Mass Incarceration: A Missing Link in the Racial Wealth Gap Analysis

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The foundation of healthy and vibrant local communities is a strong economic engine. This provides communities with the resources needed to foster innovation, strong families and social mobility. Yet, access to these opportunities for economic growth and development has not been readily accessible for certain communities. Specifically, research demonstrates that it will take over two centuries to address the racial wealth gap between Blacks and whites. It is projected to take 228 years to bridge. This data from the Institute for Policy Studies can make it appear that economic equality is a mighty feat and may lead to apathy. However, I teach my students when we see a problem, we create a solution. I have transformed my classroom into a learning laboratory where we engage in a robust exchange of ideas related to the pressing social justice issues of our time. We begin by thinking critically and ethically about the root causes of a challenge. We then work with other key stakeholders to develop a strategic action plan.

Our work started with an exploration of the contributing factors to the racial wealth gap. Scholars and researchers have identified and assessed racial disparities in education, healthcare, and job recruitment and retention. In light of these factors, the proposed solutions for ending the racial wealth gap tend to focus on tax reform, baby bonds, reparations, and supplier diversity initiatives. The timeline of the related analysis begins with the Civil Rights Movement and the disparities identified in the Kerner Commission report released in 1968; then fast forwards to the present. Yet, often overlooked is the significance of the War on Drugs and the emergence of the “tangled web of mass incarceration” during the 1970s-1980s. As a result, African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and associated collateral consequences. According to the attorney and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, in Colorlines, “more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.” The nature of this social phenomenon is pervasive and has a detrimental impact on the economic outlook experienced by offenders, their families, and society at large.

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African Americans and the Tangled Web of Mass Incarceration

African Americans face a unique set of challenges related to mass incarceration due to the disproportionate rate of representation in the criminal justice system.  The inextricable connection to the criminal justice system begins early with African American youth who, according to the Sentencing Project, “account for 15% of all U.S. children yet made up 35% of juvenile arrests in [2016].” This pattern of overrepresentation is also reflected in the data associated with adult prison populations. “African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites and Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely.” The metaphor of the “tangled web of mass incarceration” illustrates the intricate and complex nature of this phenomenon. There are far too many entry points into the criminal justice system and far fewer exit points. This channeling into the prison system begins with entrance into the cradle to the prison pipeline which is perpetually mounting and exponentially intensifying throughout one’s lifetime. Disparities at the intersections of race and poverty manifest in myriad quality of life indicators from maternal health and infant mortality to access to quality early childhood education.

Often overlooked in this analysis of the trajectory of mass incarceration is the financial impact on African American families and communities. It is projected that it will take centuries to bridge this ever-expanding gap. When analyzed in isolation, lack of wealth/assets, job development, and generational poverty are the main focal points for remedying this societal challenge. The connection between the disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system as a barrier to wealth creation is typically not discussed. However, economic barriers emerge immediately with challenges associated with bail, prison phone calls, and legal fees. Further, the family’s finances are hampered by the loss of wages of the incarcerated loved one and limited opportunities for wealth-building potential over time.

Once an individual enters this tangled web, the financial implications are profound with a lasting impact over generations. This is why families, children, and community members can be described as the “silent victims” of mass incarceration. Although they are not physically behind bars, they are chained by economic barriers and hardships commonly associated with mass incarceration. This includes loss of wages from their relative, high costs associated with prison phone calls, and supporting their family member while they are behind bars.

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Recommendations for Change

I teach my students how to serve as leaders by seeking “improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.” I remind them about the transformative power within their hands to make a difference in the world. My students and I have leveraged our legal training to research and implement strategies for advancing criminal justice reform and supporting the economic well-being of Black communities.

Employment opportunities. Our team has provided employers with tools for building inclusive hiring practices and supported the development of business models for “felon-friendly” social enterprises. Obtaining gainful employment is key to wealth creation. Father Gregory Boyle stresses the importance when he states: “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Employers can make this a reality by supporting inclusive hiring practices. A felony record or criminal conviction should not serve as a blanket bar to employment. This does not negate the employer’s responsibility to take appropriate precautions in the hiring process. Instead, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) suggests critically examining the nexus between the conviction and the job sought.

Racial Justice Framework. Bridging the racial wealth gap with a focus on the financial impact of mass incarceration on the African American community will also require a paradigm shift. Our team is working in partnership with community members and policy advocates to reimagine this vision for the future. The focus is building a more just and inclusive society informed by the guiding principles of racial justice. According to RacialEquityTools.org, “Racial Justice is the creation and proactive reinforcement of policies, practices, attitudes, and actions that produce equitable power, opportunities, treatment and outcomes for all.” Vision, as I discuss in my article, The Inclusive Leader, requires action that is demonstrated through clarity of purpose, metrics, benchmarks, ongoing evaluation. These measures will guide the vision forward as it materializes.

Addressing the racial wealth gap is a call to leadership. Lawyers are in a prime position to aid in leading this change. We can leverage our legal training to support criminal justice reform and economic revitalization. As we sow these seeds of social change, we will reap a harvest of a more just and inclusive society.

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Artika R. Tyner

Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a passionate educator, author, speaker and advocate for justice. At the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Dr. Tyner serves as the founding director of The Center on Race, Leadership and Social Justice. She is committed to training students to serve as social engineers, creating inroads to justice and freedom. She provides leadership development and career coaching for young professionals. She has also developed leadership educational materials. Additionally, Dr. Tyner teaches leadership coursework on ethics, critical reflection and organizational development. Her research focuses on diversity/inclusion, community development and civil rights.

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