The Vicious Cycle of Mass Incarceration and Racial Injustice

MIT economic historian Peter Temin discusses parts of his forthcoming book, focusing on the history of mass incarceration of uneducated Blacks and how it has created a permanent class of poor Black Americans

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Rob Johnson:

Welcome to Economics & Beyond. I’m Rob Johnson, president of the Institute for New Economic Thinking. I’m here today on Juneteenth, with Dr. Peter Temin. Someone I was lucky enough to become familiar with as an undergraduate at MIT.

He is a professor emeritus at MIT in economic history. His forthcoming book, through Cambridge University Press, Never Together: An Economic History of a Segregated America, is just extraordinary. This is the second podcast we’ve made. There was a working paper that he made, which was a segment or chapter, that foreshadowed what would be in the book last year on this podcast series.

But he’s got a new working paper that just came out on the INET website. And it is called Mass Incarceration Retards Racial Integration. I think this is a painful, but very, very important topic. Peter, thanks for joining us, and thanks for continuing to illuminate the challenges that America must face.

Peter Temin:

Okay. Thank you, Rob. It’s a pleasure to be here. And a pleasure to participate in INET podcast again. And so, I’d like to make focus on the INET working paper. And people can look at that for more details, of what I’m going to say, right at the beginning here.

But there are two points that I’m making in this paper. And one is the point that, mass incarceration, which affects black Americans, much more than white Americans. Because blacks are only 13% of our population, but they’re 40% of our prisoners.

That, one is that it ruins the lives of a lot of young, poor, blacks, who never finished school. They are restricted in what they can earn as an adult, taken back into their families, but really and often don’t have any families there for that. So, that’s the effect on the blacks.

The effect on the whites, is to confirm their view of blacks, as unruly, illegal. Otherwise, whatever negative thoughts you want to have on the blacks, but they are not members of society. And so, a point that I make in the paper, and in the book more forcibly, is that this affects poor blacks, and uneducated blacks.

And as a result of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, we have what Richard Freeman of Harvard called a black elite. That is to say, black people who have gone through school, often quite good schools, have done well. And then have professional jobs of one sort or another, who are accepted into this kind of dominant life, and can earn money and so on.

And so, then, there is this kind of ambiguity, that if you are a prominent, educated black, you’re accepted, but if you are an uneducated, black male in prison, or having been released from prison, you are dirt. And so, not accepted into society. So, it’s both race issue, and it’s also a class issue. That this affects not the entire black population, but it affects the uneducated black population.

So, I think it’s fine that the Koch brothers, it’s not the Koch brothers anymore. It’s Charles Koch. Are supporting education, but I haven’t seen any evidence of it. I mean, I’ve seen in First Step Act, but the court just restricted the access of the First Step Act. And there has not been a second step, either in an act, or in state organizations, or things, you would think that would be a perfect thing to start on, because that was passed in the Trump administration.

And so, the people who want bipartisan work, could then introduce this in a democratic administration, and get bipartisan support for it. But I don’t see Charles Koch making that statement, and if he should, I would welcome.

Rob Johnson:

There are a number of things that I would say are quite mysterious in reading your working paper. And remember a quote where Glenn Loury said, “Well, the intensity of this prison industrial system and some of these going up, and incarceration rates are going up even as crime rates are going down.” Tell us a little bit about the history. I mean, obviously, black people were not treated fairly, and those are other chapters in your book, but when did this frontier, the mass incarceration come to the forefront, as part of what you might call the repressive toolkit?

Peter Temin:

Well, had it start in the Nixon administration, when Nixon replaced Johnson’s war on poverty, with a war on crime, and so on. And this was greatly expanded in the Reagan administration. And then became known as a war on drugs.

Now, the war on drugs, then was amplified in the 1980s. There was a drug epidemic there which got everybody excited. And the penalties were 100 times as high for the kind of coke of narcotics, for the form that black slide, and for the form that white slide. It’s the difference between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine.

And so, that led to this… Well, that and policing, and so on, led to the progress of mass incarceration. And what several people have found in research studies, is that, at the same time that the mass incarceration was involving more prisoners, the drug crimes were decreasing. In other words, these things were going in opposite directions.

