Summaries From Publications about Race, Justice, and Inequality

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The following are two abstracts that discuss social problems related to unequal treatment of members of the public by the justice system and by the voting systems and regulations in some states.

Proceeding from the belief that people learn how to participate in civic life through civic engagement, Lerman and Weaver argue that US criminal justice policies represent a serious threat to democracy. While other scholars have focused on the democratic consequences of incarceration-related disenfranchisement, Lerman and Weaver are concerned with how citizens' perceptions of themselves in relation to the state and the polity are shaped by interaction with multiple facets of the criminal justice system, from police questioning to imprisonment. Because people construct narratives about the nature of government and their own agency through everyday encounters with the state (e.g. in the context of schooling or social services), the design of political institutions and social programs matters; interaction with these entities shapes participation in civic life, which in turn helps people to develop democratic skills and values. The authors demonstrate that black and brown citizens in urban neighborhoods increasingly encounter the state through a criminal justice system that is insulated from public intervention(64, 242). The authors insist that this is not just a problem for isolated groups. The number of custodial citizens, that is, citizens whose lives have been touched by the criminal justice system in some way, has grown beyond what could be considered marginal due to incarceration of minor offenders as well as new policies that lower the threshold for police contact (e.g. walking in a high-crime area can trigger a stop), dramatically increasing contact between the criminal justice system and citizens who are never found guilty of a crime (32).

Policies such as stop and frisk, for instance, have led to black New Yorkers being stopped at a rate 340 times that of whites even though police find no evidence of wrongdoing in 95% of these cases (43). This produces two groups of citizens with very different sets of everyday experiences: those (primarily poor and black) individuals for whom criminal justice contact is a nearly expected part of life, and those (largely white and middle-class) individuals for whom contact with the criminal justice system remains a fairly uncommon occurrence (56). The authors argue that frequent police contact divorced from criminal behavior is punitive regardless of the quality of the interaction. Yet they also point out that for black and brown residents of urban neighborhoods, contact with the criminal justice system is both frequent and frequently demeaning. The authors show that the everyday experiences of custodial citizens produce a certain kind of civic learning. They find that the views of custodial citizens are distinct from the views of others who share similar social and economic characteristics, and that these views are rarely expressed through political action. Rather than passive disengagement, adversarial encounters with the criminal justice system lead many of these citizens to actively avoid public engagement due to a deep fear of interactions with political authorities and an abiding anxiety about a government that seems both all-powerful and primarily punitive (214). In the words of one black New Orleanian:

I used to like hanging out in the streets but I know one thing, now when I get up for work, I got to get up and go straight home, walk my dog. You know, just walking or watch TV, that¹s the best shot I have to survive. That's the best shot... I can't even stop- I can¹t even get off and just ride with my car on the city, just enjoying the sight. I'm asking for disaster. So, my way to work with the government is to put myself in a ... got me a big TV, I just like my house. I got to tell myself, I like my house more than I like the jail (117).

Lerman and Weaver argue that through encounters with the criminal justice system, people unlearn citizenship (110). While custodial citizens constructed two different narratives to describe their relationship with the government (one rooted in racial oppression, and the other in personal responsibility), neither one provided the basis for coming together with other citizens to address the problems associated with their experiences of the criminal justice system (16). Instead, racially differentiated and punitive civic lessons create a growing group of people who occupy both an objectively and subjectively subordinate position in the democratic community (230), whose views are absent from the pluralist cacophony of American political life (233), and whose own civic skills remain undeveloped (231). In order to facilitate civic engagement and collective action, the authors suggest proactively bringing custodial citizens back into the democratic project by restoring suffrage for those whose voting have been denied due to a criminal record and by developing neighborhood-based programs devoted to connecting previously incarcerated citizens with civil society (239-240). But more stridently, they recommend policy reforms that would make the criminal justice system more transparent, equitable, and citizen-responsive, in order to create new kinds of environments for civic learning.


Wacquant, Loic. Race as Civic Felony. International Social Science Journal 183 (2005): 127-142.

Wacquant reviews the historical association of blackness with social and political threat in the United States and the legacy of systematic exclusion of African Americans from the body politic. Wacquant¹s central concept is the civic death experienced by citizens who are or have been incarcerated. While these individuals remain citizens of the United States, they are cut off from many benefits and privileges available to other citizens. Three aspects of civic death are outlined by Wacquant. First, prisoners are denied access to institutionalized cultural capital (130). In this case, cultural capital refers primarily to opportunities for higher education by exclusion from federal financial assistance. Even when experts and enforcement officials within the criminal justice system cite the importance of education in reducing recidivism by providing a pathway out of criminality, governments have chosen to portray the incarcerated as undeserving of educational and other forms of public assistance.

Second, prisoners are systematically excluded from social redistribution and public aid (131). If incarcerated for two months or longer, individuals cannot receive social assistance in the form of welfare payments, disability support, veterans benefits, [or] food stamps (131). Upon release, they often cannot apply for government employment, Medicaid, or housing assistance. Felony drug offenses result in a lifetime ban on access to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families... and public housing... without exception (131). Such restrictions affect not only convicts but also their dependents and any partners or family members who risk losing public assistance by living in the same household as a former convict. Wacquant notes the absence of equivalent penalties such suppression of tax deductions for mortgage interest payments for felony drug offenders in the middle or upper classes.

Third, convicts are banned from political participation via criminal disenfranchisement¹ (132). In forty-eight states, state prisoners lose their voting rights while jail inmates in forty-four states also lose this right. In most states, this prohibition extends to those on probation or parole. Some states withhold voting rights even after sentences have been served, and eight states impose a lifetime ban on voting by former inmates. In total, more than 4.7 million Americans, almost two million of whom are African-American, have been disenfranchised in this fashion.

Wacquant focuses on this last point to demonstrate the real consequences of this exclusion. On one hand, the location of prisons in rural, predominantly white, political districts adds to that population and increases the influence of these areas in representative government without expanding the voting base. At the same time, the transfer of prisoners from urban districts decreases the voting population and the political influence of those areas. Further, Wacquant notes that Florida's lifetime disenfranchisement of all citizens convicted of a felony likely altered the outcome of the 2000 Presidential election. With more than 800,000 disenfranchised citizens, over 250,00 of whom are African Americans, garnering just a one percent majority of these votes would have seen Al Gore elected to the Presidency (138).

Among other democratic nations, only the United States imposes these restrictions on such a large population of citizens incarcerated for non-violent as well as violent offenses. The result is the creation of a permanent outcast status that falls disproportionately upon African Americans, entrenching their subordination in a racialized society and inhibiting their political agency.