Loïc Wacquant on the Four Peculiar Race-Making Institutions in U.S. History: “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration”

French sociologist and professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, Loïc Wacquant, has developed a powerful, empirically backed thesis to explain the hyper-incarceration of black males in America’s recent history. Wacquant begins by identifying what he calls four “peculiar institutions” that have defined, confined, and controlled African Americans: chattel slavery (1619-1865), the Jim Crow system (1865-1965), the northern Ghetto (1915-1968), and the Hyperghetto-Carceral Complex (1968-present).  As is well known, under U.S. race-based chattel slavery, individuals of African descent were taken from their countries by force, defined as “living property,” and exploited for the economic (and other) benefits of white society. The major economic institution was the plantation, which produced, in conjunction with cultural, religious, and pseudo-scientific discourses, the racialized black social type of “slave.” Following chattel slavery, we have the Jim Crow south, which was a system of legal discrimination and segregation, lasting roughly from the close of the Reconstruction period to the Civil Rights revolution. Here we have a largely agrarian economy, and the racialized black social type is a “sharecropper.” The third race-producing institution is the northern ghetto. In the early part of the twentieth-century millions of African Americans moved north in the hopes of escaping the harsh and oppressive way of life of the south and to find work in northern industrial factories. The ghetto, whose function was both to contain and to stigmatize African Americans, was the State’s solution to the “problem” of how to control and confine the large influx of African Americans into cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York City from 1914 and well into the 1960s. Here the economy is obviously an industrial economy and the racialized black social type is a “menial worker.”

Once the economic utility of the northern black “menial workers” was rendered obsolete due to the shift from an industrial to a postindustrial society, the remnants of the ghetto—are the recipients of a new state-based “affirmative action”—the carceral system. The prison then takes its place among the other peculiar race-producing institutions in U.S. history. Blackness (with respect to males) and criminality become synonymous.  (Given the relationship that often exists between the prison-system and welfare, as many of the wives, girlfriends, and children of male inmates (understandably) require the assistance of state welfare in order to survive or get back on their feet; the racialized female social type comes to be scripted as the “welfare queen.”)

The first three institutions function as an instrument of labor extraction and a means of social ostracization. Let’s examine how these two “features” play themselves out in US history. With American chattel slavery, labor extraction is rather obvious, as slaves operate as an unfree labor force  employed for the production of tobacco, rice, and of course cotton. One does not exaggerate when one claims that the plantation economy of the South was literally built upon  slaves’ backs. With respect to social ostracization, blacks are marked as social outcasts given their social role as slaves—that is, humans redefined as “live property” and exploited for the economic benefit of the dominant society. According to Wacquant, an unforeseen by-product of chattel slavery was the creation of a “racial caste line” dividing whites and blacks (“From Slavery to Mass Incarceration,” New Left Review 13 [Jan–Feb 2002], 45). That is, racial division was not a precondition but rather a consequence of U.S. slavery. Part of the “maintenance program” of this division included the development of pseudo-religious and pseudo-scientific racialized narratives, which promoted racial hierarchies.

The Emancipation Proclamation occurs in 1864, and this newly gained (pseudo) freedom for blacks, confronts white society with two major issues: (1) how to regain the newly freed slaves as a labor force, and (2) how to guarantee that the rigid social divisions between whites and blacks are upheld so as not to “taint” whites with an alleged “inferior” race (45­–6). How were these concerns answered? The Jim Crow system of legalized discrimination and segregation. Blacks had to dine, travel, drink, swim, worship and so forth in separate facilities from their white counterparts. Of course the most unpardonable “sin”—interracial mixings, whether in the form of marriage, cohabitation, or sexual affairs—was now criminalized. Since whites were the majority landowners, blacks were at a huge economic disadvantage and had little choice but to labor as sharecroppers. This meant that in effect the plantation system remained intact, as sharecropping ensured that blacks would be kept in subservient and disadvantaged social and economic positions (46).

Given the violent and oppressive way of life in the South, “the decline of cotton agriculture due to floods and the boll weevil,” and the labor needs in Northern factories as a result of World War I (47) millions of African Americans over the course of 50 years (1910-60) moved to the industrial centers of the Midwest and Northeast.

