Mass Incarceration and Black Nihilism in The United States

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Black Nihilism Does Exist
    The Myth of Black Criminality
    Abuse of Police Power
    Other Factors of Nihilism (Poverty, Unemployment)
  4. Conclusion


The purpose of this extended essay is to answer the question, “To what extent is the disproportionate incarceration of African-American communities responsible for black nihilism?” Nihilism, according to Cornel West, is the “lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaningless, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.” The question aims at emphasizing that throughout American history, African Americans have been repeatedly controlled by governing systems, from slavery to Jim Crow, which continue to have devastating impacts on their minds. The scope of the investigation is analyzing the past, as it is essential to understand the evolution of the prison system from laws and policies, including the American Constitution. The method is to use two specific subject lenses- history and psychology.

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The historical lens allows us to analyze how this system came to be, whereas the psychological lens analyzes why. History is an essential part of this investigation because, in America, many don’t like to talk about slavery, but for black lives to truly matter, black history must also matter. Racial caste systems define the meaning of race in their time. Slavery defined blackness by one being held under bondage (literally a slave). The Jim Crow Era defined blackness through permanent second-class citizenship, while today being black, especially for men, means being a criminal. The exploitation and destruction of black people, through centuries of American history, has repeatedly evolved into systems designed to temporarily maintain racial control in America, given the constraints of the time period. Psychology involves the study of human behavior.

Racism and its implications still exist today and the disproportionate number of African Americans currently under correctional control exemplify this. Covert discrimination towards black people largely presents itself in shattered social institutions that we, a society of collective human beings, allow to grow and thrive. It can be concluded that the mass incarceration of blacks causes nihilism in their communities; however, it cannot be said that this singular factor, alone, causes the development of this nihilism, though it plays a large part. There has been a physical and psychological war on black people in America for centuries, evident in the expansions of the prison system, and denying this history only fuels more of the same in the future. Nothing can be done about these prisons until American society is willing to at least momentarily suspend the assumption that they absolutely need to have them.


Although America contains 5% of the world’s population, it houses approximately 25% of the world’s total prison population. A quarter of the people in the world are imprisoned in America, the “land of the free.” The legal system, influenced by race, is extremely crucial to today’s matters because to dismantle such a system, its existence must be acknowledged; racism (system of advantage based on race) and white oppression lie at the core of this civil rights issue.

This essay firmly addresses that black Americans are disproportionately targeted by many of the institutions that exist in America; America is built on the subjugation and second-class treatment of blacks. Approximately, 1 in every 15 African-American men are incarcerated, in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men, yet there are far less blacks (than whites) in the total U.S. population. Upon return to their predominantly black communities, the former prisoners are left with a strong feeling of hopelessness and an absence of meaning. Mass incarceration leaves its victims with psychologically oppressive consequences and nihilistic attitudes towards life. Such analysis of the way the criminal justice system functions helps us better understand the self-perpetuating hopelessness in black communities. If white nihilism does not exist, than that which causes the African-American experience to be hopeless needs to be investigated. It should also be made clear that I am addressing the social nihilism, not the typical philosophical kind.

Considering the question, this is an important topic because the failure to care across color lines lies at the very core of this system of control, like every other racial caste system that has existed in the United States. Americans need to be able to connect across these color lines, but, as time progresses, many seem less able to do so and the discrimination against blacks becomes less explicit, making it harder to fully address and dismantle the legacy of racism, hindering the start of the much-needed healing process. Today the systematic control of Black America manifests itself through the flaws of the criminal justice system; this system is only broken to the extent our society is broken and is working as intended. If our intention is to jail massive numbers of people or if it is believed that prison is an effective means of dealing with the myriad of social needs of the African-American community, than the system is pretty effective. This essay assesses how the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of black men (and women) causes nihilism in their communities.

