Study: When It Comes to American Incarceration, Race and Class Both Matter, But Class Matters More

Politics Features The Carceral State
Study: When It Comes to American Incarceration, Race and Class Both Matter, But Class Matters More

There’s a fascinating study highlighted today by Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, and it seeks to examine the proximate causes of America’s sky-high incarceration rate, specifically for African-Americans. The report, by the People’s Policy Project, undertook a difficult (some would say impossible) task—separate racial and economic factors that contribute to incarceration in our country, and determine which matters “more.” Using a national database that gave comprehensive information on a “representative sample” of adult men ages 24 to 32, Nathaniel Lewis collected data on four outcomes:

Whether or not men aged 24-32 years have ever been to jail or prison
Whether or not men are jailed after being arrested
Whether or not men have spent more than a month in jail or prison
Whether or not men have spent more than a year in jail or prison

Sorting for race and economic class, he determined that for the first three outcomes, economic class had a “statistically significant effect,” while race did not. For the last outcome—whether a man spent more than a year in jail or prison—class still had a statistically significant effect, but it was also true that a poor black man was more likely than a poor white man to serve a longer sentence. (And it’s not hard to tie draw a direct correlation to the well-documented differences in sentencing between black and white criminals.)

What should we take from this? Per Jailani:

The results cut against the conventional wisdom on much of the political left, which argues that America’s system of mass incarceration is primarily built on racial bias and discrimination.

And per Lewis:

It could be that mass incarceration is primarily a system of managing poor people, rather than black people, and the racial disparities show up mostly because black people are disproportionately represented in the lower classes. This is what my study finds.”

The problem, of course, is that it’s no coincidence that black Americans are over-represented among the nation’s poor. Starting with slavery and continuing onward through racial housing policies and too many other acts of institutional economic racism to name, the economic plight of black Americans today cannot be separated from either historical or modern racism.

However, when struggling to find solutions, a study like this may provide a blueprint. The fact poor white Americans suffer the same negative effects of poverty as it relates to incarceration (with the exception of sentencing) seems to suggest, per Lewis, that “policies aimed at alleviating class disparities may be the most effective way of helping black people, and all people, subject to being ground up by the criminal justice system.”

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