Did they find a “promised land” of freedom in the north? Not even close. While the north did not employ the overt segregating methods of the Jim Crow South, nonetheless, African Americans had little choice given the widespread practice of restrictive covenants but to live in urban ghettos. Once again blacks were used as a cheap labor force—this time bolstering the industrial economy. Once again blacks found themselves on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and were treated as a pollutant to white society. Thus, we see the ghetto’s function as a way to contain this dishonored population, as it was largely a black city within a larger white city. On the positive side, ghettos provided a space for blacks to creatively develop their own “voice” via black presses, businesses, churches, and civic associations in an effort to define their own meanings and to combat white exploitation. On the negative side, economically and socio-politically blacks were locked into subordinate and dependent relationship with the larger white society. By the end of the 60s, the ghetto was no longer able to fulfill its twofold purpose: labor extraction and containment, or as Wacquant puts it, “ethnoracial closure” (49).

Why was the black cheap labor no longer needed? First, the economy shifted from an urban industrial to a suburban service economy. Second, immigrant workers from Mexico, the Carribean, and Asia could be exploited more easily. Why did the ghetto no longer succeed in its containment purpose? The hard work for civil rights during the 60s, including the right to vote, finally paid off. Blacks were now able to move out of ghettos, as legal practices such as restrictive covenants could no longer be upheld in a court of law (see Shelley v. Kraemer). Of course, legal reversals, while clearly a positive step forward, are impotent to change the social consciousness and well-established racist attitudes and practices. In other words, black integration was tolerated, accepted “in law” but not “in spirit.” By and large, whites continued to actively uphold the racial divide via socially acceptable means which denied blacks the cultural capital needed to gain social equality.

This leads to the fourth peculiar institution, the prison as “judicial ghetto” or the modern-day carceral system. According to Wacquant, there are four structural features that constitute a ghetto: (1) stigma; (2) constraint; (3) territorial confinement; and (4) institutional encasement” (50). Let me say a few brief words about (1)-(4). Regarding, stigma, simply living in the ghetto makes one suspect and thus harms one’s social and cultural standing and prospects in society. Second, blacks were forced (i.e. constrained) to live in the ghettos, given restrictive covenants, economic hardships, and so forth. Third, ghettos functioned to confine blacks to a specific territorial space. As a distinct, enclosed space, the ghetto separates the black city and its activities from the white city. The fourth structural feature of the ghetto is institutional encasement or parallelism. Here we have blacks developing parallel institutional networks both for their own creative, socio-political, and cultural purposes and for protection against the dominant society.

According to Wacquant, the prison returns to the forefront of American society in the 1970s, as part of a transformation process of the State itself. Wacquant observes a contradiction at the heart of neo-liberalism: a laissez-faire ethos applies not to the society as a whole but only to the mid to upper socio-economic strata; those on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder know a different State, viz., the active penal state. When the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial society renders the economic function of the black labor force (qua factory workers, menial laborers) obsolete, the northern ghetto collapses; yet, its “dark remnants” remain—i.e. those who, for educational and economic reasons, were unable to exit the ghetto. So what is the State’s answer of how to deal with these remnants? The carceral system is rolled out and active “recruitment” of African Americans results in the first truly successful “affirmative action” program (52). As mentioned earlier, the spatial constraints of the ghetto kept blacks from “tainting” white society while still allowing blacks to be economically exploited. Similarly, the carceral complex removes blacks qua scripted “dangerous criminal” from the social body; however, unlike slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto, it does not continue the legacy of the economic exploitation of black labor (53–54). Having no economic function, incarcerated black bodies are now simply warehoused, abused, and left to die–if not a physical death, a social death.

Ato Sekyi-Otu on Fanon’s Antidialectial Moments or Speaking from the Lived Experienced of the Colonized

