Connections between power and race create a number of controversial topics in sociology. This is especially true when the issues of crime and punishment are taken into account. In any society, power is allocated not equally and some social institutes, groups of people, parts of the society, or separate individuals might have more power that other. People of different races also have unequal power or at least many people believe that this power is not equal. As far as carceral continuum is concerned, percentages of prisoners of different races are not equal and this raises numerous controversial questions connected with the issues of race and power and the reasons why people of one race tend to commit crimes more often than people of other races. One should understand the concept of power and its role in the society in order to investigate the problems of imprisonment and racial inequality. This paper deals with the issue of power, its mechanisms, and nature. Besides, the paper covers the problem of race and power and describes how power works in or through race.
People have different definitions of what should be considered as a deviation from the norm. Hence, the matter is how individuals and social groups make their definitions prevail. For example, in 1776 the British claimed that George Washington was a traitor; 20 years later he became the president of the United States of America and the founding father of the country. However, if America had lost the war of independence, it is likely that Washington would have been executed or at least would have received a long prison sentence. Who and what are defined as an intruder and deviation from the norm to a large extent depends on the person who gave this definition and in whose hands power is concentrated. In recent years, such styles of behavior as alcoholism and drug abuse, which have traditionally been considered as deviant and criminal, have received new definitions. There is a growing number of people who believe that such behavior styles are medical problems similar to physical illnesses such as ulcer, diabetes, or hypertension. People suffering from such disorders (alcoholics and drug addicts) are placed in hospitals where they receive treatment prescribed by doctors.
To ensure that all is going on as usual in the world, people have to follow rules. The social order requires adherence to general rules, at least, by the majority of people. Without the existence of the social order, human interaction would have become a real problem and expectations of people would have lost their sense. The society strives to make actions and behavior of its members consistent with basic social norms by means of social control, including methods and strategies that determine the behavior of people in the society. Different scholars evaluate the role of social control differently. Some of them consider social control (primarily expressed in legal acts) as a necessary requirement without which the survival of the society is impossible. If people refused to follow the social standards of behavior, this would lead to the malfunction and disorder of social institutions. For this reason, they believe that chaos is an alternative to social control. Their opponents claim that social control is carried out by social groups that have maximum power and no social structure can be neutral. Such scholars state that social institutions that possess power unfairly distribute benefits among different individuals, using the mechanisms of social control for self-preservation.
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Sometimes, deviant behavior can also contribute to the effective functioning of the society. Firstly, deviation can stimulate people to follow rules established by individuals or social groups with maximum power because one of the most effective ways to ensure adherence to the standards by the majority of people is to claim that some people are norm violators. This allows one to keep the rest in submission and at the same time in fear of being in the place of the offenders. The majority of people or a powerful social group shows hostility to those individuals who are not good and right enough to reinforce the idea of what is good and right, thus creating the society of individuals that is more obedient and loyal to their ideology and rules of behavior.
One should distinguish between the definition of power and a subjective attitude to politics. Power constructs social reality, yet not according to a previously developed plan, but involuntarily in accordance with its social nature. In any case, the rationale attitude to the future does not play a significant role in this process. First of all, political power is not heterogeneous in terms of both law and its sense. Secondly, political power places itself in the network of social relations and regularly faces resistance, which changes the form of power. Thirdly, politics as the main field of power overlaps with such fields as economy and culture, which play important roles in the mechanisms of power. Social scholars believe that the development of a non-confrontational system of power is a challenging task, which may lead to a number of unpredictable results.
The law is a key element of social control in the majority of modern societies. In contrast to informal norms such as folk customs and morals, laws are normative acts of the supreme body of state power. Crime is a form of deviant behavior, which has reached the degree of social danger defined by the criminal law. Therefore, an action would be considered as criminal if the government formulates and accepts this in its laws. However, the common feature of all crimes is that an individual not always considers them to be immoral or evil. For example, during the period of Prohibition the majority of Americans believed that purchase and sale of alcoholic beverages was not a crime. A distinctive feature of a crime is the fact that individuals who violate the law can be arrested, tried, found guilty, and deprived of their liberty, property, and even life. They are often likely to be treated by a complex social criminal justice system, including the police, prosecutors, courts, and prisons.
