When new inmates arrive in California state prisons, they pass through the gauntlet of other men and must make a quick decision: With whom do they stand? They have four options: the whites, the blacks, the Latinos, and the others. For most of the “fish,” or fresh convicts, it’s not much of a choice—they are chosen. The prisons are divided into strictly separated racial gangs, which have their own leadership structure, lunch tables, yard space, and black markets. The new inmates typically fall in with their racial brothers: whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos. The only exceptions are those who join the others: a collection of smaller ethnic groups, sexual minorities, and whites who refuse to join with the Aryan Brotherhood.
California prison gangs operate on a model of collective, identity-based security. If a white inmate attacks a black inmate, or vice versa, their racial compatriots must fight to protect the group’s interests. The threat of race war, they believe, is the only way to secure peace. The prisoners maintain separate facilities, separate sleeping quarters, and separate trade networks. They communicate with the other races through “reps,” or emissaries, who deliver messages on behalf of gang leaders. An individual might not want to join the white supremacists or the Norteño drug-runners, but his survival depends on doing so. Courts have occasionally attempted to integrate prison facilities but have never succeeded. Prison wardens have accepted the racial reality and work in tacit cooperation with the gangs to maintain segregated intake, cell assignment, and amenities.
I spent three years directing a documentary about life in America’s three poorest cities, including Stockton, California, which has some of the highest crime and incarceration rates in the country. Stockton is a case study in America’s diverse racial future: it is approximately one-quarter white, one-quarter black, one-quarter Latino, and one-quarter Asian. In the city’s daily activities, the racial groups generally cooperate and go about their business together. There are widespread interracial friendships, marriages, and families. Even some of the city’s street gangs are multiracial. But in the jails and prisons that surround the city, the cultural divide is stark: inmates are subsumed into their racial group; enmity between the races is the assumed condition; racial violence, retaliation, and revenge always loom. There are no individuals, only identity-based expressions of power. This “prison politics” has been cemented into the system.
A few years after making the documentary, I began studying critical race theory and the racialist ideologies that are becoming entrenched in American schools. Though the comparison is provocative, frightening parallels exist between the racialist logic of the prison yard and the racialist pedagogy of many public schools. First, schools that have adopted critical race theory reject individualism and colorblindness; to achieve an authentic identity and gain collective power, individuals must identify first and foremost with their racial group. Second, as in the prison yard, some public schools have begun segregating teachers and students for training sessions, classroom exercises, field trips, and even playground activities. Third, many schools that have adopted critical race theory explicitly teach that children belong to categories of “oppressor” or “oppressed” based on a racial hierarchy, and then tell students that they must tear down society in order to “decolonize” the land, settle racial scores, and direct the spoils to their compatriots.
This development might not come as a total surprise. Critical race theory draws heavily from black nationalist ideology, such as that of the Black Panther Party, which came to fruition in California prisons in the 1960s. The new iteration of this ideology might have abandoned the militant rhetoric of the Panthers in favor of the therapeutic language of the school psychologist, but it nevertheless threatens to replicate the destructive features of prison-gang politics in the “outside world.” If American institutions succumb to this ideology, they can expect a brutal future: the suspension of individualism in favor of racial collectivism; a nihilistic, zero-sum vision of society; and endemic racial conflict as a baseline condition. It would reverse the racial progress that the United States has made over the centuries.
To avoid this fate, Americans of all racial backgrounds must work together to defeat this ideology, down to its roots. Despite the success of critical race theory in prestige institutions, American voters still prefer individualism, colorblindness, and equal protection under the law. Even voters in deep-blue California have rejected affirmative-action policies that would judge individuals according to race rather than merit. The challenge is to turn this public preference into public action. Critical race theory has spread through our institutions, despite strong public opposition. Americans must act to prevent the country from becoming the equivalent of a sprawling, open-air prison yard.
Originally published in City Journal.