"Black people are punished for driving, for walking down the street, for having children, for putting their children in school, for acting the way children act, and even for having children who are killed by other people. We are punished, in short, because we still exist."
By Margaret Kimberley
We are told that the Republicans are waging a war on women. It is true that they are on an endless quest to restrict access to abortion, if not outlaw it altogether, and want to prevent insurance companies from paying for contraception. In Wisconsin, the Republican governor recently signed legislation which repealed that state’s equal pay enforcement act.
The Republicans deserve the label, but if there is a war on women in America today, it is being directed primarily at black women as a group and at their young children as well. Black women have been criminalized for the most minor of offenses, for enrolling their children in schools outside of their home districts, and even when their children are victimized by other people.
In Ohio in 2011, Kelly Williams-Bolar, was convicted of felony theft and spent ten days in jail for enrolling her children in a school district that was not her own. The merits of the case were debatable, as her children lived with their grandfather in the district in question, but no matter, Ms. Williams-Bolar had to be taught a lesson and she and her father were indicted. The governor did reduce her sentence, calling it unduly harsh, but she was still convicted of a crime.
In Connecticut, Tanya McDowell was sentenced to five years in jail after she used her babysitter’s address to send her son to school. Ms. McDowell was homeless, living in her vehicle. It could be said that she did live in the district, but again, only pursuing criminal charges and sending this mother to jail would satisfy local prosecutors. McDowell had a drug conviction as well, so the war on drugs and the war on black women were both used against her.
All over the country, black women are criminalized for bizarre reasons. In some cases, they are even punished for doing what other people have done to their children. In Cobb County, Georgia, Raquel Nelson’s son was struck and killed by a drunk driver when she crossed the street with him. Because she was crossing at the green and not in between, Nelson was charged with vehicular manslaughter even though someone else killed her child.
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With respect to the underlying rationale behind these increasingly savage and bigoted attacks on black people, see this passage from Dennis Loo's Globalization and the Demolition of Society:
Since the basis for people to cooperate, to behave normatively (for example, to abide by the law) is constantly and deliberately undermined under neoliberal regimes, and since, for the most dispossessed, even less of what was available to them in welfare states with Keynesian economic policies is now offered, governments must increasingly rely upon coercive means with spending on “security” (law enforcement, military, immigration control, prisons, surveillance and so on) rising inexorably. This point bears underscoring: more repression and more coercive means of social control are not principally a policy choice in the sense that people might think of the GOP favoring more coercion and the Democrats less. The overall direction of neoliberal regimes dictates that more coercion will be required, regardless of the party in power and the individuals in office.
The socialist camp’s collapse by the late 1980s opened up the formerly socialist and quasi-socialist world of more than a billion and a half people to capitalist exploitation. In one fell swoop, whole sectors of the US population were thereby rendered disposable from the perspective of capital, especially transnational capital. For blue-collar workers and those in the broken sections of the proletariat for whom steady work is nearly impossible and who must survive at the margins in the gray and underground economies and through hustling, compliance with the status quo becomes increasingly problematic. What is to be done with these people?
For those most oppressed within the US, jail and prison are the short answer. Prisons and jails have, since at least the early 1990s, been the biggest supplier of public housing and public services to US youth.[i] The US leads the world in imprisoning its own people: every fourth prisoner in the world is behind bars in the US even though the US accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s population. In 2006, two million people were behind bars and another four and one-half million were under some form of custody—probation or parole. By 2010 those numbers reached 2.4 million behind bars with a total of more 7.5 million under some form of correctional supervision. Even when South Africa was under apartheid, the US imprisoned more blacks both in absolute numbers and per capita.[ii] Criminal justice expenditures have been rising since the mid-1970s, rising an additional 95 percent by states in the 1980s, compared to a decline in state spending on education of six percent.[iii] In California, spending on criminal justice now exceeds its spending on higher education, with ten percent of its general fund going to prisons versus seven percent going to higher education. This has happened even while index crime rates have been falling in California and nationally since the early 1990s. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Pp. 53-55).
Under the impact of the drug war, indeed, the correctional system has become our principal public agency for disadvantaged young men – their chief source of publicly supported housing and one of their most important sources of employment, nutrition, and medical care. We now spend considerably more on institutional housing for the poor via the jail and prison systems than we do on ordinary public housing for low-income people: eight times as much is spent on corrections as on low-rent public housing, for example, and nearly twice as much as on public housing and rent subsidies for the poor combined.
Combining administrative, survey, and census data, we estimate that among men born between 1965 and 1969, 3 percent of whites and 20 percent of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. The risks of incarceration are highly stratified by education. Among black men born during this period, 30 percent of those without college education and nearly 60 percent of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. The novel pervasiveness of imprisonment indicates the emergence of incarceration as a new stage in the life course of young low-skill black men.
[iii] Tara-Jen Ambrosio and Vincent Schiraldi, “From Classrooms to Cell Blocks: A National Perspective,” Justice Policy Institute, 1998, abstract cited at the National Criminal Justice Reference Service online, http://www.ncjrs.gov/App/publications/Abstract.aspx?id=189746, accessed February 6, 2011.