Perhaps no case illustrates the necessity of theorizing the junctures of social class and race more obviously than the character of crime and punishment in the United States.
Examining patterns of mass incarceration, one find that prisoners typically hail from the poorer strata of the working class. Studies consistently find that approximately two-thirds of prisoners were unemployed or earning poverty wages at the time they committed the crime that ultimately sent them to prison.
Also striking is the degree of racial disparity in US prisons. According to the Bureau of Prison Statistics, in 2017, 38 percent of male prisoners were black despite black males comprising less than six percent of the US population. At yearend 2017, the imprisonment rate for sentenced black men (2,336 per 100,000 black male residents) was almost six times that of sentenced white men (at 397 per 100,000 white male residents).
These patterns are largely explained by the demographics of serious street crime. More than half of the 1.3 million inmates in state prisons are there for violent offenses (aggravated assault, murder, rape, and robbery) and many tens of thousands more are incarcerated for burglary or other significant larceny and theft.
In 2017, according to the Uniform Crime Report (FBI), blacks were responsible for 33 percent of aggravated assaults, 30 percent of burglaries, 53 percent of homicides, and 54 percent of robberies.
Given these numbers, it does not appear that blacks are overrepresented among prisoners relative to their involvement in serious crime. (The moral necessity of ending the drug war accepted, racial disparities in the enforcement of drug prohibition only minimally skew this pattern.)
The fundamental explanatory problem, then, is determining what lies behind patterns of street criminality. But that takes us beyond the scope of this essay. I am interested in this essay exploring the class and caste character the punishment system. However, because of the relationship between crime and punishment, the former must at points enter a discussion of the latter.
Much scholarly attention, as well as popular discourse, has focused on the problem of race in patterns of mass incarceration. The political culture of the United States amplifies concerns about race, in particular bias in the criminal justice process, while minimizing awareness of the role economic circumstances play in criminogenesis by marginalizing analyses of production relations and the structure of social class.
However, no scholar or layman who carefully and honestly looks at the problem of mass incarceration can deny the association of class and the logic of capitalist accumulation with the patterns of crime and punishment. Statistics showing racial disparity are explained more directly by political economy and the way in which it shapes and is shaped by historical patterns of residential and occupational segmentation than by race ideology, understood here as the belief that all members of a race possess abilities and proclivities specific to that race, as well as antagonism and prejudice towards members of that race based on a belief in racial superiority.
In this essay, accepting the materialist conception of history as the analytical frame for theorizing the intersection of class structure and other forms of oppression, I consider theories of race ideology and the relation of ideology to the underlying social class structure and dynamics of late capitalism. I conceptualize the intersection of class and race to adumbrate a method for theorizing patterns of crime and punishment in US society.
I conclude that, since claims of implicit racial bias in law enforcement and court behavior are difficult to sustain in the face of the demographics of crime, racial disparities in crime and criminal justice processes are more usefully sought in the workings of the capitalist economy and the attendant culture systematically generating them. I urge policymakers to pursue programs that promote economic justice for everybody regardless of race, maintain a robust criminal justice response to serious crime, and deploy penological strategies emphasizing rehabilitation while reducing isolation practices that promote prisonization.
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The capitalist mode of production is based upon the exploitation of labor power, or the human capacity to do work.
Under capitalist arrangements, labor power is commodified and exchanged for wages and wages-in-kind. Wages are thus the price of labor power. During the working day, workers produce the value of their wages, or variable capital (investment in labor power), plus surplus value (value added in the labor process), which the capitalist appropriates. Variable capital is the socially necessary labor input in that it pays for the reproduction of labor power.
Surplus value is the source of profit, which capitalists realize by selling the commodities labor produces. Profits are a source of income for the capitalist. Capitalists also invest profits to expand production to increase the profit potential of their assets. This dynamic is the foundation of capitalist accumulation. The modern structure of social class rests on the capitalist mode of production and this dynamic is the primary source of economic inequality.
Capitalists maximize surplus value by reducing the amount of socially necessary labor contained in commodities. Business firms accomplish this in a variety of ways, including wage suppression, mechanization, automation, and bureaucratic rationalization.
