White Supremacy and Prisons

United States Women’s Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe has become the most recognizable figure of that team, not just because of her play, but because of her outspokenness on issues ranging from race to LGBTQ+ rights. She was also the most controversial figure, because she knelt when the American national anthem was played before games.

But one side of her that some people may not know is that she has a brother—a brother she loves dearly, but a brother who has been on the wrong side of the law numerous times, who has spent time in prison, and who became a white supremacist for part of his time in prison.[1]

But here’s the thing—Megan Rapinoe’s brother, Brian, is far from a microcosm. He’s far from a microcosm because white supremacy has become increasingly widespread in prisons.

The Anti-Defamation League, back in 2016, observed the spread of and increase in white supremacy in our prison system, to the point that at least 35 states had at least one white supremacy prison gang at the time. These supremacy gangs have perpetrated violence; most notably, the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, which is one of the most prominent prison gangs in the United States, was responsible for 33 murders in Texas between 2000 and 2015.[2] And the violence is not isolated to Texas, either—Aryan Brotherhood prison gang people were also responsible for directing killings and drug smuggling from prisons in California.[3]

And yet, in spite of all the white supremacy in the American prison system, this is an issue that doesn’t seem to get that much attention. There are some racial justice and criminal justice organizations attuned to the realities of white supremacy in American prisons, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Vera Institute of Justice, but it’s an issue that I’ve never heard come up in mainstream dialogues about criminal justice reform.

But that should change. And here is why this issue needs more attention from all of us:

  1. It is a criminal justice reform issue, because if we want prisons to be a place for people to reform, we should not have prisons full of white supremacy groups that ruin lives instead of restoring them.
  2. It is a public safety issue, for white supremacist actions in prisons kill people.
  3. It is a national security issue, because violent white supremacists are terrorists, too.
  4. It is an issue of use of taxpayer money, because having prisons that perpetrates white supremacy (whether it be intentional or unintentional) is a dreadful use of taxpayer money.
  5. It is a racial justice issue, for white supremacy is antithetical to racial justice.

But how do we get this change, from a prison system where white supremacy is allowed to thrive to a system which doesn’t allow for this? I think that it needs to start with getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons. For most readers of this piece, getting more knowledge means knowing that white supremacy in prisons exists in the first place. For local and state governments, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons means: a) figuring out what a prison gang is in the first place[4] and then b) figuring out the nature of what white supremacy prison gangs are like (and how much white supremacy in prisons is gang-related or not). For the Anti-Defamation League and similar organizations devoted to religions, ethnic, racial, and/or social justice issues, getting more knowledge about white supremacy in prisons just means continuing their work and hopefully learning more.

As much as I have a desire to end pieces on this blog with big solutions to big problems, I can’t really do that here. Before talking about solutions,[5] governments in particular really need to gain a better understanding of this problem than what they currently seem to have.


[1] https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-womens-world-cup/story/3878587/why-megan-rapinoes-brother-brian-is-her-greatest-heartbreakand-hope

[2] https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states

[3] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/leaders-of-white-supremacist-prison-gang-charged-in-killings

[4] On page two of the Anti-Defamation League report on white supremacy in prisons, it is noted that “there is not even agreement among prison officials as to what constitutes a prison gang.” Considering the fact that the problem with white supremacy in prisons may be related to white supremacy gangs in prisons, it seems like governments may not fully understand this problem, let alone have solutions:  https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/combating-hate/CR_4499_WhiteSupremacist-Report_web_vff.pdf

[5] The Anti-Defamation League talked about potential solutions. My personal opinion is that, while they seem to have interesting ideas, not a single suggestion seems to be preventative in nature (in other words, preventing people behind bars from getting taken in by white supremacy ideology in the first place): https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/white-supremacist-prison-gangs-in-the-united-states

Institutional Racism Series: A Conclusion

While I was working on a post to conclude this series on institutional racism, I did a Google search of “institutional racism polls” (mostly to get a sense of seeing how many Americans believe in the existence of institutional racism). The first two results for this search showed commentator Ben Stein saying that there is no more institutional racism in America.

It’s ironic that the first two results for this search show Ben Stein denying the existence of institutional racism because, actually, I think that my series of posts on the subject shows the opposite. The series demonstrates that institutional racism exists, even in 2018.

This institutional racism exists in housing systems, school systems, policing institutions, and colleges. It exists in many other institutions that I did not mention in my blog series. It exists in so many places that someone could quite possibly run a whole blog on the subject of institutional racism.

So if you ever question the existence of institutional racism, or run into someone who questions or doubts the existence of institutional racism, I hope that people can look at the posts in my series and say: “Wait…institutional racism exists, in America, in the 21st century.” After all, it’s difficult to fix racism as a whole without realizing the existence of institutional racism.

Note: While this is my last post in my series on institutional racism, it’s possible (maybe likely) that I will still make some individual posts related to institutional racism.

Previous blog posts from my series on institutional racism:
“Introduction”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Live”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected Where I Went to School”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affected How I, and Others, Were Policed”
“Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences”

Institutional Racism Series: How it Affects College Experiences

“There are injustices happening here and we will speak regardless of us being silenced in the classroom, regardless of administration not paying attention to us, we’re going to speak.”[1]

This was said by a student at my college during protests in my senior year of college. Yes, this was said in 2015. Not 1955.

