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"Focus on the Institutional Barriers,"

by Manning Marable November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

If the Advisory Board truly wants to understand the contemporary dynamics of institutional racism, it should go first to the prisons and jails across this country, conversing with black, brown and poor inmates. The criminal justice system today has become our chief means of regulating and controlling millions of unemployed and undereducated black and Latino young men. What lynching was in the South when John Hope Franklin grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, the death penalty and life sentences without parole have become in the 1990s.

As of 1997, there are 1.7 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails. In California alone, the number of prisoners, which stood at 19,000 two decades ago, now exceeds 150,000. Prison construction has become a multi-billion dollar business, as small towns compete for new prison sites. Since 1990, the number of prison and jail guards nationwide has grown by 30%. to over 600,000. We are constructing about 150 new prison cells every single day in the United States.

The social and racial consequences of regulating the poor and minorities throughout the criminal justice apparatus are devastating. One recent study in Washington, DC found that one-half of all African-American males between the ages of 18 and 35 are, on any given day, under the control or direct supervision of the criminal justice system -- either in prison or jail, on probation, parole or awaiting trial. Instead of investing in quality schools and vocational training, we construct new prisons. Instead of providing real jobs at living wages, we pass a crime bill that undermined civil liberties and greatly expanded the possible use of the death penalty. A conversation about race must discuss the connections between poverty, joblessness and crime. By stigmatizing nearly all young black men as a criminal class, we justify racist stereotypes and reinforce society's racial divide.

Perhaps the Advisory Board should schedule a session at the University of Texas at Austin, where scores of black and Hispanic law students are eliminated with the end of affirmative action programs. Maybe they should interview University of Texas law professor Lino Graglia, who publicly declared that black and Mexican-American students were culturally inferior and "not (as) academically competitive" as whites. Despite the firestorm of criticism generated by Graglia's crude comments, no measures have been taken to reverse the impact of the 1996 Hopwood decision, which outlawed the use of race as a factor in school admissions criteria and scholarships.

A real conversation about race must examine critically the institutional barriers that have been erected to subordinate people of color, denying them an equal voice in society. Such a conversation would interrogate white politicians and government officials who push for so-called "race-blind" initiatives, which only buttress white racial privilege. As W.E.B. DuBois knew, the struggle to uproot racism requires "race-conscious solutions." Only by talking honestly about the institutions and policies that perpetuate white power and privilege can we begin the long and difficult journey toward reconciliation.

Manning Marable is Professor of History and Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University. The above comments were excerpted from his "Along the Color Line, "a column distributed free of charge regularly appearing in over 325 black and progressive publications worldwide.

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