According to a new report from the Pew Center on the States, for the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults are now in prison. For minority groups the rate is even higher: one in 36 Hispanic adults is in prison and one in 15 blacks is, too, as is an astonishingly one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34.
In his new book Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, Houston Baker takes a look at the some of the historical and economic contexts behind this phenomenon. He argues that the rise in incarceration rates for black men is the result of the lack of economic opportunity for blacks and Hispanics, and of a cruel and wrongheaded drug policy that disproportionately affects men of color.
However, the rising prison population has been a boon to some, namely what has become known as the “prison-industrial complex.” Private corporations, often with the aid of government subsidies, have made substantial profits building new prisons to house the ever-growing prison population. What are the possible implications of the rising prison rates? Baker writes:
Those who have been labeled out and thus cast viciously and brutally into our country’s prison-industrial complex are emblems of the American majority future. Do we really want to be complicit in constructing the death row fashioned by mythical patriarchs, oligarchic businessmen, corrupt congressional representatives, and prison suppliers who constitute a billion-dollar elite? I hope not. But if we do not begin to imagine and then construct safe spaces of black American majority life now, death row—the civic, social, economic, and psychological incarceration of our culture—will be our American future.
In looking for answers to this problem, Baker turns to the work and ideas of Angela Davis and Manning Marable. These two thinkers have “condemned utterly our era’s neoconservative and brutal economies of lockdown.” For Baker, Davis and Marable’s efforts exemplify the proper role of black intellectuals in the United States in addressing the issues and concerns confronting black America.