Mass Incarceration in America: a Tool for Racial Oppression and Disenfranchisement

About this sample

About this sample


Words: 2767 |

Pages: 6|

14 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Words: 2767|Pages: 6|14 min read

Published: Oct 2, 2020

Throughout American history, people of color have been targeted, especially in the criminal justice system. After the 13th amendment was passed, Southern whites utilized its loophole to imprison black people for petty crimes, so they could use them as free labor. Later, Jim Crow laws discriminated against black people. Although black people are now officially equal according to the Constitution and other state laws, they are still discriminated against in the penal system. Mass incarceration, the increase in prisons and prison populations in the United States, affects mostly African Americans, causing many to believe it is the new form of racial oppression. Presidents Ronald Reagan and President Bill Clinton oppressed and disenfranchised people of color through mass incarceration as seen by Reagan’s War on Drugs and Clinton’s crime and welfare policies. The 13th Amendment was passed in January, 1865 by Republicans in Congress. It officially abolished slavery, stating that, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”.

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At first, during the Radical Reconstruction (1867-77), racial equality was enforced. New state governments were established, new public school systems were created, and free African American men were guaranteed the right to vote. Black people made great achievements: 600,000 freedmen enrolled in public education by 1877, people of color established independent churches that became centers of communities in the South, and 14 freedmen served in the House of Representatives, 600 freedmen served in Southern state legislatures, and one freedman, Hiram Revels, served as a black senator of Mississippi. Later on, there was great Southern resistance to the amendments that ended the reconstruction and proved its failure. Southerners did not want racial equality and wanted to improve their economy which had been devastated after the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves. So, they found a loophole in the 13th amendment. If African Americans were in prison, they could be used as involuntary labor. So, southern states discriminated against people of color in the judicial system, exaggerated punishments for misdemeanor crimes, and created new crimes in order to use them as free labor. This loophole started convict leasing, a system that leased prisoners to private institutions for profit. Convict leasing had a major impact on the fictional link between criminality and race because twelve percent of the population was black, but, by the 1890’s, ninety percent of the prison population was black. Statistics, even though they were inaccurate, wrongfully proved that black people were dangerous, which cemented the correlation between black people and crime in the minds of many Americans.

The Jim Crow laws were legislation that enforced racial discrimination between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Southern state legislatures passed laws segregating white and black people. Public transportation, schools, “parks, cemeteries, theatres, and restaurants” were all segregated (Britannica). The legislation was both federal and state. The most famous example of this was the “separate but equal” decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). By late 20th century, the Jim Crow laws had been rejected. However, through mass incarceration, Reagan and Clinton found a new device to suppress discriminate against black people with.

Reagan persecuted and disenfranchised black people by increasing incarceration rates as seen through his focus on street crime, use of racial slurs, and support for the importation of crack cocaine while punishing its possession, usage, and distribution heavily in his War on Drugs. In the 1990s, inner cities were increasingly segregated with “fewer jobs, weakening tax bases, declining schools, and imperiled families”. The employment of unskilled manufacturing work decreased, heavily impacting uneducated and minority men. Beginning in the 1960s, “crime rates rose in the US for a period of about 10 years. Reported street crime quadrupled, and homicide rates nearly doubled”. The reason for this increased crime was the “rise of the ‘baby boom’ generation. The 15 to 24 year old men age group spiked. Historically, this age group is most responsible for crimes. This increase in young men occurred at the same time that unemployment rates for black men were rising sharply. All these factors contributed to the increasing crime. But, these factors were not analyzed in the news. Rather, the rising crime was used as evidence that the Civil Rights movement, and black people in general, caused law disobedience, immorality, and social instability.

Before the start of the War on Drugs, Reagan demonstrated his racism through his discourse. In his presidential campaign, he excelled at avoiding language explicitly related to race. Instead, he used a “strategy of exploiting racial hostility or resentment for political gain without making explicit references to race”. Reagan often talked about a Chicago “welfare queen” with “80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards” whose tax-free income alone is over 150,000 dollars.” And a criminal being a “staring face — a face that belongs to a frightening reality of our time: the face of the human predator”. Through this equivocation, Reagan was essentially claiming that people of color take advantage of welfare and take white taxpayers’ hard-earned money. He appealed to many Americans that believed people of color were predatory and dangerous, without being openly racist. This language was predictive of his future policies that targeted people of color.