Labor costs are suppressed by enlarging the unemployed pool of labor through various mechanisms, such as immigration, offshoring, and monetary policy. Since the capitalist mode of production commodifies labor, subjecting workers to the lever of supply and demand, without a governmental guarantee of work or income, heightens competition as a surplus of workers drives down the price of the labor commodity.
The strategy of raising the organic composition of capital, with the introduction and intensification of labor-saving machinery and organizational efficiencies, increases output per worker thus requiring fewer of them, forcing workers into low-wage labor-intensive industries and service sector work, a situation subjecting them to high levels of economic insecurity.
Over the course of history, this system has effectively rendered segments of the population redundant, relegating human beings to a ghettoized or otherwise marginalized and precarious existence.
Those who live by selling labor, while at times able to collectively organize and marginally control the terms under which their labor-power is sold, are structurally disadvantaged in the wage-labor system. This has been particularly true in the post-WWII period, when, as a result of the class war on the proletariat and its political organizations, as well as the emergence of the transnational phase of capitalist globalization, the working class suffered a diminishment of class power.
Capitalist strategies to raise profit levels and undercut labor increase income inequality and worker marginalization. The same processes that create wealth and secure power for some segments of society, impoverish and peripheralize other segments of society.
The production of socioeconomic inequality and its associated occupation and residential patterns links capitalist accumulation to criminogenic conditions. For the proletariat, exploitation spawns greater levels of street crime by demoralizing segments of the working class living under impoverished conditions.
On the capitalist side, great inequalities of wealth, indicating a failure of democratic control over the distribution of the social surplus, breed corporate crime and abuses of power. Capitalist practices are socially injurious and many capitalists would be properly subject to criminalization under a fair rule of law, but control over the state apparatus by the bourgeoisie means that their criminalization will be muted.
Private control of property gives the capitalist class the political capacity to ultimately determine the direction of the law and its enforcement. Put another way, the dominant mode of justice under capitalism primarily reflects the needs and interests of dominant social classes.
The socially disruptive effects of capitalist accumulation shape the character of the criminal justice response. In addition to its repressive role, punishment in a capitalist society performs a productive role in maintaining the conditions that maximize the production of surplus value. The penal structure of modern capitalist society is thus a structure attendant to the needs of capitalist accumulation.
The historical development of bourgeois society and the structural imperatives of the capitalist mode of production stamp state, law, and justice with a bourgeois character. In sum, crime and punishment constitute a double movement in capitalism.
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We may begin the process of theorizing the race-class connection and its effects on crime and the structure of punishment by conceptualizing social class. Here, mainstream social science is of little value. Popular classification systems that arbitrarily group income distributions, differentiate occupations, or describe economic differences in cultural terms allow social scientists to draw distinctions where little or none meaningfully exist. More useful is the Marxist approach of organizing theory around objective and consequential material relations. Marx thought of his approach as the “materialist conception of history.” Others have dubbed this historical materialism.
From a historical materialist standpoint, social class grows out of the motion of accumulation and, at any given point, reflects the structure of production. To put this in technical terms, social class is a system of property relations and objective social-structural positions in relation to the forces of production and a system of exploitation where categories associated with these relations determine the class position of people occupying those categories (although not necessarily determining their consciousness or their political activity). Thinking of social class this way allows for the recognition that material relations are only relatively stable, as the transformation of accumulation over time transforms the structure of class. Nonetheless, the dynamic processes underlying social class provide broad continuity in inequality.
While there are several ways to think about class within the parameters of this basic scheme, class is most simply categorized in terms of property and control. For the sake of analytical clarity, we can divide the class structure into four basic categories: the capitalist class, the professional-managerial class, the proletariat or working class, and the industrial reserve.
- The capitalist class owns productive capital, seeks profit, buys labor-power, and controls labor.
- The professional-managerial class, the most privileged group of the employee classes, which, because of investments often occupy a contradictory class location (which nonetheless benefits them), may own capital and controls labor, but does not buy labor-power.
- The working class, which may be skilled or unskilled, sells labor-power, owns little or no capital, and has little or no control over labor (even less today because of the war on labor organizing and collective bargaining, or industrial democracy).
- The industrial reserve are workers who cannot sell their labor. The industrial reserve is the source of most prisoners.
