Angela Davis has written and lectured extensively on a variety of historical, social, and political issues. This 2008 talk is a great introduction for anyone who would like to learn more about race as it relates to our proclivity for incarcerating people by the millions here in the United States.
As someone who has taught in a state prison, I’ve thought a lot about a number of the concerns that she raises in this lecture. For example, a majority of the 13 million people who enter and exit some level of the penal system each year are people of color. Moreover, the practice of removing someone from society by itself does not teach an individual what he or she needs be a productive citizen upon release. Consequently, inmates too often experience a “civil death” because they are not reincorporated into the communities from which they came. All of this is very important for us to reflect upon if we have any intention of reevaluating how we address criminal behavior.
However, her most profound argument involves the connection between slavery and the current prison system. Davis acknowledges the advancements that have been made in society (e.g. abolition of the slave trade, 13th Amendment, Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965), but asks: “What about the whole scaffolding of racist ideology?” that persists today despite the commonly cited benchmarks of progress. Racism once manifested itself as the institution of slavery, but now it does so in the form of mass incarceration. In addition, this is further complicated by the fact that “prisons thrive on inequality” and hide social ills from us because sentencing people is much easier than determining what is wrong with them.
Beyond the ideology of racism, the relationship between our brand of democracy and capitalism allows the prison system to grow. Private companies see the opportunity to take advantage of incarceration rates, thereby leading to increased privatization of facilities and massive profits. The more time, energy, and money diverted toward prison building (both public and private), the less attention that is paid to other important issues like schools and employment. Furthermore, our system becomes a model for other countries.
While Davis thoroughly examines the intersection of race and incarceration, she really needs to explain more about what can be done to counter the problem. Yes, challenging people to rethink our conception and practice of democracy is important, but the list of suggestions that she briefly mentions at the end (e.g. living wage) must be explored in greater depth. People can rely upon their imaginations to visualize new approaches, however providing them with more direction is imperative when it comes to complex issues like this.
Davis has long been an influential scholar. Her work challenges you to reconsider what you know about race because her analysis of ideology and institutions is unlike any other.