The Carceral State and White Supremacy, One and The Same – A Tale of State Sanctioned Violence

November 4, 2019 by Valencia Richardson

By CHIAMAKA ECHEBIRI[1]

The murder of Black people, in the hands of law enforcement, is state sanctioned violence. Further, the carceral state does not restore victims and it has systemically relegated Black people to cages.[2] It is a social,[3] civic,[4] and permanent death.[5]

The carceral state[6] originated in the United States from slave patrolling and was designed to criminalize and incapacitate Black people rather than to provide justice.[7] Since its inception, it has been doing its job, so much so that “slave,” “criminal,” and “violence” have become metonyms for Blackness.

The U.S. has adopted different iterations of incapacitating and/or criminalizing Black people, specifically African Americans, through convict leasing, peonage laws, sharecropping, Black codes, chain gangs, and Jim Crow – all of which are relics of slavery. Today, mass incarceration takes the places of the aforementioned institutions in maintaining the U.S. racial caste system and slavery through other means.[8]

Black people, en masse, have been the victims of intergenerational trauma (trauma that affects one family) and historical trauma (trauma that affects a people) created by the carceral state. As a consequence, the carceral state nor the criminal justice system can restore victims of state sanctioned violence, since the carceral state serves to produce intergenerational and historical trauma.[9]

Recently, the carceral state’s and the criminal justice system’s inability to restore victims was colorized in the murder trial of Botham Jean. On October 1, 2019, a police officer who fatally shot Botham Jean, a Black man eating ice cream on the couch of his own home, was found guilty of murder.[10] One day later, the police officer was sentenced to ten years in prison.[11] The semblance of hope elicited by her conviction quickly dissipated when the relatively short-term sentence was announced. Many Black people were left with anger.

The police officer’s murder trial turned into a counseling appointment. The judge consoled her with a religious consultation[12] and the bailiff caressed her hair.[13] The counseling and cosmetic services she received at trial reflect how the criminal justice system centers white people, and therefore redeems, reinforces, and reproduces white supremacy.

The coddling of Botham Jean’s killer at the expense of a Black man is part and parcel of white supremacy. The criminal justice system knows this too well. There is a historical pattern of coddling white women – from Emmett Till to Scottsboro Boys and from Scottsboro Boys to George Stinney, we see how metonyms of Blackness, white womanhood, and gendered tropes of Black men have justified Black men’s maltreatment and deaths.

Even if Botham Jean’s killer was given a longer and more socially palatable sentence, that still would not restore the victims. Incarceration does not magically fix the harms, such as intergenerational and historical trauma, inflicted on victims. It produces it. Incarceration recreates conditions of violence and minimizes humans to units of labor for capital gain. To hold the police accountable is not to legitimize the carceral state’s belief that caged people, who are disproportionately Black, symbolize justice. To hold the police accountable is to abolish the police system in its entirety.

The police system is the same system that allowed for the death of Botham Jean. It is also the same system that cannot explain why Ferguson protesters who mobilized and organized against police brutality have mysteriously died since 2014.[14] To cinch the matter, the carceral state reifies Black suffering and produces the intergenerational and historical trauma victims need to restore from. Botham Jean’s murder trial colorized this for us once again.


[1]  Staff Editor, GEO. J. L. & MOD. CRIT. RACE PERSP.; J.D. Candidate, Georgetown University Law Center (L’21), © 2019, Chiamaka Echebiri.

[2] E.g., Criminal Justice Fact Sheet, NAT’L ASS’N FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE, https://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/.

[3] Joshua Price, Prison and Social Death, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY PRESS 3–21 (2015).

[4] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, THE NEW PRESS 158 (Jan. 2010).

[5] Angela Davis, Meaning of Freedom: And Other Difficult Dialogues, CITY LIGHTS PUBLISHERS 63 (Aug. 2012).

[6] The carceral state has many definitions, I define it as the policing, monitoring, surveillance, criminalization, and incarceration of people.

[7] E.g., Andrew J. Ritchie & Joey L. Mogul, In the Shadows of the War on Terror: Persistent Police Brutality and Abuse of People of Color in the United States, DEPAUL J. SOC. JUST. 175 (2008).

[8] U.S. CONST. amend. XIII, § 1.

[9] See, e.g., Bruce Western & Christopher Wildeman, The Black Family and Mass Incarceration, ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY OF POLITICAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCES 222 (Jan. 2009).

[10]  Janell Ross, Amber Guyger Conviction Highlights Role Image, Notions of Character Play in Trials, NBC NEWS (Oct. 4, 2019, 4:44 PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/amber-guyger-conviction-highlights-role-image-notions-character-play-trials-n1062216.

[11] Id.

[12] Marina Pitofsky, Nonprofit Files Complaint Against Judge in Botham Jean Case for Giving Convicted Officer a Bible, THE HILL (Oct. 4, 2019, 10:11 AM), https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/464364-nonprofit-files-complaint-against-judge-in-botham-jean-case-for.

[13] Black Bailiff Goes Viral for Stroking Amber Guyger’s Hair Following Guilty Verdict, NEWSONE (Oct. 2, 2019), https://newsone.com/3888597/black-bailiff-amber-guyger/.

[14] Jim Salter, A Puzzling Number of Men Tied to The Ferguson Protests Have Since Died, CHICAGO TRIBUNE (Mar. 18, 2019, 8:15 AM), https://www.chicagotribune.com/nation-world/ct-ferguson-activist-deaths-black-lives-matter-20190317-story.html.