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Class, Race, and Hyperincarceration in Revanchist America (Republication)

  • Loïc WacquantEmail author
Chapter

Abstract

The single greatest political transformation of the post-Civil Rights era in America is the joint rolling back of the stingy social state and rolling out of the gargantuan penal state that have remade the country’s stratification, cities, and civic culture, and are recasting the very character of “blackness” itself. Together, these two concurrent and convergent thrusts have effectively redrawn the perimeter, mission, and modalities of action of public authority when it turns to managing the deprived and stigmatized populations stuck at the bottom of the class, ethnic, and urban hierarchies. The concomitant downsizing of the welfare wing and upsizing of the justice wing of the American state have not been driven by trends in poverty and crime but fueled by a politics of resentment toward categories deemed undeserving and unruly, chief among them the public aid recipients and street criminals framed as the two demonic figureheads of the black “underclass” that came to dominate the journalistic, scholarly, and policy debate on the plight of America’s urban poor in the revanchist decades that digested the civil disorders of the 1960s and the stagflation of the 1970s and witnessed the biggest carceral boom in world history. In this article, I show that the stupendous expansion and intensification of the activities of the American police, criminal courts, and prisons over the past 30 years have been finely targeted, first by class, second by race, and third by place, leading not to mass incarceration but to the hyperincarceration of (sub)proletarian black men from the imploding ghetto. This triple selectivity reveals that the building of the hyperactive and hypertrophic penal state that has made the US world champion in incarceration is at once a delayed reaction to the Civil Rights movement and the ghetto riots of the mid-1960s and a disciplinary instrument unfurled to foster the neoliberal revolution by helping to impose insecure labor as the normal horizon of work for the unskilled fractions of the postindustrial laboring class. The double coupling of the prison with the dilapidated hyperghetto, on the one side, and with supervisory workfare, on the other, is not a moral dilemma but a political quandary calling for an expanded analysis of the nexus of class inequality, ethnic stigma, and the state in the age of social insecurity. To reverse the racialized penalization of poverty in the crumbling inner city requires a different policy response than mass incarceration would and calls for an analysis of the political obstacles to this response, which must go beyond “trickle-down” penal reform to encompass the multifaceted role of the state in producing and entrenching marginality.

Keywords

Hyperincarceration Hyperghetto Class Race Penal state 

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of CaliforniaBerkeleyUSA

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