In October of 1992, President Ronald Reagan announced the War on Drugs. The Justice Department declared its goal to halve the number of government workers assigned to prosecute white-collar criminals. Instead, they decided to shift their focus to street crime, with an even more narrow focus on drugs. White collar and street crime are both detrimental to the welfare and prosperity of America, but street crime was more common among people of color. So, focusing on prosecuting street criminals was targeting black criminals over white criminals. This hyperfocus unfairly took away the freedom of many black people.

In 1998, after Reagan left office, the CIA admitted that “guerrilla armies it actively supported in Nicaragua were smuggling illegal drugs into the United States — drugs that were making their way onto the streets of inner-city black neighborhoods in the form of crack cocaine. The CIA also admitted that, in the midst of the War on Drugs, it blocked law enforcement efforts to investigate illegal drug networks that were helping to fund its covert war in Nicaragua”. The CIA, under Reagan’s administration, allowed crack cocaine to be smuggled into America and did not do anything to deter it. Crack cocaine, in particular, was most common in communities of color. So, allowing the distribution of this drug set black people up to be incarcerated. Reagan targeted people of color in his War on Drugs through mass incarceration, as seen by his focus on street crime and his role in importing crack cocaine into the United States.

Because Reagan targeted people of color in the criminal justice system, many African Americans were incarcerated; men of color accounted for more than eighty percent of drug arrests. And, after these African Americans were released, they faced many prejudices and losses of rights because they were branded a felon, including “Voting, Traveling abroad, The right to bear arms or own guns, Jury service, Employment in certain fields, Public social benefits and housing, [and] Parental benefits”. By discriminating against black people through mass incarceration, these black ex-convicts lost many rights, solidifying them to a “permanent second-class citizenship”. Black people were oppressed and disenfranchised by Reagan because he targeted them in his War on Drugs, which resulted in their loss of rights. Some may say that Reagan’s War on Drugs had detrimental benefits to communities of color, but helped to deter drug use. However, the war was declared when drug use was already decreasing. The Reagan administration decided to strategically publicize the crack cocaine “epidemic” in 1985 to gain public and political support for the war. At this time, “less than two percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation”. From the onset, the War on Drugs was less connected to the public’s opinion about drugs than the public’s opinions and issues with race. Drug use was not deterred by Reagan’s War on Drugs because it was already declining. Reagan did not decrease drug use; instead, he increased the discrimination against black people.

Clinton discriminated against and disenfranchised black people through mass incarceration by implementing harsher punishments while also decreasing spending for social welfare. Bill Clinton was the “standard-bearer for the New Democrats, a group that firmly believed the only way to win back the millions of white voters in the South who had defected to the Republican party was to adopt the right-wing narrative that black communities ought to be disciplined with harsh punishment rather than coddled with welfare”. Clinton tried to gain support for his campaign and presidency by appealing to a group of people that was racist and wanted to target black people. So, he wanted to imprison more people of color to gain support for his presidency. In 1994, Bill Clinton passed a large crime bill which instituted a “three strikes” mandatory life sentence for repeat offenders, $9.7 billion to fund new prisons, money to hire 100,000 new police officers, and an increase in offenses eligible for the death penalty. Elizabeth Hinton, a Harvard professor of history and African American studies said that “the US Sentencing Commission already knew that punitive criminal control and prison policies were disproportionately affecting people of colour”. The Clinton administration knew that the criminal justice system was discriminatory towards people of color, yet they still expanded it. Clinton knowingly made penal reforms that targeted black people, showing that he knew his mass incarceration initiatives were oppressive. Even when the bill was in its preliminary stages, “members of the Congressional Black Caucus asked for provisions in the bill that were left out”. Black politicians knew that the bill was racist and would have negative effects to black communities, yet it was still passed. And, their concerns came true. Bill Clinton “supported the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack versus powder cocaine, which produced staggering racial injustice in sentencing and boosted funding for drug-law enforcement”. Although crack and powder cocaine are the same drug, crack was sentenced much more harshly. Crack was more common among people of color, unfairly discriminating against black people. As a result of this, “Prison admissions for drug offenses reached a level in 2000 for African Americans more than 26 times the level in 1983”. Bill Clinton’s crime legislation targeted people of color which is apparent in the statistics that more black people were in prison than ever before and than any other race.

