Metropolitan State College, Denver
February 15, 2008

Since the theme of this conference acknowledges the two hundreth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, I decided to talk about the meaning of freedom. The conference theme emphasizes two hundred years of freedom. What has that freedom meant for people of African descent? What has that freedom meant for the black world? And what has been the relationship to communities that are differently racialized but which, nonetheless, suffer under cycles of oppression?

I suppose that very few people think about the fact that the institution of the prison has claimed a place at the very core of black history, particularly since the abolition of slavery. It has been a constant theme in the collective lives of black people in this country. It has also been a constant theme in the collective lives of Chicanos. And it is increasingly a major aspect of the lives of people who are racially oppressed in Europe, as well as in Latin America, and when one looks at the continent of Africa, one can readily see the extent to which the institution of the prison is actually beginning to replace institutions like education and health care.

When Carter G. Woodson proposed in 1926 that the nation annually set aside one week for the celebration of Negro History Week, he was confronting a dominant culture that almost totally marginalized black accomplishments, and it was important to transmit the message that we were capable of vastly more than white-supremacist society attributed to black communities.

Then, of course, a half-century later the celebration was extended to the entire month. The month of February offers us a kind of microcosm of the history of the black world. February is the month, as far as the United States of America is concerned, when the Fifteenth Amendment authorized black male suffrage.

February is significant to black history of many other reasons as well. The Freemen’s Aid Society was founded in February. W. E. B. DuBois was born on February 23, 1868, and it was on February 23, 1972, that I was released on bail. But it was also during the month of February that W. E. B. DuBois convened the first Pan-African Congress in 1919 to urge people of African descent throughout the world to unite in order to stand up against European imperialism. February was also the month when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King’s organization, was established, and when the students staged sit-ins at the lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. That was in February of 1960. We could actually continue to do a whole panorama of black history by looking at key events that happened during the month of February.

What I’d like to say now is that Black History Month seems to have become an occasion to generate profit. If you look at the Walmart Web site, Walmart, which is the largest corporation in the world, you will see how they urge you to celebrate black history by buying their products. Wal-Mart, as the largest corporation in the world, demonstrates the impact that global capitalism has had on our lives and the conditions of neoliberalism under which we live and think. Through Walmart’s action we see how capitalism has insinuated itself into our desires, our dreams, and our ways of thinking about ourselves. We commodify ourselves when we talk about how we’re going to market ourselves. So keep that in mind as we go back and look at some aspects of black history.

We most frequently celebrate Black History Month by evoking a collection of narratives about individual black people who managed to overcome the barriers created by the racism of the past, whereas we should have a broader conception of what it means to celebrate the legacies of black history, and those legacies should not be confined simply to people of African descent. I’m thinking of someone like Yuri Kochiyama, who is a Japanese American woman who has for the overwhelming majority of her life—and she’s about 82 years old now—worked in the civil rights movement, worked to free political prisoners. She was with Malcolm X when he was assassinated, and there is a picture of her cradling Malcolm X’s head in her hands as he lay dying. We don’t necessarily bring Yuri Kochiyama into our celebrations of Black History Month. Or Elizabeth “Betita” Martínez, who was one of the most amazing activists in the early civil rights movement.

We celebrate individuals, but we also evoke the legislative and court victories that have helped to produce a black subject that putatively enjoys equality before the law. Therefore, we rightly celebrate the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, and we also celebrate the Thirteenth Amendment that we think abolished slavery, and we celebrate the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which one of the candidates insisted could only be the work of a president, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of these legislative moments were attempts to confront and eradicate the vestiges of slavery.

I think that all of us, regardless of our racial or ethnic background, feel relieved that we no longer have to deal with the racism and the sexism associated with the system of slavery. But we treat the history of enslavement like we treat the genocidal colonization of indigenous people in North America, as if it was not that important, or worse, as if never really happened. We think of it as a kind of nightmare. And, as is often the case with nightmares, we try not to think about it except in abstract terms, and we assume that it will go away. One of the amazing contributions of a group of black women writers, beginning, say, in the 1980s, was to think about slavery and to imagine the subjectivities of persons who were enslaved and not allow us to continue to think in these abstract categories.

