Saturday, May 28, 2016

Race the defining issue in the Incarceration Nation?

GUEST: Peter Enns, the executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and an associate professor of government at Cornell, talks about his new book: Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World.

Peter Enns offers a statistical analysis not found in other published works on America's astounding prison rate over the last three decades. How did it start, and what kept it climbing? Were the politician running on race issues to blame? Or was it the media that fed a national appetite for seeing black men being chased down by white police officers? Was it the privatization of the prison system itself that created its own version of the Military Industrial Complex?

Peter Enns looks at the sequence of events and concludes that "punitiveness" of the American people was the driving factor for politicians, who were often just responding to fears and hatreds already in the public consciousness. Rising crime rates, exaggerated by an irresponsible media, stirred a vindictive feeling especially in whites, who were prone to think of Blackness and criminality as virtually the same thing.

What I missed is at least some coverage of historical eras that mirrored the current dramatic increase in Black men going to prison. How different is this really to the Jim Crow Era starting in the 1880's, which led to Blacks being expelled from thousands of towns and villages all over the country? "Sundown Towns" may have sprung from the same racist impulse as the Incarceration Nation, when the media and the politicians give free rein to the worst in racial bigotry. Blacks were freed during the Civil War, and the backlash came about twenty years later. Blacks made great progress in the 1960's. Should the New Jim Crow in the middle 1980's be that much of a surprise? 

In some ways, "punitiveness" may miss part of the story of mass incarceration in the United States. 


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