As Sekyi-Otu explains, Fanon begins his monumental work, The Wretched of the Earth, by challenging Marx’s and Engels’s dismissal of a conquest theory of social transformation in favor of their now famous dialectical materialist interpretation of history.[1]  As he narrates the tragic drama not of human history in the abstract, but of the colonized world, Fanon takes up this “discarded object of historical knowledge” and thus places conquest at the center of his account. “Fanon’s text dramatically assigns causal primacy to the political event, in the shape of violent conquest, in the constitution of social reality.”[2] Fanon zeros in on the colonized world, the world as experienced by the colonized; the world “raped into existence” by the colons (colonizers), whose identity becomes co-constitutive with that of the colonzied.  “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.  The colonist derives his validity, i.e., his wealth, from the colonial system.”[3] As experienced or lived, the creation of one’s world does not occur via a predictable developmental process; rather, “the kind of temporality that defines historical change in this universe will be more like the abruptness that, as Foucault would have it, characterizes certain transformations in regimes of discourse and forms of knowledge.”[4] One day you live among your people in relative peace, practicing your cherished customs and speaking to one another in your native tongue. Then the next day your peace turns to war, your customs are condemned, and your language is banned.  You must now embrace the script of your captors. Every aspect of this strange, suffocating world—from the spatial restrictions and confinements to the unjust legal codes and governmentally sanctioned brutality—reinforces this script and serves as a daily reminder of your alleged inferior identity. Given the physical and psychological violence required to create and maintain this colonized world and to produce fully formed colonized subjects (that is, those who have internalized the colonizers’ narrative of the natives’ intellectual, moral, and cultural inferiority), is it all that surprising that Fanon would underscores the violence and pain required to topple this world and to decolonize its subjects?  Following Sekyi-Otu, who offers a sophisticated dramatological interpretation of Fanon’s work, I see no reason to conclude that Fanon is promoting a mere glorification of violence. Rather, Fanon likened the violence required for the survival, healing, and restoration of the colonized to the violence of surgery forced upon an individual when disease has taken over his body and threatens his very existence.  In other words, given the systematic, entrenched injustice upon which the colonial world is founded and maintained, decolonization will require violence in some form or fashion. However, one should not interpret Fanon in a woodenly literal manner, as he regularly employs irony, parody, and metaphor for rhetorical and dramatic purposes.[5]

When decolonization dismantles “worlds,” it calls for a re-scripting of subjectivities. Previous social identities and imposed roles are undone. What was stipulated as natural and necessary is shown to be unnatural and contingent. Decolonization reconfigures social reality, or to use Fanon’s words, it “fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a non-essential state into a privileged actor.”[6] Decolonization must erase the imposed whitewashed script so that a new human subject may emerge. Thus, Fanon states that at the outset of any decolonization process, we must begin with a “kind of tabula rasa.” This tabula rasa stands for the colonized themselves, who must re-narrate and thus reconstitute their subjectivities and collective history. Of course, given the co-constitutive relation between colonized and colonizer, the latter as well as the former undergo identity re-formations. That such a reordering and refashioning of social identities and of the colonial world itself is possible highlights the historical and contingent nature of both. Stated otherwise, decolonization unmasks the unnatural and non-necessary character of the colonial ordering of the world as well as the colonizer’s illegitimate claims of intellectual, moral, and cultural superiority. The white narrative is revealed as false narrative, and the revelation of this truth brings about an identity crisis for the colonizer. Here we have a second erasure, but this time the newly found blank slate status has not been intentionally willed; rather, it has been, as it were, violently imposed via the decolonization process. Improvising on Fanon’s earlier claim, we might say that the colonist’s “wealth”—that is, wealth broadly construed to include social identity and social capital—has been invalidated.[7]

As Seyki-Otu observes, the race-based colonized world as experienced by the colonized does not conform strictly speaking to a Hegelian dialectic; rather, as lived it is experienced as a compartmentalized Manichean world of unharmonizable absolutes.  There is the black world and the white world. A synthesis for the purpose of a higher unity does not exist, nor is it possible. Fanon was acutely aware of the “absolute differences” confronting the black subject daily when forced to live in the white man’s world. In light of this, we should read the opening chapter of The Wretched of the Earth, not as a reactionary response birthed in the ressentiment of a Nietzschean slave and unable to break free from the master’s conceptual framework, but as Fanon’s re-presentation of the lived experience of the colonized. In other words, Fanon’s text is polyphonic and employs multiple voices, perspectives, and rhetorical strategies. Consequently, we must listen carefully to its various inflections, modalities, and key changes. In particular, our ears must be tuned to Fanon’s strategic use of a dramatico-narrative antidialectual key—a key which allows the dissonance of the lived experience of the black person to sound forth in its fullness. For those who have ears to hear, Fanon is simply presenting the obvious. How else would the colonized experience the racialized world of colonial domination but as a confining, “compartmentalized world,” a “world divided in two”?[8]


[1] Regarding Marx’s and Engels’s consideration and subsequent rejection of a conquest theory as a possible candidate for their theory of history, see, Karl Marx and Friederich Engels, The German Ideology, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 82–85.

[2] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[3] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 2.

[4] Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, 49.

[5] Several scholars have contested interpretations of Fanon as an apostle of violence. See, for example, David Macey, Frantz Fanon: A Biography (New York: Picador, 2002), 475; see also, Nigel Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination (Oxford: Polity Press, 2003), esp. 103–26.

[6] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 3.