Clinton’s unfair incarceration and removal of the welfare system oppressed black people and their communities. It removed all Pell Grant funding to college educate prisons, even though education is an integral way to prevent recidivism. It also prohibited ex-convicts of felony drug offenses from receiving food stamps or welfare. It also implemented a “one strike, you’re out” policy that evicted residents from public homes if they or their guests were formerly incarcerated. This made it harder for ex-cons to find housing. Clinton unjustly put people of color in prison. Then, he passed more legislation to make it almost impossible for black communities and ex-convicts to recover from his crime provisions. This kept millions of black people in the perpetual cycle of desperation and poverty. More specifically, it resulted in, “more than half of working-age African American men in many large urban areas were saddled with criminal records and subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits — relegated to a permanent second-class status” by the end of his presidency. Clinton reinforced racism by passing legislation that unfairly targeted people of color and detrimentally impacted communities of color and ex-convicts. Some may say that Clinton’s Bill increased mass incarceration but decreased crime. The crime bill was beneficial in some ways by putting more cops on the street and making harsher penalties for sex crimes. However, when the bill was passed, violent crime was declining. Clinton “should have taken the decrease in crime rates that was already happening into consideration when it drafted the bill”. Clinton stated, “The good news is that we had the biggest drop in crime in history. The bad news is we had a lot of people who were locked up, who were minor actors, for way too long”. He also said that “we wound up… putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives”. Not only were minor criminals in prison for too long, but since ex-convicts were not rehabilitated, they were more likely to offend again. Although the bill decreased crime, the decline was only temporary. Another argument is that the crime bill improved the economy and black unemployment rates”. However, “government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people”. So, “the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent” when Clinton left office. Young black men were not unemployed because they were behind bars.

Additionally, the crime bill may have not even decreased crime: Even though crime decreased dramatically, “the best evidence suggests that locking people up is not the primary reason”. The Brennan center “concluded that ‘incarceration was responsible for approximately 5% of the drop in crime in the 1990s’”. Crime did decrease, but it was, for the most part, not attributable to the crime bill.

Others may say that it is not fair to criticize Bill Clinton for incarcerating people of color so harshly because many people of color supported the “get tough” movement. Indeed, many communities of color were struggling in the face of crime and wanted violent offenders out of their communists. However, “most of those black activists and politicians weren’t asking only for toughness. They were also demanding investment in their schools, better housing, jobs programs for young people, economic-stimulus packages, drug treatment on demand, and better access to healthcare. In the end, they wound up with police and prisons”. Many black people wanted tougher punishment for crime in addition to rehabilitation and improvement policies. They did not receive any of this. Bobby School, a Virginia Democratic Representative, “voted against the bill years ago, in part because it didn’t do enough to support prevention programs”. Clinton’s crime bill was tough on crime, but he did not balance out this toughness with rehabilitation and welfare policies, which is why his bill was unfair to people of color.

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The War on Drugs declared by Reagan and the 1994 Crime Bill passed by Clinton’s administration unjustly discriminated against black people, which reinforced racism. Reagan’s War on Drugs unfairly focused on street crime and crack versus cocaine, causing many more persons of color to be incarcerated than white people. Reagan himself used racial slurs and secretly supported the importation of crack cocaine, all negatively impacts people of color and their communities. The amount of African Americans in prison skyrocketed, although they used drugs at similar rates as whites. Clinton implemented harsh penalties and laws regarding crime that put a lot of people in color in prison. Then, he took away resources that helped rehabilitate ex-convicts, which destroyed communities of color. The institutional racism in the penal system is still a massive problem. Although Reagan and Clinton are no longer president, their roles in the incarceration of so many African Americans continues to have a legacy. African Americans comprise 13.3% of America’s population, but they constituted 34%, 2.3 million, of the total 6.8 million prison population in 2014. Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times more than that of white people. Many people believe that people of color are dangerous or criminal because of these statistics. However, people of color have the same tendency to commit crime as any other race. They are just incarcerated more because of Reagan's and Clinton's crime policies. This leads to a perpetual cycle; black people are incarcerated at higher rates, so people think they have more criminal tendencies, leading to more racist legislation and arrests by police. This legislation and these arrests lead to more incarcerated people of color, thus, continuing this unjust and deleterious cycle. Reagan and Clinton’s racist and discriminatory mass incarceration still affect people of color today, and until the penal system is fixed, people of color will remain not discriminated against in American society.

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Dr. Oliver Johnson

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Mass Incarceration In America: A Tool For Racial Oppression And Disenfranchisement. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
“Mass Incarceration In America: A Tool For Racial Oppression And Disenfranchisement.” GradesFixer, 10 Oct. 2020,
Mass Incarceration In America: A Tool For Racial Oppression And Disenfranchisement. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 21 May 2024].
Mass Incarceration In America: A Tool For Racial Oppression And Disenfranchisement [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2020 Oct 10 [cited 2024 May 21]. Available from:
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