The University of Jim Crow
“Professor, did you know that the chair on which you’re presently sitting was made by a black prisoner?”
The latest wave of outrage to overtake the Academy is about where universities purchase their furniture….yes, furniture. Prison reformers and social justice activists want to nullify compulsory contracts between public universities and states, requiring those universities to purchase state prison-manufactured furniture.
You can imagine a smart undergraduate student asking his liberal-minded university teacher: “Professor, did you know that the chair on which you’re presently sitting was made by a black prisoner? Are you o.k. with the fact that the university that pays your salary also supports the state prison system, the same system that, you argue, unjustly imprisons black men?”
Critics complain that these contracts exploit prisoners, especially imprisoned black males. Moreover, they support the systemic injustices and institutionalized racism characteristic of the status quo: the U.S., which represents only 4.4% of the world's population, currently incarcerates 22% of the world’s prisoners, almost a half a million of whom are black.
Lilah Burke’s Inside Higher Ed article, “Public Universities, Prison-made Furniture,” cites several reasons for criticizing the widespread practice:
Some activists call the process exploitative. […] Advocates note that prices for simple goods in prison, like hygiene products or calls to family, are often not fairly pegged to wages. For example, a call to family often can cost the equivalent of a day’s work. Corrections officials typically note that wages are so low because they’re garnished for fees like room and board and debts like child support. […] Inmate employees are also not offered protections that are standard outside prison, like the right to organize or negotiate for better working conditions. […] Some prison abolitionists have said that labor and economic exploitation are not the most pressing problems for most inmates. Instead, they point to the lack of freedom and stimulation.
Some view this situation as the modern-day equivalent of historical slavery. Cheap goods manufactured on the backs of incarcerated labor. Paid such low wages that their work is nearly free. So many black prisoners furnishing state universities with their sweat and muscle. The banality of evil knows no bounds.
In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander proclaimed that the U.S. prison system is morally equivalent to the late 19th/early 20th-century Jim Crow laws. According to her analysis, both support economic exploitation, racial segregation, institutionalized racism and the oppression of blacks. In Alexander’s words, “mass incarceration is, metaphorically-speaking, the New Jim Crow.”
If Alexander is correct, then many public universities not only support mass incarceration; they are also complicit in the New Jim Crow. That makes executive leaders, faculty and staff accessories to a scheme of institutionalized racism.
For those of us who’ve been employed by universities and colleges over these past 20 years — witnessing scandals and cover-ups (e.g. the Penn State Sandusky scandal) as well as old and new strategies to ensure employee compliance (e.g. reduced health benefits, loyalty oaths and diversity statements) — we know all too well what this represents: the corporatization of modern universities, whereby institutions of higher learning have come to resemble private business endeavors.
Through the university-as-corporation lens, contracts with state prisons simply look like business as usual. Whether involving the exploitation of child workers or black prisoners, the almighty bottom-line is the corporation’s guide, not some outdated moral compass.
In a recent article on the Disney-ification of university culture, Dane Kennedy comments:
…it is corporate culture, a creature that has become all the rage in the business world — and now, it seems, is burrowing its way into universities. Its professed aim is to instill a sense of shared purpose among employees, but its real objective is far more coercive and insidious.
When you work for a corporation like Exxon or Philip Morris, and you’re a socially conscious citizen, you have to engage in creative self-deception to rationalize your employment relationship. University employees — who tend more than any others to be so-called ‘social justice warriors’ — are no different. Self-delusion is the therapy du jour.
Few academics wish to acknowledge their complicity. These contractual relationships are the expressions of corporate greed. So long as employees accept a salary from the university, they are individually and collectively responsible for the consequences of their university’s (read: corporation’s) business relationships.
To avoid hypocrisy, faculty, staff and executive leaders at state universities bound by these contracts must choose to: (1) accept responsibility, (2) quit their job and/or (3) agitate to transform the institution that employs them. Instead, most university employees postpone the choice, deny their complicity and delude themselves, not unlike employees of corporations.
In sum, these compulsory contracts between states and public universities signal a nefarious commitment to mass incarceration, the New Jim Crow and a creeping culture of corporate conformity, a culture that in the past three decades has come to pervade modern higher education.
Shane Ralston, Ph.D., is a teaching fellow and Assistant Dean at Wright College, Woolf University. He has worked in Human Resources and higher education for the past twenty years.