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Behind Bars

To Save the Republic, Confront the Carceral State

The way to a stronger democracy starts with reforming our massive criminal justice system.

When asked to write about the shape of American democracy in 2050, my impulse was to go grim. Our dystopian present is not lacking in democracy-warping horrors—global warming, rising authoritarianism, a never-ending pandemic, and the rollback of reproductive and voting rights. The trajectory of these horrors, and their disproportionate impact on Americans of color with the least resources, are predictable, and I planned to predict them. But when I sat down to write, I knew that whatever future hellscape I imagined, Octavia Butler’s Parable series, which predicted an America of climate refugees and a burgeoning eco-fascist party overseen by a leader promising to “Make America Great Again,” had already done it better.

“Hope is a discipline,” in Mariame Kaba’s inimitable phrasing, and knocking the coming apocalypse off its tracks requires hopeful utopian imaginings. Perhaps my grim impulse meant I wasn’t doing enough to imagine the future I hoped for. So permit me to imagine.

Race is the modality in which democracy is lived (to paraphrase the sociologist Stuart Hall), and America’s multiracial democracy is distorted by its massive criminal justice system. From the direct disenfranchisement many states impose on the current and formerly incarcerated through the vote-suppressing effect of racial profiling, the criminal justice system redistributes political rights from people of color to whites. To build a true multicultural democracy by 2050, Americans should listen to the abolitionists.

My hope that movements could efface the democracy-weakening impact of mass incarceration was last kindled by the millions who poured into the streets in 2020 to protest George Floyd’s murder by police. Starting with the premise that policing was fundamentally broken, protesters promised a reckoning that threatened to transform American structural racism. Calls to reorient priorities in policing (“maybe our police forces don’t need tear gas?”), sports (“OK, fine, we’ll drop our racist mascot”), the workplace, publishing, and schools collectively envisioned a better and more just world and showed how quickly things could change. The so-called racial reckoning was a mobilization rather than a mass movement and was quickly eclipsed by a right-wing countermobilization nostalgic for a past of open domination. Nevertheless, that short-lived reckoning, by taking some abolitionist ideas mainstream, may shape long-term changes.

By 2050, I hope abolitionist thought shapes an honest reckoning with structural racism. Past social justice movements have led to fundamental, lasting changes, partly because they refused to let the worst people set the agenda. Progressive victories weren’t the mythological tale of linear progress told during a corporatized Black History Month. Civil rights history is full of both triumphs and shattering losses. The protests following George Floyd’s murder were themselves made possible by the Black Lives Matter movement, which had spent years laying the groundwork that culminated in 2020’s massive mobilizations.

A just 2050 requires reforms that reduce harm and shift resources away from policing to social services like education, job training, and health care. Such non-reformist reforms—which undermine the logic of carceral systems—are slow initially. However, these incremental changes can alter one’s sense of political possibility and create space for a more fundamental transformation.

A local Board of Supervisors in Johnson County, Iowa, votes against the sheriff’s budget request to purchase a new armored vehicle, freeing up money for more human priorities. Communities decide that police—who are more likely to shoot Black men experiencing mental health crises—aren’t well equipped to deal with mental health emergencies. These communities replace cops with specialist teams composed of social workers or mental health experts who are trained to deal with mental distress. States began enfranchising people convicted of felonies, creating a more inclusive democracy and allowing those who have experienced the criminal justice system to have a say in its policies. These small changes can build upon one another to alter people’s imagination, allowing people to see a world less distorted by the gravitational pull of America’s racialized criminal justice system.

A just 2050 would mean having access to better data to hold police accountable to the public they are supposed to serve. My students are always shocked when they learn that the federal government doesn’t keep track of police killings. Statistics hold a kind of talismanic power in America, and it is a good rule of thumb to assume the culture quantifies what we think that matters. We know how many monarch butterflies are left and how many bald eagles. But nowhere can we find a simple accounting of how many citizens are killed by armed agents of the state.

An abolitionist 2050 can feel impossible from the vantage of the present. When abolitionists attempted to shake America free of slavery’s hold, they were laughed at, attacked, and ridiculed. Abolitionists’ vision and demands were derided as impossible, not because slavery was an eternal fact, but because the scale of the slave system warped moral imaginations, making alternatives seem impossible. Yet slavery fell, and what had once seemed impossible seemed inevitable. Contemporary abolitionists are often similarly dismissed, as harsh policing makes it difficult for some to think outside of the parameters of the carceral state. But abolitionists may yet make ending America’s racialized system of mass incarceration seem inevitable. The dystopian present needn’t presage an even worse future.

If, as many commentators imply, asymmetrical polarization, corruption, and political dysfunction have American democracy at a tipping point, maybe it gets tipped left. Historic, democracy-expanding reforms were pushed by activists who confronted structural racism with audacious, seemingly impossible demands. The arc of history will bend toward justice if pushed. And 2050 will be abolitionist if we want it.