Mass incarceration is and always has been inextricably connected to race and class. Poor people, people of color, and particularly poor people of color have served as cannon fodder for an exploitative system since before the abolition of slavery. In the late 1700s the incarceration of black people began to rise in the North while black people were still shackled, owned, and legally constituted as property in the South.
THE UNTOLD STORY OF BLACK WOMEN
Seminal texts on mass incarceration have a glaring blind spot. While the most acclaimed books have masterfully documented the experience, systemic plight, and oppression of black men, they have simultaneously—even if inadvertently—erased black women’s tumultuous history of being racially profiled and incarcerated in mass.
In 2003, Angela Davis named this oversight in her book Are Prisons Obsolete?, claiming that public discussions about the American prison system have historically left women out.* The history of the criminalization of black women must be lifted up in any legitimate effort to understand the roots of mass incarceration.
Free black women in the North—during the era of slavery—worked primarily as domestics in white homes, which made them extremely vulnerable to sexual assault and accusations of theft.
Consequently, the history of African American women’s incarceration begins with larceny, and this history starts before the abolition of slavery. When black women were charged with stealing from white families, they were issued some of the harshest sentences handed down by the criminal system. According to historian Kali Nicole Gross, at that time, black women in Philadelphia constituted approximately 50 percent of the female prisoners, while black men constituted approximately 30 percent of male prisoners. This is at a time when blacks made up less than a quarter of the city’s total population. **
Immediately following the Emancipation Proclamation, this targeting proved to be true in other parts of the nation as well, in both the North and South. According to Gross, there was a great disparity between the incarceration rates of black women and black men through the early twentieth century. Illinois, a state notorious for its disproportionate incarceration rates, serves as a prime illustration, particularly with regard to felony offenses. During the decade slavery was abolished—the 1860s—the population of Illinois was 2 percent black, but 15 percent of female felons and 7 percent of male felons were black.
Those numbers rose throughout the twentieth century to extreme levels—by the 1960s, when blacks made up 11 percent of the population, black women made up 70 percent of female felons, and black men made up 46 percent of male felons. While Illinois is distinguished by its elongated history of disproportionate incarceration rates, it is not an aberration. In fact, the state’s statistics do not sharply diverge from national trends. The over representation of black people within our criminal justice system is not a new reality that emerged because of the drug war (although these disparities worsened during this
era)—this trend predates the abolition of slavery.
Another harsh reality is that black women have been consistently incarcerated for defending themselves from assault, both sexual and physical. These arrests began right after the Emancipation Proclamation, as recently liberated black women sought to enforce their newfound freedom by thwarting the sexual violence of white men who previously “owned” them and were therefore legally entitled to prey on their bodies whenever they wished.
Whether it be the woman arrested and tried for murder after fatally stabbing an intoxicated man who was attempting to sexually assault her on a streetcar in Philadelphia in 1919, or Marissa Alexander, the woman who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot into the air when confronted and threatened by her abusive former husband (whom she had a restraining order against), there is a long, troublesome history of incarcerating black women for simply practicing their legal right of self-defense.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Dominique Gilliard. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
* Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories, 2003), 60.
**Kali Nicole Gross, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection,” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (2015): 25-33, doi:10.1093/jahist/jav226. Gross’s article informs much of this section.