Guest Lecture Deconstructs Race-Based Incarceration

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, an associate professor at the University of California Los Angeles, spoke to a crowd of students and faculty at the University of Colorado Boulder about how the prison system in the United States is a “social institution” that discriminates against “racial outsiders” during a guest lecture last week.

Hernandez was invited to the university to talk about her new book, “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965,” which focuses on the rise of race-based policing and imprisonment in LA, and how the phenomenon coincided with the criminalization of undocumented immigration.

"Eliminating indigenous peoples and disappearing radicalized outsiders is the basic crux of social relations in a settler society,” Hernandez said. “This variant of settler colonialism runs particularly strong in the American West.”

Hernandez’s writing focuses mainly on LA and the Los Angeles Police Department. Because the American West was so strongly impacted my settler colonialism, principles such as white homogeneity is what led to the rise of imprisonment of racial minorities at disproportionate rates to white people, Hernandez told the audience.

Zoe Rath, an undergraduate at CU who attended Hernandez’ lecture, said listening to Hernandez helped her realize how some police systems, like the one Hernandez focused her studies on, can be rooted in corruption. 

“I think the system of the LAPD was founded upon the the idea of incarcerating minorities to preserve Los Angeles as the last ‘Aryan Frontier’ if you will,” Rath said. “I think it’s [become] so normal for certain police officers to exercise excessive force when it shouldn’t be.”

During her lecture, Hernandez talked about breaking down the history of incarceration in her new book to show that the imprisonment of racial minorities and indigenous peoples in Los Angeles was an attempt to maintain a racially-homogeneous society while still benefitting from convict labor that built the roads that run through the city. 

 In many ways, this isn’t unique to LA.

“In my thinking about settler colonialism, I do not think about incarceration as a project that really has an endpoint, but as a project that is always in process,” Hernandez said. “There’s a constant tension between labor exploitation and removing or disappearing non-white communities from our society.”

This idea of incarcerating and “disappearing” minority communities from American society has picked up in recent years, with many academics and lawyers studying the ways minorities are systematically discriminated against throughout the United States. 

“It is no longer socially permissible to use race as a justification for discrimination, exclusions and social contempt. So we don’t,” civil rights lawyer Michelle Alexander writes in “The New Jim Crow.” “Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Even though Hernandez’s work focuses on the history of incarceration in Los Angeles, it has ties to what’s happening across the country right now and what’s to come in the future. Questions of police brutality and immigration are two major points of contention in the United States, especially in the era of President Trump. 

“We’re in a moment right now where we have an attorney general who is determined to aggressively enforce the law,” Hernandez said. “I’m not an economist, I don’t do the future, I do the the past, but I think the potential is there for us to walk into unprecedented terrain in terms of mass incarceration and detention and deportation.”

Written October 2017 for Reporting II