Analyzing race relations in and out of prison
By Bruce King
When they pack you into the back of a black van, it only begins to set in. The process of acceptance can take years, and it never happens immediately. This is really happening. I will not see my family or friends for a very long time. Federal prison sentences are immovable. There is no parole, so I buckled in with the intention of enduring at least 85 percent of my 42-month sentence for associated felony drug charges.
From the moment I left my holding cell in county jail, where I had spent three months awaiting transport, and headed to the Brooklyn holdover, a trend emerged: This place is the anti-college.
Having finished more than three years of my degree at Ithaca College, where diversity is akin to seeing a few speckles of pepper that found its way into the salt shaker, the opposite is exhibited here. White is the minority. However, unlike pepper, the shades of brown are not intermingled among the spectrum of shades—on the contrary, each race tends to find and gravitate toward others within their racial group.
Sit in a college class in which race is being discussed, and you’re bound to get more than a few students (often white, though not exclusively) who believe that the issue of race is not at all relevant anymore. Since my return to school in the spring, I have come across a great many people who believe that race in no way affects our experience as human beings. All I want to ask them is, do you think that would be the case if you were to be forced from the norm that insulates you and most other Ithaca College students?
At some point in time, I myself may have harbored such a belief; however, during my extended absence from Ithaca College, I found myself in a situation where the reality of racism in the United States proved unavoidable.
When I finally arrived in my designated institution after a month on the road, traveling from prison to prison in transit, I was thrown into something of a demographic lottery, not all that different from the one depicted on Chappelle’s Show when the Asians manage to draft the Wu-Tang Clan.
I am of mixed decent, half white New Englander and half Mexican. However, I have a very fair complexion, which has long allowed me to pass for Italian. I also have a slight New England accent and a decent vocabulary, which have granted me a certain mobility. I was able to blend in well enough with the primarily Caucasian white-collars if I so desired, or the “connected” Philly Italians. Even so, there was part of this that felt disingenuous to me because I’ve always identified strongly with my mother’s family, who still lives in Mexico.
When I was the new kid on the cell block, I’d sit in the rec yard and hear how the lighter-skinned races would criticize the other races, especially those of Hispanic descent. It was all I could do not to start an altercation. I guess I seemed “safe” company to share such sentiments with. However, at that point I had not yet found it in me to simply walk up to a group of Latinos in the cafeteria and claim my race. Something about it seemed forced.
A few weeks into my time, I was using the phone. Upon completion of my 15-minute limit call, I was about to walk away from the booth when a white-haired, Caucasian inmate ran up and grabbed the receiver from me. This upset a large, middle-aged, non-English-speaking Puerto Rican, whom I would later come to know as Bronco. Bronco was clearly disappointed that I had not spoken on his behalf because he felt he had been there first. I was uncomfortable intervening in any way since I was still a newbie. Bronco muttered a series of profanities in Spanish at me that I was clearly not supposed to understand.
When I responded to him in his native tongue, his eyes widened. “Hispana?” he asked me. “Claro,” I replied.
Any perceived transgression on my part was instantly forgiven. Bronco took me around and introduced me to the Latino contingent as a new brother in the facility. We cooked together, sat together in the dining hall and became quite close. If one of them needed help with legal forms or GED requirements, I would often be called upon. I even gained a seat in the Hispanic section of the TV room.
When my mother would come visit me (an eight-hour trip for her), she was embraced by a community of Spanish-speaking spouses and families that would offer her a place to stay and emotional support via phone calls. She was visibly Mexican and thus adopted instantly. She often made connections before she even entered the visiting room. She spoke Spanish to them, but even if she had not, her complexion was a good enough pass for her. The more people she connected to, the more Latinos were willing to approach me and view me as one of them.
Despite these benefits, affiliations come at a price. If altercations broke out, you were expected to side along racial lines in spite of friendships that may otherwise supersede skin color. Like a traded ballplayer in a brawl against his old team, one had to at least delve out some semblance of physical retribution, even if during color-neutral peacetime everyone would get along.
This proved to be a major issue for me. During my time, I straddled many racial lines and social divides. Like I mentioned before, I was educated and light-skinned, so I got along well with white collars even though I was serving for drug charges. I was from New England while serving time in a Pennsylvania facility, so I had a tight relationship with other Bostonians who were of various shades. For some inmates, religion was a dividing factor. It was not uncommon to see a black Protestant having arguments with black Muslims.
Return to Reality
After three years of serving time, I was released and re-engaged the world through a new lens—a deconstructive hybrid of both academic and prison knowledge. Looking back on my bid, it’s clear to me that the prison population is not representative of the country’s racial makeup. According to a 2009 Project America study, “Black males have experienced the highest rate of imprisonment—6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males—of the three major races in the United States.” It is clear that with regard to the makeup of the prison population, race matters in who is locked up and why.
Furthermore, the way that race becomes interpreted and manifested is more pronounced in prison.
However, in my experience since finishing my sentence, the undertones of race relations on the outside remain. During my semester back at Ithaca College, I have observed similar racial segregations among groups. Students of more visibly colored minorities tend to affiliate themselves closer with those of similar hue. The only real difference is that the make-up of the student body is something of the inverse of the prison population, since there are far more white people than minorities at Ithaca College.
So to those who say that race is no longer an issue, one must contextualize their experience. Having viewed discrimination against otherwise privileged whites on the inside, I really have to question whether those same people who out here claim that race is not an issue could truly say the same thing if their role in society were reversed. Can a fish tell the water is wet if it has never been removed from it?
Furthermore, I’m left wondering if prison is a state of exception, or if it is rather a microcosm of society at large. In prison, though, public policy has reversed representation by privileging a certain group through relative omission.
So it seems that I am left with far more questions than answers.
I think, fundamentally, what I’ve come to find through the juxtaposition of prison and the college experience is a sense that inequalities do exist along racial divisions in this country, and that those inequalities play themselves out in numerous ways. Although race may be a constructed idea, it has very real consequences and manifestations in various sectors of society. It exists subtly in subtext and pronounced in hardships. One cannot simply wish it away and believe that it is therefore gone, just as an inmate cannot dream away his prison bars.
Bruce King is a senior politics major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.