Race, Imprisonment, and the Socioeconomic Divide
In the later half of the nineteenth century, some American states passed laws restricting privileges given to emancipated African Americans after the Civil War. These so-called Jim Crow laws segregated African Americans from the white population and denied them equal status with whites in all aspects of their lives, including the use of public services, public places, schools, poling regulations, and so forth. These local laws remained in place until the civil rights movement, which gained momentum in the 1940s, pushed the Supreme Court to declare segregation laws illegal in a series of decisions beginning in 1954. In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act which outlawed state laws requiring segregation. However, this law did not end the practice of segregation, which continues unofficially, mostly due to the economic factor of poverty. Thus, in many parts of the United States, African Americans live and attend schools separately from whites. In a 2003 speech, “The American Dilemma Revisited: Psychoanalysis, Social Policy, and the Socio-cultural Meaning of Race,” published in Black Renaissance Wideman gives some revealing statistics: Poverty has continued to increase for African Americans since the 1980s. Forty-four percent of black children live below the poverty line, compared with 20 percent of all American children. A black baby is three times more likely to die than a white one.
Black people’s experiences with, and attitudes toward, the criminal justice system often differ from those of white people, prompting racial tensions. In 1991, the beating of an unarmed black man, Rodney King, by four Los Angeles police officers was captured on videotape. An all-white jury acquitted the police officers, prompting riots in Los Angeles and widespread protests. In 2001, fifteen black men were killed by police or died in police custody over a period when no men from other races died in comparable circumstances. No police officers were found guilty in criminal or civil courts. This sequence of events provoked rioting in Cincinnati, Ohio. The statistics on African Americans caught up in the criminal justice system give an idea of the extent of the problems. In “The American Dilemma Revisited,” Wideman notes that 781,000 black males are incarcerated, 200,000 more than are enrolled in colleges and universities. Every day, a black male aged between eighteen and thirty-four has a one-in-ten chance of finding himself locked up; one in three are under custodial supervision; each year, each has a one-in-three chance of being imprisoned. Possession of the cheap drug crack, widely used in poor African-American communities, carries much heavier jail time than luxury drugs such as cocaine. An analysis of 141,000 traffic citations written between 1999 and 2000 by Cincinnati police found black drivers were twice as likely as whites to be cited for driving without a license, twice as likely to be cited for not wearing a seat belt, and four times as likely to be cited for driving without proof of insurance.
The Privatization of Prisons
The 1990s saw a debate about the growing privatization of prisons, which previously were run by the government. The argument for privatization emphasizes cost reduction. Arguments against it claim that cost-cutting results in lower standards of care and that privatization leads to a market demand for prisoners and prison labor, which is fed by tougher sentencing. Wideman’s story, “What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence,” critiques the dehumanizing aspects of what the author terms the “prison industry,” which flourishes from human “traffic.”
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)