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Racism and Mass Incarceration in the US Heartland: Historical Roots of the New Jim Crow

Racialized police violence in Chicago is not an aberration; it reflects a long history of discriminatory policing in the Midwest.

(Photo: Thomas Hawk)

If asked what state has the highest incarceration rate of Black people, most people would likely cite Mississippi, Alabama or perhaps Louisiana. They would be about 1,000 miles too far south.

According to labor analysts John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn, the answer is Wisconsin. Moreover, neighboring Iowa has the country’s highest ratio of Black-to-white incarceration. Illinois, from available statistics, has the greatest disparity between Black people in the general population (15 percent) and Black people in the state prison population (58 percent). In fact, according to Sentencing Project calculations, all of the key Midwestern states – Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin – show a higher ratio of Black-to-white incarceration than Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi. Across the region, Black people are incarcerated up to 13 times the rate of white people and three to five times the rate of those identified as Hispanic.

No single factor seems to explain this intensely punitive anti-Black thread in the Midwestern criminal legal system. Rather, racially skewed outcomes result from a unique set of historical forces and structural changes in the regional political economy coupled with specifics of criminal legal and policing practices.

Historical Forces: Sundown Towns

While segregation in the South is a well-known part of US history, the Midwest had its own version of Jim Crow: sundown towns. A sundown town operated under one basic rule of thumb: No Black people were allowed inside the city limits once the sun went down. Jim Loewen has researched sundown towns for decades. While his mapping project reveals that these segregated spaces existed all over the country, they particularly proliferated in the Midwest. His investigations unearthed more than 300 likely sundown towns in Illinois, over 200 in Indiana and over a hundred in Wisconsin and Ohio. By contrast, Loewen told Truthout, he could only confirm three in Mississippi. These urban exclusion zones in the Midwest spread extensively from 1890 to 1940, though many endured past World War II. Residents of one such town, Anna, Illinois, claimed the town name was an acronym that stood for “Ain’t No N****** Allowed.”

In many towns, the imposition of a sundown regime required the removal of existing Black populations, a process Loewen refers to as “ethnic cleansing.” Major white segregationist riots aimed at removing Black residents occurred in medium-sized cities such as Akron, Ohio; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Springfield, Illinois. However, in these places the sizable Black population and focused resistance stymied white efforts to achieve a complete racial purge. By contrast, numerous small Illinois towns with few Black residents – such as Alton, Auburn, Thayer, Girard, Pawnee and Taylorville – as well as Evansville, Indiana, did make major efforts to expel Black residents. These expulsions were often enacted through brutal violence and threats made by white supremacist mobs. Decatur, Indiana, instituted segregation after forming an “Anti-Negro Society” at the turn of the 20th century. A Ku Klux Klan rally that attracted nearly 10,000 to West Frankfort, Illinois, in 1923 put the stamp on that town’s sundown status. In 1931, a lynching in Maryville, Missouri, sparked the flight of the town’s entire Black population. Black people in several neighboring towns also fled. Meanwhile, some 25 towns in Illinois and about 19 in Indiana passed ordinances banning Black presence after sunset, calling on local police and the white citizenry to enforce these edicts.

While sundown towns were proliferating in the rural Midwest, big cities followed suit by creating sundown suburbs. Wilmette, an upmarket North Shore suburb of Chicago, requested residents to fire all Black domestic workers who did not have housing on their employer’s premises, arguing that their presence as pedestrians in the area contributed to a fall in “real estate values.” The white majority in Edina, now one of the wealthiest suburbs in Minneapolis, chose to drive out Black residents in the 1930s to fully establish an elite space. Remnants of this exclusion policy remained until the 1970s. Ironically or perhaps predictably, in recent decades, many rural sundown towns have become the sites of newly built prisons housing hundreds of thousands of Black people. The legacy of sundown and race hate lives on in the prison yards of the former sundown town of Vandalia, Illinois, and of Henryville, Indiana, the site of the lynching of three Black men in 1871.


While sundown towns laid the ideological groundwork for racialized mass incarceration, the deindustrialization of inner cities created an urban geography that facilitated the capture of bodies for the prison industrial complex. University of Illinois African American studies scholar Lou Turner told Truthout that deindustrialization came in two waves. The first began in the late 1960s in response to urban Black rebellions in places like Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. The second phase of relocating production heated up in the late 1970s as part of global economic restructuring, which sent manufacturing to low-wage countries overseas. The disappearance of factories robbed Black workers of some of the few well-paying, secure employment opportunities available.

