Black Youth and the Criminalization of a Generation

Part 4: Their Future . . . And Ours

Revolutionary Worker #974, September 20, 1998

Earlier in this series, we showed that by the late '60s and early '70s, some Black and Latino workers were finally getting decent jobs. Their militant fighting spirit was influencing all the oppressed--and broader sections of the working class. But almost as soon as these jobs opened up, they were snatched away again, shipped out to the suburbs and overseas, or else automated and downsized out of existence.

Then, during the '80s, unemployment mushroomed in the inner cities, and many people were forced into the drug trade and then into prison. By 1997, the prison population had gone from about half a million in 1980 to over 1.8 million people--the majority are Black and the percentage of Latinos and other people of color in prison has been rising. For those living in the inner city, the presence and control of the police and courts is everywhere. The questions this raises are urgent: Why did this happen? Where is it headed? And what do we do?


What are the causes for the horrors of the last 20 years? On one level, there are many causes for it.

  • Big businesses have moved to areas where workers could be paid lower wages and more efficiently intimidated and controlled. Whether it be in rural and suburban areas in the U.S., or the maquiladoras and sweatshops of Mexico and Asia, capital is irresistibly drawn to where more severe exploitation yields greater profits.
  • Many different capitalists have made conscious decisions to keep African-American workers out of the labor force, in part due to their reputation for militant struggle.
  • The rulers decided to finance the CIA secret wars of 1980s in part through the drug trade. This trade was channeled into the ghettos and barrios. Generations of economically desperate Black and Latino youth got caught up in the drug trade and then punished by the criminal justice system.
  • The rulers meanwhile cut back or outright cut out necessary social welfare programs for the masses--first to enable a massive buildup of military spending, and later to help create more profitable conditions for capital. This increased the desperation for the people.
  • The system needed to contain and control the just anger of millions of youth with no future under this system. They satisfied this sick need most efficiently by mass imprisonment and everyday police brutality, intimidation and murder. Prison construction soared while spending for public schools dropped.
  • Powerful forces in the power structure moved to reinforce white supremacy and the ideology of white racism. They wanted a scapegoat for the anxieties of a white majority whose lives were also falling apart before their eyes. Discredited racist theories on the intelligence of Black people were revived in new forms. And Black youth were criminalized in the media.
  • Once this all got going, other causes also kicked in. For instance, prison construction and staffing became a true growth industry, providing profits for construction companies and jobs as guards in depressed rural areas.

    But while there are many causes, all these causes stem from one big cause: the profit-above-all system of capitalism, with white supremacy built into its very core.


    "We have a captive labor force, a group of men who are dedicated and who want to work. That makes the whole business profitable."

    Bob Tessler, owner of DPAS,
    a company that runs a data processing operation
    in San Quentin prison, using inmates.

    When capitalists look at the 1-3/4 million prisoners now warehoused in prisons, their mouths water and they are made dizzy by visions of dollars around their heads. They see an almost irresistible source of extremely cheap and highly controlled labor.

    Since 1990, 30 states have legalized the contracting out of prison labor to private companies. This had been ruled illegal back in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, but as Bill Clinton says, "The era of big government is over."

    Now it is no longer just stamping license plates or pulling weeds. In the 1990s prisoners have taken TWA reservations by phone, packed golf balls for Spaulding, fixed circuit boards for L.T.I. (a supplier of IBM and Texas Instruments), restocked the shelves of Toys R Us in Chicago, and--in a factory of over 250 women at Danbury Federal Prison--made plugs and cables for the Defense Department.

    Even in those states where prisoners are paid minimum wage for this work, 80 percent of it generally goes back to the state, to "reimburse" the government for "room and board" or for medical co-payments now required by many states. According to one Brad Haga, a former spokesman for Oregon Prison Industries, "The taxpayers love it. We've got guys paying 6,000 bucks a year in rent for their cells."

    In 1994, 72,461 prisoners were working in prison industry, turning out $1.35 billion worth of products. Of these, as of 1994, 1,724 prisoners worked for private companies that had taken advantage of new laws enabling them to set up shop in prison. The rest were producing for the government, often making goods that were then sold for a profit.

    Thus far, private companies have only been testing the water on prison labor. But this trend is growing and has to be taken seriously. There is a dangerous logic to it, expressed by the bloodsucker quoted above, with his talk of "captive labor."

    On the one hand, the government is increasing pressure on prisoners to work. Increasing numbers of states are requiring prisoners to pay "rent" and Virginia has even begun to force prisoners to pay for the entire cost of their jury trials, if they lose. In some prisons, where prisoners are on lockdown almost all the time, people crave the chance to work just to get out of their cells and to keep from going crazy.

