Mass incarceration and its ties to racism

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A photo of the inside of a prison. The deep-rooted discrimination embedded in our society has found its place in the form of mass incarceration.  Photo by    Emiliano Bar    on    Unsplash

A photo of the inside of a prison. The deep-rooted discrimination embedded in our society has found its place in the form of mass incarceration. Photo by Emiliano Bar on Unsplash

Kenneth Clark conducted something referred to as the ‘Doll Test’ in the ‘40s. In the experiment, he presented young children with a set of dolls, and asked a variety of questions related to them. The results of the test proved that the majority of black children examined identified with the white dolls over the black ones. Several children who participated in the study refused to say which doll they resembled more closely, and others ran out of the room crying. One boy picked up the white doll when asked.  

The results of this study determined that most children assigned the white dolls with positive characteristics, and the black ones with “being bad, ugly and mean.” A similar study was performed by Kiri Davis in 2005, and 15 out of the 21 children preferred the white doll to the black one. When asked why she thought the black doll was “bad,” one child from the study answered, “I don’t know why, the color brown is just kind of nasty,” while picking at her own skin. Other children associated the black doll with “hitting others” and claimed to “trust” the white doll more. 

These studies, which have been performed across nations and through the generations, have yielded almost exactly the same results. They indicate a deeper issue rooted within our society, which inherently labels people with darker skin as being “dangerous criminals.” This issue can, in part, be traced back to the presidential election of 1988. During Bush’s campaign, a commercial was put out to harm his opponent’s credibility. The ad featured Willie Horton, a black criminal charged with murder. At the time, Dukakis supported a program which allowed criminals like Horton to receive ‘weekend passes.’ But during his furlough, Horton committed assault, robbery and rape. The advertisement was successful in winning Bush the vote, but it was also successful in fear-mongering.  During the late 1980s, so-called ‘super-predators’ – like Horton – were feared not only within white communities, but black communities as well. According to Deborah Small, many black communities actually “supported the policies which criminalized their own children.”  

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Our institutions were built on this false representation of black people as violent criminals. And that obtuse portrayal continues to bolster the nation’s growing rates of internment.  

In 1985, before the election, the U.S. prison population was at 759,100. In 1990 – only five years later – it had risen to 1,179,200. The implications of that campaign were wide-reaching. The deep-rooted discrimination embedded in our society found its place in the form of mass incarceration. Our institutions were built on this false representation of black people as violent criminals. And that obtuse portrayal continues to bolster the nation’s growing rates of internment.  

This is the next iteration of systematic control over people of color. According to the Bureau of Justice, 1 in 17 white men in the United States will be imprisoned in their lifetime. For black men, it’s 1 in 3. Even though black males make up only 6.5% of our society, they comprise 40.2% of the current prison population. And the reality is, most people sitting in these prisons at the moment are only there because they can’t afford to get out.  

Many people are also faced with plea bargains. This is when they plead guilty to crimes which they didn’t commit, in order to avoid jail time for which they cannot make bail. Essentially, once a person is arrested for any perceived “threats” or committed crimes, the path of least resistance requires them to self-identify as a criminal. And then they have that on their criminal record for the rest of their life. This affects their job prospects, and access to student loans, business licenses, food stamps and life insurance. It also abolishes their rights to citizenship, of voting and serving on juries. In Alabama, 30% of the black male population has lost the right to vote due to past convictions.  

It is this covert racism deeply lodged within our society that drives this mass incarceration. Because of this, our children are growing up believing that the color of their skin defines them as a person, and determines if they are “good” or “bad.” These ‘Doll Tests’ are still being conducted today, with the same results they had around 80 years ago. That – if nothing else – proves that there is still something fundamentally wrong with our treatment of race, and that these issues are just as prevalent today as they were decades ago.  

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.


Samantha Bertolini is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at samantha.bertolini@uconn.edu.

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