Black Nihilism Does Exist

Hopelessness and eternal peril has long been the essence of black America and now, more than ever. Though, a distinction must be made; nihilism is not the opposite of morality. Seemingly hopeless people can have morals, but such an absence of meaning can devastatingly lead to “wrong choices” and an increased motive to partake in “criminal” activity, and although the possibility of social cohesion could end this cycle of self-destructiveness, it seems unlikely that type of stability could be reached, as humans. Angela Davis, in Are Prisons Obsolete?, describes society's reliance on prisons to deal with discarded members of society, who largely happen to be people of color, and while making a case for the abolition of the prison industrial complex, claims that it is difficult “to envision a social order that does not rely on the threat of sequestering people in dreadful places designed to separate them from their communities and families.” Mass incarceration represents how deeply ingrained corruption lies within American society, and corporate America bears a large responsibility for the destruction of Black America. There is no denying the fact that mass incarceration, directly and indirectly, causes utter hopelessness in black communities.

Explaining crime and poverty as a result of black behavioral choice, further, disguises ways that both are caused by capitalism. Cornel West, established Black author and intellectual, is an essential part of this investigation. West explores how nihilism is a threat to black survival by explaining the impact of corporate market institutions. In America, these institutions have a disproportionate amount of capital and power, while employing a disportionate influence on how our culture is shaped and how society is governed. He claims that the primary motive of these institutions is to make profits, and their basic tactic is “to convince the public to consume.”

The fact that the public conforms to the normative reality that systemic inequality is a cultural choice suggests that black people are simply reluctant to their circumstance – that it’s their own fault they remain in poverty, but, really, this “behavior is the tragic response of a people bereft of resources in confronting the workings of U.S. capitalist society.” Out of economic deprivation arises violence, not because black poor people have bad attitudes or cultural deficiencies, but because without real economic safety, the “schemes required for survival” can include illegal business, like drug dealing. Therefore, it must be acknowledged that the “nihilistic threat” contributes to criminal behavior, and whereas legal businesses have the police to physically enforce the laws that govern them, disagreements and disputes in illegal businesses, often people of color, are settled and enforced by the practitioners themselves.

Essentially, the prison system “relieves the responsibility of seri­ously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.” West has also stated that, “Americans must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but they must do so cognizant of the circumstances in which people are born and under which they live… and many fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament,” but this so-called “predicament” is almost inescapable because ghetto life does indeed influence criminal behavior, reinforcing the need to partake in such activities in order to survive and prevent destruction to one’s own black body.

The psychological effect of mass incarceration extends beyond those who are incarcerated and to their families; the analysis finds that incarcerating parents leads to “intergenerational trauma.” A sense of hopelessness does not only affect the incarcerated but also the residents of these communities. Paternal incarceration is associated with behavioral misconduct, especially among boys. Children of incarcerated adults are at greater risk for economic instability because of the loss of their family’s main income provider, and as a result more often end up in foster care or homeless, both of which are significantly associated to academic underperformance, and the lack of a strong leading figure.

Approximately, 1 in 9 African-American children have one incarcerated parent and research also shows that there is a high risk that incarceration becomes an inherited trait. Today, reports also indicate that “incidents of family violence are highest in black homes.” Thus, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to find themselves incarcerated eventually. In a speech to the general public, former US President Lyndon B. Johnson has said that family breakdown “flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man. It flows from the long years of degradation and discrimination, which have attacked his dignity and assaulted his ability to produce for his family.” The press took his claim as a condemnation of “the failure of Negro family life.” Black families are typically seen hopelessly at odds, dysfunctional, violent, and unsubstantial; but, what makes this worse is that “these perceptions are accepted and shared without question or qualm.” Martin Luther King Jr. once said that, “the shattering blows on the Negro family have made it fragile, deprived, and often psychopathic.”

Many Americans like to think that they deserved all the “good” in life, and that others, too, get what they deserve. However, this cannot be applied to the predicaments of the black poor because racism explicitly contradicts such ideas of justice. Social psychologists call this tendency a “belief in a just world.” Blaming the victim for their suffering is frequent outcome behavior, which justifies the current system. Belief in a just world can lead to not only the derogation of individual victims, but also to the derogation of entire social groups. This myth of deservedness is used by many, black and white, to justify the unpleasantries blacks encounter in many aspects of their lives, not just within the courts.