Now, you can see the drug things were supported more by Republican administrations than by Democratic. But while you can see the difference, the difference is not large. And so, let me take an example from President Clinton’s administration.

Because he was trying to take advantage of the hysteria about blacks, by having both more police to deal with the crimes, and having more social services to provide alternate activities to help the blacks, and the incriminated blacks, the people who had been freed from prison, do some healthy activities, and to kind of motivate themselves. In a way, he didn’t talk about education particularly, but to get them on a different track, where they might go back to school then for that.

And the Republican legislature stripped out all the social services. And people watching this podcast may recall, the controversy over midnight basketball, which became the symbol of all of these social services. And the source for Republicans to strip all of this out of the bill.

Nonetheless, in mid 80s, President Clinton signed the bill, put 100,000 more policemen, hovered on the streets. He has subsequently said that he regrets signing the bill. But of course, that’s a couple of decades after the act that he did, and he no longer has any political office. So, it’s kind of comforting that he comes to that realization, but it’s a little late-

Rob Johnson:

It’s better than denial. But because time so much time has passed, the damage has been done. But it is encouraging.

Peter Temin:

Exactly. But it’s not just that the damage has been done, it’s that the damage-

Rob Johnson:

That’s right. But his acknowledgement may help, or may contribute like your work to trying to change this course. So, it may not be enough, but it’s in the plus column, however small.

Peter Temin:

There are many dimensions. Let me mention one dimension before you go. Which is that, one of the federal aims in the expansion of mass incarceration, was to take the recommended sentences that had been promoted by the government, to try to standardize courts around the country, became mandatory signed, mandatory punishments for various crime.

Now, at the same time, in local jurisdictions, the funds for public defenders were restricted and were limited, and kind of disappear. And so, the prosecutors who were seeing these people in their offices, rather than in a courtroom. And in the courtroom, they would say, “Look, you’re here under a thing, the minimum is five years. But if you plead guilty to stealing a car, or stealing something, or hitting somebody, some aggression kind of thing. Then we have more freedom, and I can give you a shorter term, one or two years.”

And so, in our prisons, when you look at state prisons, state drug offenses are a minority of the… Sorry, of the crimes that they’re in for. But this is the result of the minimum sentences, and the prosecutors getting more influence than the courts.

Rob Johnson:

One of the things that is mentioned in your working paper, is what you might call the militarization of law enforcement and the discipline in the prisons. Is this stark as people return from Vietnam, or is this more a little bit later in time? But tell us a little bit about what that change in the nature of both law enforcement and prison administration implies.

Peter Temin:

Yes, this has been going on for a long time. I think in the book, the timing is explained in more detail. That, after the Vietnam War, when the United States Army had less to do, then they had all this equipment. And of course, the army would like to have new equipment, so they wanted to get rid of the old equipment. And so, they offered it free to police departments. And the police department said, “Oh, sure, we’re happy to have that.”

Now, what neither of them seem to be aware of, was that, having all of this military equipment, would require policemen to be trained in the use of this equipment. And that, in turn, would change their attitudes, that instead of being on the side of the people on the street, they were like military invaders coming in on an enemy. And so, it tended to spread the police being very hostile to the typically black street crimes that were going on.

And so, if you recall the original, or not the original one, but prominent black fellow who is about to go to college, I’m blanking on his name at the moment. In a suburb of St. Louis, for that, and he was shot by the police, and laid in the street for six hours before anybody picked up the dead body.

But there were riots that night. And the police showed up in military equipment. In fortified troop carriers. Having all of this equipment come in. And it really did look like a war time invasion of this suburb of society. Except that all the weapons were on the police side, and there were peaceful demonstrations on the other side. And so, you can get other examples for the next one.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. When I was growing up in Detroit, in the late 60s, Mayor Roman Gribbs created something called the STRESS force, Stop The Rioting, Enjoy Safe Streets. And it was essentially, from what I understood, people were hired, who were former Green Berets that came home from Vietnam. And they were a plainclothes operation that was in large part used to intimidate the black population.

