Summer 2010

Class, race & hyperincarceration in revanchist America

Loïc Wacquant

Loïc Wacquant is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Researcher at the Centre de sociologie européenne, Paris. He is a MacArthur Foundation Fellow (1997 to 2002) and recipient of the 2008 Lewis Coser Award from the American Sociological Association. His books have been translated in some dozen languages and include Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (2008), Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), Prisons of Poverty (2009), and Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (forthcoming 2010, Polity Press).

The single greatest political transformation of the post-civil rights era in America is the joint rolling back of the stingy social state and rolling out of the gargantuan penal state that have remade the country’s stratification, cities, and civic culture, and are recasting the very character of “blackness” itself. Together, these two concurrent and convergent thrusts have effectively redrawn the perimeter, mission, and modalities of action of public authority when it comes to managing the deprived and stigmatized populations stuck at the bottom of the class, ethnic, and urban hierarchy. The concomitant downsizing of the welfare wing and up-sizing of the criminal justice wing of the American state have not been driven by raw trends in poverty and crime, but fueled by a politics of resentment toward categories deemed undeserving and unruly. Chief among those stigmatized populations are the public-aid recipients and the street criminals framed as the two demonic figureheads of the “black underclass” that came to dominate the journalistic, scholarly, and policy debate on the plight of urban America1 in the revanchist decades that digested the civil disorders of the 1960s and the stagflation of the 1970s, and then witnessed the biggest carceral boom in world history.2

In this article, I show that the stupendous expansion and intensification of the activities of the American police, criminal courts, and prison over the past thirty years have been finely targeted, first by class, second by race, and third by place, leading not to mass incarceration but to the hyperincarceration of (sub)proletarian African American men from the imploding ghetto. This triple selectivity reveals that the building of the hyperactive and hypertrophic penal state that has made the United States world champion in incarceration is at once a delayed reaction to the civil rights movement and the ghetto riots of the mid-1960s3 and a disciplinary instrument unfurled to foster the neoliberal revolution by helping to impose insecure labor as the normal horizon of work for the unskilled fractions of the postindustrial laboring class.4 The double coupling of the prison with the dilapidated hyperghetto, on the one side, and with supervisory workfare, on the other, is not a moral dilemma–as recently argued by Glenn Loury in his Tanner Lecture5–but a political quandary calling for an expanded analysis of the nexus of class inequality, ethnic stigma, and the state in the age of social insecurity. Reversing the racialized penalization of .  .  .


  • 1Michael B. Katz, ed., The “Underclass” Debate: Views from History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995); Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).
  • 2See Neil Smith for a stimulating discussion of the notion of revanche as an extended and multiform “visceral reaction in the public discourse against the liberalism of the post-1960s period and an all-out attack on the social policy structure that emanated from the New Deal and the immediate postwar era”; Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (New York: Routledge, 1996), 42. See also Michael Flamm for a painstaking account of how the conflation of racial tumult, antiwar protest, civil disorder, and street crime laid the social foundation for the political demand for “law and order” in the wake of the class and racial dislocations of the 1960s; Michael W. Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
  • 3Loïc Wacquant, Deadly Symbiosis: Race and the Rise of the Penal State (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010).
  • 4Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).
  • 5Glenn C. Loury, “Racial Stigma, Mass Incarceration, and American Values,” Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Stanford University, April 4–6, 2007. A revised version is included in Glenn C. Loury, with Pamela Karlan, Tommie Shelby, and Loïc Wacquant, Race, Incarceration, and American Values (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).
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