The institution of the prison tells us that the nightmare of slavery continues to haunt us. If we actually learn how to recognize the forms of racism and sexism that are at the structural core of the prison system, that means we’ll have to develop a very different idea about the state of democracy in the United States of America, particularly with respect to its victories over racism and sexism. We hear the Bush administration constantly evoking the civil rights movement as the completion of democracy in the United States, American democracy.

The theme of this gathering is how to end cycles of oppression. I want to talk about that by making the connection between slavery and the contemporary prison system. First I want to say that the emancipation that awaited enslaved people in 1863, people whose history under slavery had been primarily a history of striving for freedom, was a constrained emancipation. The joyful noise of freedom to which W. E. B. DuBois refers in Black Reconstruction had to fend off the forms of unfreedom that were tenaciously clinging to the emancipation offered to the slaves. What did it mean to be a former slave who was free? What did that freedom mean? DuBois talks about the spectacular dimensions of this newfound freedom, and there were spectacular dimensions, because black people for the first time had the freedom to learn, the freedom to try to get an education, the freedom to create schools, with what meager resources were there, the freedom to travel for the first time. But, of course, this was a gendered freedom, because it was mostly black men who were able to take advantage of the freedom to travel.

They also had the sexual freedom to choose their own sexual partners, which we might minimize today, but considering that there were so many other dimensions of freedom that were not available to the enslaved people who had been “set free,” that sexual freedom became so important that it becomes the major theme of the first popular music to be produced in the aftermath of slavery: the blues.

Sexual freedom then becomes a metaphor for other kinds of freedom, for political freedom, for economic freedom. But these forms of freedom were shrouded in unfreedom. The enslavers whose activity was abolished by the Emancipation Proclamation, and then later by amendment to the Constitution, did not surrender so easily to words. It strikes me to be very strange that over the decades we have assumed that it was possible to abolish slavery simply by proclamation, a few words here, and by a clause in the Constitution, when that proclamation and that constitutional amendment never clearly explain how they understand slavery.

So we don’t even clearly know what was supposed to be abolished. Was it chattel slavery? Was it treating human beings as property? Human beings are still bought and sold and still treated as property, including people like Shaquille O’Neal, who just got traded, right? Was it about coerced labor? We know there is so much coerced labor, and we look at ways in which undocumented immigrants are treated and we see a very similar mode of labor. As a result, I don’t think that the U.S. Constitution successfully abolished coercive labor. What about the whole scaffolding of racist ideology that was necessary to keep an entire people enslaved? Did that get abolished? So why do we assume that slavery was abolished?

Slavery was a part of the warp and woof of American life, especially in the South, but also in the North. And words alone were not sufficient to make it go away. If slavery was declared dead, it was simultaneously reincarnated through new institutions, new practices, new ideologies. We can think about the ways in which the institutions of punishment have served as receptacles for these structures and ideologies of enslavement that were translated into the terms of freedom—slavery translated into the terms of freedom. What have these generations of “freedom” meant since the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment? Both the prison and the fate of former slaves would be inextricably linked to the struggle for democracy in this country. So when we talk about the relationship between slavery and the prison, we’re also talking about the nature of democracy, or what goes under the rubric of democracy in this country.

Prison continues to reflect the closure of the doors of democracy to major sectors of the U.S. population. We can say that one of the major aspects of slavery was social death. That also included civil death. That meant that slaves could not participate in the political arena or in civil life. So what about felon disenfranchisement today? What about the fact that there are 2.2 million people behind bars on any given day? Statistics can be deceptive. Many of us know that figure, 2.2 million, but that only reflects a census survey: It’s the average number of people who are in prison on any given day. If you look at the number of people who go in and out of the prison and jail system over the course of a year, that’s going to be approximately 13 million people. So that’s much more vast than we have the habit of thinking about.