Though, how do I say? Itched into my mind very powerfully, because my father was a urologist, and a Caucasian urologist who was a good friend of his lived in our community. Was driving home one night, when plainclothes people stopped him in Downtown Detroit. In those days, that was scary.

They didn’t identify themselves as police. And they pulled him out of the car, and they beat the tar out of him. And he later said, “Well, I was quite inflamed, because I was quite scared.” But he had no idea what was happening to him. And eventually, the Mayor Coleman Young, the black mayor who took over. In large part, he mobilized his campaign around ending the STRESS force.

And so, this was a very, very tangible experience. I got pulled over by the STRESS force a couple of times when I was in high school. And, how would I put it? I wasn’t under their zoom lens. It was the black population that was. But they were pretty forceful.

I mean, I’ll tell you one example. It’s a little bit graphic. I was driving my mother’s car, Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon, taking some guys downtown to see a music show. And a guy in a Volkswagen said, “Pullover.” He’s a plainclothes guy in a Volkswagen. He put a badge out the window, his partner light up the passenger front window. And one of my friends in the back was a smart aleck. And he said, “Where’d you get that, in a Cracker Jack box?” He pulled out a big pistol and pointed it at me. I had a gun pointed at me, again, in my life.

So, the kind of things you’re talking about, I guess, a lot of the urban black population, those who rose up in the 67 rights and others, had experienced a great deal even at that time. But it seems like it’s only accelerated since the late 1960s. I thought it was a very haunting experience.

Peter Temin:

Yes. And I think that’s right, and that’s a good example, because that doesn’t make the news, but it affects very much the way people’s lives are lived. To be harassed one way or another by the police. And there is a lot of research on this. And people say that it’s not so bad. But it is clearly racially done, and racially determined that they’re much more likely to hit people with dark skinned, people with light skinned, although your last example, suggest if you have teenagers in your car, you may be liable to be pulled over and terrorized, independent of the color.

So, that it affects their. And one they must remember, that in mass incarceration, the majority of prisoners are white. This is damage to the white community. And that’s important for the United States, because by taking all these people out of the educational system, then what happens to these people is that, if they’re very bright, or very inventive, they have no way of capitalizing on that, and getting there. And so, it affects the progress that the United States will make.

But disproportionately, almost half of the prisoners are black, even though blacks are less than one sixth of the population. And so, it’s much more proportionally set for blacks. But mass incarceration is affecting the future of America, by taking all these people out of the labor force. And it does sell by another mechanism entirely, don’t think of the individuals, think about the financing of prisons.

Because if we were to take, let’s say we were to reduce the mass incarceration by half, still maintaining the proportions, that would send out whites as well as blacks into other sorts, and it would free up the funds that are now given to prisons, to have more education.

Peter Temin:

So, I described that in the paper as a win-win situation, that you could help the country. The problem that’s here is political, because the prisons are typically located in the country, out of the cities, where the real estate is cheaper. So, it provides jobs for rural people. And those people tend to support Republicans. And they’re kind of part of their base, the rural base.

And so, the Republicans have been very resistant to decreasing the presence of these rural prisons in the rural areas. And partly because, they don’t know what would replace them. Now, President Biden has suggested that getting the internet to be a national phenomenon, rather than an urban phenomenon. And getting fast Hi-Fi available in the rural areas, would provide an avenue for other activities to go on.

And one of the lessons of the pandemic, is that people can work from afar over the internet, if they have access to it. And so, if they were to do this, to allow Biden’s infrastructure plan to get through, it might decrease the importance of all of these prisons, in these rural areas. And so, they’re opposed to the infrastructure plan, as well, that seems far removed from mass incarceration.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. There were a number of thoughts that came to mind as I was reading your working paper. Based on, you join me in 2016 at the Detroit conference that I did.

And as I was researching for that, I met a woman from University of Michigan who unfortunately couldn’t attend the conference, but she helped me with lots of issues. Her name is Heather Ann Thompson. She’s recently written a book about Attica Prison that’s quite prominent.