The Myth of Black Criminality

The myth of black criminality and inferiority is easily traced back to the early 1600’s, where Africans were bought and sold like human chattel to America. Though Black history does not begin with slavery, slavery is integral to understanding the origins of crude Black stereotypes. Slavery was an economic system in which 4 million pieces of “property” were vital to the South’s economic production system. After the civil war African Americans were arrested en masse, hence America’s first prison boom. Many were arrested for minor crimes, like loitering and vagrancy. Those arrested after the war provided labor to help rebuild the economy, and here, again, the exploitation of black people is seen for what some claim was a “greater purpose.” Presently, African Americans have been deemed disposable and unnecessary to the functioning of the new global economy, whereas earlier systems of control, like slavery, were designed to exploit and control black labor.

Black criminality and inhumanity is written into the American legislation; in Article IV of the Fugitive Slave Clause, just one example, it is declared that any “Person held to Service or Labour” who escaped from one state to another could be “delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” From America’s very founding, the pursuit of the right to labor, and the right to live free of whipping and of the sale of one’s children, was forbidden for blacks. The Declaration of Independence proclaims, “All men are created equal,” yet blacks were fractioned in this “political arithmetic” as three-fifths man. Denying black humanity is at the roots of the deep-seated beliefs of Black inferiority. The 13th amendment, which abolished slavery, included a loophole in which whites could continue to exploit black people. According to the this law, once one is labeled a “criminal,” that said person is subject to various losses, including, but not limited to, disenfranchisement, the right serve on jury, basic public benefits, and housing and job discrimination. Black people are being stripped of rights supposedly gained in the civil rights movement and even though this amendment outlawed involuntary servitude, “white supremacy continued to be embraced by vast numbers of people and became deeply inscribed in new institutions.”

The bold promotion of white supremacy and black inferiority is the most effective and successful propaganda campaign, according to Tom Burrell, a black marketing communications pioneer and author of Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority. Through detailing his insights gained from working in the system, Burrell makes it clear to emphasize that “black people are not dark-skinned white people;” centuries of inhumane treatment make this so. The corporate market institutions that West was referring to earlier convince the public to consume into the myths of black villainy through an overabundance of false media portrayal.

The distortion of the history about people of color leads the public to make assumptions that may go unchallenged for a long time. These fixed notions (that blacks are lazy, violent, and criminals) live on in the 7 million Americans who currently have their freedom significantly restricted under correctional control Across the country, where 13% of African American men are disenfranchised from felony convictions, which is seven times the national average. Alabama has one of the nation's highest disenfranchisement rates: nearly a third of African American men in Alabama have lost the right to vote, and in the foreseeable future, these numbers will only continue to grow until black humanity is acknowledge.

In her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum, an acclaimed psychologist, delves into the reasoning behind selfsegregation and racial identity development, while also referring to this “mythical norm,” originally described by Audre Lorde in “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Lorde claims that this norm is usually defined as a white, thin, male who is young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure; nevertheless, “the trappings of power that reside in society are within this mythical norm.” And those who are not included in this power often identify at least one way in which they are different (such as black, homosexual, or poor) and it is assumed that to be the main cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference. Standing outside this norm enables those who are different to continually be oppressed subjugated so that whites (the norm) can maintain power. So blackness is not the only reason for incarcerating those who possess such a trait, but, indeed, blackness (and racist intentions) are so deeply woven into the foundation of the system that it controls the way one lives.

Blackness, in itself, can also explain the disparities within the criminal justice system. Black criminality is closely linked to the black struggle. Ta-Nehisi Coates, acclaimed author and writer for The Atlantic, explores how it is not surprising that, “in the midst of the civil-rights movement, rising crime was repeatedly linked with black advancement.” He then proceeds to state compelling statistics: “even as violent crime declined between 1925 and 1940, Louisiana’s incarceration rate increased by more than 50 percent. Twice as many inmates entered state correctional facilities in low-crime 1940 as in high-crime 1925. At Angola State Penal Farm, the white population rose by 39 percent while the African American inmate population increased by 143 percent.” According to the Equal Justice Initiative, because black people were inferior, they needed and actually benefited from slavery. Following slavery there was a presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to blacks, as whites defended vigilante violence against black people as necessary to protect themselves from black ‘criminals.’” Racism erodes our humanity and it has been doing so for centuries.

