In a recent meeting held by SURJ-Boston (Stand Up for Racial Justice) and the Boston Anti-Racism Knapsack group, we talked about all the laws and practices that have led to structural racism throughout our history. This is the list we came up with collectively; it is not exhaustive. From a systems thinking point of view it is quite impressive.
The word STRUCTURE in structural racism is used appropriately. When systems thinkers say structure, we are referring to laws, customs, and practices. We are also talking about the movement and stockpiles of money, of people, of material, information, and perceptions, and even emotion. These stockpiles endure, and what is happening now is inextricably linked to what has happened in the past. For example, if a big pile of money has accumulated over the years, it gives the owners, and their children, an advantage. One of the biggest ideas from systems thinking is this.
Structure drives behavior. Structure drivesperformance, and success, orlack thereof.
Below is a partial list of legal and business practices that have prevented people of color from having the same access to wealth and happiness that white people have received. These laws and practices are part of what is meant by “Structural racism”, they are structures that have not worked for all people, only some. And “white privilege” refers to the exclusive benefits that white people have gotten (and continue to get) from these and many other structures.
Law or Practice
Slavery [People as Property]
Black Code Laws
Social Security [excluded domestic and agricultural workers]
GI Bill, Title III
Bank Lending Policies [exclude Blacks]
FHA Mortgage Insurance [Restrictive Deeds]
White Flight [enabled by the Interstate Highway System]
Urban Renewal [Highways through communities of color]
Restrictive Laws [loss of voting rights]
Voting Rights Act
Prison Contract Labor [Public and privately managed prisons]
War on Drugs
Prisons for Profit
Crime Omnibus Bill
Zero Tolerance [in education]
Subprime Lending [Disproportionately affects people of color]
Stop & Frisk
Affordable Care Act [Medicaid only state by state]
Systems thinking tools focus on cause and effect relationships that together drive the behavior of things we care about over time. Profits are just one of those things.
This blog is part three in a several part series on Incarceration & Health. Below are links to the three previous blogs in this series:
I invite you to share your thoughts and comments.
In February 2016, I traveled with some colleagues to St. Paul Minnesota where the Department of Health had convened about ~30 people to talk about the relationships, the connections between Health and Incarceration, i.e. the system. This Incarceration blog series covers many of the ideas these articulate folks discussed.
No serious look at a system in the US is complete without following the money. The group identified a couple of different places where money is flowing – and not flowing – that are worth mentioning.
Investment (or Not) into Community Creates Self-fulfilling Prophesy
Related to the previous post, there is a lack of investment into communities that are predominantly people of color. The long history of government sponsored Redlining led to White Flight, and created enduring segregation of white communities and black communities. White flight was exacerbated by a profit-taking scheme created by real estate businessmen; they fanned the flames of fear to get white people to sell quickly at a lower prices.
Investments in black communities for housing, business, transportation, education, and healthcare were lower than in the newly growing white suburbs. These are the very factors one thinks of when thinking of a healthy community.
It is noteworthy, that the recent ACA (Affordable Care Act) Medicaid coverage is now only provided on a state by state basis. Many of the southern and conservative states have opted out, leaving the same investment-starved black communities without the sorely-needed healthcare coverage.
Community health has been to a large degree self-fulfilling prophesy for both white communities and black communities. Investments serve to boost community health. Previously incarcerated people come out of prisons in an unhealthy state, having not received adequate health treatment. And given the lop-sided racial representation in the prisons, they return in higher rates to communities of color, where there are fewer resources to help them survive, much less get well. Too often they don’t.
Unhealthy communities and people reinforce the fear and isolation of white communities, sometimes located mere miles away. And the isolation itself is a contributor. As long as white people have limited exposure have to black people, to their stories and their lives, the more fear will continue to drive our policies, and investment patterns.
Incarceration: Big Business, Big Profits, and Big Influence
In 2015, $80 billion dollars were spent in the US on incarceration of 2.2 million people. At the heart of any successful business is a growth engine, a reinforcing loop. In this case there are many private for-profit companies large and small who have benefitted from the expansion in incarceration of the last several decades. One group in MN came up with this diagram showing how the profitability gives the industry greater sway in developing policies that lead to a growing population, increasing demand for their products. That just what capitalism does; it works to expand markets maximizing their return on a given investment. It is certain, the business of providing the various services to the so-called prison-industrial complex has help to fuel its growth.