As we move towards concrete levels of analysis, things become more complicated. Each class category has multiple internal levels, or class fractions or strata. Classes, while their interests are objectively determined, are never monolithic, hence there is guaranteed considerable intraclass conflict and interclass cohesion.
The capitalist class is divided into large employers, small employers, and the petty bourgeois. The professional-managerial class is divided into skilled professionals, managers, and supervisors. The interests of large employers are often at odds with those of small businesses, while managers may find their interests in part coinciding with those of their employers.
Moreover, concrete levels of power and privilege are highly variable within and without social classes. The professional-managerial and working classes may own capital (as stocks). The working class may marginally control the conditions under which they sell their labor-power; they may even have some control over aspects of the use of the labor-power. Some skilled workers make more money than petty capitalists — some professionals make considerably more than smaller employers.
Because the class structure is fluid and internally complex, it is difficult to assign percentages to these categories. A close approximation of the current US system, not including the industrial reserve, find around 50-60 percent in the working class, with some 40 or so percent being unskilled employees, and around 15 percent in the owner class, with capitalists employing 10 or more people representing some 1-2 percent. The remaining percentages are divided among the various professional-managerial class fractions.
The proportion of the general population that might be considered located in the industrial reserve depends on how the industrial reserve is conceptualized. It also depends on the needs of production at any given moment. Although under capitalism the market is structurally constrained in utilizing all the labor in the system, at different times in the business cycle and in different regions of the economy a greater or lesser number of workers will find themselves in the industrial reserve.
Official estimates of cyclical unemployment, the most common measure used in America, usually underreport unemployment. Complicating matters further is that the cyclical nature of underemployment means that many workers float between the working class and industrial reserve categories, making the notion of a “permanent underclass” problematic.
What is important for the present analysis is not the exact apportionment of people to the various class locations, but the recognition that social class is a major source of inequality in wealth and power in capitalist societies.
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Although this method of theorizing social class is superior to others, as we have seen already, social class does not exist independent of some sort of race-ethnic segregation in capitalist economies, at least not historically, and all current perspectives have difficulty dealing with this fact. Many scholars, including self-described Marxists, agree that even historical materialism, at least as it is articulated in the literature, is inadequate for studying race conflict. Marxists tend to reduce race to class dynamics, treating racism as an ideology of justification for situations rather than as an objective social structure that racializes and oppresses humans.
The work of Oliver C. Cox represents one of the earliest explicit attempts to understand the class-race nexus. Cox argues that racism is an economic strategy to maximize the production of surplus-value. He emphasizes that, historically, skin color was not the reason for black subjection. Rather, it was the labor needs of the capitalist class that enslaved Africans. The need for cheap labor created a system of racial subordination. This hierarchy of domination became defined in racial terms—that is, it became ideologically racialized. Race prejudice emerged out of economic arrangements as a culture-ideology legitimating class domination.
Before Cox, W.E.B. Du Bois employed a variant of Marxist class analysis to explore the problem of race in the United States. Like Cox, he argues that economic exploitation and racial oppression are intrinsically linked. Unlike Cox, Du Bois avoids reducing racism to economic imperatives, theorizing instead that class struggle is carried out in racialized categories that exist across the class structure. Along with the fact that blacks struggle within class categories, all workers struggle within racialized categories.
Du Bois emphasizes the role white workers played in producing and reproducing racism. Capitalists do not simply manipulate white workers into racial antagonisms. Whiteness provides both a psychological wage and (relative) material advantages.
Both scholars stress the importance of social class and the material needs and interests of the ruling economic class in analyzing modes of racial domination. By locating racism in the structure of capitalist society, both Cox and Du Bois avoid seeing race as a free-floating culture-ideology, as backwardness, as a species of primordial communal affiliation, or as differentiated human nature, that is reifying and essentializing race as something intrinsic to those who are racialized.
The strength of Du Bois work is avoiding assuming too strong an instrumentalist view of racism, i.e. seeing racial stratification as a capitalist plot to divide and conquer or that racism benefits only elites. Problematic are functionalist explanations in which the system of exploitation is theorized to call forth the existence of other systems of domination to fracture the working class and maintain superexploitable labor. Both instrumentalism and functionalism haunt Marxist explanations of criminal justice; punishment is either used by capitalists as a conscious weapon of class warfare or functions to control labor as a function of the capitalist mode of production.
