More evidence of a racist North: disparities in incarceration rates by race existed in late 1800s

There is a disparity across racial groups in incarceration rates in the United States today. But this is not a recent phenomenon: a recently published sociological study argues this dates back to the late 1800s.

Since 1970, the percentage of Americans in prison has skyrocketed; the incarceration rate is especially pronounced among blacks. Though it’s often assumed that the racial disparity came along with the surge in incarceration, a recent study by a sociologist at Harvard suggests that the disparity originated earlier, with the emigration of blacks from the South. Not only was the racial disparity in incarceration higher in the North to begin with, but it rose sharply in the North after 1880, even while dropping sharply in the South after 1900. What exacerbated the racial disparity in the North was the fact that blacks were competing with lower-class immigrants from Europe, many of whom—particularly the Irish—had come to dominate law enforcement and were looking for any excuse to arrest blacks. In a sense, the Irish—who, ironically, had gotten a reputation as troublemakers when they first immigrated—traded places with blacks. “As the incarceration rate of Irish immigrants and their children in Great Migration states declined from 245 to 158 people per 100,000 between 1880 and 1950, the nonwhite incarceration rate leapt from 203 to 594.”

Muller, C., “Northward Migration and the Rise of Racial Disparity in American Incarceration, 1880–1950,” American Journal of Sociology (September 2012).

This is more evidence that the North has had a long history of issues over race after the Civil War. The typical narrative often doesn’t allow for this; the story often goes that the South was the racist and discriminatory part of the country and the Jim Crow laws prove this. But the North may not have been much better. In addition to these differences in incarceration rates, there is evidence of:

1. Increasing levels of residential segregation between whites and blacks emerging in many Northern cities in the early 1900s. As the Great Migration picked up, blacks were pushed to live in black areas, not in white neighborhoods. For example, the thousands upon thousands of blacks who entered the city were forced into the Black Belt. See the book American Apartheid, among other research.

2. Many smaller Northern communities had “sundown laws” that did not allow blacks to stay in the community after dark. While blacks had unprecedented residential mobility in the two decades after the Civil War, these new sundown rules pushed blacks back into major cities. See the book Sundown Towns.

The problems with white stereotypes in movies like The Help and To Kill a Mockingbird

Here is an interesting take on how the presentation of white people in The Help (and To Kill a Mockingbird) obscures the existence of racial systems in the Jim Crow South:

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists…

To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.

Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.

But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.

Turner is arguing that the Jim Crow South was a system supported by much of Southern society of all social classes. In contrast, movies can portray racism as being the opinion of particular individuals or of people of smaller social groups. This “whitewash” perhaps helps us feel better today – only bad people were racists – and also reflects our own moral calculus where racists can’t be good people.

But we know from American history that this was not exactly the case. Many “virtuous” and celebrated Southerners supposed slavery and Jim Crow laws. And the North is also complicit: “sundown towns” were the norm and segregation were quite high (and still are). Overall, racism and discrimination still takes place within systems that require beginnings and maintenance provided by people living within the systems and also those in charge.