But Heather Ann Thompson showed me some of her work. You were talking about the win-win situation, more money liberated for education, people out of the prison. But there’s a third dimension that I heard from her. She studied what happened to the performance of children in Detroit Public Schools, when the acceleration of their fathers being put in jail took place, and the performance dropped markedly in the schools where the fathers had been in some substantial amount taken off to prison.

She also spoke a great deal about the state politics that you referred to. She taught me that, when there was a census in Michigan, the men from Detroit, both men and women, who had committed or been convicted of felonies. I don’t know whether they committed them. They had been convicted of felonies, they are not allowed to vote. But for the census, they weren’t counted at where their home and residence was. They weren’t counted as population where they were in prison out-state, which strengthened the out-of-city out-state Republican Party, relative to the Democratic Party in the state legislature. And there was a lot of outrage about that.

In and around the time of the Detroit bankruptcy, where the out-of-city state legislature was trying to play a very aggressive role in the restructuring of the City of Detroit.

Peter Temin:

And so, you’re correct. And that’s exactly what’s going on. And so, the census is also involved in this by that ruling, which is now quite an old ruling, of where these people are given as living. And so, that accentuates the political problem.

Rob Johnson:

In your working paper at the end, after the references, are a number of graphical exhibits of various different facets. And I think this is important to give a sense of proportion about the scale of the change in America. Because you talk about accumulative risk of imprisonment in 1945 to 1949. And then again, in 65 to 69. And you just see an explosion of the risk of going to prison for black people who are high school dropouts, it goes from four to 11.

Among white people who had at least some college, it went from one to one, it didn’t change. And the only… How do I say? It’s hard to find good news in here. But the only good news was among blacks who had gone to college, some at least had some college. It went from six down to five. But the idea that it’s still five times, for college educated people it was five times what it was for white people. And I’m not saying college education makes you honest, I’m saying it gives you a greater probability of employment, alleviating despair.

But looking at those numbers, and then you have another graph right after that. It’s called figure one, the incarceration rate as an aggregate. Now you’ve said 40% are black, while only 14% of the population. But you watch the United States on this graph from 1925 to 1975, it’s essentially 100 people per 100,000. By 2010, it’s 500 per 100,000. It’s gone up by a factor of five.

Peter Temin:

Yes. Well, you see, and in other post industrial countries, in Western Europe, and so on, the people we identify with, it’s remained the incarceration rate, has remained at 100,000.

Rob Johnson:

Yes, that’s an important other dimension.

Peter Temin:

And so, we are unusual. This is an American phenomenon, is mass incarceration. And racial mass incarceration, is very much, this is Jim Crow 2.0, as various people have said it, to keep the black population down.

Rob Johnson:

Well, I think it’s an amazing thing to see, because through… How would I say? The history of my own work on Capitol Hill, I worked in the United States Senate for six years. Some of the people I knew who were down there were telling me stories that, both what are called moderate Republicans and Democrats, have been starting to rise up against many of the Republicans, not on humane grounds, but on the ridiculous cost of this. That this is making society worse off at a tremendous cost to a society, that has to marshal its resources productively.

And I do remember a very prominent bipartisan op-ed in the New York Times, Jason Furman who had spent time with the Council of Economic Advisers under Obama. And on the other side was Doug Holtz-Eakin, who was a student of Allen Winners, but very involved in the Republican Congressional Budget Office. And so, they co authored an op-ed complaining about this.

I’ve heard more recently, that some of the Koch brothers foundation and others have been very involved in trying to change this course. Because, first of all, the waste of money, and then secondly, what you call, the lose-lose situation needs to be reversed.

What is creating the persistence of clinging to this past policy? Are there vested interests who are making a lot of money, like owners of prisons who get cheap laborers? I know there’s a young man who was a postdoc, who I remember was interviewed by Joseph Stiglitz, and by INET for a post-back. And he did a dissertation that showed that the wages in the communities around where the prisons were located, were going down and business failures were going up, because they couldn’t compete with that approximately zero wage of labor inside the prison.

So, there’s all kinds of negative side effects. But my question to you is, where is the resistance to the constructive change that you make, what you might call, obvious in this working paper?