The vast majority of these millions of people come from communities of color. This has to do with the increasingly restrictive and repressive nature of U.S. society. There is a majority of black people in prison throughout the country, but if you look at my state, California, the majority of people in California are Latinos and Chicanos.

The Structural Racism of the Prison

What’s very interesting is that people don’t get convicted anymore because they are black or because they are Chicano. But there are structures of racism that makes race matter in terms of determining who goes to prison, particularly who gets to go to prison and who gets to go to colleges and universities. How can we think about that structural racism? What is the relationship between the structural racism of slavery and the racism that is inscribed in the very processes that create trajectories that lead inevitably toward incarceration or higher education?

The structural racism of the prison can also be held responsible for the persistence of racism in the so-called free world. We are encouraged to think about racial equality as produced by adopting postures of color-blindness, right? We are told that all we have to do is not notice race and racism is going to leave, it will go away. So there is a kind of learned ignorance, because we can see race, but we know we are not supposed to see race. There is a kind of repression that oftentimes produces these many explosive expressions of racism. I can remember Michael Richards saying, “I’m not a racist. I don’t even know where that came from.” Increasingly, this is what people say. They can’t understand how it is that a racist observation escapes from their lips. There is a whole psychic reservoir of racism in this country. It’s in the structures, it’s in our collective psyche. All of us are affected by it. I’m not only talking about white people as the bearers of racism. I’m talking about ideologies and logics that inform the way all of us relate to the world.

Prisons, of course, thrive on class inequalities, they thrive on racial inequalities, they thrive on gender inequalities. They produce and reproduce those inequalities, because they segregate and isolate the individuals they punish. They also conceal the inequalities that they reproduce. The hidden danger of relying on incarceration as the major solution to behaviors that are often the by-products of poverty is that the solution reproduces the very problem it purports to solve. This is how we might begin to understand why the prison population constantly rises, not only in absolute numbers, but proportionately as well. It has nothing to do with the rise in crime statistics. As the rate of crime goes down, prison populations go up.

Of course, they reproduce these problems because funds almost inevitably migrate away from education and housing and health care toward what they call corrections. Therefore, one generation spawns another. The crime rate has fallen, but the incarceration rate has risen. In the United States, of course, a prison sentence on a felony charge is a life sentence, regardless of how many years one gets. It is a life sentence because of what someone like Marc Mauer calls “collateral consequences”—the collateral consequences of imprisonment that lead to social death, disenfranchisement. We wouldn’t have had to deal with the Bush administration over the last seven years had it not been for the case that due to felony disenfranchisement more than 600,000 people could not vote in Florida. In the 2000 elections there was only a 537-vote difference. So if a tiny minority of those 600,000 had been able to vote, we might have had an entirely different course of history.

If the prison is proposed as a solution to social issues, then other possibilities get excluded. Governor Schwarzenegger, the governor of the state in which I live, changed the name of the California Department of Corrections to the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. If we really want rehabilitation, then we have to start talking about decarceration. How is rehabilitation possible under conditions of total confinement? How is rehabilitation possible when there is no way that people can exercise their freedoms? As a matter of fact, that’s the whole point of the punishment as imprisonment: It deprives you of your rights and liberties. That is why the prison is a peculiarly democratic punishment. It is the quintessential democratic institution, because it provides you with the negation of that upon which the whole concept of bourgeois democracy has been developed.

In our society, the assumption is that if you are from a certain racialized community, you will have had some contact with the prison system. There was an interesting study that was conducted by a sociologist who matched black and white pairs of job applicants. Some of them indicated that they had a criminal conviction and some of them didn’t. What was very interesting was that white people who had a felony conviction were called back for interviews at the same rate as black people who had the same credentials but had no criminal record. The point that Marc Mauer makes is that black men are essentially born with the social stigma equivalent to a felony conviction. So we’re talking about an institution that not only affects those it incarcerates; it has an influence on entire communities.

