Racism and Mass Incarceration in the US Heartland: Historical Roots of the New Jim Crow

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If asked what state had the highest rate of incarceration rate of black men, most people would likely cite somewhere in the old Confederacy, perhaps Mississippi or Louisiana. They would be about 1000 miles too far South. According to labor analysts John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn, the answer is Wisconsin, which has the nation’s highest per capita incarceration rate of black men and juveniles. Neighboring Iowa has the country’s highest ratio of black to white incarceration. Illinois, from available statistics, has the greatest disparity between blacks in the general population (15%) and blacks in the state prison population (58%). Across the region blacks are incarcerated up to 13 times the rate of whites and three to five times the rate of those labelled “Hispanics.”

No single factor seems to explain this intensely punitive anti-black thread in Midwestern criminal legal circles. Rather, racially skewed outcomes result from a unique set of historical forces and structural changes in the regional political economy coupled with what happens in courts, prisons and in the streets.

Historical Forces: Sundown Towns

While the history of segregation in the South is well-known, the Midwest had its own version of Jim Crow: sundown towns. A sundown town operated under one basic rule of thumb: no blacks were allowed inside the city limits once the sun went down. Jim Loewen has researched sundown towns for many years. His work unearthed more than 300 likely sundown towns  in Illinois, more than 200 in Indiana, and over a hundred in Wisconsin and Ohio. By contrast Loewen told this reporter he could only confirm three in Mississippi. These urban exclusion zones spread extensively from 1890 to 1940, though many endured past World War II. Residents of one such town, Anna, Illinois, claimed the anagram of their town name stood for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed.”

In many Midwest towns, the imposition of a Sundown regime required the removal of existing black populations, a process Loewen refers to as “ethnic cleansing.” Major “white riots” aimed at removing blacks occurred in medium-sized cities such as Akron, Ohio, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Springfield, Illinois. Numerous small Illinois towns with few black residents, places like East Alton, Auburn, Thayer,  Girard, and Pawnee, as well as Evansville, Indiana made major efforts to rid themselves of their African American population. These purges did not always come easily. Decatur, Indiana accomplished the task by forming an “Anti-Negro Society” at the turn of the 20th century. A Ku Klux Klan rally which attracted nearly 10,000 to West Frankfort, Illinois in 1923 put the stamp on that town’s sundown status. In 1931, it took a lynching in Maryville, Missouri to spark the flight of the town’s entire black population.

While sundown towns were proliferating in the rural areas of the Midwest, big cities followed suit by creating sundown suburbs. Wilmette, an upmarket North Shore suburb of Chicago requested residents to fire all black domestic workers who did not have housing on their employer’s premises. Apparently their presence as pedestrians in the area contributed to a fall in “real estate values.” Edina, now one of the wealthiest suburbs in Minneapolis, chose to expunge its black population in the 1930s to fully establish an elite space. Remnants of this exclusion policy remained until the 1970s

The Midwest–Heartland of Anti-Black Racism

If sundown segregation laid the ideological groundwork for racialized mass incarceration, the deindustrialization of inner cities created an urban geography that facilitated the capture of bodies for the prison industrial complex. University of Illinois historian Lou Turner told me that deindustrialization came in two waves. The first began in the late ‘60s in response to urban black rebellions in places like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. The second phase of relocating production heated up in the late ‘70s as part of the global economic restructuring which sent manufacturing to low-wage countries overseas. The disappearance of factories robbed African American workers of some of the few well-paying, secure employment opportunities available.

The scale of this deindustrialization process in other Midwestern cities is staggering. While the decline of Detroit’s auto industry is well-known, the entire region endured a similar process. Between 1961 and 2001, the city of Milwaukee lost 69 percent of its manufacturing positions. Overall, seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin saw a loss of 83,000 positions. Chicago suffered a similar fate, losing 29% of all manufacturing employment in the 1970s. From 1969 to 1989 Cleveland’s manufacturing sector workforce declined by 40%. Even smaller industrial sites like one-time steel production center Youngstown, Ohio felt the brunt of restructuring. Steel plant shutdowns in the late ‘70s, precipitated the loss of 40,000 manufacturing jobs, and 400 satellite businesses in Youngstown.

The absence of manufacturing jobs also contributed to white flight from the inner cities. In the 1970s, Wayne  County (Detroit) lost 26.6% of its white population, with Cleveland (20.1%) and Chicago’s Cook County (15.5%) experiencing similar out migration.

Not surprisingly, the spatial result has been increasingly segregated cities. In a 2010 survey, five of the ten most racially segregated cities in the U.S. were located in the Midwest: Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee and Cincinnati. This segregation converted economically barren African American communities into ideal targets for high-tech, militarized policing. Detroit was the first to go down this path with the formation of the STRESS (Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit in 1970. While STRESS was abandoned after four years and 20 civilian deaths at the hands of police, the spirit of militarized policing lived on―influencing law enforcement methods throughout the region as the War on Drugs.

The War on Drugs and Million Dollar Blocks

The War on Drugs transformed inner city black communities in the region. African American men in Milwaukee County went from having four times as many annual admissions for drug-related offenses as white men in the early 1990s to having 11 to 12 times as many from 2002 to 2005. Two thirds of those incarcerated came from just six zip codes in the inner city. Chicago’s West and South Sides, once home to substantial manufacturing production and the fabled stockyards, became ground zero for massive offensives by an increasingly militarized police department. A 2011 study revealed 851 “million dollar blocks” in Chicago. A million dollar block is one where the criminal justice system spend more than a million dollars a year incarcerating its residents. The vast majority of these blocks were areas with an overwhelmingly black population.

Alan Mills, Executive Director of Uptown People’s Law Center in  Chicago, told me that this created a “perfect feedback loop. We arrest people in poor black communities, these arrests destabilize the communities, leading to more violence. We then send more police into those communities [and] increase arrests even further, thus further destabilizing the community.” The feedback loop continues even after people are released from prison. In Illinois, 60% of those on parole in 2014 were black. .

Fighting Back: Racial Justice Task Force

Given this history, perhaps it is no surprise that in Champaign County the jail population is consistently more than 50% Black, in a county with a 13% Black population. These racial dynamics sparked a year-long struggle led by Black Lives Matter and Build Programs, Not Jails to establish a racial justice task force. The Task Force began its work in February and hopefully will be a catalyst to reverse decades of Midwestern style, anti-Black racism in our county.

(This article originally appeared at Truthout. Reprinted with Permission.)

James KilgoreJames Kilgore is a writer, activist and educator based at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). His most recent book is Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time (The New Press, 2015). He is also the author of three novels, all of which were drafted during his six and a half years in state and federal prisons in California. Follow him on Twitter @waazn1.

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