David Roediger raises objections to those Marxist approaches that seek to reduce racism to capitalists’ interests.
He criticizes the claim that racism is an elite creation used to blunt the worker movement. In contrast, Marxists like Cox argue that racism is “the socio-attitudinal concomitant of the racial exploitative practice of a ruling class in a capitalistic society.” Recent labor historiography, Roediger points out, “should help us call into question any theory that holds that racism simply trickles down the class structure from the commanding heights at which it is created.” Rather, “workers, even during periods of firm ruling class hegemony, are historical actors who make (constrained) choices and create their own cultural forms.” “There is no denying that racist attitudes and practices are deeply embedded in the working class,” writes Melvin Leiman, “even in the rank and file of labor unions.” The second objection Roediger raises, and this is linked to the first, is the treatment of racism as mere ideological phenomenon.
Here, Barbara Fields comes in for criticism for her theory of race as a form of “false consciousness.” Fields contends that race is “a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.” From this perspective, contends Roediger, “Race disappears into the ‘reality’ of class.” (Obviously, this depends the conceptualization of ideology. at play.
Howard Winant criticizes Fields for her treatment of race as illusion. Winant argues that Fields sets up a false paradox where “race is either an illusion that does ideological work or an objective biological fact.” At best, Fields’ theory may account for the origins of racial thinking, but not the racial structure of bourgeois society. Her model excludes such an explanation a priori: “Race cannot take on a life of its own; it is pure ideology, an illusion.”
According to Winant, Fields’ thinking misses two important and closely-related features of race.
First, it neglects the salience of social constructs: whereas biological race may be a fiction, people globally have been racialized for so long that it does not much matter whether it is a fiction. Social constructions are part of real systems that structure people’s lives.
Second, Fields fails to acknowledge the importance of racial identity: “society is so thoroughly racialized,” Winant writes, “that to be without racial identity is to be in danger of having no identity. To be raceless is akin to being genderless.”
At this point in the development of the racial system, race-ethnic identity has become so organic to mass consciousness that to describe it as “ideological”—a term which from a Marxist perspective is defined as systematically distorted representations of reality—undermines the ability of oppressed groups to fight racial oppression by asserting their ethnic identity and using it as a weapon in their struggle.
Both Roediger and Winant, despite having made important contributions to the way we think about race, miss an opportunity to explain race in objective social relational terms, that is, in a fashion similar to the realist conceptions of social class that lay at the heart of the historical materialist approach.
Understanding the objective character of race relations and thereby putting Marxian ontology to work in organizing knowledge about race-ethnic formation is the key to integrating concepts about racial caste and social class for the task of theoretically revealing a system which, independent of the mind, dialectically unifies class and race and structurally divides the population by race. To put this more simply, blacks are oppressed not only because of what whites think about them and how whites act towards them, but because people sociohistorically constructed as black move in historically racialized social spaces that reproduce race oppression automatically.
Roediger accepts Field’s argument that whereas social class has objective dimensions (he puts “objective” in quotes), race does not possess analogs to these material class characteristics. This is not to suggest that Roediger or Fields believe racism has no real effects; it is to say that they to not subscribe to the view of the double character of racism as an objective set of structural relations and, probably only secondarily, a complex ideational phenomenon.
Winant, after advancing a useful critique of Fields’ views, commits the same error Roediger makes by arguing that it is “problematic to assign objectivity to the race concept.” By this he apparently not only means the problems associated with treating race as a biological reality, but also those sociological explanations for race differences involving what he calls a “creeping objectivism of race.” What is missing, according to Winant, is a conception of “racial formation.”
Yet what Winant misses is that the features he finds with his concept of racial formation are features of the objective structure of race as a social category. Winant seems to be unnecessarily making room for his conception of race formation by asserting that a position advancing the objectivity of race is a position that cannot account for racial formation and the historicity of racial identity.
There are objectivist definitions of race that do not sacrifice the intersubjective and formative dimension. “Racism,” writes Faye V. Harrison, “must be understood to be a nexus of material relations within which social and discursive practices perpetuate oppressive power relations between populations presumed to be essentially different.” It may therefore be more accurate to conceptualize the racial system as, along with its ideological dimensions, an objective (or material) system of relations and interactions. Racism is not only a mental event or a set of shared beliefs that structures behavior, but a mind-independent structure that imposes itself on human behavior. (See my discussion of Richard Thompson Ford’s work in the essay “Race and Democracy.”)
