Not Women for the Women’s Movement, Not Black for the Racial Movement: A Critical Race Critique on Mass Incarceration and the External Effects on the Women Left at Home
With over 2.2 million people in America currently behind bars, the United States is in the midst of a national epidemic of its own making. This vast incarceration rate represents a multitude of people imprisoned for non-violent crimes. In fact, approximately half a million people are in prison or in jail for a drug offense and have no history of violence. The epidemic disproportionately affects people of color, as “one in ten black males in his thirties” is incarcerated on any particular day, despite the fact that whites are just as likely to use drugs.
Mass incarceration has increasingly negative effects on the families of those imprisoned. Men and women tend to marry within the same age, race, and geographic location. This phenomenon, a facet of the social exchange theory, demonstrates that by calling for higher rates of incarceration for low-level crimes, which removes men from a particular demographic, our society is effectively disadvantaging women from these same demographics. This problem is especially damaging considering our society’s propensity to engage in a combination of hyper-aggressive police tactics and selective law enforcement. This proclivity results in men from select economically disadvantaged neighborhoods being locked up at staggering rates, as these men are most likely to commit crimes of necessity as well as the most likely to be subject to fundamentally racist practices. Thus, women from these neighborhoods are less likely to wed or to start dual income families due to the lowered gender ratio, which contributes to a rise in illegitimacy, or children born out of wedlock, within these neighborhoods. Further, men outside the prison walls experience an increase in sexual bargaining power as women have fewer spousal options. Illegitimacy can also be a woman’s choice, as the negative externalities of mass incarceration, including shared barriers to employment, housing, and federal financial aid disincentivize mothers to marry. Irrespective of the reason, illegitimacy is often accompanied by a stigma in our society. This stigmatization frequently results in the vilifying of black single mothers in the media, the courts, or the community, as these women are the most significantly effected by the mass incarceration epidemic. This stigmatization can also fuel racist stereotypes, thereby causing contemporary devaluation of these women and further institutionalizing racism within our society.
The feminist movement’s general approach to crime has historically been to call for lengthier sentences and increased jail time. In order to overcome misguided perceptions of feminists as incarceration advocates and to unite all women in the shared goal of societal reform, feminists must instead affirmatively restructure their approach to crime to attack the war on drugs and combat the obstacles that those re-entering society after incarceration face.