A Sociological Look at Race and Incarceration

Nafiza Hasan | Contributing Writer

When we look at the percentage of the global population that resides in the United States which is five percent, and the percentage of the globes incarcerated population in the United States that is twenty-five percent, any person can see that there is clearly an issue regarding imprisonment in America’s society. When we look at the statistics, we find at no surprise that people of color are the most likely to get searched, arrested, detained, and imprisoned, specifically blacks and Hispanics according to an article, “Americans Divided on Priorities for Criminal Justice System” by Justin McCarthy at gallup.com.

A large part of this is because of the social forces around races that were created back when slavery was abolished and later on when the war on drugs was first introduced. History gives us a better understanding of how and why situations happening today came to be. Because of America’s history with the war on drugs that targeted black people, we see a large cause as to why for each 100,000 people in the United States, 716 of them are imprisoned, leaving the U.S the country with the highest prison population in the world according to a “World Prison Population List” by Roy Walmsley, the Director of the World Prison Brief at prisonstudies.org.

Many people believe that those who engage in deviant behavior such as dealing drugs or joining gangs choose to do those things because they want to, that they put it upon themselves to be in those situations and as a result, deserve to be imprisoned. Sociology helps us understand how mass incarceration is not a personal trouble that people from poor communities of color, the most targeted, inflict upon themselves but rather an issue society has placed them in through decades of instilled fear towards people of color.

Mass incarceration stems from a long history of discrimination. Though, it is true that you may only be affected by institutional racism if you are a person of color, it remains an issue because such a large population of its society is affected by it and has no control in the matter. Rather than a trouble, which is a personal problem that can be solved as long as the individual puts in effort to fix the situation, no one person can fix the mass incarceration problem regardless of how hard they try.

A person studying sociology, the scientific study of human activity in a society, would most likely make an argument that this issue of mass incarceration stems back to the 1980s where one of the first social forces towards African Americans was created. Social forces are anything that humans create to persuade people to do and think certain things. From the Richard Nixon era to Bill Clinton’s candidates and the government did everything they could to promote societal fear against people of color who were deemed a threat to society because of their use of drugs. When crack cocaine was first introduced, cocaine was associated with sophistication, what white people took while crack was what black people were taking. Though these drugs should have been treated the same, candidates wanted society to view people taking crack as criminals, promising to lock them up and get these criminals off the streets to gain votes.

Ava Duvernay’s film, “13th” shows that the system enforced a law making sure that any person caught with crack would receive extremely heavy sentences. Mass amounts of black men in their communities disappeared as a result of getting arrested and sentenced, leaving families without fathers, one of the many reasons why communities such as those, to put it simply, have struggled to get better. This was only the beginning of the arrangement set to have drug offenses equal jail time.

According to Peter Wagner and Bernadette Rabuy at prisonpolicy.org, their article, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2016” shows one in five individuals that are imprisoned today are there on nonviolent drug offenses; the very assumption that individuals have set a path for themselves to become the “criminal” that is presented on television and news outlets is a gross oversight to how complex the issue truly is. The sociological imagination is one theory that helps sociologists comprehend this complexity.

The sociological imagination is a quality of mind that allows individuals to realize how their everyday life is shaped from impersonal social forces. It is considered that if the person or group affected by the social forces had no part in creating them, is it remote and impersonal; white people, especially those who have a high political social status, are the ones who created the association of people of color with drugs and crime, instilling the fear towards them. African Americans never had a part in this social force, making its effect on them and other minorities, impersonal and remote.

A child that grew up without a father can think that this shape their life but not realize that more things come into play such as why or how that kid grew up with their parent in jail and how it will affect their life while in turn affecting the community in which that child lives. For example, to compensate for the lack of an adult in that child’s life, he or she could turn to joining a gang for emotional support or turning to dealing drugs as a way of making money, leaving the community in the same cycle it has been in since the beginning.

To understand the way modern day society functions, whether it be with troubles and issues or social forces, an understanding of history needs to be set. Without history, we would never be able to understand, expand, and progress in societies. Future research on this topic could include ways in which society should no longer look at drugs as a way to put people in prison but rather a way to help individuals, families, and communities who suffer from the consequences that drugs impose on lives.

A unique observation made was the way in which almost all convictions are a result of plea bargains and how lots of times individuals are told that instead of trying to fight for their innocence, they should plead guilty for a lighter sentence instead of risking being found guilty and getting a heavier sentence according to law professors, Paul Bergman and Sara Berman, at nolo.com. An armchair sociologist might say this topic is troublesome. After digging in, it is obvious that much more is at play, more people are affected than we think, and this issue is hurting society in certain communities greater than we can grasp.