industry expansion, which is a capitalist logic.

    On political conspiracy, I want to simply say that I do not picture it as a conspiracy along the lines of “lets pitch blacks against whites” but rather that given the logic of the system that kind of political move makes sense. On Mr Ignatiev’s point about the Chesapeake planters, I was running on information from Alexander’s book, but thank you for pointing that out. On Robert Sharp’s point, I did not mean to portray that as evil racist republicans. It could just as easily have been the other way around as far as I am concerned. I am again taking this information from Alexander’s book, but the way I understood the story is that playing off an existing internal division within the working class was a logical way for politicians (in this case republican) to win votes.

    The big question brings us back to race. Mr Ignatiev seems to be asserting it is not a racial caste, and sticking strictly to Allen’s definition I would agree. But, contrary to Mr Sharp, for me race is obviously still an important factor that organizes class. Within the proletariat at least, blackness and whiteness are still significant factors; as Western & Pittit’s study suggest blackness is still a strong determinant of one’s relative status within the working class (compare average wages and unemployment rates). This makes sense materially as a legacy of Jim Crow: that bout of explicit economic marginalization created two communities, a white working class and a black working class, one more exploited than the other, that carries down that legacy with them. So while this is no longer a strict caste system, i think the analogy of a New Jim Crow is still valid. It struck me in Wester & Pittit’s piece that they noted a “much larger decline in the relative economic status of working-age black men” as compared to white men from 1980-1999, when they accounted for incarceration and unemployment. So racial divides are being reestablished through this mass incarceration system. Jim Crow has left a legacy of inequality between blacks and whites, which still exists, and is certainly not dead; if mass incarceration is has taken over the place of sustaining and widening that divide, I find it perfectly appropriate to call it a New Jim Crow. Since we know that racial divides did not always exist, that they were crafted through economic processes, this is significant.

    Finally, I really like dirtroadrev’s comments on where we must head, both that we cannot focus on private prison abolition and that “Prison abolition must work to develop the organizational capacity of inmates in struggle and build a circulation of that struggle both inside and outside the walls.” Private prison abolition is reformist and does not get at the base issues; private prisons are a symptom and not the cause. We need to understand that and focus instead on abolishing the economic relations in which they are grounded, empowering the exploited inside and outside prisons, as dirtroadrev says, to fight capital.

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