By Susila Gurusami
Throughout our global history, we see evidence of social institutions shaping the systemic devaluation of people’s lives. This isn’t new, and people have been talking about it for a really long time as part of capitalism. Scholars and activists raise how practices of racism, sexism, transphobia, and other –isms shape inequality. Traditionally, scholars talk about how these isms come from capitalism. But scholar Cedric Robinson argued that racism came before capitalism, and therefore shaped its emergence, while Marxist feminists make a parallel argument about patriarchy. In my article, I argue that it’s both (and more) by developing a theory of what I call intersectional capitalism: the systemic process of demoralizing and dehumanizing racialized and gendered bodies for their exploitation and punishment through market logics.
I came to this theory after conducting 18 months of ethnographic research at a reentry home in South Los Angeles that primarily serves women of color. In my view, there is no greater or more terrible project of human (de)valuation than the United States’ crisis of mass incarceration; it requires calculating the value of human life against time and past crimes against future potential, all while violently displacing people from their families and communities. This year the price tag of locking a single person up in California is expected to exceed $75,000 annually.
But the human cost of incarceration—specifically for Black populations—is far greater, and it doesn’t end when someone is released from prison or jail. In my research, I found that after Black women were released from prison or jail, they continued to be punished by the system of mass incarceration. In my article, I identify what I call “rehabilitation labor” as the government’s effort to transform formerly incarcerated Black women from “criminals” to “workers” by using particular employment parameters as a requirement of parole and probation. I situate rehabilitation labor within the context of intersectional capitalism because it requires that these women prove their worth to the market as a proxy for their value as human beings.
For instance, let’s follow the reentry journey of one of the women—Kendra—I met during the course of my fieldwork. On a hot summer day, I drove her to the doctor while she relayed her struggle to find work. After months of trying to find a steady job, Kendra told me that she couldn’t find a job because maybe she didn’t deserve to—she still felt the pull of her drug addiction, talked about her failure to make enough money to house and feed her children, and even insinuated that she had “earned” the sexual violence she experienced in her lifetime. Kendra struggled with mental illness, disability, a shocking history of abuse, and elementary literacy skills, but still tried to find work and field seemingly-endless rejections for months. She told me that if she could just find full-time employment, maybe she could finally prove to herself she was a good person. But the collective impact of her health, education, and felony record posed significant barriers to finding stable work. Still, in the months following her release from prison, she came to understand her lack of success in finding steady work as a moral failure and talked about employment as her pathway to moral redemption.
Kendra’s story shows how we often come to understand what we do to earn money as a proxy for moral worth. This process of equating morality to employment has enormous consequences for formerly incarcerated people, because their need to find a job isn’t just about building the financial resources to reintegrate into society; employment is also an important part of staying out of prison and jail. A recent report found that about 9,000 people are incarcerated every day in the United States for violating parole and probation employment mandates, even though two thirds of the people incarcerated under employment violations make less than $1000 per month and work full time. Black people are 40 percent of those incarcerated for post-release supervision violations, but they are 70 percent of unemployment incarceration violations. These findings tell us that it’s not just finding work that matters; it’s also about finding particular kinds of work, and Black and African American people are much more likely to be judged as failing in this respect.
In my article, I demonstrate that rehabilitation labor presupposes that employment produces a moral transformation that can lead to legal transformation, in that successful performance of rehabilitation labor can allow formerly incarcerated people to shed their criminal histories and state surveillance. But I also find that the conditions of rehabilitation labor—employment that I characterize as reliable, recognizable, and redemptive—are nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated Black women to reach because of the structure of the labor market, stereotypes that parole and probation agents have about Black women, and because the three conditions of rehabilitation labor contradict one another. These conflicts are not just ideological. By introducing a range of consequences that can include reincarceration, these conflicts amplify the precarity that formerly incarcerated Black women face in their everyday lives.
These contradictions also recall and reproduce the long-standing U.S. tradition of disciplining Black women through their relationship to the labor market, from enslavement, the construction of the Welfare Queen, to the current moment. I argue that intersectional capitalism makes this relationship possible—it provides the ideological and historical tools to subjugate Black women in service of white patriarchal capital. But in a country that manages to spend more than 182 billion dollars a year on mass incarceration, it seems possible that we can put that money to better use.
So what is the value of a human life?
Whether or not we can answer that question, we live—and die—in a world in which those calculations are made everyday. Consider the following recent events:
- The enduring water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a city that is majority poor and African American
- Donald Trump’s recent attempts to ban transgender people from serving in the military
- A Tennessee judge’s offer to reduce jail sentences by 30 days for people willing to undergo vasectomies or the implantation of long-term birth control
In each of these cases, government officials implicitly and explicitly calculate the value of human life using metrics of race, gender, class, and sexuality. And though individual decision makers are responsible, these decision makers represent social institutions that shape the lives of entire populations. For instance, in Flint, city officials and implicated corporations decided over many years that profit and cost-saving measures were more important than the health and well-being of the city’s residents. The consequences include poisoning the children of Flint—who are disproportionately Black and African American—with lead. Trump’s edict claims that the medical costs of transgender people are too exorbitant for taxpayers to support in the military, despite a recent study that estimates the costs of these expenses are between .004 to .017 percent of the military’s total healthcare spending. Judge Sam Benningfield’s offer for incarcerated people to trade 30 days of sentence time for temporary or permanent sterilization revitalizes eugenicists’ historical (and contemporary) projects of trying to curb the reproduction of criminalized populations of color by citing their children as taxpayer and social burdens.
My hope is that we can understand all these issues—the subjugation of formerly incarcerated Black women in the labor market, the water crisis in Flint, Trump’s transphobic agenda, and the proposed sterilization of incarcerated people—as connected by intersectional capitalism. By naming it as such, hopefully we can find a uniting intersectional thread in our common pursuits for justice without overlooking the inequalities between us.
Susila Gurusami is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Riverside. She will be an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto beginning July 2018. She is a scholar of race, gender, and carceral politics.