The scale of this deindustrialization process in Midwestern cities is staggering. While the decline of Detroit’s auto industry is well known, the entire region endured a similar process. Between 1961 and 2001, the city of Milwaukee lost 69 percent of its manufacturing positions. Overall, seven counties in southeastern Wisconsin saw a loss of 83,000 positions. Chicago suffered a similar fate, with a 29 percent decrease in manufacturing employment in the 1970s. From 1969 to 1989, Cleveland’s manufacturing sector workforce declined by 40 percent. According to labor analyst Robert Bruno, even smaller industrial sites like a one-time steel production center in Youngstown, Ohio, felt the brunt of restructuring. Steel plant shutdowns in the late 1970s precipitated the loss of 40,000 jobs and 400 satellite businesses in Youngstown.

The absence of manufacturing jobs also contributed to white flight from the inner cities. In the 1970s, Wayne County (Detroit) lost 26.6 percent of its white population with Cleveland (20.1 percent) and Chicago’s Cook County (15.5 percent) experiencing similar outward migration.

Not surprisingly, the spatial result was increasingly segregated cities. In a 2014 survey, five of the 10 most racially segregated cities in the United States were located in the Midwest: Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis. This segregation has converted economically barren Black communities into ideal targets for high-tech, militarized policing. Detroit was the first to go down this path with the formation of the STRESS (Stop Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) unit in 1970. While STRESS was abandoned after four years and 20 civilian deaths at the hands of police, the spirit of militarized policing lived on, influencing law enforcement methods throughout the region as the war on drugs heated up.

The War on Drugs and Million-Dollar Blocks

The war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s transformed inner-city Black communities in the region. Black men in Milwaukee County went from having four times as many annual admissions for drug-related offenses as white men in the early 1990s, to 11 to 12 times as many by 2005. Two-thirds of those incarcerated came from just six zip codes in inner-city Milwaukee.

Chicago’s West and South Side, once home to substantial manufacturing production and the fabled stockyards, became ground zero for massive offensives by an increasingly militarized police department. A 2011 study revealed 851 “million-dollar blocks” in Chicago. A million-dollar block is one where the criminal legal system spends more than $1 million per year incarcerating its residents. The vast majority of these blocks had an overwhelmingly Black population. The authors of the study, Daniel Cooper and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, captured the essence of the process: “[W]e are not simply punishing people for the crimes they commit. We are also punishing them for the places where they live, the schools that failed them and the employers that rejected them. And, without question, we are punishing them for the darkness of their skin.”

Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, told Truthout that in Illinois the lack of Black leaders in positions of political power made “it politically cost-free to call for ‘tough-on-crime’ measures – as long as the police concentrate enforcement in poor Black communities.” He argues this created a “perfect feedback loop. We arrest people in poor Black communities; these arrests destabilize the communities, leading to more violence. We then send more police into those communities, increase arrests even further thus further destabilizing the community.” His description likely would apply to many other Midwestern cities as well.

Moreover, the feedback loop continues even after people are released from prison. In Illinois, 60 percent of those on parole in 2014 were Black. Forty-eight percent of those on parole will return to prison within three years. In Wisconsin, according to policy analyst Nino Rodriguez, who is affiliated with the statewide social justice coalition WISDOM, the post-release supervision system is twelve times more likely to send Black people back to state prison than white people. EXPO’s Mark Rice asserts that in the past 15 years about half of all Black people entering prison had not been convicted of new crimes. They were incarcerated for violating rules of parole such as missing a meeting with a parole officer or failing to report a change of address. The system disproportionately recycles Black bodies from the street all the way to the prison gate.

Conclusion: More Than Reform

Ultimately, anti-Black racism in the Midwest reaches deep into the history and political economy of the region. The racial disparities in the Midwestern criminal legal system reveal a complex underpinning that requires changes beyond what can be achieved via a moderate package of changing sentencing laws and reforming police practices. While such innovations may ease the situation and cut back on prison populations, without a profound restructuring of the regional economy coupled with an aggressive attack on white supremacy, in the worst-case scenario, decarceration could possibly activate an anti-Black backlash in many urban areas.

Even in the absence of such a backlash, without extensive reallocation of resources to communities impacted by mass incarceration, tens of thousands of mostly Black released prisoners would face indefinite poverty with little prospect of viable employment or housing alternatives. Rather than transformation, such an approach to decarceration would merely add a new dimension to the racialized feedback loop set in place by decades of segregationist history and deindustrialization.

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