Glenn Loury's recent article in the Boston Review of Books surpasses even his own past writings in its racial silliness. Indeed, he says so many wonderfully inane things that it's difficult to decide what to talk about and what to pass over. Since the gravamen of the piece is the high number of prison inmates in U.S. penal institutions and the disproportionately high number of African-Americans among them, perhaps we should start with that:
[O]ur incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.
So what is to be concluded from this? That we should let people out of jail? That we are incarcerating people unjustly? Mr. Loury lets the facts hang unexplained, but it seems reasonable to think that if we have such a high incarceration rate it's because we have a more serious crime problem in the U.S. than do the other countries he cites.
Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens.
What does he mean by this innuendo? Does he mean to suggest that the U. S. is unjust because we imprison so many people? But, if so, what is inherently unjust in keeping criminals off the streets? If they're guilty of crime, if they're a threat to the well-being of their communities, then why shouldn't they be in prison? Loury doesn't tell us.
Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring than it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why?
Why is it cruel? What makes it so? Well, it appears it's cruel because so many inmates are black.
The question has no simple answer, but the racial composition of prisons is a good place to start. The punitive turn in the nation's social policy-intimately connected with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order-can be fully grasped only when viewed against the backdrop of America's often ugly and violent racial history: there is a reason why our inclination toward forgiveness and the extension of a second chance to those who have violated our behavioral strictures is so stunted, and why our mainstream political discourses are so bereft of self-examination and searching social criticism. This historical resonance between the stigma of race and the stigma of imprisonment serves to keep alive in our public culture the subordinating social meanings that have always been associated with blackness. Race helps to explain why the United States is exceptional among the democratic industrial societies in the severity and extent of its punitive policy and in the paucity of its social-welfare institutions.
Ah, yes. For a certain sort of thinker race defines everything. The fact that we have so many black males in our prisons is a result of our nation's racist heritage, opines Mr. Loury. One might be forgiven, however, for suspecting that blacks are disproportionately represented in our prisons because they are disproportionately responsible for crime, and that they're disproportionately responsible for crime because of the corrosive effect that liberal social policies instituted in the 60s and 70s has had on the American underclass, especially underclass families. But Mr. Loury seems disinclined to consider this possibility since it's nowhere mentioned in his essay.
As for second chances, surely Mr. Loury knows that very few people in prison today are there for a first offense unless it was a felony. Almost every one of today's inmates has been given a dozen chances before they were sentenced to serious time in prison, but chances to go straight are, in the eyes of many criminals, merely chances to commit more crime. So they continue their felonies and misdemeanors until finally the judicial system wearies of their sociopathology and sentences them to jail, at which point the Mr. Lourys of the world wail about the lack of second chances.
High drug-usage rates in white, middle-class American communities in the early 1980s accounts for the urgency many citizens felt to mount a national attack on the problem.
Now this raises an interesting point. We attacked the problem of drug abuse only, Loury suggests, because white communities were suffering. Perhaps so, but what does that mean? Perhaps it means that white communities, seeing the threat to their well-being, took action to try to end the threat. They mobilized to pass laws and ordinances to reduce the scourge of drugs in their neighborhoods.
There's nothing stopping black communities from doing the same thing. Mr. Loury apparently thinks that blacks are helpless by themselves and need white action to solve their problems. Unless the impetus for change starts in the neighborhoods of those most affected by crime it will only fester and worsen. Unfortunately, those communities beset by the ravages of drugs are precisely those communities which are so dysfunctional in other ways that they have simply acquiesced to this plague as well. It has nothing inherently to do with black and white. It has everything to do with values.
Incarceration keeps them away from us. Thus Garland: "The prison is used today as a kind of reservation, a quarantine zone in which purportedly dangerous individuals are segregated in the name of public safety."
And this is bad? Who is it that black criminals are quarantined from? It's people in the black communities who must otherwise live in fear of these thugs, brutes, and savages. Ask the people who would be most affected whether they want predators hanging out on their street corners till all hours of the morning. I suspect most of them are pretty darn glad there's a quarantine zone.
Our society-the society we have made-creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.
Here's another popular meme: It's not the fault of the people who commit crimes, it's society's fault. We've made them to be what they are by creating the conditions which spawn criminals. Well, perhaps he's not entirely wrong about this. The welfare state, by destroying families and replacing fathers with the government sugar-daddy all but guaranteed that two generations of young males would grow up fatherless and with no positive male guidance in their lives. The one trait that almost all criminals in our prisons share in common is not race, it's fatherlessness.
Add to the welfare state the effect of no fault divorce, relaxed standards of sexuality, the widespread acceptance of cohabitation and the erosion of the restraints of traditional religion and we have precisely the ingredients for the "criminogenic" society Mr. Loury deplores. If Mr. Loury is really outraged at black incarceration rates he should be writing to blast the Left for the legacy bequeathed us by the social experiments of the sixties and seventies.
So put yourself in John Rawls's original position and imagine that you could occupy any rank in the social hierarchy. Let me be more concrete: imagine that you could be born a black American male outcast shuffling between prison and the labor market on his way to an early death to the chorus of nigger or criminal or dummy. Suppose we had to stop thinking of us and them. What social rules would we pick if we actually thought that they could be us?
This is easy. Give me the same social rules and constraints we had before LBJ's Great Society. Give me policies which strengthen families, value fathers, and support churches and most of the "criminogenic conditions" will shrink and shrivel to below post-WWII levels. Meanwhile, put those who persist in committing crimes in jail and keep them there. That's what I would want were I placed behind the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance," and I can't imagine how else anyone would answer that question.RLC