Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
On Thursday of this week, Sandra Bland should have celebrated her thirty-second birthday. Instead she died in a Texas jail four years ago after being charged a $5,000 bail, which she could not afford.
Unfortunately her story is not unique, as her mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, reminds us: “I’m asking you to wake up. Can any of you tell me the other six women who died in jail in July 2015 along with Sandra Bland? That is a problem.”
Today’s reading list assesses how we got to this point. From Lyndon B. Johnson’s Crime Commission that spearheaded the criminalization of black bodies, to the forty-one states that charge offenders for the cost of imprisonment, systemic white privilege has made mass incarceration and racial debt a prevailing theme throughout U.S. history.
The Roots of Black Incarceration
by Joy James
“Unearthed in a 2009 Rochester, New York, estate sale and acquired by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict is a hitherto-unknown confessional by a ‘free’ nineteenth-century black New Yorker who spent decades of his life imprisoned.”
• • •
Black AfterLives Matter
by Ruha Benjamin
“Vampirically, white vitality feeds on black demise—from the extraction of (re)productive slave labor to build the nation’s wealth to the ongoing erection of prison complexes to resuscitate rural economies—in these ways and many more, white life and black death are inextricable.”
• • •
Paying for Punishment
by Donna Murch
“Forty-one states charge offenders for the cost of imprisonment itself, and forty-four states charge for probation and parole costs. To make matters worse, the majority of states with the largest prison populations charge ‘poverty penalties’ by imposing additional costs on those unable to pay off debt immediately.”
• • •
Lynching by Any Other Name
by Christopher Lebron
While blacks were once the victims of lynchings, they are now being sentenced for that very crime. “Felony lynchings”—when someone tries “to take another person from the lawful custody of a peace officer”—represent a dangerous elision between the civil disobedience of social justice protestors and the deadly threat of those who once removed blacks from police custody in order to murder them.
• • •
From “War on Crime” to War on the Black Community
by Elizabeth Hinton
“President Johnson’s War on Crime began from the assumption that black community pathology caused poverty and crime. These racist assumptions influenced the “battle plan” that Crime Commission members developed for the administration.”
• • •
In the Name of Public Safety
by Jocelyn Simonson
“For felonies, median bail in New York City amounts to $5,000; for misdemeanors, it is $1,000. At Rikers Island, on any given day, over 7,000 people are detained before conviction because they cannot afford their bail.And 87 percent of them are black or Latino.”
• • •
How the Government Built a Trap for Black Youth
by Kelly Lytle Hernández
“Every president since Lyndon B. Johnson has advanced laws, programs, and policies that incentivized harsh policing in cities with large black communities.And to confine the staggering number of black youth being arrested, the government subsidized the expansion of the federal nation’s prison system.”
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.