Racism and the US Incarceration System

Written by Tom Whitehead & Luke Paterson
Edited by Antony Fitzsimmons

1st July 2020
Reading time: 6 minutes


Recent events have, again, highlighted the shocking fact that racial discrimination, police brutality and a systemically racist system still exists today. Through looking at inequality in the US incarceration system, we thought it was only right to attempt to shine a light on one very prevalent example of systemic racism. Although no essay can fully do justice to this sensitive issue, we hope it encourages all to partake in actions to bring about an end to systemic racism.

The death of George Floyd, and the subsequent protests across the world, has renewed attention on racial discrimination, police brutality, and a systemically racist system that still exists in 2020. Although this racism manifests itself in many aspects of society, one of the most prevalent examples of this is the US incarceration system (prisons, jails, detention centres, etc.). Figures taken from The Sentencing Project and Pew Research Center:

  • Incarceration has increased by more than 500% in the last 40 years. 
  • As of 2017, 2.2 million people are in prison, or jail, in the US 
  • 1 in 3 black men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
  • Black Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of White Americans.

The graph below shows clearly the scale of racial disparity:

Pew Research Center | John Gramlich


From the statistics shown above, it is clear that incarceration is severely skewed towards Black Americans in the US. In order to understand this, we can begin by examining the US’s distinct racial history that has led to this disproportionality. The slave trade undoubtedly forms the bedrock of today’s unequal reality; however, for this article, we will focus on the history since its abolition in 1865. Surprisingly, the Thirteenth Amendment, which brought an end to slavery, contained a loophole:  

“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.” (US Constitution. Amend. XIII, 1865).

Essentially, this exception formed the basis for much imprisonment that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Thirteenth Amendment’s enactment. The southern economy, at the time, was entirely dependent on slavery. Consequently, in order to rebuild the economy, southern states incarcerated large numbers of Black Americans for very minor offences – for example, vagrancy and loitering – and forced them into involuntary servitude (to use the words of the Amendment). This was only the beginning of the US’s systemic incarceration problem.

Only a decade after the abolition of slavery, the Jim Crow Laws were enacted by the Democratic Federal Government in order to appease the southern states that were very much concerned with race. Put simply, these laws allowed for the segregation of Black Americans from White Americans. This was incredibly problematic as it resulted in the ghettoisation of Black Americans, and meant they were incredibly disadvantaged in all aspects of life. 

Racial segregation at a day hotel in the US | Mondadori Archive via Getty

Fast forward nearly a century later and the civil rights movement culminated in the passing of the Civil Rights Act 1964, which effectively ended segregation on racial grounds. It may seem surprising that it took this long for such a discriminatory system to end, but perhaps it serves to highlight how race relations have remained an issue in the US. This is less than 60 years ago! To put this into perspective, for us, this means this system was still in place during our grandparents’ youth – it is hard to even imagine the day-to-day struggle for Black Americans.

After this significant advancement towards equality, politicians began to increasingly appeal to American voters’ fear of crime. Although, it must be acknowledged that much of this fear was stoked by the media and the politicians themselves. The exploitation of this fear led to what has come to be known as a war on crime and a war on drugs. What followed in the following decades was an increase in the use of incarceration as punishment, with lengthy sentences and mandatory minimums being increasingly used. The effect of this was that the prisoner population increased substantially (see graph below). 

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities” (John Ehrlichman, an adviser to President Nixon, 1969-74).

US prison population | Bureau of Statistics Prisoners Series

This is an undeservingly brief summary of the history. For a more comprehensive and informative overview, we recommend the incredibly moving Netflix documentary “13th”. Alongside this history which highlights the foundation of systemic racism in the US incarceration system, we will now attempt to answer the question as to why black Americans are still so disproportionately incarcerated.


One of the ways in which we can attempt to explain this disproportionality in incarceration is by looking at economic factors – the link between crime and economic deprivation is undeniable. Without boring the reader too much with theory, individuals that are economically deprived are more likely to turn to crime as they are unable to achieve culturally defined goals (financial success, high-status, etc.) through legitimate means. For some economically deprived individuals, criminality may seem to be the only available route. 