Peter Temin:

Okay. Well, the resistance comes from several different directions. And one direction is just, if you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s hard to change. We all know that we get into habits. And so, the police, as we’ve talked before, are in the habit, the public defenders, the prosecutorial lawyers are in this, and so on. And the budgets are in this. Okay.

Second thing is, there is a growth of private prisons. Private prisons they only have about 10% of the American prisoners. But of course, we have so many prisoners, that’s still substantial. And they’re more in housing immigrants than housing native born black people. But they’re there and they send lobbyists to Congress saying, “Give us more resources, 10 more people there.” And so on. So, just as lobby is for other things, go along.

A third thing is this geography. And as you say, there are a lot of problems with rural America. And the prisons have ambiguous effects. Nonetheless, they do provide a lot of support for people to stay in those rural areas. And so, that proposes political support, that tends to go toward a Republican Congress for that, and they are reluctant to give that up for that.

And then, of course, finally, the things that we’ve said, this has been going on for half a century. So, it’s in regulations that come from the military giving military equipment to the police, to the census classifying residences as their prison home, rather than their actual family home that you have the state laws set up with minimum sentences for some of [inaudible 00:38:54], and that gives rise to this out-of-court settlement process, and so on.

So, there are just lots and lots and lots of ways in which the given structure, and this leads us back to the first thing I said, which is, is you’ve done this for half a century, it’s very hard to get you out of this for that. Now, in the paper, I argue, you don’t have to go back to the whole way. There’s a model underneath the paper. And it suggests strongly, that if you go back to a middle court, that is in there where the laws are less severe, that then the progress of the legal system would get you eventually back to our original level, that will take time. And that’s a legal effort.

So, I think at the moment, the most promising change, would be to follow the First Step Act, or the act under President Obama, to try to equalize the penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. And then, the First Step Act under Trump, to try to alleviate some of this is the way to go.

And so, I think if they could just say, “We’re not trying to solve the problem at once. What we’re trying to do is to reduce the resources that are needed for it, by decreasing it over time.” That then we might be able to support legal changes, that would reduce the penalties that come in various ways, to the less educated members of our society, both white and black.

Rob Johnson:

And I think there’s another dimension in what you talk the win-win, of coming out of funding prisons and redirecting the money to education. With the advent of the so called technological or internet age, you referred to it a little bit in the, our learning from the pandemic. More and more work is knowledge intensive. It used to be you can use some muscles to get a pretty good job.

Bill Lazonick just wrote a working paper that I made a podcast on this week, about the undoing of the black middle class, as globalization and automation technology took people out of that workforce. But at this time, with what’s been revealed through the pandemic with the technology that’s present, it seems to me for social sustainability, the need to step up knowledge intensive funding… I’m going back to your earlier book, The Vanishing Middle Class, the ranks in the ladder from low margin services to high margin services have been devastate.

And there’s a call to action now that I think is extremely important. And given the imperatives of climate, given the funding or the pandemic we’ve just been through, finding healthy uses for money, related to knowledge intensive education has got to be one of our highest priorities. And you’ve identified a sack of gold that can be redirected to that purpose.

Peter Temin:

Yes. But I’ve been focused very much on mass incarceration on this podcast. But you’re right, the economy has changed greatly. And that has been accelerated in the pandemic that we’re now coming out of it, is Juneteenth 2021.

And so, that the factory life that was the mainstay and the main attraction for blacks in the Great Migration that ended in 1970, had disappear. They started disappearing, starting in the 1970s, as automation came in. And that has continued for a half century, very much the same half century that mass incarceration has grown.

That the ideal has been to that, what you need to get a decent job in the new economy, is more education. And so, that gives an urgency to increasing the educational system in our country. But I wrote a paper a long time ago now, about the fact that teacher’s pay was not increasing. They were stagnant wages, and that the women who gained access to the pill and then control over their family life, could then go for higher paying and more demanding jobs, and jobs that were worthy of their intellect. When, like my own daughter, who is a emergency department physician at Mass General Hospital for that.

