Philosophy in Prison: Racial Oppression and the Ongoing History of Colonialism

“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 fourth of six.  You can see more posts from the series here.

Racial oppression is a complex social phenomenon that has many different facets and is deeply rooted in the history of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. In the following analysis, we explore some of these complexities from our respective vantage points. We begin by examining the historical construction of the ‘negro,’ and its relationship to Anglo-Saxon imperialism, along similar lines as Malcolm X’s trenchant critique. Then we look at how the educational system perpetuates racial and colonial oppression through cultural assimilation. Finally, we conclude by critically examining the role of blacks themselves in enforcing white supremacy (and thereby blurring the color lines), either by playing an oppressive role in the comprador bourgeoisie à la Clarence Thomas or by serving as the low-level taskmasters who are paid to police white power structures.


The Dark Progeny of Eurocentric Patriarchy

R. S.

When one is forced to take a conscious look at “racial oppression” and blacks in America, I highly doubt that one could deny the fact of mistreatment, disrespect, bush league status, etc. At the same time, I could not deny with a straight face that a vigilant individual looking from the outside in may have analyzed it in a completely different way, basically seeing black people as their own oppressors. What I can do is take a deep look at this situation and make an attempt to get to its root.

In a book by Dr. Amos Wilson titled Black on Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in Service of White Domination, he states the following about the creation of the black-on-black criminal mind: “The biological father is not necessarily the psycho-spiritual father. And it is the psycho-spiritual father who is the father in the truest psychological sense because it is his psychogenetic inheritance that is actualized in the body, mind, soul and behavior of the son. The psycho-spiritual, and therefore true psychological father of the violent black-on-black criminal, is the racist white American man. The American black-on-black criminal is the psychological son of the white-on-black criminal who does the work of the Eurocentric patriarch who sired him.”[1]

Ever since the transatlantic slave trade, which happened 500 years ago, black people in America have been subjected to the worst displays of physical and mental torture. Being taken from the land that we called home and forced into a foreign land where we were punished for speaking our native tongue, practicing our own religion (way of life), reading, speaking or even breathing incorrectly, all of this took a toll on us mentally. After years of physical and psychological oppression, we started to take on an entirely new identity. Instead of black men and women, we became “negroes.”

A negro is something that is made. The actual word that “negro” comes from is a Latin word, niger, which is a not-so-distant relative of nekros, which means corpse. Although slavery has a body count well over 10 million, when I use the word corpse I am not referring to a dead body, but rather a dead mind. Our captors (white people) wanted slaves of the highest degree so to make this a reality they sought to wash away any remembrance of their (blacks) old mind so that they could replace it with the mind that they felt most comfortable with, the “negro” mind. The negro mind is nothing more than the by-product of the white mind: black as night skin with white oppressive thoughts aimed at people that are skin folk.

When you really analyze this mentality, it is not hard to understand and see why a conversation between two black men who are not conscious of what they are saying, regardless of their age, may use the term “nigger” or “nigga” more times than a Grand Wizard at a Klan meeting. When you start to truly understand this mode of thinking, certain behaviors by blacks toward other blacks tend to make sense. “Stockholm Syndrome,” which is defined as a situation where the oppressed develop a fondness for their oppressors, is synonymous with the mental transformation that takes a “black man” from man to negro, nigger, nigga, and other dark manifestations of this deadly disease.


Cultural Assimilation as Colonization

W. S.

Racial oppression is a form of domination related to economics and class, as well as education, housing, lifestyle, etc. It has many forms, overt and covert. Cultural assimilation is a covert form of racial oppression, which may lead to prison and a form of colonization.

Cultural assimilation in America is taught throughout the U.S. school system. Children who are not Anglo-Saxon are being given an Anglo-Saxon education, learning their history, discoveries, conquests and dominance with intensity, while being given a brief and slanted overview of their own history and the history of other ethnic groups. “School is not only where the children of immigrants learn about U.S. values, beliefs, and behaviors but also about their social and cultural role in U.S. society.”[2] Learning the values of others while one’s own values, beliefs and behaviors are neglected leaves one with feelings of inferiority.