But the expansion, and the increasing price tag hasn’t gone unnoticed. Many states have been balking at adding more prisons, which has led in many cases to overcrowding. The strictness of parole policies increases recidivism, but the prisons are full. So a new market, products enabling supervision outside of prisons and jails, is growing. And it has a much lower upfront investment.
Over the last several years there has been a lot of media attention on the growing prison industry, and policy makers have been aware of the safety and abuse issues with for-profit prisons. The US Justice Department in August announced a decision to close private for profit prisons for federal inmates over time. The three primary corporations providing most of those services are predictably fighting back.
Prison Labor – A Great Deal and Adding Insult to Injury
Even now, in 2016, prison labor is widely used by the US federal government and for many well-known private corporations. Inmates earn between zero and two dollars per hour to do farm work, provide customer service, clean up oil spills, and assembling military uniforms, lingerie, and fast food uniforms. Some say, in the case of the federal government, they are saving the taxpayers money. Which is true, but this practice also increases the number of unemployed people who could be doing those jobs at minimum wage. It is a regressive policy, allowing multibillion dollar corporations to make more profits that are distributed to the top 10% of earners while denying people in poverty jobs.
Even in 1927, the US government recognized the ‘ruinous and unfair competition’ prison labor created, and regulated programs were created to prevent these effects. The latest manifestation implemented by the US Congress in 1979 is known as the Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP or PIE). Presently mandatory wage requirements for PIECP are being ignored and openly violated. As a result, many jobs have been lost to the prison labor industry, competition with free-market businesses has been stifled, and predatory market behavior is being supported. [link]
As I discussed in Part III, this practice began with the use of the post-Civil War Black Codes, laws that essentially made being black a criminal offense. It very efficiently jailed the newly freed slaves, and put them to work again for land owners, creating a captive, sub-prevailing wage labor source.
Today, our prisons and jails are filled predominantly with people of color, and the practice continues. While it certainly gives the appearance of overt racism, the results of this practice are, in deed, biased against people of color, whether intentional or not. Contract prison labor continues to put people of color in a position of working for practically nothing, in addition to a complete loss of their freedoms and rights.
In our country, where the capitalist system rules, it is vitally important to understand who benefits financially from laws and policies. And it is imperative that they do not have an undue influence in the decision making. The health of a society is measured in more than collective corporate profits that have ‘naturally’ accrued to the wealthiest few. The system of incarceration in this nation is a source of disease for our society.
Incarceration & Health – Systems Perfectly Designed for Dis-ease
From the beginning, the US incarceration systems were designed to maintain and increase profitability and wealth of landowners and business owners.
Wealthy and powerful interests have historically used policies designed to target and incarcerate people of color. Prisons and jails are run as businesses, minimizing expenses, and working to expand market. At least 47 corporations have and continue to exploit captive unpaid labor source in the form of prison labor. This, in spite of regulations on the books that are not being enforced. These policies need to be enforced.
People who spend time prison come out less healthy, physically and mentally. They face barriers to adequate housing, employment, and health services. For the rest of their lives, they are the target market for the prison industry. Individuals who are incarcerated must have adequate healthcare services including treatment for addiction and mental illness. These services are also necessary after they are released. [Part I]
The families of people who have been incarcerated have been injured by that system. Their children have a higher number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which increases their likelihood of disease and unhealthy and criminal behaviors. This is a vicious cycle, that becomes a generational pattern. Incarceration leads to dis-ease in many families. [Part II]
Certain communities have been damaged by the systems of incarceration. Since the 1950s, real estate policies have led to extreme segregation and isolation of white and black communities. Black communities are viewed with fear, and as riskier investments for businesses. They become the holding place for previously incarcerated people. Incarceration causes dis-ease in many communities. [Part III]
Hope for a Better Tomorrow
The group also had some hopeful thoughts about how to get unstuck from this situation through organizing. Through my systems thinking lens the policies that perpetuate these patterns must be changed. To increase the health of all our communities, we need:
- – Unbiased policing, and conviction
- – An overhaul of sentencing guidelines for drug infractions.
- – An elimination of for-profit prisons.
- – Inmates must have adequate and effective healthcare, including addiction treatment and mental health services.
- – Cost to use prison labor must be on par with prevailing wages.
- – Increase investment in black communities transportation, businesses including grocery stores, schools.
- – Initiation of Community/Police partnerships to build trust.
- – Mitigate the Adverse Childhood Experiences that incarceration causes.
- – Initiate Peace and Reconciliation dialogues.
- – Support for HR40, to study possible reparations.
