So, this is the type of book where I can only read several pages at a time because 1) it’s horrifying, and 2) there’s simply so much to digest and internalize. Amidst every sentence there are far reaching implications and syntheses which should not be quickly passed over.
Kelly Lytle Hernandez set out to elucidate how settler colonialism and carcerality have shaped the Los Angeles into the city with the highest rate of incarceration and largest number of prisoners, what she called “the carceral capital of the world.”
“Mass incarceration is mass elimination,” she writes, explaining that “incarceration operates as a means of purging, removing, caging, containing, erasing, disappearing, and eliminating targeted populations from land, life, and society in the United States.” The six chronological chapters in the book show that the groups of people who have been targeted by the US government for incarceration (elimination and disappearance) have changed depending on the interactions between the racial capitalist state (the US) and the residents of Los Angeles. Spanish colonization began the region’s history of prisons, as one of the first buildings colonists constructed was a jail to help in their efforts to eliminate the local Indigenous people. From there, the LA region’s prison system ensnared other groups over time, such settler men who deviated from labor or gender expectations, and Chinese migrants displaced by Western colonialism in Asia.
The fact that there was a time in which white, settler men comprised nearly 100% of the LA prison population may surprise those of us who are used to understanding carcerality within a settler colonial situation as an interlocking system of racist institutions intent on targeting racialized people. That’s all true, indeed. We must remember, though, that racial capitalism will construct its racially exclusive state with whatever exploitable labor it can, including settlers. Racial capitalism necessitates the existence of poor white people who are locked out of private property, coerced into cisheteropatriarchal and capitalist labor relations, and dispossessed from land. We see this today, as well, where hundreds of thousands of white people languish in the many prisons across the country. Most are poor and victimized by debt, police violence, homelessnesss, and eviction. Many are transgender, gender nonconforming, bisexual, and other identities victimized by cisheteropatriarchy.
So now if you ever encounter the question “But how can it be racist if there are white people in jail, too?” you can safely answer: racial capitalism exploits white labor, it punishes those who defy cisheteronormativity, and the presence of white people suffering carceral violence doesn’t negate the racialized logic of imprisonment in a settler colony.