Color Blind: Prisons and the New America

Color Blind: Prisons and the New America

Defined simply as overt public bigotry, racism in the United States has fallen to an all-time low. Understood in socioeconomic, political, and institutional terms, however, American racism is as alive as ever. More than thirty years after the heroic victories of the civil rights movement, Stanley Aronowitz notes, “the stigma of race remains the unmeltable condition of the black social and economic situation.”

Consider a recent Chicago Tribune article that appeared well off the front page, under the title “Towns Put Dreams in Prisons.” In downstate Hoopeston, Illinois, there is “talk of the mothballed canneries that once made this a boom town and whether any of that bustling spirit might return if the Illinois Department of Corrections comes to town.” Seeking jobs and economic growth, Hoopeston’s leaders are negotiating with state officials for the right to host a shiny new maximum-security correctional facility. “You don’t like to think about incarceration,” Hoopeston’s Mayor is quoted as saying, “but this is an opportunity for Hoopeston. We’ve been plagued by plant closings.” The mayor’s judgment is seconded in the Tribune’s account of the considerable benefits, including dramatically increased tax revenues, that flowed to Ina, Illinois, after it signed up to become a prison town a few years ago.

Two things are missing from this story. The first is an appropriate sense of horror at the spectacle of a society in which local officials are reduced to lobbying for prisons as their best chance for economic growth. The second concerns the matter of race. Nowhere did the reporter or his informants (insofar as they are fully and accurately recorded) mention either the predominantly white composition of the keepers or the predominantly black composition of the kept in the prison towns that increasingly look to the mass incarceration boom as the solution to their economic problems. As everyone knows, but few like to discuss, the mostly white residents of those towns are building their economic “dreams” on the transport and lockdown of unfree African-Americans from impoverished inner-city neighborhoods in places like Chicago, Rockford, East St. Louis, and Rock Island.

This second absence is consistent with the politically correct rules of the new racism that plagues the United States at the turn of the millennium. There is a widespread belief among whites—deeply and ironically reinforced by the demise of open public racial prejudice—that African-Americans now enjoy equal and color-blind opportunity. “As white America sees it,” write Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown in their sobering By the Color of Their Skin: the Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race, “every effort has been made to welcome blacks into the American mainstream, and now they’re on their own… ‘We got the message, we made the corrections—get on with it.’”

“Going Downst...