The problem is not limited to black men. Women constitute, and have constituted for a while, the fasting-growing sector of the imprisoned population. And women of color, of course, constitute the largest group of women, therefore the fastest-growing population within the entire imprisoned population. This is not just the case in the United States. It’s true in Canada, it’s increasingly true in Europe, and it’s true in other countries as well.

If we look at who is in prison and why they are there, then it’s clear that race and class have much more to do with the overcrowding of these prison institutions than the existence of crime. Once people have spent time in prison, they are forever haunted by their status as prisoners. They are forever haunted by civil death. They are forever excluded from certain aspects of democratic participation in the society. So this is a way of understanding why black and Latino people are so easily labeled criminal, so easily identified as threats to law and order, and it helps us understand why people from those communities often see their own sisters and brothers as the criminals, as the menaces and threats. The immigrant, for example, is scapegoated. The undocumented immigrant is seen as the enemy.

And there is a racialization of immigration. The post-colonial, post-Soviet, post-socialist immigration to this country involves people arriving here from all over the world, especially from Russia. But do we ever think about undocumented immigrants as Russian? Do we ever racialize them as white? So we begin to understand how the ideology of racism really infects the very logic of our thought and our relations to one another.

I want to talk for a moment about how this criminalization process, particularly with respect to black people, is anchored in slavery. And I want to make a connection between the democracy we think we now enjoy and the democracy that was offered to people of African descent in the aftermath of slavery. Even during slavery there was a contradiction in the way black people were thought about. We tend to think slavery meant that black people were treated as property, right? That’s chattel slavery. But then black people were punished, they were found guilty of crime. Can property be accountable? Can property be found culpable? There was something wrong there. As a matter of fact, you can say that even though black people were not acknowledged as having legal personality in most senses, when they committed a crime, they were accountable to the law, and therefore they were acknowledged as having legal personality.

This negative affirmation of the legal personality of black people continues to hold sway today. You might say that the proof of participation of black people in U.S. democracy is precisely the fact that they have received due process before being sentenced in such disproportionate numbers to prison. It is precisely as they appear before the law as equal subjects who get due process, precisely because they are considered accountable, or it’s through their culpability—does that make sense?—through their culpability that they participate in the democratic process. That reflects the contradiction of slavery, and that, I think, is an indication of one of the ways in which slavery continues to haunt us.

Before I complete my presentation I have to say something about corporate globalization. I have to say that corporate globalization has become the major threat to democracy in the world. But the problem is that capitalism represents itself as synonymous with democracy. That is what George Bush is talking about when he calls for the defense of democracy against terror. That is the democracy that the U.S. military is fighting to protect in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s not democracy, it’s capitalism, or it’s a democracy that uses capitalism as its model, that sees the free market as the paradigm for freedom and that sees competition as the paradigm for freedom.

Corporations are linked to the global marketing of imprisonment. They reap enormous profits in this area—prisons at the expense of housing and health care and education and other social services. As a matter of fact, the neoliberal conception of economic freedom requires the government to withdraw from virtually all social services. The market is supposed to determine everything. Freedom emerges because the market will determine the distribution of education, the distribution of health care. And according to the Chicago boys, Milton Friedman and those people, it will even itself out. I guess they still believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” that somehow or another freedom will reveal itself.

But when we look at the extent to which countries in the southern region have been devastated by the juggernaut of privatization, a country like South Africa, which is still, I suppose, our hope for a non-racist and non-sexist and non-homophobic society, they’re experiencing enormous problems precisely as a result of privatization that is required by the IMF and other international financial organizations as that which countries must do who wish to get international loans. It’s really scary.

We see that kind of structural adjustment happen in this country. That is why we are confronted with this crisis of health care and why health care has become totally privatized since the 1980s. There was an attempt to totally privatize the prison system as well. It worked in some places; it didn’t quite work in others. But we see the insinuation of private corporations into the prison system all over this country.