Abuse of Police Power

As a result, white America has benefited from the theft of black liberties for centuries. It is an established fact that police power has been disproportionately used against communities of color. This abuse of power leads to the destruction of black morale and reinforces the cyclic feelings of hopelessness. Thus, the death and destruction of the black bodies have become to be indicative of social and political progression. In order to fully understand black disadvantage in mainstream society, dominant and subordinate group culture must be looked at. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, explores the maintenance of racial hierarchy in America. She states that, “mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions, that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” Tatum also describes this relationship, but with the use of a psychological lens, opposed to Alexander’s sociological choice. According to Tatum, dominant groups establish the circumstances with which the subordinates operate; the dominant group also has the greatest influence in determining the structure of society. Whether or not we’re speaking in racial terms, in present-day America, white men typically hold the power over minorities, especially the black poor.

The relationship of the dominants to the subordinates is also one in which the targeted group has been labeled as defective or substandard in significant ways, hence, the dominant group assigns roles to the subordinates.” Today, blacks have been relegated to second-class citizenship because they are too often portrayed as savage, inhumane criminals who are unable to help themselves. Tatum also claims that, “dominant groups generally do not like to be reminded of the existence of inequality... as rationalizations have been created to justify such social arrangements.” This is a hefty statement as it prompts us to remember the taboo nature of talking about “race” and how without talking about racism and the legacy of slavery (the reminders of inequality), the crisis of mass incarceration and stereotypical images of blacks can never be fully addressed. Alexander also states that, “few legal rules meaningfully constrain the police in the drug war, and huge financial incentives have been granted to law enforcement to engage in mass drug arrests through military style tactics.”

American presidents are not exempt from the scrutiny that comes with abusing the system. Nixon, after all, officially declared a “War on Drugs” in 1971 and said that drug abuse was “public enemy number one.” During Nixon’s time in office incarceration rates began their “historic rise.” He claimed many things, including that heroin dealers were “literally the slave traders of our time and traffickers in living death. They must be hunted to the end of the earth,” which has a strong ironic quality, given how blacks have been repeatedly traded and trafficked against their will. Nixon’s campaign lacked real substance, but Reagan’s election in the 1980’s turned Nixon’s rhetorical war on drugs into a literal one. Presidential efforts in maintaining a war on Black America through the “presumption of guilt” and dangerousness assigned to African Americans has made minority communities a target for policing and susceptible to unfair administration of criminal justice. Though it’s tempting to think that the need for such strategies, like intense police surveillance and racial profiling, disappeared with Jim Crow Laws, their legacy lives on in the “frequent and sometimes fatal harassment black men experience at the hands of white police officers.”

Many studies have concluded that whites have strong unconscious associations between blackness and criminality. Implicit biases (justifications concocted by white people to excuse racist behavior) have been shown to affect policing; many young men of color are subjected to frequent stops, searches, and violence, among other aspects of the criminal justice system, all of which lead to higher rates of childhood suspension, expulsion, and arrest at school. Police officers engage in widespread racial profiling and stop blacks on streets and sidewalks more often than it is justifiable, in terms of objective (race-neutral) criteria. Although today’s media focuses on criminalizing blacks, it also allows us to witness the shocking accumulation of injured and mutilated black bodies, especially young black ones. In response to these deaths, Americans were told to keep struggling, keep “hope” alive, and keep faith. After George Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin, President Obama addressed the nation and plead Blacks to keep fighting for change because “each successive generation seems to be making progress in changing attitudes toward race” and, if they work hard enough, they will move closer to “becoming a more perfect union.” Despite Martin’s “corpse lingering in the minds of young people and Zimmerman’s smile of relief after the verdict, Americans are told that things are actually getting better.”

Blacks are psychologically taught to shield themselves from the pain, protest the loss, and still secure the artificial privilege of whiteness. In a societal context, where blaming the “other” has been standard operating procedure, it is been easier to do that than critically examine the large structural conditions that have created this situation. African-Americans cannot blame “others” when society tells them at every level that they are the problem. Whether one succumbs to the devaluing pressures of the dominant culture or successfully resists them, the fact is that dealing with oppressive systems from the underside, regardless of the strategy, is physically and psychologically taxing. Breaking beyond the structural and psychological limitations imposed on one’s groups is possible, but not easily achieved.