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Almost every American has watched at least one television crime series. The majority of them have a similar plot: some negative characters commit a serious crime; hero of the series – a police officer or a detective – examines the evidence and find suspects; the prosecutor claims that the negative characters are guilty; the judge and the jury do their duty; and, finally, the criminals are sent to prison. However, in reality the situation is quite different.
For example, according to the statistics from the US Bureau of Justice, only 33 are reported to the police out of every 100 criminal offenses committed in the country. Of these 33, only six crimes are solved, leading to the arrest of the suspect. Of the six arrested, only three are brought to the court and receive a verdict. Out of these three, only one criminal is sent to a prison. The other two cases are rejected due to the problems with the evidence or witnesses or instead of prison the perpetrator is sent to a medical institution. Of those offenders who are sent to prison, more than a half receives the sentence that is less than five years. However, the average prisoner is released after approximately two years (Vander Zanden, 1990. p. 138). In terms of power and race, the task of sociology is to define whether a social group of people of one race has power to decide what actions and behavior of people of other race is considered to be criminal and deviant, while such behavior is regarded as normal when it originates from the people of the race that possesses more power in the society.
Becky Pettit and Bruce Western (2004) in their paper “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration” deal with the issues of imprisonment, race, and power. They state that over the last twenty five years there has been a significant growth in the number of people sent to prisons. Nevertheless, according to the authors, there is little evidence about the racial equality among prisoners. They have investigated differences in risks of becoming a convict for both white and black people with different levels of education. Pettit and Western (2004) have come to the conclusion that black people tend to be sent to prison much more often than white people. Moreover, the authors state that there is a correlation between the risks of incarceration and the level of education. The link between these two factors is causal: people with a low level of education end up in prisons more often than people with college or university education. The authors provide statistical data to prove their findings. Pettit and Western (2004) suggest that over the last thirty years such race and class inequality has increased.
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This may be due to the fact that the opportunity gap has expanded and nowadays even in big cities there are fewer possibilities for people from the lower stages of the socioeconomic ladder. The authors call prisons “the life course stage” that alters the life of an individual, preventing him or her from playing traditional social roles. Pettit and Western (2004) state that: “More strikingly than patterns of military enlistment, marriage, or college graduation, prison time differentiates the young adulthood of black men from the life course of most others” (p. 165). They say that wage equalities between educated and less educated people create social tension, which leads to increased crime rate and other social problems. Moreover, according to the authors, imprisonment is not a personal experience, but a social trait that influences the life course of black men.
Ben Kuebrich (2015) also deals with the issues of racial inequality and imprisonment in the essay “‘White Guys Who Send My Uncle to Prison’: Going Public within Asymmetrical Power”. In the essay, the author analyses the way how researchers and other people defend their points of view when the power imparities are concerned and what rhetoric they use to insist on their opinion. Kuebrich (2015) provides examples of the police usage of power and violence against citizens and protesters. He refers to the social power held by the police, mentioning the concept of “civil rhetoric”. Kuebrich (2015) cites Bonaparte who “addresses commonly held perceptions of local residents that push the boundaries of acceptable public discourse on police and other power holders in the ‘criminal justice’ system by renaming them ‘white guys who send my uncle to prison’”. Bonaparte uses such name to make people understand that he wrote his article not to show how he “hate cops”, but to demonstrate that the power is distributed not equally and that the policing norms should be changed taking into account the issues of race and class. Nevertheless, there is no need to think that the author suggests some radical changes in policies or total denunciation of their practices. He also does not dramatize the power of the police and other social institutions connected with power and justice. He states that maintaining social order requires more and more control and it prevents people from expressing their opinions and taking part in social life. Kuebrich (2015) is convinced that more open space and cooperation are needed to distribute the power in the society more equally, taking into account needs of people of different races and with different socioeconomic statuses.
