The New Racial Domain
April 30, 2004
By Manning Marable
The nearly forty million Americans of African descent find ourselves in
an unprecedented situation, with the slow demise of affirmative action. The
enemies of racial justice have not (yet) reinstalled "colored" and "white"
signs at restrooms and restaurants. Jim Crow segregation isn't just around
the corner. Yet something more powerful and deadly seems to be on the agenda.
Several years ago in my book, The Great Wells of Democracy: The Meaning of
Race in American Life, I advanced the thesis that the prison-industrial
complex was the central, driving factor behind this social transformation.
I now think that formulation was too angular and ahistorical.
A more dialectical approach would stress the intersectionalities between
social variables and institutions that are currently devastating the lives
of millions of black people. Simply put, the matrix of what can be called
the New Racial Domain is a deadly triangle, or unholy trinity of structural
racism: mass unemployment, mass incarceration, mass disfranchisement. This
triangle of "color-blind racism" creates an endless cycle of economic
marginalization, and social exclusion, culminating in civil and social death.
The cycle of destruction starts with chronic, mass unemployment and
poverty. Real incomes for the working poor actually fell significantly
during Clinton's second term in office. After the 1996 welfare act, the
social safety net was largely pulled apart. As the Bush administration took
power, chronic joblessness spread to black workers in the manufacturing
By early 2004, in cities such as New York, fully one-half of all black male
adults are now outside of the paid labor force. By January 2004, the number
of families on public assistance had declined to two million, down from
five million families on welfare in 1995. New regulations and restrictions
intimidate thousands of poor people from requesting public assistance.
Mass unemployment inevitably feeds mass incarceration. About one-third of
all prisoners were unemployed at the time of their arrests, and others
averaged less than $20,000 annual incomes in the year prior to their
incarceration. When the Attica prison insurrection occurred in upstate New
York in 1971, there were only 12,500 prisoners in New York State's
correctional facilities, and about 300,000 prisoners nationwide. By 2001,
New York State held over 71,000 women and men in its prisons; nationally,
2.1 million were imprisoned.
Today about five million Americans are arrested annually, and roughly one
in five Americans possess a criminal record. Mandatory-minimum sentencing
laws adopted in the 1980s and 1990s in many states stripped judges of their
discretionary powers in sentencing, imposing draconian terms on first-time
and non-violent offenders. Parole has been made more restrictive as well,
and in 1995 Pell grant subsidies supporting educational programs for
prisoners were ended.
For those fortunate enough to successfully navigate the criminal justice
bureaucracy and emerge from incarceration, they discover that both the
federal and state governments explicitly prohibit the employment of
convicted ex-felons in hundreds of vocations. The cycle of unemployment
In seven states, former prisoners convicted of a felony lose their voting
rights for life. In the majority of states, individuals on parole and
probation cannot vote. About 15 percent of all African-American males
nationally are either permanently or currently disfranchised. In
Mississippi, one-third of all black men are unable to vote for the
remainder of their lives. In Florida, 818,000 residents cannot vote for life.
Even temporary disfranchisement fosters a disruption of civic engagement
and involvement in public affairs. This can lead to "civil death," the
destruction of the capacity for collective agency and resistance. This
process of depolitization undermines even grassroots,
non-electoral-oriented organizing. The deadly triangle of the New Racial
Domain constantly and continuously grows unchecked.
Not too far in the distance lies the social consequence of these policies:
an unequal, two-tiered, uncivil society, characterized by a governing
hierarchy of middle- to upper-class "citizens" who own nearly all property
and financial assets, and a vast subaltern of quasi- or subcitizens
encumbered beneath the cruel weight of permanent unemployment,
discriminatory courts and sentencing procedures, dehumanized prisons,
voting disfranchisement, residential segregation, and the elimination of
most public services for the poor.
The later group is virtually excluded from any influence in a national
public policy. Institutions that once provided space for upward mobility
and resistance for working people such as unions have been largely
dismantled. Integral to all of this is racism, sometimes openly vicious and
unambiguous, but much more frequently presented in race neutral,
Dr. Manning Marable is Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science and
History, and the Director of the Institute for Research in African-American
Studies at Columbia University in New York. "Along the Color Line" is
distributed free of charge to over 350 publications throughout the U.S. and
internationally. Dr. Marable's column is also available on the Internet at