Editor’s Note: Enceno Macy has been incarcerated in an American prison for 13 years, encompassing late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. He offers observations and commentary on current affairs and controversies from behind the wire of our draconian prison system. To protect himself as well as the innocent and the guilty from brutal recriminations, he uses a pseudonym.
With Prejudice: Jim Crow Reality
Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America….In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative (from: Michelle Alexander, The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare) :
— There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
— As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race….
— If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.
At latest count, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in America’s jails and prisons. Of these, some 900,000 were Black. According to The Sentencing Project and Bureau of Justice statistics, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six (5.6) times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are incarcerated at nearly double (1.8) the rate of whites.
Although arguments continue about the reasons for such disproportionate racial incarceration rates, there is no question that conditions within our prisons reflect the racism endemic in society as a whole. Even in the so-called least racist states, prisoners are segregated by race and ethnicity. From a prisoner’s point of view, this is simply a fact of life, much as the conditions imposed on African American slaves were a fact of slavery life. And given the racism that prevails both inside and outside the wire, most prisoners feel safer segregated.
Indeed, the first and most influential factor of prison is race. Unlike outside society where race can sometimes be superceded by success, money, fame, or breeding, the prison system is in fact a reflection of how society really thinks, even under the current facade of “color blindness” attributed to election of a black president.
Inside the wire, personal attitudes toward race matter very little. There is a preset standard that everyone is expected to live by. The degree of strictness varies in each state, with mine being probably the most relaxed. I am grateful not to be in a California prison.
In California, a Mexican prisoner was due to be released in less than a week when he saw another Mexican, new to the system, sit down to play cards with two blacks. Even though he was only days from the gate, the first Mexican stabbed the second, causing severe injuries and adding 18 months to his own sentence, all because the pre-determined racial line had been crossed. The standard had to be upheld.
In my own state, things are much less severe. As someone who is of multiple races, I have co-mingled with urban white inmates, even becoming friends with one. And in here “friends” is a very strong word. But because my features are black, I have no doubt where my alliance will be if racial tensions occur, or worse, a race war/riot ensues. For me this is an uncomfortable and unfortunate position to be in, but it is inevitable in this place.
Some prisoners attempt to choose not to choose, and become outcasts. This is not always negative, and is a more positive alternative to becoming the target of violence as in other states. Basic survival, though, requires you to ally yourself with others at some point, to participate in essential prison associations, illicit business dealings and portion control issues – how much food you are served, what quality of clothing you receive, the variety of different items you get to choose from. It’s a kind of enforced scarcity economics, a mentality that comes naturally to those who have grown up within their own race in racially distinct neighborhoods, and is soon adopted by a majority of the rest of the inmate population. Here is where the subconscious race/class bias surfaces.
It’s possible that race and the prejudices and stereotypes that come with it are adapted traits in the evolution of the social mind. The fact that the race issue is not dead – or even dying – is obvious in the data and examples given by Michelle Alexander in her article, “The New Jim Crow.” In the U.S., racism persists unchecked in the raw, blunt, unforgiving collective mentality of society at all levels. It is easy for most people to discredit and ignore racist prison policies and disproportionate incarceration rates because prisoners have broken laws, and the general attitude seems to be they deserve whatever is done to them. What outsiders don’t consider is that most inmates’ families and many of their friends have never been to jail or arrested. These innocents are caught in a racist cage as rigid and ugly as the most godawful cell block.
Obama doesn’t represent these people, any more than he represents me or the other 900,000 black prisoners in America. It is truly disturbing that everyone seems to associate him with the struggling black in America – the one who can’t get a loan, is rejected from the simplest forms of employment, and endures constant suspicion while shopping or driving or even walking. Thus does our society continue to sterotype people of all colors – yet they now seem to think only blacks were treated that way and that because Obama’s in the White House, all these bad things will stop.
In fact, Obama in no way represents the end of what has been and still is racial discrimination. He does not look to make decisions that will drastically change things for black people. Quite the opposite, in fact. He looks to appease the politicians around him, just as any dem of any other color would. Maybe he feels even more pressure to do what others want because he desires white America to see him as no different from a white. Maybe he hopes to relax or reduce the whites’ reflexive apprehension of blacks. I don’t know. At the same time, it seems to me blacks have only interested themselves in Obama’s color, not his actions. So who are really the ones seeing colors? All of us! When I tell you to keep an eye out or look for someone, depending on the circumstance I will most likely begin with the skin color of the person.
Racism is going nowhere, although it is everywhere. It infects all levels of society and and is readily understood by everyone. But racism is not always due to hatred. Some stereotypes are not entirely false, and a person of one race protects itself from potential harm by – say – crossing to the opposite sidewalk when approached by a group of young men in the late evening. If it was a bunch of young white kids with baseball bats and gloves, the person would likely associate them with a baseball team and not be frightened. But to a person influenced by lurid television shows, a group of black kids with bats and gloves raises the specter of violent use of the bats as weapons. Hell, even I would cross the street in that situation! Even if I were mistaken, it’s better to be safe.
I don’t have answers, just observations. There is no denying that race and racism are part of our everyday experience in here. Segregation keeps us safer from each other. In this chaotic, volatile atmosphere of neverending potential violence, segregation typifies the inflexible hierarchy of prison codes that make life predictable. That doesn’t make racism or segregation right or fair. In prison being right or fair is not even a pipe dream. I’m beginning to suspect things are not much different outside.