Jamie Bennett (2013) in her article “Race and Power: The Potential and Limitations of Prison-Based Democratic Therapeutic Communities” also investigates the problem of racial inequality and imprisonment. The author states that race and prison are connected in many countries, including England, Wales, and the United States. In all countries, minority groups are presented in prisons not in accordance with their number comparatively with the percentage of people who make up the racial majority. Besides, racial and ethnic minorities face a higher risk of being imprisoned as it is indicated in the paper by Pettit and Western. Bennet (2013) describes democratic community prisons as an alternative to the traditional imprisonment: “while therapeutic communities do not provide a utopian answer to the structural problems of race and power, they do offer the potential for a more sensitive internal environment and enable individuals to act with conscious and considered agency in their own lives” (130).
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The author states that overrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in prisons might be caused by a deeper social exclusion and marginalization faced by them. Another reason is social prejudice and negative stereotypes connected with race, which also affect the system of justice. In the article, Bennet (2013) refers to an interesting work by American scholar Loic Wacquant who wrote about the issues of race and power in the history of the United States. He calls the mass imprisonment of Black people the fourth manifestation of “America’s “peculiar institution” (p.133). He also describes the first three manifestations, claiming that slavery was the first one. It was followed by racial segregation implemented by the authorities. The third manifestation, according to Wacquant, was “the ghettoization of urban populations in economically deprived and socially precarious, self-contained communities” (p. 133). Similarly to Pettit and Western, Wacquant states that the main danger of mass imprisonment and racialized power is the fact that imprisonment becomes a part of the life course of young Black men across generations, affecting single individuals and the society in general. Bennett (2013) states that racial and ethnic minorities are very often stigmatized and are controlled by the society more thoroughly, as a result being sent to prisons. This is often the result of not only social and economic factors, but also of historical factors, for example, colonialism and slavery, as it happened in the United States. Racialized power and imprisonment create a vicious circle for racial minorities that cannot deal with the labels of criminals that the society places on them. Moreover, Bennett (2013) deals with the problems of race and identity. She provides the evidence from works of other sociologists to demonstrate that imprisonment becomes a part of the identity of Black minorities, penetrating into popular culture and street culture. Of course, according to Bennett (2013), different people behave differently, but such traits definitely affect individuals, especially the young and the weaker-minded.
Jacobs, Malone, and Iles (2012), the authors of the article “Race and Imprisonments: Vigilante Violence, Minority Threat, and Racial Politics”, examine the connection between lynching and criminal justice outcomes and the link between race and incarceration. Jacobs et al. (2012) use a lot of statistical data, showing that the growth in the number of Black people leads to an increased number of Black prisoners. Jacobs et al. (2012) also describe an interesting phenomenon: “after the percentage of blacks reaches a substantial threshold—and the potential black vote becomes large enough to begin to reduce these harsh punishments— reductions in prison admissions occur” (p. 166). They are convinced that this also shows the link between politics and racialization of power. Jacobs et al. (2012) conclude that lynching continues influencing punitive practices even nowadays. The authors have found that states where lynching has been quite common have higher imprisonment rates than those states where lynching is rare. The article refers to history and claims that the authorities have always tried to control poor Whites and Black people. Nowadays, this process has only taken a more legal form. Thus, the findings of Jacobs et al. (2012) support the ideas of Wacquant who also wrote about the role of imprisonment in the modern history. The authors mention the fact that the incarceration rate in the US is higher than in other world democracies and suggest that this might be connected with the racial issues. Jacobs et al. (2012) quote Wacquant to prove that one of the functions of the US judicial system and criminal justice is to separate the Black underclass from the middle-class Whites. Such system combined with stereotypes has created economic and social isolation of the lower class Black people. According to Jacobs et al. (2012), over the recent years punishments for relatively minor crimes such as, for example, street crime have become more severe and people are sent to prison more often. This is a gradual process, which leads to the growth in the number of Black convicts. The authors use historical research and statistical data to arrive at the conclusion that racial discrimination and segregation have existed since the 19th century, but the methods of their implementation have changed. Lower class Black people are still economically isolated and politically powerless due to a variety of factors, one of which includes incarceration and racial inequalities connected with it.
