Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Malcolm X’s challenge to mass incarceration

The black power leader warned that America was a racist prison state. Fifty years after his death, it still is

February 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

Fifty years ago today, assassins killed black power activist Malcolm X during a speech to the Organization for Afro-American Unity at New York City’s Audubon Ballroom. Although they ended the life of one of the 20th century’s most dynamic leaders, they did not kill his impact. His insights into racism and freedom are as necessary today as when he first spoke them. A half-century after his murder, Malcolm X may still be one of our best guides for making sense of American racism, an evil that once again roils the country.

Malcolm X’s enduring influence owes in part to the truth of his metaphors, his way with words and the relentlessness of his criticism — in particular, his depiction of the United States as a prison. In making the comparison, he gave voice to the confinement he saw in a white supremacy still evident.

“Don’t be shocked when I say I was in prison,” he often told his audiences. “You’re still in prison. That’s what America means — prison.”

Before he was a political activist, Malcolm X spent several years incarcerated for a series of robberies. It was in prison, like hundreds of other black men in the 1950s and 1960s, that he joined the black nationalist religious group the Nation of Islam and launched his time as an activist.

Police mug shot of 25-yr-old future black activist Malcolm X, known as Malcolm Little

To Malcolm X, prison was more than its bricks and mortar. It was a metaphor for racism. Prisons use armed force to deny the mobility, insult the integrity and restrict the civic and political participation of its captives. And for the black audiences who heard Malcolm X speak — men and women who went to underfunded schools, worked dangerous and low-paying jobs where they could find them, faced harassment in employment lines or welfare offices, were forced to live in only certain neighborhoods and in many parts of the country were barred from voting by police and vigilante organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan — the United States did mean prison.

Prison, then, was an exaggerated form of the daily indignities black women and men faced.  What made this metaphor ring so true is that black communities — years before the launch of the war on drugs — were already heavily policed and disproportionately incarcerated.

Rejecting the character assassination of criminalization, Malcolm X inverted concepts of guilt and innocence as they played out in the routine arrests of black people. “You can’t be a Negro in America and not have a criminal record,” he said. “Martin Luther King has been to jail. James Farmer has been to jail. Why, you can’t name a black man in this country who is sick and tired of the hell that he’s catching who hasn’t been to jail.” 

Fifty years later, inside the world’s biggest jailer, Malcolm X still beckons us to work for an America that may one day be described as something other than a vast prison.

Imprisonment was the price of blackness. It respected neither class nor crime: Black people were incarcerated for protesting racism, engaging in antisocial activity or simply living in a neighborhood subject to pre-emptive policing.

At the time that Malcolm X began to challenge the prison of America in the late 1950s, the United States incarcerated fewer than 200,000 people in prisons and jails. Today, that number has metastasized to more than 2.3 million people, almost half of whom are black. Accounting for a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Feeding that statistic is the broken-windows model of policing recently defended by New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in the wake of the police killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, outside a convenience store in Staten Island. The law enforcement approach that emerged in the 1980s encourages police to intervene in low-level, so-called quality of life issues, such as Garner’s selling of loose cigarettes ostensibly to prevent more serious crime. But the model of hypervigilant policing of working-class black communities has a much longer history.

One week before his death, the 39-year-old Malcolm X spoke against the reality that “any Negro in the community can be stopped in the street. ‘Put your hands up,’ and they pat you down,” he said. The problem, he said, is that the “black community … has been projected as a community of criminals.” That projection has justified “any kind of brutal methods to suppress blacks because ‘they’re criminals anyway.’”

Malcolm X spent his political life resisting the kind of criminalization of black communities that has catalyzed protests around the country over the last six months. He was an outspoken critic of a system that has justified the arrest, imprisonment and death of so many people long before it reached the kind of crisis proportions that see a black person being killed by law enforcement or vigilantes every 28 hours, on average.

Today Malcolm X pushes us to look beyond police body cameras or a reduction of the drug war. He recognized that racism could not be eliminated by giving police more power, resources or training. Rather, in the interests of social justice, he called for less police influence in the lives of poor and oppressed people.

Shortly before his death, Malcolm X praised civil rights activists in Selma, Alabama, for pursuing “a version of freedom larger than America’s prepared to accept.” Fifty years later, inside the world’s biggest jailer, Malcolm X still beckons us to work for an America that may one day be described as something other than a vast prison. 

Dan Berger, an assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington at Bothell, is the author of “Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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