• Studio ATAO

Understanding Structural Racism in the U.S. Government

Updated: 5 days ago

Table of Contents

  • Mass Incarceration & Prison Labor

  • Felony Disenfranchisement

  • Electoral College

  • Redlining

Mass Incarceration & Prison Labor

Prison, or penal, labor is a legal instance in the U.S. where workers can be forced to work without any pay as long as they are convicted criminals. This is expressly allowed under the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which officially abolished slavery "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”.

As a result, mass incarceration has become the way government and private companies exploit free labor. Laws were set up to either overtly target or covertly have a disproportionate impact on imprisoning communities of color, especially Black Americans. These started with the Southern Black Codes (which included vagrancy laws making it legal to imprison and force into labor unemployed or homeless Black Americans) and still continues now with laws such as mandatory minimums for certain drugs (e.g. crack cocaine).

Courts have ruled that prisoners are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (which has certain wage and working conditions requirements), even though prisoners may do work for private companies like BP and AT&T. Even in states where the labor is paid, the amount is typically less than $1 per hour and inmates still have to purchase basic necessities, such as tampons, or “luxuries” like pre-paid calling cards. All the while, the families of the incarcerated also pay for court fees and fines (averaging $13,000 per family according to a 2015 report).

Prison labor deprives working citizens of their rightful wages and ability to accrue wealth over time, while the intergenerational impact of mass incarceration -- which is shown to have clear racial disparities -- hurts the wealth accumulation and social mobility of affected families. Working in tandem, these two systems continue to widen the income and access gap between white Americans and communities of color, in particular Black Americans who have suffered from iterations of this structured racism for decades.

Further Reading

The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons - The Sentencing Project

American Slavery, Reinvented - The Atlantic

Prisoners all over the US are on strike for 'an end to prison slavery' - VICE

Incarceration & social inequality - Daedalus

Felony Disenfranchisement

Voting, or suffrage, is defined as a duty and not a right of citizenship by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Over the course of our history, groups of citizens have been systematically barred from exercising their ability to vote, often through “legal” acts of suppression such as requiring specific types of voter ID at polls and regular voter purges of “inactive” voters.

Felony disenfranchisement is the denial of full voting privileges to individuals who had previously been charged with felonies; in some cases, this even extends after they have served their sentences. This is legal under the 14th Amendment, which -- much like the 13th Amendment -- gives the right to vote for all male citizens “except for participation in rebellion, or other crime.” In 2016, the number of disenfranchised individuals due to former felony convictions amounted to 6.1 million Americans.

Individual state use of criminality and imprisonment to revoke the rights of Black voters has been in effect for decades -- amounting to 1 in 13 Black Americans nationally. Southern states “tailored their disenfranchisement laws...targeting those offenses believed to be committed most frequently by the black population”, with certain vague crimes like “criminal mischief” or "joyriding" able to be categorized as either misdemeanor (no loss of suffrage) or felony by the (predominantly white) court of law.

A 2016 study by the Virginia governor’s office found 46% of restored votes were to Black Americans, which would have resulted in a non-negligible 2% of Black votes in 500,000 voters. Until 2019, Florida had a lifetime ban on voting for former felons, amounting to 1.6 million Floridians and heavily skewed towards Black Floridians. Note Florida has a history of close elections: in 2016, Trump won all of the state's 29 electoral votes by only 112,911 votes.

Felony disenfranchisement remains a legal and active avenue of voter suppression in the U.S. that disproportionately limits Black and Latinx political power and undermines the legitimacy of our governmental system as one of equal representation for all citizens.

Further Reading

America steals votes from felons. Until it stops, our democracy will be weakened - The Guardian

The Future of Restoring Voting Rights for Ex-Felons: The Surprising Facts - Trends in State Courts

Voter Suppression in 2020 - ACLU

Jim Crow’s Lasting Legacy At The Ballot Box - The Marshall Project

Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer - The Sentencing Project

Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States - Open Society

Electoral College

While all other U.S. election outcomes are determined by popular vote, the Presidential Election is specially designed around the Electoral College, a system where each state has the same number of electoral votes as it does seats in Congress. Remember the number of representatives each state has is based on population size, while the number of senators is the same per state (2) regardless of size. There are 538 total votes, and to win a candidate must earn a simple majority (270 votes). For more on the U.S. government, read our primer on the U.S. government here.

The electoral college system was devised by James Madison specifically for the purpose of continuing slavery. In this system, Southern states were able to artificially bolster their voting power with their large population of enslaved peoples who counted as ⅗ a person but could not vote, while the winner of those states were almost always pro-slavery.

Within this system, all states except 2 practice a “winner-takes-all” approach to the final presidential vote, where the state gives all its electoral college votes to the winner of the popular vote instead in that state, not a proportionate amount based on the results of the popular vote.

The lasting legacy of the electoral college is its suppression of minority, particularly Black, citizen voices. Because each state receives 2 electoral college votes regardless of their population density. This minimizes the impact of minority votes, because more densely populated states tend to have bigger populations of immigrants and non-white people.

In the Southern states, which have the highest concentration of Black Americans but they are still the racial minority, the winner-takes-all system ensures the state will still cast all its electoral college votes for the candidate Black Americans (most likely) did not support, as Black Americans tend to vote the opposite of their white Southern counterparts. This dilutes Black political sway and discourages Black Americans from participating in elections.

Further Reading

The Electoral College’s Racist Origins - The Atlantic

The racial history of the Electoral College — and why efforts to change it have stalled - PBS

The astounding advantage the Electoral College gives to Republicans, in one chart - Vox

The Electoral College Really Does Give Republicans a Massive Advantage in Close Elections, a New Paper Finds - Slate


Redlining is the systematic practice of denying mortgages to creditworthy borrowers based on illegal factors such as where they lived previously or their race / ethnicity. The name comes from the practice of outlining in red the areas considered at “high risk” of default - typically lower-income neighborhoods deemed undesirable and occupied by PoC, predominantly Black and Latinx Americans. Across the nation, banks, real estate agencies, and other financial firms began the practice of redlining in the 1930s, effectively preventing people of color from buying a house in certain neighborhoods and segregating them into urban housing projects.

Redlining (as well as predatory interest rates & fees) were banned in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, but the practice still endures more discreetly. Low-income PoC are still continuously denied mortgages at far higher rates than their white counterparts; in a practice known as reverse redlining, banks may engage in predatory lending by providing risky subprime loans at higher prices.

The generational effect of redlining is huge because of the compounding impact of owning a home in the “right” neighborhood that accrues in value over time. 3 of 4 previously redlined neighborhoods still struggle economically, and because they are less likely to receive government funding for public services like school (while also having greater police presence), there are fewer opportunities for those in redlined neighborhoods to be socially mobile. Today, this compounding effect can be clearly seen: white families typically have a net worth 10x higher than Black families & 8x higher than Latinx families.

Additionally, previously redlined neighborhoods have received far less in public infrastructure investment, which has led to current-day issues like heat waves caused by lack of sheltering trees and heat-trapping pavement.

Further Reading

How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades - NYT

Redlining was banned 50 years ago. It’s still hurting minorities today - Washington Post

For people of color, banks are shutting the door to homeownership - Reveal

America’s formerly redlined neighborhoods have changed, and so must solutions to rectify them - Brookings

“Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure Of Segregation And Economic Inequality

Redlining's legacy: Maps are gone, but the problem hasn't disappeared - CBS

How Decades of Racist Housing Policy Left Neighborhoods Sweltering - NYT

The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein

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