Black Americans are more likely to live in economically deprived areas as a result of systemically racist policies and practices. An example of this is the redlining of neighbourhoods that began in the 1930s. Effectively, neighbourhoods were graded for mortgages based on creditworthiness, home prices and local amenities. This practice disproportionately labelled ethnic minorities, and specifically Black communities, as ‘hazardous’ areas. Redlining is particularly concerning as it essentially locks certain neighbourhoods into economic struggle; consequently, social mobility is all but eliminated. Although redlining is now abolished, the effects of it are lingering. This is especially apparent when we consider the net worth of Americans. According to the Federal Reserve, White American families have 10 times the net worth of Black American families. The graph below also shows the significant difference in earnings. To summarise, Black Americans are systemically disadvantaged as a result of historical practices that targeted their communities. As outlined, economic deprivation leads to crime, and Black Americans are more likely to be economically deprived – this link is just one example of systemic racism that persists in American society.

Authors graphics | Source: EPI analysis of Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC) Historical Income Tables (Table P-38) |

Albeit, economic factors are only one important influence on the disproportionality in incarceration. We will briefly cover racial prejudices and implicit biases. Much of the cause of this discrimination is located in the media’s portrayal of crime. Studies have shown that American media has a tendency to skew public perceptions about the perpetrators of crime by disproportionately focusing on crimes committed by Black Americans. Consequently, American fear of crime is closely tied to a misperception that associates Black Americans with deviance; survey data has confirmed this by finding that individuals typically associated black Americans with words such as “dangerous”, “aggressive”, “violent”, and “criminal” (Eberhardt et al., 2004, as cited in The Sentencing Project). Thus, it is clear that implicit biases/prejudices exist against Black Americans in the 21st century.

This discrimination has damning effects for Black Americans when it comes to punishment. As previously mentioned, media and politicians exaggerated the fear of crime and used this to justify a war on crime/drugs. This ‘war’, combined with racial prejudice, has resulted in Black Americans being negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. Evidence of this becomes apparent when considering the fact that Black Americans are likely to receive a harsher sanction than White Americans for the same crime. Additionally, they are much more likely to be targeted by police, and this implicit bias is particularly apparent when considering the war on drugs; “from 1995 to 2005, Black Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users but 36% of drug arrests and 46% of those convicted for drug offenses” (The Sentencing Project). Another damning statistic is that Black Americans are 3 times more likely to be searched and twice as likely to be arrested during a traffic stop (ACLU). Although we could continue to list even more grim figures that highlight racial disparities in the US, these facts alone are enough to make it obvious that the American war on crime disproportionately targets Black Americans, and subsequently they are more likely to be incarcerated. Indeed, the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers contend that Black Americans are discriminated against at every stage of the criminal justice system.

Political system

We have only brushed over a few of the reasons for Black over-representation in the prisoner population of the US. We strongly recommend that people educate themselves further and do their own research, as this article is an injustice to the true scale of the problem. What also needs to be considered is the political system in the US that makes enacting nationwide change difficult. To explain simply, the constitution devolves criminal justice matters to the state level. This means that although federal legislation can go some way in reforming and changing the current system, the federal government lacks the power to completely tackle this issue. Every state government, in addition to the federal government, needs to enact their own changes to ensure that this disproportionality is brought to an end.

Furthermore, most of these problems are rooted in the systemic racism that has persisted throughout US history. This means that some of the problems are a lot harder to tackle than others. Discrimination by race is already illegal in the US, but it is clear that the deep-rooted racism has long-lasting effects that cannot be abolished by such simple legislation. Politicians and individuals need to identify these systemic problems and shift the focus towards a more progressive and reformative agenda. This can be done through more people educating themselves of the issues Black Americans face, and then using this knowledge to vote for candidates that promise to address these systemic issues.


This article has only looked at one outcome of systemic racism; it would take an essay much longer than this to consider all the issues. However, we would argue that the racial disparity in the US incarceration system is of great concern when learning about modern racism. Racism in the 21st century is not as simple as identifying certain individuals as racist, as the problem is more embedded in the system (hence the phrase systemic racism). Therefore, even though racism is not always blatant and visible, we must not deny its existence in 2020. The current system is a consequence of many policies throughout history that have disadvantaged Black Americans at many stages in their life. 

What we want to make abundantly clear is that this article only aims to provide a simple and brief explanation of what is a much more complicated and sensitive issue. Economic Discussions is behind efforts to bring systemic racism to an end. We argue that the best route for progress is through educating more people, and encouraging all to engage in the democratic process to achieve change. Finally, this article has been focused on the US prison system, but there are many parallels to be drawn in the UK and other European countries. 

The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.” – Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

The Sentencing Project
The Washington Post
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
US Federal Reserve
‘13th’ documentary on Netflix
Pew Research Center
Bureau of Justice Statistics


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