Mass Incarceration: A Contemporary Mechanism of Racialization in the United States

Jacqueline Johnson, Ph.D., Mass Incarceration: A Contemporary Mechanism of Racialization in the United States, 47 Gonz. L. Rev. 301 (2011)


Mass incarceration dominates the social and economic context of life for millions of African Americans, and continues a historical pattern of structural disadvantage that is defined by race. This article examines the broader consequences of prison expansion by focusing on its contribution to contemporary racial ideologies and structures of economic disadvantage. While other scholars have argued that ideological beliefs about African American criminality have facilitated their disproportionately high rates of imprisonment, this article argues that ideological beliefs about race are also informed by African American men’s disproportionately high rates of incarceration. Mass incarceration produces structures of disadvantage, as economic disparities are magnified along racial lines long after ex-inmates are released. Ultimately, this article develops the idea that mass incarceration operates as a contemporary mechanism of racialization—a structure for continuing social stigma and economic marginalization by race—and illustrates this point by examining the impact of incarceration stigma on labor market exclusion.

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