    The fascist senator from Texas, Phil Gramm, made compulsory prison labor a cornerstone of his ill-fated 1996 run for president. "I want to turn every federal prison in this country into a mini-industrial park," this wanna-be Hitler said in a typical speech. "I want prisoners to work 10 hours a day, six days a week, and go to school at night."

    On the other hand, this reserve of cheap labor is almost too good to pass up for any capitalist. From their logic--which, above all, is the "bottom line"--the extra profits to be made from prison labor will increasingly compel them to take advantage of the new laws. And as states increasingly force prisoners to work, the capitalists figure that the public's objections will begin to melt away.

    While it is beyond the scope of this article, this criminalization has been accompanied by years of cuts in welfare, followed by what is shaping up to be its basic elimination. In city after city welfare recipients are also being driven into slave-labor like "workfare" conditions; in New York, over 30,000 welfare recipients work in jobs that used to be held by city workers, in return for their bare-minimum welfare check.

    The point of all this? The power structure is using any means necessary to make it profitable for the capitalists to once again exploit the most oppressed section of Black and other minority peoples.


    But it is important to keep in mind that there is more to this change than the drive for profit from imprisoned labor. The rulers want to use this criminalization as part of the new "social glue" to hold together an increasingly fragmented society.

    How does this work? The American system has always held out the dream of "middle class status" to the masses, especially the masses of white people. In part, this is a dream of material comfort, but another large part is the "psychological wage" of being able to feel superior to those who are "lower" in social status. The point of this "middle class" dream is to keep people on an endless treadmill and to direct their anger and disgust at those below them, rather than those who dominate them. It is a sick and divisive thing that boomerangs against the fundamental interests of the very people who get caught up in it; but it has always been an integral part of how the capitalists rule in this country.

    This "middle class dream" is traditionally very bound up with being white in the U.S. Today the privileges of being white are cast somewhat differently than they've been in the past. The mass imprisonment and routine use of police harassment, brutality and murder against Black and other minority youth makes up an increasingly important part of the new white supremacy mix. This criminalization does not come down in the same way against white people, even proletarian white people. This basic fact of life can give white people a sense that "as whites" they are "more deserving," "need protection," etc., and to direct their anxieties and angers against the masses of Black people, Latinos and other oppressed nationalities.

    Today, tens of millions of people in the U.S. find their material prospects the worst in 60 years. The ruling class wants these people to get a sense of "higher status" and social stability from the massive criminalization of Black and other minority youth.(1) The rulers want them to feel as if they have a stake in locking up a whole generation. The rulers want them to think that this will somehow address their problems and deal with their uncertain futures. Thus, this criminalization is also designed to be an important part of the "social glue" that holds society together.

    At a time of huge social flux and transition, we should not underestimate how important that is to the rulers. Nor should we underestimate how important it is for us to work against this plan, to find the ways to unite ever broader masses of all nationalities against this nightmarish, and potentially genocidal, offensive.


    The possibility of a nightmarish future is shaping up--a society where for millions of people life is a cross between Schindler's List and Twelve Monkeys. In this society ever greater numbers of people would be sent to prison for ever more time, with most then forced to slave for the system that put them there in the first place. Those in the inner city not in prison would be put to work for minimum wage and even less (in slave labor workfare jobs) during "good times." And when times are bad they would just starve. A relative handful of rich would live in gilded fortresses. The middle class would run as fast as it could to stay comfortable and avoid poverty. And the proletariat--the basic people who have nothing to lose but their chains, who must sell their labor power in order to live--would be isolated, penned in, and locked down. As bad as things are today--this future would be still worse. This particular nightmare may not fully come to pass, but the whole history of capitalist/imperialism teaches us that whatever future the capitalist system has to offer will be filled with injustice and oppression.

    We cannot accept this. We cannot accept the sacrifice of generations of Black and Latino youth on this horrific altar of capital. We must reject this future of imprisonment, degradation, and slavery and fight for one where the creativity and love of the youth can flower; where the decisions of society do not turn on interests of the capitalist's profit, but on serving the people; where the barbaric institutions of white supremacy can be finally uprooted and destroyed. Such a future can only come through responding in kind to a system that has declared war on the people--responding by declaring war on this system.

    How to wage a revolutionary war--and how to build the kind of revolutionary united front that can challenge the system--is a question beyond the scope of this article. But it can be done. Taking on the system's evil agenda of criminalization is an important first step. We have to expose what is really going down. We have to resist it where it's coming down hardest and spread that resistance to every corner of society. And as we do that, we have to prepare minds and organize forces for revolution. This is the future worth living--and dying--for.


    (1) And for some white proletarians in rotted-out rural areas, they appeal to them with the bribe of "good jobs" as prison guards!

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