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The Relationship between Capitalism and Racism: America’s Capitalist Economic System


The Relationship between Capitalism and Racism: America’s Capitalist Economic System

Malcolm X very rightly stated that “You can’t have capitalism without racism”.

For years, the American Government has adopted the scheme of being tough on crime. This has resulted in an increased dependence on prisons and more people are being incarcerated than anytime throughout the course of history. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, around 2.3 million people are serving time in numerous prisons spread throughout the country. There are around 102 federal prisons, 1
Out of these 2.3 million, around sixty percent inmates are people of color. Statistics show that around 636,000 people are set free from prisons each year, but at the same time around 11 million people are taken into custody.

People who are incarcerated for drug offenses in over-policed communities are charged with criminal records as a result of which they find themselves unable to find work after time served. These criminal charges also increase the likelihood of these people being sentenced for longer periods of time if they are charged again by the police.

According to The Guardian, Black Americans are incarcerated five times more than their white counterparts. Amnesty International has found that in the United States, one in three black men would be found in prison if the same trends continue.

This increased dependence on prisons has given rise to prison-industrial complex or PIC. This is a term that is used to refer to the mutual interests of industry and government that use policing, surveillance and incarceration as a means to end social, economic and political problems. This has been one of the driving forces in developing a prison culture in the country.

Angela Davis examines this further, as well as the hypocrisy within America’s criminal justice system in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? She explores facts concerning prison sizes, the number of incarcerated African-American individuals, the proportion of drug addicts and etc. She concludes that prisons are not the antidote to offenses and society needs to be transformed as a whole to counter crimes.

Housing Expenditures of Prisoners:

On average, around $85.72 are required to house a prisoner per day. Soon after a prison starts operating, it is filled with inmates, mostly people of color. The rest of the assigned inmates are sent to another jail under the city’s Sherriff’s jurisdiction owing to placement issues. For housing these inmates, the sheriff spends around 25 dollars per inmate. It is supposed to cost about 87.72 dollars to house an inmate per day. The sheriff will do the following things after receiving the payment:

  1. He will make sure that at a given time there are several inmates to house.
  2. He will slash expenditures to house the inmates so as to keep the difference.

Usually, black men are arrested on drug charges, specifically marijuana, to keep the flow of prisoners working. These prisons compromise on the quality of food, the conditions of the facility, medical treatment to cut costs. Moreover, they take risks by not providing enough supervision to the inmates and withholding other resources.

The department derives profits keeping an extra $64.72 that has been allocated for the rehabilitation of prisoners and in turn, the prisoners are kept like animals

Ineffectiveness of Emancipation Proclamation:

The thirteenth amendment has a loophole that supports mass incarceration of black people. As a result of Black Codes, prisons in southern states were quickly filled with black prisoners (Clark, 2009).

Even the slaves that were set free were imprisoned after that. After the Civil War, prisons would rent out cheap labor to businesses. For example, the prisons worked out dangerous and dirty work in the coal mines of Alabama for only $18.50 every month. The same system has now evolved to the corporatized system of the industrial capitalism.

Dissecting Prison Industry Complex:

At the moment, around eighteen private corporations are guarding more than ten thousand prisoners in 27 different states of America. Three-fourth part of this massive figure is held by Wackenhut and Correction Corporation of America (CCA). These prisons get guaranteed amount for all the prisoners irrespective of the actual amount required for maintaining a single prisoner.

This business is so profitable that corporations are always willing to take in offenders with longer sentences. CCA has now signed a contract with smaller counties to run jails so they can share profits. The system is currently supported by many multinational companies that enjoy the cheap and at times free labor of the African American population in these prisons.

The federal prison is the major supplier of military supplies and equipment. More than 90% of the stove and paint industry benefits from the labor of these inmates. These prisons also supply around 30 percent of body armor and 4o percent home appliances to the respective industries. Twenty percent of office furniture is also prepared by colored men in prison.

This is how the prison-industrial complex operates and is supported by society in general (Sudbury, 2014).

Mass Incarceration Supporting Economy:

Capitalism has strengthened the prison business as the labor is cheap, the hours are long, but the profits are generous. This has resulted in longer sentences of people with even minor crimes. Owing to the fact that prisons are now run by large corporations, the system has grown quite a bit and now there is fierce competition in the prison industry.

PIC initially emerged as a post-cold war marketing strategy. Such strategies are usually discarded with time, but this one has made a lot of money in the recent decades and it looks like corporations will defend it against all odds. But human life is at stake here. Presently, the African-American prison population is increasing at an astronomical rate. The ruthlessness of capitalism can be seen in the way these strategies are derived and defended.

Racial bias runs deep in the United States and the economical labor makes the corporations greedy. This scenario is highly reminiscent of the Emancipation Proclamation that despite setting slaves free had a bias with them. The only way that this can be treated is to completely abolish the culture of prisons as Davis has repeatedly suggested in her book and only then will we be able to enjoy a just society.


Clark, M. M. (2009). Beyond critical thinking. Pedagogy9(2), 325-330.

Davis, A. Y. (2011). Are prisons obsolete?. Seven Stories Press.

Sudbury, J. (2014). Global lockdown: Race, gender, and the prison-industrial complex. Routledge.

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