Philosophy in Prison: Race, Class, and Incarceration

“Philosophy in Prison” is a series of posts generated for the APA Blog by Professor Gabriel Rockhill’s philosophy course, “Class, Race and Social Transformation,” which took place in the Spring semester of 2017 at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania. This post is the third of six.  You can see more posts from the series here.

The authors of this article have all been victims of racism, classism, and incarceration. However, their experiences have all been slightly different. Aaron is a 47 year-old black man from an impoverished community in Philadelphia. Rafael is a mixed race, 34 year-old man from a similar area. David is a 29 year-old white man from a middle-class suburban neighborhood.

By R. G., D. P., and A. W.

Race, class, and incarceration are all intertwined mechanisms in the power apparatus of the United States government. In our capitalist society, we have seen the US power structure engineer these distinct, but interrelated components of control.

This power dynamic begins with class. Elitists have historically built their wealth on the backs of those whom they have deemed lesser. They accomplish this by creating the institution we call race.

In our society we have become subjects of a system of “haves” and “have-nots.” Even amongst the “haves” an even smaller group of elites control the system in away that ensures they will remain in a position of power. However, in order to have power, one must have a group of people to reign over.

False and unsubstantiated images of black and brown people permeate society. The elite, who own most of the media outlets, build a narrative that promotes and invents false perceptions. We watch TV and read magazines and newspapers and see black people as drug dealers, murderers, or lazy parents on welfare, unfit to care for children. We see brown people as drug dealers or rapists. However, on the other hand, we see white people as businesspeople, firefighters, police officers, or even our childhood superheroes. These perceptions subconsciously tell us we must fear black and brown and honor white. Not only are whites affected by this perception, but black and brown people begin to see themselves as such. When most of the successful businesspeople or heroes don’t look like them, people of color, in turn, begin to believe they can’t gain such a stature. The racism is internalized and acted upon. If you are black, the deck of cards is stacked against you and always will be; if you are white, the sky is the limit.

One of the most impactful and dangerous tools used by the elite to maintain an oppressed “other” is education. In white schools, children aren’t taught the truth about the history of blacks in this country. It is an important and rich history, but whites are made to feel such a sense of guilt that they easily agree that it isn’t important to highlight it. Slavery is merely mentioned in passing.

As human beings, we are circumstances of upbringing. The lack of diversity, cultural teaching, and even biased disciplinary procedures, subconsciously teach children to view people by the color of their skin. Suburban neighborhoods are mostly white while our inner cities are filled with black and brown people who are continuously suppressed by the lack of a quality education. The system is designed to keep people in “their place.” Once introduced to a particular social class, the elite makes sure it is almost impossible to break out of that class.

If we look closely, we will see that our education systems are a modem-day form of redlining, which uses racial discrimination to further alienate people of color. There is no real logic behind districting, other than keeping black and brown out of white schools. One example of this is the 2013 redistricting of Philadelphia. A few of the predominantly white neighborhoods had seen a growth in the number of black students in certain parts of these areas. The school board literally pulled out maps and shifted school districts, some as little as one block, in order to separate the areas being gentrified by blacks. Black children were ripped out of good schools and sent to schools that were not only further away, but were dilapidated and slummish.

Without a proper education, we can’t expect to succeed in life. Opportunities are limited for black and brown people because of the idea of redlining and segregating people of color from more fully resourced white schools. Race is a key determining factor when it comes to opportunities in today’s society. Due to the quality of education, impoverished people of color enter the work force generally greeted with a poor social structure that ensures minimum wage, dead-end jobs, and little opportunity for career advancement.

With so little opportunity stemming from racial and class discrimination, it is no wonder that a large percent of our black and brown population is incarcerated. People of color account for over 50% of the US prison population, while only being about 13% of the total population. Whites who commit crimes are either not prosecuted or receive far lesser sentences than their black and brown counterparts. The US prides itself on its so-called values of forgiveness and second chances; however, it is clear that this forgiveness and second-chance philosophy is only for the white population.

Incarceration has become a booming business and incarcerated people have become merchandise and a means of profit. In Pennsylvania, in 2016, Governor Tom Wolf attempted to pass a bill that would have released thousands of redeemed prisoners. Other politicians fought vigorously to stop the bill. Their main argument was not that these people are hardened criminals or a threat to the community (they understood very well that the majority of people who would have been released are not a threat). Their argument was that such a huge move to release incarcerated people would put hundreds, maybe even thousands, out of work. The argument wasn’t just for the field of criminal justice, but for companies like Victoria’s Secret and Walmart, who profit tremendously from labor put on the backs of people of color. It seems that incarcerated people are no longer people; rather, they are sources of labor power for a never-ending machine of slave labor.

Perceptions based on race continue once people are released (if released) from prison. Many whites (those who do end up incarcerated) often come home to communities willing to forgive them and welcome them back. Eventually, it can be as if the crime was never committed. On the other hand, people of color are forced to wear their criminal records as they do their skin—it can never change or go away. Aaron and Rafael’s experiences, as contrasted with David’s, have shown them that no matter where they go, no matter what they accomplish, and no matter how much they age, all others will see are black men, criminals, liars, thugs, and drug dealers.

Race, class, and incarceration are clearly related. Many may believe that it is by chance that some of these things have developed. However, the authors of this article all believe that it is a strategic method of control and oppression in order for the elite to maintain power.

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