The quote at the beginning of this post is only a microcosm of what has been expressed by people at college campuses across the United States: there is institutional racism, or racism that is practiced and sometimes even normalized by social, economic, governmental, and other institutions, at colleges and universities across the United States.

This institutional racism can be subtle to some, so subtle that I (and probably many others) didn’t even recognize the existence of these forms of racism during most of my college experience. But for others, institutional racism is ingrained in their college experiences.

There are so many forms of institutional racism at college campuses that, for the sake of brevity with this post, I’m going to go into brief explanations with three types of institutional racism that many colleges show[2] and that I often noticed:

  1. Descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group. One of the recent infamous examples happened at a New York University dining hall, where a menu “celebrating” Black History Month descended into certain harmful stereotypes about southern cuisine and black people by serving “ribs, collard greens, cornbread, smashed yams, mac and cheese and two beverages, red Kool-Aid and watermelon-flavored water.”[3] However, NYU is sadly far from the only institution that has been institutionally racist through descending into stereotypes of a particular racial group.
  2. Viewing nonwhite people a just a number, or part of a number. Every time a college talks about their diversity rates, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Every time they talk about the percentage of students at their colleges who are minorities, they are viewing nonwhite people as numbers. Viewing nonwhite people as numbers is a form of institutional racism, as this type of racism is one where nonwhite people are viewed as not having worth beyond being part of a statistic.
  3. Turning a blind eye to various racial injustices at campus. From inaction towards racial slurs (which has happened not just at my alma mater, but at many other campuses) to a stunning refusal to confront common stereotypes that people of different races often face on campus (blacks being viewed as “beneficiaries of affirmative action” being one of the notable ones), many a college campus just seems to ignore racial injustices. These injustices continued to be ignored by many college campuses in spite of the outspokenness of many student leaders. This is institutional racism of a sort as well, as the type of racism demonstrated by institutions is the idea that people of color are not worth listening to.

Some people may think of higher education institutions as places where high-minded academia can overcome some of the racial vitriol that exists elsewhere. I challenge those of us who think this way to think again, and to open our eyes to the institutional racism that affects many college campuses across the United States.


[1] https://thedickinsonian.com/news/2015/11/18/students-stage-black-out-calling-it-the-start-of-a-movement/
[2] There are certainly other types of institutional racism beyond the three that I cover here. People who want to bring attention to other forms of institutional racism at college campuses should feel free to reply in the comments section for this blog post.
[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/22/us/nyu-kool-aid-watermelon-menu-black-history-month-trnd/index.html. Watermelons and Kool-Aid in particular have histories as racial stereotypes. This article from The Atlantic covers the racial dynamics of watermelons: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/how-watermelons-became-a-racist-trope/383529/.

On Starbucks, Other Employers, and Racial Bias

While I took my break from the blogging world on the week of Memorial Day, Starbucks had racial bias training for its employees.

The reviews of the racial bias training from the general public were about as mixed as the reviews are for their lattes and cappuccinos. Some thought of this as a necessary step, while others were skeptical as to whether one afternoon of racial bias training would have any impact on individuals.

I will not use this post to review their racial bias training or racial bias training in general, because there are probably hundreds of other sites doing the same. Instead, I’m here to suggest that Starbucks and other employers should not just look at the racial biases of their rank-and-file employees but also at their own leadership’s racial biases. Likewise, we as consumers should look at the biases of not just rank-and-file employees but also at the leadership of companies.

Without looking both outward at employees and inward at the employer’s leadership, one ends up with a company like Starbucks, a company that outwardly gives the façade of attempting to be just but inwardly has its own biases. Those biases are demonstrated through the company’s stunning refusal to open up stores in neighborhoods dominated by people of color (even neighborhoods dominated by people of color that are middle class, such as my neighborhood in Queens). If you doubt me, look at how many Starbucks are in Harlem (in New York City), Chicago’s South Side, Baltimore excluding the parts around the Inner Harbor or Johns Hopkins University, or Philadelphia outside of Center City and the area near the 30th Street Station. Indeed, Starbucks’ bias training feels like a façade for its own biases.

However, I am not here just to pick on Starbucks, because the fact is that Starbucks is not the only large organization guilty of having bias training while having its own biases. For example, Google’s bias training has existed much longer than Starbucks’, yet their demographics demonstrate that there is bias somewhere along the way: their workforce is severely lacking in black and Latino employees, for example. The New York City Public Schools will spend millions in racial bias training for its educators while allowing a school system that is severely segregated. They are just two of numerous employers that have training to try preventing racial bias while continuing to have their own unconscious biases as an organization.

This is not to suggest that the racial bias training should end at these organizations—I am not enough of an expert (yet) on them to give an answer on that. What I am suggesting, however, is that we can’t just look at the racial biases of a barista at Starbucks or a public school teacher in New York City, but also the racial biases of those who decide where to open up Starbucks or those who decide on policies that segregate schools further in New York City. After all, if we fail to look at organizations’ racial biases, from top to bottom, we will find ourselves blind to a significant amount of racial injustice.

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Southeast DC is predominantly black. It is also almost completely lacking in Starbucks, just like many other American neighborhoods where people of color are in the majority. This picture taken by me.