Racism is at the heart of mass incarceration in America

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“Slavery was legal. The ‘black codes’ were legal. Sundown towns were legal. Sharecropping was legal. Jim Crow was legal. Racial covenants were legal. Mass incarceration is legal. And chasing a black man or boy with your gun because you suspect he’s a criminal is legal.” Charles M. Blow

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I am sick and damn tired of black men getting gunned down in the streets like dogs for nothing more than going about the daily routine of their lives. What disgusts me even more about the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery is that once again the culprits in this murder attempt to criminalize the victim to justify their savagery. Why is this always the case when an innocent black person is murdered by someone from another race? Why does it seem like that even from the grave, black people are obligated to “prove” they were not complicit in their own death just to get justice?

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This story is hauntingly similar to Trayvon Martin and his dark hoodie. Tamir Rice and his toy gun on a playground. Eric Garner and his street sales of untaxed cigarettes. Michael Brown and a grainy video suggesting a suspicious earlier transaction involving cigarillos in a convenience store. Philando Castile, a cafeteria supervisor at a Montessori school who reached for his driver’s license “that looked like a gun” at a traffic stop.

Change the specific details just a little bit and you get the most recent episode in an ongoing American tale: Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man jogging through an all-white neighborhood — gunned down by a vigilante with a rifle. Arbery’s crime: He looked like the man caught on an earlier video entering a nearby house under construction. Although the two killers, Gregory and Travis McMichael (the former a retired cop and investigator for the local prosecutor), linked the video to what they described as a string of burglaries in the area, the police have no record of them. Entering a building under construction is, at worst, misdemeanor trespassing. And it has not been establishing that Arbery is even the man in the video.

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For my white readers: Do you know what it does to the psyche of black people, especially when you’re a child or teenager, to see people who look like them gunned down in the street because they look “suspicious”? (Does anyone doubt that none of these young men would have been considered threatening if their skin had been white?) What lessons do you think black kids learn when the shooters are acquitted — if they are charged at all? Do you know what it feels like to have to fight and protest just to get the district attorney to arrest the murderer of an innocent victim? And then watch him walk free after the jury finds them not guilty when it is obvious that they are? (So many of these cases have been caught on cellphone video!) Can you try to understand what it feels like to live in a country where your skin color identifies you as a suspect before any facts are established?

I’ll tell you: It makes you acutely aware of the fact that in America your life does not matter! It has been more than two months since the murder of Ahmaud and it wasn’t until the video of his slaying was released, forcing action, that the McMichaels were arrested. This still doesn’t ensure that his family will get some justice. Rather, what his family can expect now is for their son’s character to be dragged through the mud in the search of a defense for the murderers. What does Ahmaud’s indictment for bringing a gun to high school in 2013 have to do with whether or not he was murdered in cold blood in 2020? Nothing! Why is District Attorney George Barnhill allowed to get away with statements like this: “The family aren’t strangers to the criminal justice system. From the best we can tell, Ahmaud’s older brother has gone to prison in the past and is currently in jail without bond, awaiting a new felony prosecution.” It is because in America, a black man is a presumed criminal.

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This is significant for the broader issue of mass incarceration. As long as African Americans are viewed and treated in society as “suspect,” we will be disproportionately represented in the penal system. As Adrienne Chudzinski wrote in The Washington Post, “Short of overhauling the justice system and dismantling centuries of systemic racism, individual attempts at rationed reform feel inadequate.” If society is truly serious about eliminating mass incarceration, we must confront a core malaise in our country — RACISM!

The prison system in the United States grew out of slavery. As Marc Howard, head of the Georgetown Prison Scholars program at the D.C. jail, observed in his seminal book Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment and the Real American Exceptionalism, “Race and racial discrimination are intricately woven into the national history of crime and punishment in America.” Following the Civil War, slavery was reinvented in another form through convict leasing. Mass incarceration represents the modern-day extension of that trend.

Until we value the lives of African-Americans the same as every other American citizen, we will never make substantial headway in reducing mass incarceration.

A note about how this blog is possible: Incarcerated people have no access to the internet. Thus, I am partnering with journalist/storyteller Pam Bailey, who acts as my editor when needed and posts all of my updates.

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Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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