Self examination for a nation of jailers

Brown University economist Glenn Loury on race and incarceration rates in the U.S.:

It is a central reality of our time that a wide racial gap has opened up in cognitive skills, the extent of law-abidingness, stability of family relations, and attachment to the work force. This is the basis, many would hold, for the racial gap in imprisonment. Yet I maintain that this gap in human development is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, social, and cultural factors peculiar to this society and reflective of its unlovely racial history. That is to say, it is a societal, not communal or personal, achievement. At the level of the individual case we must, of course, act as if this were not so. There could be no law, and so no civilization, absent the imputation to persons of responsibility for their wrongful acts. But the sum of a million cases, each one rightly judged fairly on its individual merits, may nevertheless constitute a great historic wrong. This is, in my view, now the case in regards to the race and social class disparities that characterize the very punitive policy that we have directed at lawbreakers. And yet, the state does not only deal with individual cases. It also makes policies in the aggregate, and the consequences of these policies are more or less knowable. It is in the making of such aggregate policy judgments that questions of social responsibility arise.

This situation raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid. We cannot pretend that there are more important problems in our society, or that this circumstance is the necessary solution to other, more pressing problems — unless we are also prepared to say that we have turned our backs on the ideal of equality for all citizens and abandoned the principles of justice. We ought to be asking ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens — even those who break our laws?
...
This punitive turn in the nation’s social policy is intimately connected, I would maintain, with public rhetoric about responsibility, dependency, social hygiene, and the reclamation of public order. And such rhetoric, in turn, 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....the racially disparate incidence of punishment in the United States is a morally troubling residual effect of the nation’s history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination. It is not merely the accidental accretion of neutral state action, applied to a racially divergent social flux. It is an abhorrent expression of who we Americans are as a people, even now, at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

Read it all in Cato Unbound.

Comments (1)

This is an interesting article, but I must take exception to the author's statement that a racial gap "has opened up" in cognitive skills, etc. Nothing has "opened up." The racial gaps have always been with us as a result of our tragic history of slavery, etc. There has never been a time in American history where these gaps did not exist in about the same form as they now do.

A more accurate statement is that, after a period of some (but tenuous) progress, the gaps are widening again. We are still centuries away from the day when the color of one's skin will not be a predictor of one's social, economic and educational status.

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