Sociological Ruminations

A blog about books (both non-fiction and fiction) that address forms of social inequality associated with race, gender, class, or mental health.

The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-Incarceration

Book Review: The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) by Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy, and Margaret Pfeil

Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy, and Margaret Pfeil have written an insightful book that complements Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. They examine the role of white complicity in hyper-incarceration, scandalwhich is the term they use (in lieu of the commonly used phrase “mass incarceration”) to refer to disproportionate incarceration rates of African Americans and Latinos. Their book defines white complicity as “the ways that whites benefit from, consciously and unconsciously participate in, and contribute to the policies, laws, institutions, and social structures that create, sustain, and perpetuate hyper-incarceration” (33). The authors are white Catholic theologians who specialize in social ethics, and they frame white complicity and hyper-incarceration as moral issues. Although the book is aimed at white Christians, it is broad enough in scope to appeal to a wide audience. In their analysis of what it means to be white in U.S. society, the authors draw on scholarship from fields such as history, law, sociology, criminology, philosophy, and theology.

The book is divided into three sections: “Structure,” “Culture,” and “Spirituality.” In the first section, which is written by Mikulich, hyper-incarceration is situated as a problem rooted in other forms of racial injustice that have occurred throughout U.S. history. Hyper-incarceration did not arise spontaneously. Instead, it is a present day reproduction of white domination. Mikulich provides a thought-provoking illustration of how whites as a group are socialized in ways that prevent examination of the social construction of whiteness and the privileges associated with being white. Through discussion of issues such as white self-segregation, he demonstrates how physical, social, and moral separation of whites from other racial groups prevents whites from understanding the role that white privilege plays in maintaining macro-level social structures that support hyper-incarceration.

In the second section of the book, Cassidy discusses the need for whites to interrogate the extent to which we are culturally conditioned to hold stereotypical images in our imaginations. These images support the myth that African American males are dangerous. Due to its emphasis on the extent to which whites lack conscious awareness of these images, this discussion is intriguing. The images, which have been entrenched in society throughout U.S. history, legitimated historical oppressions such as slavery and lynching, and they continue to legitimate current oppressions such as racial profiling and hyper-incarceration. Cassidy’s discussion of stereotypes is extended by an analysis of the origins of mainstream hip-hop and the images that it promotes today. The majority of consumers of hip-hop are white, and their exposure to fictionalized and commercialized images of African Americans is problematic because the images, which are generated for corporate profit, create a false sense of familiarity with black culture and often substitute for real-life relationships with African Americans.

In the third section of the book, Pfeil suggests ways to dismantle structures that support hyper-incarceration. She offers a detailed discussion of prerequisites for achieving social transformation. Through discussion of figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and James Baldwin, she illustrates that nonviolent white resistance should be grounded in a spirituality that embraces the beatitudes. In other words, anti-racist activists must embrace the ideals preached by Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., detachment from material goods, mercy, peacemaking, etc.). Pfeil points out that this requires an eradication of self-interest.

My only criticism is that the authors rely heavily on direct quotes from other sources. Overall, however, the book is an essential resource for readers interested in social change. The book rewards reading and re-reading in the sense that it is multi-faceted and thought-provoking. The discussions of a range of other scholarly publications provide readers with a rich and interdisciplinary body of sources for further reading. Some of these sources include The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone, White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race by Ian Haney Lopez, The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, and The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop — And Why It Matters by Tricia Rose.

One comment on “The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-Incarceration

  1. Della
    March 3, 2016

    Very interesting. I must read it.

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