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The article “Criminal Stigma, Race, and Ethnicity: The Consequences of Imprisonment for Employment” by Decker, Ortiz, Spohn, and Hedberg (2015) evaluates the link between race and being in prison with employment opportunities. The research has been carried out in the city of Phoenix, AZ, where the rate of imprisonment for Black people is high. Decker et al. (2015) have compared the data on the employment of both White and Black people who applied for jobs both in-person and online. The authors have also compared resumes of people of different races. The results of the research are quite surprising. Decker et al. (2015) have found out that neither race nor the experience of being in prison affected the results of online application process. Nevertheless, when an applicant tried to apply for a job in-person, these both factors played a significant role. This might be explained by the fact that people who receive online resumes pay less attention to their text. This might seem to be a good opportunity for ex-convicts to find a job, but in reality the perspectives are not so bright because acceptance of online applications typically leads to an in-person interview. According to the research conducted by the authors of the article, the results of such interviews are not very favorable for former Black and Hispanic prisoners. According to Decker et al. (2015), “Having a criminal record and being a black or Hispanic job applicant had the predicted negative effects on applicants’ job prospects” (p. 116). The connection between application and past prison experience was especially significant for Black people. Thus, the authors have come to the conclusion that race and being in prison influence the opportunity to receive a job and to become a proper law-abiding member of the society. This contributes to the expansion of the opportunity gap between low class Blacks and middle class Whites, which increases the crime rate and consequently the imprisonment rate for Blacks because unemployment is not the only problem faced by former prisoners. Another significant problem found by Decker et al. (2015) is that the level of education does not influence job prospects of racial minorities:
Although education may be thought to reduce the effect of a prison record, and make applicants more successful, we didn’t find any evidence to support such an effect. This suggests that the “mark” of a criminal record trumps many other positive features of an ex-prisoner’s record and continues to slow his/her successful re-entry to society. (p. 116)
Nevertheless, the results of the research might be a little less pessimistic because jobs chosen for the study were those where a college diploma was not required.
In conclusion, this paper has dealt with racial inequalities relating to the number of prisoners of different races and the racialization of power. Moreover, it has described the mechanisms of power connected with the issue of race. The paper refers to some works of social scholars to support these conclusions. It shows that the number of Black convicts is higher than the number of White prisoners and that there is a causal link between the level of education and imprisonment. People with a low level of education face a higher risk of going to prison. Moreover, incarceration becomes a part of the life course of Black people, preventing them from becoming law-abiding citizens, good parents, and family members. Besides, the paper states that the experience of being in prison penetrates into various aspects of popular and street culture and even becomes a part of Black people’s identity, affecting the young and weaker-minded individuals. Moreover, former prisoners suffer from the repercussions of their incarceration. They face a range of social and economic problems. It has been revealed that Black and Hispanic individuals who have experience of being in prison have fewer opportunities to find a job than those who have never been in prison. Other factors such as higher education do not make a difference in such cases, which shows that the society stigmatizes such individuals, leading to their social and economic isolation. The opportunity gap between lower class Blacks and middle class Whites has been growing, resulting in a variety of negative effects. Some scholars, for example, Jacobs et al. and Wacquant believe that there is a connection between the current situation with racial inequalities in terms of incarceration and the history of the United States. They claim that due to various historical phenomena such as slavery, racial segregation, immigration, colonization, and others racial minorities have always been controlled and exploited. Centuries ago, this control was performed with the help of violence and oppression. Nowadays, social groups that possess power also control racial minorities and hamper their development, but the methods have changed. The system of justice, which exists in the US, is a new tool that helps to control racial minorities. The overrepresentation of racial minorities in prisons might show that the criminal justice system is biased and influenced by negative racial stereotypes, as well as the majority of the US citizens. Moreover, the reports show that these negative social tensions have been intensifying.