Other Factors of Nihilism (Poverty, Unemployment)

The disproportionate incarceration rates experienced by black people contribute to race-based inequalities in other aspects of their lives. Blacks were ‘brainwashed’ with the idea that they were unable to take care of themselves. This unquestioned dependency, what psychologists call learned helplessness, is one of the many reinforcements of a firmly established, race-based inferiority.

Systematic barriers were placed for the main purpose of keeping the black poor poor, greatening the wealth gap between black and white. According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), “in the American criminal justice system, wealth — not culpability —shapes outcomes. Indigent people are unfairly disadvantaged at every step in a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.” It was discovered that about four out of five criminal defendants qualify as indigent before the courts, reinforcing how wealth and status (typically held by white men in American society) can be used to escape the system. Bryan Stevenson, founder of the EJI and author of Just Mercy frames the relationship with poverty and the criminal justice system in a rather elegant way: “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned… We are all implicated when we allow others to be mistreated.”

In 2013, white households in the United States had a median wealth of $144,200 -- almost 13 times the median wealth of black households at $11,200. This racial wealth gap appears now and cannot fully be addressed without discussing history. Advantage has been accumulated over generations and black people have been left out of this. Today, many whites do not understand that they are beneficiaries of these long, racist policies. Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law, chronicles how such policies at all levels of government robbed black families and communities of wealth. White advantage in wealth is emphasized by the fact that the rules of the economy are aimed to benefit those at the top, and white Americans have had a lengthy reign. To be part of a solution and fixing the future, many Americans need to come out of their gated neighborhoods and bring the wealth back to their communities. To do this, true stories must be told and we’ll need to work for repair and reparations. This is just the beginning of a truth and reconciliation process.

However, the process of seeking truth and reconciliation for blacks, in and out of prison, is difficult because they live in a world that looks down on them in contempt; the destructive, cyclic nature of black communities upon return makes the formerly incarcerated highly vulnerable to re-entry. When released from prison, if the formerly incarcerated don’t have jobs or motives to be productive citizens, they become even more prone to criminality and drugs. The American job market sees black men who have never been criminals as if they were and for some who have been labeled a “criminal,” the ‘check the box’ policy further prevents blacks from getting jobs. “Just as ex-offenders had to learn to acculturate themselves to prison, they have to learn to re-acculturate themselves to the outside. But the attitude that helps one survive in prison is almost the opposite of the kind needed to make it outside. Craig Haney, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies the cognitive and psychological effects of incarceration, has observed: A tough veneer that precludes seeking help for personal problems, the generalized mistrust that comes from the fear of exploitation, and a tendency to strike out in response to minimal provocations are highly functional in many prison contexts but problematic virtually everywhere else.”


Even though more than half of all young adult black men are currently under correctional control, mass incarceration continues to be classified as a criminal justice issue over a racial justice or civil rights issue or crisis. The prison industrial complex is such a large part of American lives that its existence (or motives) tends not to be questioned when, indeed, that is what should be happening. The illusion of a “post-racial” America allows mass incarceration to thrive. Today's government and social sciences could possibly “fix” this broken system once all of us acknowledge that it is truly broken. There is no way to fix the prison system without first fixing other social problems too. Instead of solely focusing on decarceration, other factors that lead people into prisons should be envisioned: “demilitarization of schools, revitalization of education at all levels, a health system that provides free physical and mental care to all, and a justice system based on reparation and reconciliation rather than retribution and vengeance.” A social movement is needed to expose how the practices of American society (criminal justice system) are unsustainable, especially for Blacks.

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In the end, it must be asked, “why is black suffering increasing at alarming rates?” And the answer to this question is quite simple: Black history has too long been ignored. As a result, society is burdened by this history of racial inequality. However, “for as long as hope remains and meaning is preserved, the possibility of overcoming oppression stays alive. The self-fulfilling prophecy of the nihilistic threat is that without hope there can be no future, that without meaning there can be no struggle.”

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This essay was reviewed by
Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Mass Incarceration and Black Nihilism in the United States. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 30, 2023, from
“Mass Incarceration and Black Nihilism in the United States.” GradesFixer, 10 Oct. 2020,
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