Revolution #235, June 12, 2011

The Criminalization of a Generation and the Oppression of African-American and Latino People

This originally appeared in the special issue of Revolution on prisons and prisoners in the U.S. (#183, available online at; it has been slightly updated.

For many Americans, the astronomical rates of incarceration are statistics. But millions of Black and Latino youth grow up in an environment where they see many of their older friends going into, and coming out of, prison. For whole communities, the prospect of prison looms ominously over people’s lives.

If you live in a poor Black urban neighborhood, whether in New York or Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta or some other city... 10 percent of the children you know have a father in prison or jail. One out of every five adults you know can’t vote because at one point in their life they got a felony conviction. These same people are banned from having a government job and can’t get many types of assistance—including financial aid for college. You feel it and see it all around you—from the politicians, the TV news, the police waiting to jack you up on the corner. Young Black men are degraded and treated like criminals, with no future other than prison, some shit job or the military. In 2009, the NYPD stopped and frisked 306,965 Black people in New York City. Almost none were charged with crimes—92 percent were neither arrested nor given a summons, but they were criminalized and entered into NYPD databases.

African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Nearly 60 percent of all young Black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned 35. The incarceration rate of Black male high school dropouts is nearly 50 times the national average. (“Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?” by David Cole, The New York Review of Books, November 19, 2009)

Black people in particular have always filled the prisons in greatly disproportionate numbers compared to whites. But as the forms under which Black people have been subjugated in this country have evolved, the forms of the enforcement of their subjugation have evolved as well. And the massive numbers of African-Americans in jail concentrate that—in terrible ways with ominous implications. In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population—at a time when that population has skyrocketed. (Cole)

In earlier eras, the slave master’s whip and the lynch mob enforced the super-exploited and all-around subjugated state of Black people. Today, those forms of violent oppression have been replaced by the policeman’s Taser and gun, and the prison cell. Poor Black people and Latinos in the inner cities are at ground zero for police terror and the threat of prison. But Black people of all classes are enveloped by the brush of demonization, humiliation, and repression—witness the 2009 arrest of the prominent Harvard professor and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates, arrested for refusing to scrape and bow when accused of “breaking into” his own home.

From within this nightmare, a prisoner wrote to Revolution: “I am no stranger to struggle and hardship. I grew up in just one of the many, many slums in Chicago. I ended up in prison by the age of 13. I am 30 now. I have been raised by cold steel and concrete which I do not wear as a Scar of Honor but as an indictment against a system that has been built on genocide and slavery, and has continued to insist on throwing away its ‘undesirables’ generation after generation. However, let me be clear, I am in search of the truth and not pity. My struggle is linked with the struggle of millions across the globe.”

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