Understanding how racial stratification works to divide human beings into groups requires in-depth analysis of social relations as really existing things. Many features of racial oppression have been, and probably remain to be discovered. This method of understanding and explaining racism involves our readjusting consciousness to uncover the hidden and naturalized mechanisms of power in white bourgeois society. At the material level, racialized groups comprise an objective hierarchically-organized social structure. Dialectically, the ideological-cultural system reproduces the objective racial hierarchy at the same time the racial hierarchy reproduces the ideological-cultural system. Seeing race in this way returns analysis of racism to the objective work of historical materialism.
Against class reductionist models, I argue that the racial system in the United States is a caste system in contrast to a class system. Caste is based on ascription. Birth to a particular group virtually guarantees that a person will live out his life identified with a particular caste grouping. Life-chances are shaped by caste identity. A social system based on socioeconomic class is theoretically open. An individual’s class location changes when a new position in the structure of production is assumed (albeit in the concrete this can be messy, since people may occupy more than one category simultaneously).
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A caste system is an exclusive system of social groupings wherein those defined as one race cannot simply become a member of another race by changing social class locations. Features of racial systems change over time, and sometimes change rapidly (such as following the Civil War or during the 1960s). However, the basic structure of racial caste has shown a remarkable stability and persistence over the past several hundred years.
The concept of caste has a long history of general use in the sociology. In Economy and Society, Max Weber writes that a “caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system of super- and subordination.” Applying Weber’s definition to the history of capitalist development, we can show how different ethnic groups were brought into relation with one another during the global spread of capitalism and organized into a social hierarchy, or caste structure, which in the European world-system involved racialization.
The use of caste specific to the US context was developed in the 1940s when W. Lloyd Warner and others organized the so-called “caste school of race relations.” This perspective issued from criticisms of perspectives that focused on race prejudice as the sin qua non of racism.
The caste school focused instead on institutional and structural discrimination, manifest in occupational and residential segregation, imposed by law. The caste school applied the concept narrowly to the southern United States under Jim Crow.
In accord with the work of Warner, Allison Davis, Burleigh and Mary Gardner, Gunner Myrdal, John Dollard and others, Robert Park put the historical matter this way: “the social order which emerged with the abolition of slavery was a system of caste—caste based on race and color.”
Observers of the racial situation in the United States recognized that the interracial inequality was qualitatively different from intraracial inequality. In American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal wrote, “A man born a Negro or a white is not allowed to pass from the one status to the other as he can pass from one class to another. In this important respect, the caste system of America is closed and rigid, while the class system is, in a measure, always open and mobile.”
The caste school focused on the endogamous character of the caste system and the severe restrictions on social mobility that the racial structure imposed. Prohibitions, formal and informal, against miscegenation were the focal point of early theorists. In the view of the caste school, this rule virtually guaranteed that blacks could not move into white society, no matter what their economic and intellectual achievements were. According to Davis, Gardner, and Gardner, in Deep South, “The two in-marrying groups are perpetuated as castes whose differences are regarded as inherent, ‘in the very nature of things’.” Caste scholars distinguished this from class where, while there are usually in-group marriage patterns, individuals from different social classes can marry and often do, and thus can elevate their status.
In the post-Jim Crow era, the system of de jure segregation, the caste system has loosened considerably. But the past shapes the present patterns. The United States remains de facto occupationally and residentially segregated. However, thesis not institutionalized racism.
An important assumption running through these early formulations is that caste is a form of racial segmentation characterized by accommodation and that it functions to promote social stability, along with structural and institutional coercion, an elaborate culture-ideological system that legitimates racial subordination and superordination. Many researchers in the caste school observed (quoting from Deep South) “a commonly shared body of beliefs about the status and capabilities of Negroes. This body of beliefs constitutes an ideological system that is used to justify the social relationships between the superordinate whites and the subordinate Negroes.”