The group in Minnesota noted that all of this starts with organizing. Although it is a long and partial list of policies that need to be addressed, it begins with collective action. Awareness and civic engagement is also a reinforcing cycle, and will lead to policy change. And slowly at first communities will become healthier, and hope will grow. There will be opposition – peaceful I hope – but many of us will be proud not to have been bystanders.
The group also talked about incarceration’s effect on the health of families. It turns out the picture is complicated further by intergenerational effects.
An incarcerated parent increases the likelihood of problems and illness the children.
There are really big things going on with youth that are connected to health and incarceration. The first is a not too recent discovery of the long-term effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. This is game-changing research boils down to this, the rougher your childhood is, the higher your health risk, and the more likely you will adopt unhealthy behaviors, including substance abuse.
Vincent Felitti, the researcher who first published this critical research, identified nine stress-inducing childhood experiences. Individuals are given one point for each experience they had, and the points are summed for an ACE score. Points are accrued for different types of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunctions. Having an incarcerated parent is one point; having a parent that is depressed is another, and one who abuses alcohol or drugs is another.
So incarceration, which can also give rise to isolation and physical and mental illness, gets passed down to the children through these ACE factors. The ACEs phenomena is physiological; it is thought that the heightened risks for illness and unhealthy behaviors arise through disrupted neurological development in the early years of a child, and that those lead to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment.
Some of the health problems and unhealthy behaviors that are linked to these adverse childhood experiences include depression, drug use, and alcoholism, each of which increases the ACE score of the next generation. These and the other elevated risks for chronic disease including diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancers are part of the costly and growing burden of chronic disease in the Unites States. So, yes, as incarceration grows, the number of people affected by ACEs grows, and the health burden grows. Breaking this intergenerational cycle of ACEs would have many benefits.
The second important thing happening with respect to is the increase in likelihood of youth being involved with the justice system. The way in which the education system handles ACE-stressed youths in lower-income communities, is by cracking down on them, resulting in what has been described as a School to Prison Pipeline. Youth who socially, emotionally, and cognitively are not able to thrive in the US educational environment, often because of their adverse childhood experiences, get shunted into the juvenile justice systems, adding to another vicious cycle. The combination of these intergenerational effects is another set of very powerful reinforcing loops that add fuel to an already growing set of problems in the incarceration and health.
Trauma-based behavior in youth often leads to entry into juvenile justice system.
If we put the effects of ACEs together with the education system’s punitive reactions to kids who have trouble at school, what we get is traumatized kids showing up at schools whose default is to divert them into the criminal justice system as soon as they show the results of their trauma. This often leads to their incarceration, increased physical and mental illness, which they bring back to their families, and the ACE cycle continues. In the causal loop diagram below, we see the circular chains of cause and effect – more reinforcing loops, aka vicious cycles. (An ‘o’ at the arrowhead indicates an effect in the opposite direction e.g. as youth health decreases, punitive reactions increase.) These reinforcing loops tend to gain power over time, and causing all things in the loop to grow exponentially. Until something makes them stop by breaking a causal link, or by providing a limit to that growth.
Two promising areas for intervention in this part of the system are 1) choosing different and more effective interventions for youth who having social, emotional and cognitive difficulties at school – not punitive reactions, and 2) medically appropriate treatment for the incarcerated population, to improve their health status, not to exacerbate it. Of particular importance is effective treatment for addictions and mental illness. To some degree, people have recognized the implications of the school-to-prison pipeline, and some improvements are being made. But what remains are stunning inequities for people of color.
Speaking of which, in a rare and courageous move on the part of the Minnesota Department of Health, Racism was on the table when we met in Minnesota. There is (of course) even more going on than the feedback drivers we identified in Part I and Part II of this series.
So far, in 2016, I have had several eye-opening experiences which I am sharing in the first several posts of this our new blog. They will be through the lens of systems thinking and learning. I hope you will feel free to share your thoughts, and your questions. I am also open to ideas about other blog topics.
I also sometimes have more personal musing which I may also jin up the courage to share here. The category for these more frivolous posts is Personal, so you can continue to keep your distance to just hear more serious thoughts. Though I must say, even I get weighed down from tackling the biggest, serious issues, so I do recommend some measure of fun to balance it out, wherever you choose to find it.
I hope you will add your comments to the thinking and ideas I offer. But let’s keep in mind that it’s a complex world out there, and we all see and understand things differently. I’ll offer what I see and observe, and sometimes what I feel. And I would like to suggest preemptively that we behave like high-performing folks, and use care with our words.
This blogging thing takes more courage than you might imagine.
Look forward to hear from you!