So that, you go there and you get out of the teachers, I’m sure are very hard working and very good. But it’s hard to attract the best teachers, if you only pay low wages. Because the other jobs are out there, and they will attract the potential teachers better. So, you not only have to educate people more, but you got to change the educational system, so that you could pay teachers more, they could make the classes more attractive. And then, that’s the other side of the coin. One is the supply, the other is the demand, and so on. So that you could get more there.

But you’re exactly right, that the change in the economy makes all of these issues more stark, and more important-

Rob Johnson:

Yes. I mentioned Heather Ann Thompson’s work and about how Detroit when the fathers were put in jail, the children’s performance dropped. I forgot one dimension, which resonates with what you just said. Because you get to a place, where the teachers are being judged on the kid’s performance on standardized tests. And when the father’s go to jail and the traumas come from things beyond their control, the high quality teachers vacate the areas that are traumatized. So you have a supply shock that’s induced by the incarceration of mothers or fathers.

And so, there’s a whole lot of damage going on in this realm that you explore. And I find it very important and very illuminating. I wanted to conclude by saying that, in almost every realm, I’ve always learned a great deal from you, starting as an undergraduate knowing you through Tom Ferguson, looking at your work on the 1930s.

One of the things that makes a great scholar, is knowing what questions to choose. And I don’t know what it is that’s inside your heart. But I recently have been monitoring, or I’ve been taking a course, an adult education course at the Union Theological Seminary, taught by a brilliant man named Obery Hendricks, and who is a professor there, and formerly worked on Wall Street. And it’s called the kingdom of God and political economy.

And the person who keeps coming back to what to do, is Martin Luther King Jr. And they’ve describe the essential ingredients in how Martin Luther King found his courage. They talk about he cultivated a certain love, and a certain righteousness, and a certain courage. And what he called from the Hebrew Bible hesed, a deep love. And he, meaning Dr. Hendricks shared with us pieces that he’d written, that Dr. King, obviously was subject to an awful lot of danger, physical danger and was ultimately murdered.

But he went inside and he found with that pursuit of truth, and pursuit of righteousness, and that loving notion called hesed, which he was very conscious of. The stamina to continue to do good work for society. And when I see you, while I’m taking that course in these weeks, I can see that you have a lot of that inside of you. And I want to applaud that. And I want to thank you for that. I don’t want to ask you where you get it from.

Peter Temin:

Thank you. I think I get it. And I think my mother was very invested. I grew up in Philadelphia, in Germantown. And my mother established a group called Public Education in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania. Which my brother ran some years. And so, after her death.

And so, education has been a center of my life. Through that, going through, and the importance of education has been proclaimed. And that’s, of course, we can do all these things and say we’re great, but it comes basically from my family coming in. And then, what I chose was to be a college professor, to be an economic historian, which I’ve enjoyed very much.

And so, I have gone through it that way. And I thank you very much for your compliments about the topics that I choose to work on. Because I think they’re important, and I’m delighted to know that you agree.

Rob Johnson:

Well, we live in this mantra of scientific and technical virtuosity. And the notion of what I’ll call a moral compass, it’s cultivated for a student like me being exposed to your example. Asking, how does he choose these questions so well? But we have almost run into a very dangerous place in education, where people are scurrying out of despair for credentials. And you certainly, have taught…

What I learned from you and from Tom about the 1930s, as I became a financial investor trying to understand, as George Soros once said to me, “I don’t hire security analysts, I hire insecurity analysts.” Understanding the turbulence, and the transitions, and the failures that are building up pressure. And so, I learned things that were vocationally important, but I learned them, well, what you might call the magnet of my curiosity was that moral and ethical compass.

And I think that what you might call positive externality was even better than the substance of the argument. So, I hope my young scholars initiative will continue to follow your work. And as your book comes out, I think there’ll be a great deal of enthusiasm for many of them to explore with you.

And I know that positive externality will be present for them, just as it has been for me in my life. So, Peter, thank you for another chapter. I’m sure we’ll be back together again shortly as your book is realized. Because there are many chapters we haven’t covered in our two episodes. And they’re all also very important.

Peter Temin:

Good. Well, thank you very much. Appreciate that. And always a pleasure to talk with you, Rob.

Rob Johnson:

And with you. Thanks. And check out more from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at ineteconomics.org.

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