[Pnews] Prisons and Other Maladies of the Racist State: Reading Blood in my Eye in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jul 11 17:06:52 EDT 2017


  Prisons and Other Maladies of the Racist State: Reading Blood in my
  Eye in the Era of Mass Incarceration

Dan Berger - July 11, 2017

Surprising few but angering many, Jeff Sessions has used his post as 
attorney general to pull the Department of Justice away from enforcing 
civil rights. Sessions has sought to end federal lawsuits 
against or investigation into local police departments, instructed 
federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible sentences 
in their prosecutions, rededicated the DOJ to the War on Drugs 
(especially marijuana 
<http://time.com/4703888/jeff-sessions-marijuana-heroin-opioid/>), and 
pushed for mandatory minimums 
Lest anyone doubt the racist intent of his actions, Sessions’s move to 
amplify the drug war has largely excluded the opioid crisis in 
predominantly white rural areas. He insists crime rates are rising, 
despite evidence 
to the contrary, as part of his push for more police and longer sentences.

“After four decades of untrammeled carceral expansion, the last decade 
has witnessed growing critiques of America’s large prison 

These moves harken back to the “get tough” policies that had largely 
fallen out of favor in political rhetoric if not substantive policy. 
After four decades of untrammeled carceral expansion, the last decade 
has witnessed growing critiques of America’s large prison system. The 
critiques have been fiscal as well as moral; locking up so many people 
for so long is expensive, if nothing else. Much fanfare greeted the 
bipartisan coalition 
of the Koch Brothers and the ACLU, of Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, 
demanding a reduction in the number of people imprisoned. The election 
of Trump generally, and the appointment of Sessions particularly, would 
seem to reverse the already modest criminal justice reforms launched in 
the Obama era.

That even tepid reforms could be so quickly reversed suggests the 
shallowness of inside-the-Beltway commitments to change. Yet, rather 
than a departure from the new spirit of reform, this moment starkly 
illustrates the limited vision and spirit of prison reform itself. 
Notwithstanding Obama’s late-term commutations, then attorney general 
Eric Holder’s deprioritization of some low-level drug offenses, and the 
millions of dollars flowing from both liberal and conservative 
foundations to confront mass incarceration, prison reform has not dented 
America’s role as the world’s leading jailer.

Rather than see these reform efforts as undermined by the rightward push 
of Sessions and Trump, we might better understand them as twinned 
projects of racist state violence. That was certainly the argument 
coming from inside American prisons at the onset of mass incarceration. 
George Jackson, among the most perceptive imprisoned intellectuals of 
the twentieth century, was killed in 1971—two years before the US 
incarceration rate began its hefty four-decade climb. Yet Jackson 
astutely parsed the degrading violence at the core of American 
punishment. Prison was not a foreign country: it was the suffocating air 
that racism and capitalism breathed. His posthumously published book 
/Blood in my Eye/ demonstrated the primacy of the state in any 
consideration of racism, capitalism, and social change. Further, it 
outlined the limits of reformism to contend with the obstacles at hand.

      Rehabilitation and other forms of violence

“Jackson was writing in a different era of punishment, a time when 
‘rehabilitation’ was a driving ethos of 

The problem of prisons exceeds what prominent reformers have thus far 
been willing to entertain. The task requires a step-by-step rethinking 
of US ideas of order. As Jackson wrote in /Blood in my Eye/, “The 
ultimate expression of law is not order—it’s prison.” Written in a San 
Quentin isolation cell and published in 1972, the book is a sharp 
indictment of the US state as the iron fist of racial capitalism 
exemplified in what we would refer to as the carceral state. Jackson was 
writing in a different era of punishment, a time when “rehabilitation” 
was a driving ethos of imprisonment—especially in California. After his 
death—in part /because/ of his death—California traded rehabilitation 
for incapacitation: the point of prison was to get rid of bad guys, 
plain and simple.

Yet for Jackson, who went to prison at age 18 for a petty robbery and 
spent eleven years locked up before his death, the liberal ideal of 
rehabilitation was daily undone by the illiberal violence of 
imprisonment. “Anyone who can pass the civil service examination 
yesterday can kill me tomorrow,” he wrote, as much in memoriam for the 
prisoners he had already seen killed as in fear of his own possible 
fate. “Anyone who passed the civil service examination yesterday can 
kill me today with complete immunity.” Imprisonment was yet another 
manifestation of antiblack racism. “The question I’ve asked myself over 
the years runs this way: Who has done most of the dying? Most of the 
work? Most of the time in prison (on Max Row)? Who is the hindmost in 
every aspect of social, political, and economic life?” The experience 
soured him on the nature of liberal reform itself. “But if one were 
forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for 
all to understand,” Jackson wrote of fascism, “that word would be 

      The oppressive contract

/Blood in my Eye/ is a difficult book. It is the opposite of Jackson’s 
first, /Soledad Brother/, his 1970 book of letters, which remains better 
known and more widely read. Whereas /Soledad Brother/ is tender and 
evocative, almost hopeful, /Blood in my Eye/ is bleak and aggressive. It 
is a call to arms—not just against prison but against the society that 
would create such citadels of violence. The book’s militarism and 
machismo, present from the first page, can be hard to encounter. Its 
dedication, to “black Communist youth” and “their fathers,” pledges to 
“criticize the unjust with the weapon.”

