Mass incarceration is a direct result of institutionalized privilege

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By Erica Hengelfelt, Contributor

Mass incarceration is a term many young Americans are either unfamiliar with or recognize simply as a component of the culture of poverty in the United States.

Unfortunately, government data show that current incarceration rates are extremely unbalanced between white and black Americans, indicating factors other than culture may be at work. Black Americans comprise a startling percentage of incarcerations in the United States each year. They account for 39 percent of the imprisoned despite making up just 13 percent of the population, according to the federal government.

Metropolitan Community College, in partnership with other community organizations, hosted a forum April 2 at Omaha North High School, exploring the idea of institutionalized mass incarceration in a program titled “Jail and the Black Man.”

Members of Omaha organizations such as 100 Black Men and Mad Dads, as well as many social scientists, liken the discriminatory mass incarceration of black Americans to the Jim Crow Laws of decades past.

Jim Crow Laws included those that legally segregated schools, transportation, lunch counters, restrooms and countless other public services. They were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Though legal slavery and discrimination are things of the past, a legacy of white privilege has persisted in the United States as a result of these practices. 

This idea of race, a socially constructed idea with no accepted scientific or biological basis, has affected the socioeconomic status of minorities in the United States. It’s evident that many laws are designed to benefit whites in power.

This includes the arrangement of today’s prison system, which is based on racial control rather than crime control, according to writer Michelle Alexander, who spoke at the forum.

U.S. laws have been designed to impose mandatory minimum sentences only to specific crimes, especially those involving illegal drugs. This has caused many black Americans to be held in prison for lengthy periods of time, an unfair practice in modern-day society.

Many job applications require prospective employees to indicate in a checkbox whether they’ve been convicted of a felony in the past. This proves detrimental to men and women released from prison who seek employment.

Not only do felons flounder when trying to obtain employment, similar paperwork for housing, food stamps and other types of governmental aid all require applicants to disclose all previous convictions.

A movement to “ban the box” has risen out of the discussion surrounding mass incarceration across the United States. Proponents hope this measure will give way to fairer screening practices across the country.

This box should absolutely be banned from such forms. The information is irrelevant when determining if someone would be a quality worker or tenant, especially given incarceration rates are heavily imbalanced. However, companies hiring personnel to work directly with children should use more extensive security screening measures.

Though significant social progress has been made since the time of legalized slavery, American citizens need to band together to combat institutionalized privilege and commit to the idea of “liberty and justice for all.”

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