Ferguson and Hyperincarceration

Recent events in Ferguson remind us that mass incarceration is part of a broader spectrum of structural conditions that do great harm to lower-income black communities. What's happening in this predominantly African American suburb of Saint Louis affirms the wisdom of Loic Wacquant’s formulation of ‘hyperincarceration.’

"[T]he expansion and intensification of the activities of the police, courts, and prison over the past quarter-century have been anything but broad and indiscriminate. They have been finely targeted, first by class, second by that disguised brand of ethnicity called race, and third by place. This cumulative targeting has led to the hyperincarceration of one particular category, lower-class black African American men trapped in the crumbling ghetto, while leaving the rest of society--including, most remarkably, middle- and upper-class African Americans--practically untouched."

This has dire implications for American democracy. It is another way in which the experience of democracy, as well as the ideal of democracy, is limited by the racialization of our economy, our government, and our criminal justice system. One of the best things I’ve read about hyperincarceration is an article in the Boston Review, written before Ferguson, but painfully relevant to current events.

Lots of Americans worry about too much government in their lives; and yet, most of this worry comes from people who do not experience the day-to-day indignities of hyper-carceral control. For communities like Ferguson, there is both too much and too little government. Too much of the carceral apparatus, and not enough of the public services that all communities need. For the past 30 years, the whole web of public life has been built around policing and controlling the lives of black and brown people who live in communities that have experienced wide-scale disinvestment. Ferguson is the face of our political and economic failures. In communities like Ferguson, we have failed to invest in economic development and human services that support full participation in public life. Instead, we have invested in militarised policing, and we have turned human services into institutions that further contain and control black youth. It is a vicious cycle. 

The criminalization of entire communities is directly related to the War on Drugs, as many have noted. But it goes deeper.The roots of American jurisprudence intertwine capitalist prerogatives with racial prerogatives. The colonial political economy required the policing of black, brown and red people as part of protecting white property and personhood. The basis for legitimacy of state power in protecting property is deeply racialized and we have yet to untangle this in our society. We like to think the law is neutral; that we have made advances toward equality under the law. But the very foundations of the law are built upon holding sacred not just the rights of property, but the rights of white property, white citizenship, white personhood. Upon this foundation, it is taken for granted that the law will assume that black and brown people are predators, criminals, illegals, terrorists, etc. So when a young unarmed man is shot by a police officer, his body left on the ground for hours (in a dehumanizing gesture that harkens back to practices during slavery), his right to exist is challenged. He is dismissed as a 'thug' whose life didn't matter. And we are tempted to look away. 

But the protesters won't let us look away. Not this time. Could the tragedy and outrage in Ferguson break through our complacency? Will those of us who think we are untouched by hyperincarceration start to take seriously what criminalization and massive disinvestment have done to low income communities of color, particularly black communities? Let us hope so. For the future of American democracy may depend upon it.