“Whether the rationale was about rehabilitation or incapacitation, the 
solution was the same: more police, more 

Much of the book is an elegy for his 17-year-old brother, who died in 
August 1970 while raiding the Marin County Courthouse. Yet, by the time 
the book had been published, it functioned as a last will and testament 
for its author as well. A small-time armed robber turned proponent of 
communism and revolutionary violence, Jackson was the right-wing 
boogeyman personified. Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, and other 
conservatives wasted no time in turning Jackson’s death into a call for 
greater toughness. Before they were “superpredators,” Black working 
class youth like Jackson were “criminals,” “thugs,” and assorted bad 
guys. Whether the rationale was about rehabilitation or incapacitation, 
the solution was the same: more police, more prisons.

Therein lies the rub. Jackson’s proposed remedies are jarring: the book 
calls for merciless, immediate, and unceasing armed revolt as the 
antidote to white supremacist capitalism. Yet Jackson astutely diagnosed 
imprisonment as the frontline of attack by a racist state. Misguided as 
a strategist, Jackson’s diagnostic skills account for the book’s 
enduring value. In a time when even criminal justice professionals 
opined about the coming abolition of prisons, Jackson documented the 
state’s seemingly limitless capacity to repress. While white and middle 
class elements enjoyed the benefit of a social contract that allowed for 
economic advancement and political participation, Black and other 
colonized people faced what Jackson called “the oppressive contract.” 
Racial capitalism defined the governing pact. “The economic nature of 
racism is not simply an aside.… Racism is a fundamental characteristic 
of monopoly capital. When the white self-congratulatory racist complains 
that the blacks are uncouth, unlettered; that our areas are run-down, 
not maintained; that we dress with loud tastelessness (a thing they now 
also say about their own children), he forgets that he governs.”

      Inequality, degradation, and (carceral) statecraft

Questions of governance and of state formation preoccupied Jackson. What 
scholars have begun theorizing as the carceral state Jackson described 
as the racist capitalist state itself. Its capacity for repression grows 
in tandem with its need to maintain inequality. Racism and capitalism 
cannot be reformed without remaking the state itself. Structured in 
inequality, the American state could only grow more repressive to its 
most unruly subjects. The context of /Blood in my Eye/ is telling. 
Jackson wrote in the immediate aftermath of the civil rights reforms 
that had upended the segregationist state, offering new opportunities to 
African Americans and others. Yet he observed such changes from a prison 
cell, from which he was annually denied parole. The legal system that 
had implemented the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, that had 
rendered miscegenation and housing discrimination illegal, kept a 
growing number of Black and Latinx people in prison. Juridical change 
brokered no grand dreams of freedom.

“By the time the overall incarceration rate began its unprecedented 
four-decade climb in 1973, American prisons were vanguard institutions 
in the reproduction of white 

Jackson was incarcerated in 1960s and killed in 1971. Over those eleven 
years, the /demographics/ of incarceration shifted while the /rate/ of 
incarceration remained roughly the same. In California, Illinois, New 
York, and other states, increasing numbers of Black men were imprisoned 
while fewer white men were. The casualties of deindustrialization and 
hyperpolicing—of economic marginalization and political repression—this 
cohort of Black prisoners entered prisons that were racially segregated 
and witnessing their own variant of massive resistance to civil rights. 
By the time the overall incarceration rate began its unprecedented 
four-decade climb in 1973, American prisons were vanguard institutions 
in the reproduction of white supremacy.

The degraded treatment of racialized bodies preceded and coconstituted 
mass incarceration. At the time /Blood in my Eye/ was published, the 
United States held approximately 250,000 people in all of its prisons 
and jails. Today, there are 206,000 people serving life sentences 
alone—about one-tenth of the 2.2 million people imprisoned around the 
country. Mass incarceration is more than the exponential growth in the 
number of people in prison. It is about the increasingly repressive 
nature of American political life. Part of Jackson’s insight, like those 
of other imprisoned intellectuals of the era, was the recognition that 
prisons were a concentrated expression of state priorities: what 
happened there would happen to the rest of society sooner or later. And 
so the growth in repression can be mapped across a series of vectors: 
employment, housing, education, health care, and more. The criminal 
justice system is at the fulcrum of an expanded American brutalism that 
has of late been most evident in the frequent killing of Black people by 

“Imprisonment is an aspect of class struggle from the outset,” Jackson 
wrote. “It is the creation of a closed society which attempts to isolate 
those individuals who disregard the structures of a hypocritical 
establishment as well as those who attempt to challenge it on a mass 
basis.” The problem, then, was not the size of incarceration, its 
mass-ness, but the scale of degradation that the state enforced. “I 
refuse to make any argument with statistics compiled by the institutions 
and associations that I indict. Yet it is true that even official 
figures prove the case against capitalism. … These statistics [of crime 
and incarceration] conceal the living reality.”

Quoting a letter from his brother, Jackson insisted that “repression 
/exposes/,” it educates. Decades of domestic warfare against communism, 
crime, drugs, gangs, and terror have indeed instructed the American 
populace. For decades, politicians have harvested this education to 
support a dramatically conservative vision that has ultimately brought 
us “career racist 
Jeff Sessions as the nation’s top law enforcement official. Yet 
listening to the victims and survivors, the refugees and orphans, of 
these home-front battles offers other paths. Between his fevered 
fantasies of violent vengeance, Jackson dreamed of a broad coalition—a 
united front—to take on “realistic day-to-day issues like hunger, the 
need for clothing and housing, joblessness,” and imprisonment. Such a 
united front would eradicate racism at its root: in the vicissitudes of 
statecraft and the capitalist political economy it upholds. Jackson died 
likely having never heard of Jeff Sessions or Donald Trump. But he knew 
their agenda, and he knew the terms of engagement 
repression versus redistribution, degradation versus dignity.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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