This is racism and it persists throughout much of the United States. Thus, while de jure system of segregation has been dismantled, there persists structured racial patterns (which may operate beyond consciousness) in work and housing, as well as the ideological system that was developed to establish, perpetuate, and rationalize these patterns.
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Having put both class and race on similar ontological planes, we can now begin to see a way to synthesize the constructs without reducing one to the other, class and race as material relations with attendant subjectivities that are crosscutting.
The distribution of racialized groups is uneven across class locations. Whereas the capitalist class is almost exclusively white, and the professional-managerial and petty bourgeois classes are predominantly white, the working class is more “evenly” divided among white and nonwhite groups, and the so-called “underclass” is disproportionately nonwhite (albeit while remaining a minority).
Because the system of racial caste cuts across class, class locations are internally racially stratified. This has the consequence of whites and blacks occupying the same class position yet moving in different cultural-ideological worlds, living out unequal political-legal and socioeconomic lives, with blacks suffering in racially subordinated positions and whites enjoying relatively higher socioeconomic fortunes.
Because class cuts across racial caste, racial locations are internally class stratified. This leads to affluent strata of African Americans supporting the legitimacy of prevailing class relations.
For the working class, this differentiation of the race-class structure involves the combination of occupation-based and racialized labor markets in such a manner that binds a privileged sector of the working class to the capitalist class. The occupation-based system, or dual-labor market, is based on the division between labor-intensive and capital/knowledge-intensive industries.
Labor-intensive industries are low-wage industries by necessity: since surplus-value is derived from the variable exercising of human labor, labor-intensive industries have high labor costs and therefore aggressively impose downward pressure on the price of labor (one of the ways of accomplishing this is immigration).
Capital and knowledge-intensive industries, because of automation and mechanization and costs in the skilled labor commodity, generate a greater amount of surplus-value given labor inputs and therefore tend towards higher wages, but also require fewer laborers and thus increase the size of the industrial reserve.
The racialized system, or split-labor market, divides the working population into racial groups, with whites on average enjoying higher wages and greater job security, and blacks and Latinos on average working for lower wages in unstable labor markets. Thus when we examine industrial organization we find that whereas whites dominate positions of leadership and wealth, minorities occupy subordinate positions.
With this in mind, we can readily identify two relatively distinct patterns of existence created by the combination of these sets of relations.
The enrichment/inclusion pattern of existence is the region of economic, political, and cultural privilege that includes capitalists, most managers, a significant portion of the petty bourgeoisie and capital and knowledge intensive workers. This region is disproportionately white, especially among the more affluent sectors. Racialization processes that code in-coming groups “white” direct racial “acceptables” into the ranks of the enriched and included. The structure becomes “whiter” or “lighter” the more we move towards the capitalist class and upper echelon of the professional-managerial class.
The impoverishment/exclusion pattern is something of a mirror image of the first region. It includes those groups defined and structured as non-white (black, nonwhite Hispanics, American Indian) and poor, uneducated/unskilled whites (who, through the language of “white trash,” are the victims of attempted racialization). Here, the process of racialization codes incoming groups “non-white,” directing stigmatized individuals into the ranks of the impoverished and excluded. Categories on this end of the continuum become “blacker” or “darker” the more we move towards the industrial reserve. At the same time, these must be reckoned in proportions, as whites remain the majority in America. For example, presently there are approximately 40 million poor people. Nine million of them are black. So while blacks comprise roughly 22 percent of those living in poverty, a large majority of those living in poverty are white.
I emphasize that the twin-dynamic of accumulation and racialization causes both of these patterns. Blacks are in an economic sense underdeveloped as a group because the class structure excludes them. Blacks, as Marable points out, are the victims of the process of development and underdevelopment wherein the interpenetration of the two poles causes wealth to accumulate at one and poverty to amass at the other.
In this system—the consequence of racial structuring emerging from the dynamic of colonialism—racialized populations exist at the US domestic periphery of the capitalist world-economy and the American sociocultural order.
Therefore racialization not only divides the working class ideologically, but also structurally. The centrality of wealth accumulation in the capitalist world-economy and the dependency of the ruling class and privileged sectors of the working class on a system of racialized labor to maximize economic surplus, control the mass of workers, and defend advantaged statuses, makes these determinations inevitable.
This is the dynamic that shapes patterns of crime and punishment described at the outset of this essay.