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Book Review: Race, Incarceration, and American Values by Glenn C. Loury

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“Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens,” writes professor Glenn C. Loury. “Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring that it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why?”

Answering this question is the heart of Loury’s thought-provoking book, Race, Incarceration, and American Values. Loury begins with some jaw-dropping statistics. These include the fact that our corrections system employs more people than General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart combined; with five percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent of its inmates; and that our incarceration rate is forty-times our nearest competitors, including Russia.

Loury argues that these statistics represent a choice America has made to shift from rehabilitation to punishment. This shift is due to the association in the minds of many of criminality with blackness. Loury notes that since the mid-’60s a similar association has emerged related to the welfare state which has also become more punitive. Indeed, as Barbara Ehrenreich has written, poverty itself is becoming criminalized. As crime has become synonymous with blackness  policy has become colored by racial animus and racial indifference. The effects have been devastating. Citing one example, Loury refers to the research of Princeton University sociologist Bruce Western who found that the racial disparity in incarceration rates is greater than another other social arena, including unemployment, non-marital child rearing, infant mortality, and net worth.

Loury’s agenda of course is not to provide a litany of complaints about the current system. As the title of his book implies, his goal is to raise moral questions: “We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens — even those who break our laws?”

Loury approaches these questions by drawing on John Rawls’ concept of justice. He demands that we consider what policies we would endorse if we did not first know our own chances of being on the wrong end of such policies. How would the criminal justice regime look if “we” were “them”? While Loury discusses justice in secular terms, his approach has echoes of the “Golden Rule.” Simply put, we should treat criminals the way we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes. This conceptualization of justice is akin to the way it is conceptualized by ‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) Head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921: “The second attribute of perfection is justice and impartiality… It means, in brief, to regard humanity as a single individual, and one’s own self as a member of that corporeal form, and to know of a certainty that if pain or injury afflicts any member of that body, it must inevitably result in suffering for all the rest.”

The next portion of the book where things get really interesting. He argues that we cannot think of criminal behavior purely in terms of personal responsibility. These behaviors emerge from a social context which we have all contributed to creating, a context that often benefits us at the expense of those whose actions we condemn. We can not engage in ethical discourse about crime unless we speak of both social responsibility and personal responsibility.

As if Loury’s discourse were not enough food for thought, this book offers dessert as well. Its second half includes responses to Loury from Pamela S. Karlan, Loïc Wacquant, and Tommie Shelby.

Karlan, a Professor of Public Interest Law at Standford University, focuses on voter disenfranchisement and mass incarceration. She illustrates the insanity of taking away voting rights of those convicted of crimes with the story of a man who lost the right to vote for bouncing a check. She also brings American policies into sharp relief when compared to other countries such as Israel where polling places are set up in prisons and detention centers.

Wacquant, a Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, reminds us that the horizontal growth of the prison industrial complex (the numbers of those on probation or parole) is even greater than its vertical growth (the number of those incarcerated). He also critiques the concept of “mass incarceration” as a misnomer. “Mass” implies a large portion of the general population whereas the impact of the criminal justice system is largely concentrated among “lower-class black men in the crumbling ghetto”. He refers to this as “hyper-incarceration.” In the most compelling part of the book, Wacquant argues that hyper-incarceration represents a reaction to the collapse of urban ghettos as forms of social control. Prisons have come to replace the geographic concentration of marginalized and exploited populations (ghettoization) as the primary means of “managing” them. He rejects Loury’s approach of appealing to values and argues instead for a pragmatic, political approach that mobilizes shared interests.

Tommie Shelby, Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Harvard goes a step further and suggests that mass incarceration is not the core of the current struggle facing African-Americans. He recommends a critique of personal responsibility is a good place to begin to shift the discourse. He reminds us that, “individuals are forced to make choices in an environment they did not choose” and asks, “whether the denizens of the ghetto are entitled to a better set of options, and if so, whose responsibility it is to provide them.”

Race, Incarceration, and American Values is a little book (a mere eighty-nine pages) that raises big questions. It is an excellent companion piece to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. Those who care about the character of our country and the inevitable consequences of the color-line should contemplate its contents deeply.

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