These feelings push these children to either assimilate or rebel. In the first case, they take on the characteristics of the dominant cultural (meaning white Anglo-Saxon protestant) norms, values and behaviors in order to be accepted by America’s mainstream. The students who do not conform are more likely to be picked on, bullied, victimized and in many cases villainized, eventually dropping out of school altogether.

A large number of dropouts end up in jail. One of the leading factors in mass incarceration is the lack of a high school diploma: “On any given day, about one in every ten young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in thirty-five young male high school graduates.”[3] Young Latin American males and black males are the leading population of America’s mass incarceration.

Cultural assimilation is a sublime way of colonizing a race of people. Colonization is a form of white dominance that is directly related to capitalism, which is at the root of racial oppression. Most people look at a colonized people as those who are in their native land while being occupied by another group of people. I believe that when one group abandons their own values and beliefs and adopts another group’s solely to be accepted or to get ahead is a mental form of colonization. This is what is taught to ethnic minorities attending America’s schools.


Systematic Racism and Redrawing of Color Lines

F. Z.

Racial oppression takes on many forms. In America, it operates at a systemic level and emanates from those who hold the positions of power and leadership. In the case of the United States, this leadership is overwhelmingly made up of the white majority.

However, one should not assume that in racial oppression the perpetrator will look different from you. There are times when the perpetrator of racial oppression will come from your own racial or ethnic background. There are different types of these same-race oppressors, including those that act intentionally and those that act ignorantly. The former knowingly oppress those of color in accordance with the racial domination that has already been systematically produced by those who wish to see and maintain a white supremacist agenda. The benefit for these types of people is that they can maintain a close intimacy with, and be favored by, the inner circle of the oppressor elite. The first individual that pops into mind is Clarence Thomas. He is a black man who rose to the highest position of legal authority in America only to repress and oppress, by ruling against the interests and benefit of black people. All of this is in spite the fact that he himself is black. Justice Thomas took controversial stances against affirmative action and desegregation. In February of 2017, he dissented an overruled case, Buck v. Davis, 137 S. Ct. 759, in which the defendant was sentenced to death under the belief that he is more statistically likely to act violently again because he is black. This is an example of people who oppress those of their own race intentionally.

Those who act in ignorance are cogs in an oppressive machine. They oppress, often times, out of a sense of doing the “right” thing or adopting the way things were in the past. Often in black communities there are black police officers. They are hired as people of the community who would have an in-depth perspective and a better grasp on how to “assist” the community that they come from when hired to the police. But there are cases in which the black officers are the most oppressive officers of that community. Within a system of racial oppression, the main oppressor will not always directly oppress you. The oppression of people of color from whites in positions of power will at times be carried out by people of color directed by these white people of power.

[1] Amos Wilson. Black on Black Violence: The Psychodynamics of Black Self-Annihilation in Service of White Domination (New York: Afrikan World Infosystems, 1990), p. 105-106.

[2] Olsen, B, Teacher Education Quarterly 35 (2008): 23-40.

[3] Sam Dillion, “Study Finds High Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts,” New York Times, October 8, 2009.

1 thought on “Philosophy in Prison: Racial Oppression and the Ongoing History of Colonialism

  1. As I see it, bias is written into our socio-political history and promoted by authoritarianism to reinforce hierarchical power and control over other hierarchical belief-systems. In pre-Neolithic times communities everywhere were more egalitarian and rarely became involved in cross-cultural conflicts. Since then though, the the ‘divine right of kings’, subsequently ‘grew out of the barrel of a gun’ and replaced cooperation with competition. The fact that law-abiding citizens everywhere are now inclined to act more in accordance with the practices and beliefs of their own country’s socio-political traditions is surely proof enough of a terrible universal bias. In war, no one who believe they are ‘right’ wins, only those who are ‘left’ survive.

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