Annette Flores / EyeEm

Open LetterPoliticsRace

prison reform isn’t anti-racist, prison abolition is

January 11, 2019

In a recent 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper, New York Congresswoman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated unabashedly that there is no question that President Donald Trump is racist. For many Black people today, there is also no question. His racism is in his remarks on not wanting immigrants from “shithole countries”, his often coded language when talking about Black people,  his tumultuous legal history with communities of color, and his own claims that he is the “least racist person” that journalists have ever interviewed.

The White House responded by noting that Ocasio-Cortez, a woman of color, displayed “sheer ignorance” by ignoring the Trump administration recent support of The First Step, a prison reform bill, and claimed that he has “repeatedly condemned racism and bigotry in all forms”.

Although the First Step Act includes a variety of reforms — including boosting rehabilitation efforts that could improve conditions for the millions currently incarcerated in the U.S. prison system — the misguidedness of Trump’s support of the bill leads it to fall short in other ways. It only addressed the federal prisons and jails, which just represent 10% of incarcerated people in the United States. It also includes a clause that “authorizes Federal Prison Industries to sell products to new markets such as the District of Columbia government and nonprofit organizations,” therefore expanding the profitability of the country’s prison system. President Trump has tried to use his support of the First Step Act as a signifier of bipartisan cooperation.

The fanfare around the First Step Act is also misplaced because of the bill’s inability to really level with a criminal justice system designed to target poor, Black, or brown bodies. The White House’s response to Ocasio-Cortez exhibits another jarring reality behind the First Step Act and beyond: white America’s continuous attempt to redefine what racism and racial justice looks like for Black people.

There is overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration evolved as an outgrowth of Jim Crow laws, which itself was a system rooted in the subjugation of former slaves,” stated Ocasio-Cortez in a 2018 essay. Following this understanding of mass incarceration, it becomes essential for Black people to demand prison abolition, and to understand prison reform as, ultimately, political procrastination to their eventual liberation.

Historically, the United States has played a consistent role in penalizing radical Black activists and then rewording their repression. For years, Martin Luther King Jr was surveyed heavily by the FBI through COINTELPRO, demonized in the media, and would, before his assassination, spend ample time in jail for his civil rights work. Then the United States eventually made use of his political image to create a national holiday, and establish a memorial in Washington D.C in his honor. Many members of the Black Panther Party were jailed, imprisoned, or killed; yet, the United States government was both inspired and threatened by the Party’s Free Breakfast Program.

The White House and President Trump’s attempt to integrate anti-racism to their platform clearly functions to avoid credible critiques of the United States as a country founded on and funded by racism. Prison reform, in its most ideal mode, operates to undo some of the damage done by an American political system designed to target the vulnerable. This is exhibited by the widespread leftist support of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her democratic socialist ideals and critiques of mass incarceration, despite the fact that she voted to continue funding Immigrant and Customs Enforcement.

In the end, unless a fundamental shift takes place in the American political imagination, the task of liberating Black people is and always will be in the hands of Black people. As Malcolm X famously said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound.”