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.

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

  1. Very interesting post. It’s a sobering thought to think of the incarceration system as another institution used for the oppression of blacks in our society. Do you think that many are wrongful imprisoned? Or that their acts are almost unescapable due to the ghetto into which they were driven? And what is the next step to increase freedom and human dignity? Certainly, the civil rights movement was a step in the right direction, but it seems like more steps need to be taken. These questions are not necessarily directed at you, though I would love to hear your thoughts, but more musings that I had in response to your post. Thanks, again, for the thought provoking post.

  2. Fascinating post!

    The shift from Jim Crow to Northern ghettos is strongly reminding Tocqueville’s analysis of the shift from slavery to racism, in the tenth chapter of the first part of Democracy in America.

    I wonder wether Wacquant acknoledge this precedent?

    On an another line of thought, I am curious about the way this specific American history helped shaping the Gay rights movement: seen from France, one has the impression that the first provides the whole framework for the second (“right to marry”, right to parenthood, etc.). Without Selma, without Jetter-Loving, etc., could those most peculiar claims have seemed so plausible?

  3. I will have to read the analysis by Tocqueville that you mention, as I was not aware of his commentary on these topics. As to your second point, there is no doubt that the two movements share several similarities in terms of advancing a group’s civic rights (as does the womens’ rights movement).

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