Racialized Criminalization and Prison Uprisings in the United States

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Podcast transcripts published in The Funambulist 12 (July-August 2017) Racialized Incarceration. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

This conversation recorded on June 7, 2017, with Orisanmi Burton, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University in Washington DC, addresses the U.S. criminalization system and its prison industrial complex, as the continuity of the structures that have capitalized and maintained the enslavement of Black bodies. The second part of the conversation evolves around Orisanmi’s research on prison uprisings in New York State in the 1960-1970s, in particular the 1971 Attica Rebellion that Angela Davis once compared to the 1871 Paris Commune in the emancipated geography it temporarily created.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: There are currently 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today. It is impossible not to address this massive carceral system without talking about the processes of racialization that forms its cogs. For instance, we know that one of seventeen white men will go to prison in his life, while one of three Black men will. Could you tell us how the carceral system is fundamentally part of the history of the United States’ structural racism?

ORISANMI BURTON: So I think a lot of people by now are familiar with some of the statistics but I’m going to recite them anyway, because I think we are required to constantly remind people about the sheer scale and scope of what we call the carceral state. As you mentioned, they are 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in the United States. The U.S. empire incarcerates 20% of the global prison population. And this can also be slightly misleading because there are another 4.5 million people under explicit carceral surveillance and management through parole and probation. So, if we extend our view, we see that there are nearly 7 million people living under carceral management. We can extend our view even further and look at some of the estimates that say that there are 65 million people — and this is a very conservative estimation — that have passed through this carceral system at some point, such that they have a criminal record and are therefore subjected to different forms of exclusion based on their passage through this system. An even broader view would account for the carceral dimensions of daily life, which increasingly infiltrate the “freeworld”: things like border militarization, pervasive surveillance, broken windows policing, police violence, xenophobic legislation, gentrification, deportation, checkpoints, the school-to-prison nexus, and on and on. There is a long tradition of radical Black radical intellectual thought that analyzes the United States as a racial prison. And this is because throughout history, in different ways, these state-sanctioned systems of confinement and exploitation have targeted Black men and women specifically, but also other racialized populations, as well as people who are cash poor and gender queer. Well over half the population of people who are formally incarcerated in the United States are non-white. However, Marie Gottschalk, a political scientist, has done some really important research showing that for white people in the United States, the rate of incarceration in formal, brick and mortar prison institutions is more than twice the total incarceration rate of England and Wales, the most punitive countries in Western Europe. So even if we wanted to ignore race for the moment, the United States would still be the leading prison nation. This is something that white people in the United States and elsewhere would do well to remember. The forms of violence, control and dehumanization that are historically improvised on non-white people, tend over time to exceed the color line and impact white people as well.