I wonder why we do not find it utterly shameful that it is possible now to visit countries in the global South and discover that while their educational systems and housing subsidies and jobs have deteriorated over the last quarter-century under the impact of globalization, it is often possible to discover a shiny new prison that would lead one to believe that one had been teleported back to Colorado or California. Of course, we use the term “prison-industrial complex” to point out that there is this global proliferation of prisons and prisoners that is more clearly linked to economic and political structures and ideologies than to individual criminal conduct and efforts to curb crime.

I wanted to say a few words about this prison-industrial complex that has this increasingly privileged place within the global economy and the way in which it serves to support the persistence of racism, but also how it has become a gendering apparatus. I don’t think we think about the fact that there are prisons for men and there are prisons for women. What about people who are gender-nonconforming? Because I think we’ve learned over the last period that there are more than two genders. So what happens to them? Where do they go? Where does a transgender woman get sent or a transgender man get sent or someone who doesn’t necessarily identify as male or female? Of course, the prisons rely on the old notions of biology, that biology has the answers for everything, so they inspect people’s genitals. It’s based on the genitalia that they get classified as a certain gender and therefore sent to certain prisons.

Then, of course, there are problems with violence. People often argue, well, if you send a transgendered woman to men’s prisons because she has male genitalia, she’s going to be subject to rape, because we know, we think, that rape is something that male prisoners begin to do once they go to prison. We don’t ask ourselves why, where does that come from? We don’t ask ourselves about the extent to which the institution itself promotes that violence, needs that violence, generates that sexual violence in order for the system to work. Then we see it happen in Abu Ghraib and we see it happen in Guantánamo, and we express such shock—this is not the way America is supposed to operate. However, if we look at what happens on a daily basis in the domestic prisons in this country, we see similar coercion and violence.

Of course, women have been especially hurt by these developments. The prison industrial complex has brought in women from the global South, indigenous women in disproportionate numbers. If you go to Australia, who do you think you will discover in disproportionate numbers in the prisons there, in the women’s prisons especially?

The prison-industrial complex has become so big and powerful that it works to perpetuate itself. It’s literally self-perpetuating. The raw materials are immigrant youth and youth of color throughout the world. So if one visits a prison in Australia or France, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, one sees young people who come from communities that we in the United States designate as communities of color, we see indigenous people. Race continues to matters a great deal throughout the world today.

This is something that the United States has basically offered to the world: a way of managing social problems by refusing to confront them. Instead of solving issues, the system puts people behind bars. We can’t deny that there are people in prison who have done horrible, hurtful things to others. But these aren’t the majority of prisoners. And there are many people in the free world who have done horrible, hurtful things. There are many reasons why people engage in violence, sometimes out of malice, sometimes out of mental illness, sometimes out of self-defense. Many women who are in prison for committing violent acts have killed in desperation in order to extricate themselves from a violent intimate relationship. No matter what a person has been convicted of, does it make sense to house hundreds, sometimes thousands of people together, or separately in isolation cells, deprive them of contact with their families, deprive them of education, and then assume that this is going to help rehabilitate them and help them be a healthy part of society?

I’d like to end with questions. How do we imagine and struggle for a democracy that does not spawn forms of terror, that does not spawn war, that does not need enemies for its sustenance? Because people who are in prison are pointed to as the enemies of society, and that is one of the ways in which we can define our own sense of ourselves as free, by looking at those who are our opposites. How do we imagine a democracy that does not thrive on this racism, that does not thrive on homophobia, that is not based on the rights of capitalist corporations to plunder the world’s economic and social and physical environments?

I suggest we use our imaginations to try to come up with versions of democracy in which, for example, the practice of Islam does not serve as a pretext for incarceration in an immigration detention facility or in a military prison, where torture and sexual coercion are not considered appropriate treatment. We need to use our imaginations to envision versions of democracy that allow for many things: the right to decent, fulfilling employment and a living wage; the right to quality education; the right to live in a world where education is not a commodity, but rather a creative discipline that allows us to understand all the worlds we inhabit, both human and nonhuman, the kind of education that compels us to transcend the limits of nationalist patriotism in order to imagine ourselves as citizens of the globe.

Reprinted with permission from The Meaning of Freedom (City Lights, 2012).