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On May 1, philosopher Tommie Shelby’s lecture on capitalism, racism, and political repression filled McCormick 101 for the second day of his three-part lecture series.

Shelby is a Harvard University Professor of Philosophy and of African and African American Studies. He is the author of Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform and We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity.

In his previous lecture, Shelby analyzed Angela Y. Davis’s writings on prison abolition, in which she argues that imprisonment is morally objectionable because it functions to maximize profits, dehumanize, and constitute a form and legacy of slavery.

“The case that justice [requires] a world without prisons cannot be made … on the basis of those arguments,” said Shelby.

In this lecture, he turns to Davis’s functional critique of prisons. The function of prisons, according to Davis, is four-fold: to facilitate economic exploitation, perpetuate racism, repress political dissent, and conceal intractable social problems.

“The form of the general critique draws from Marxist theory,” explained Shelby. “These financial gains are garnered at the expense of those outside the ruling class and are extracted through force or fraud.” 

“Racism plays a crucial role. The prison is racist,” Shelby explained. “It perpetuates racism and creates new modes of racism.”

Lastly, prisons are an apparatus for political repression, according to Shelby. When oppressed people refuse to submit to subordination and voluntary servitude and resist, it is a function of the law enforcement to repress this.

He went on to define the general form of a functional critique, defining an institution as a set of public rules and social roles that facilitate cooperation for some purpose.

“A concealed or unacknowledged goal shared by participants in an institution is a covert purpose,” Shelby said.

He also distinguished an institution’s manifest function, or its realized official purpose, from its latent function, a causal consequence of an institution that explains the institution, but is not the official purpose. These distinctions help explain why an institution might persist despite changes in society and why it is resilient in the face of challenges.

“The manifest/latent function distinction makes sense of an institution that doesn’t appear to achieve its official purpose,” Shelby said.

Under Davis’s view, the prisons have a covert purpose. The latent function of prison is to create and maintain various forms of oppression.

“Davis writes that prisons expanded despite the fact that they did not prevent crimes,” Shelby pointed out.

He discussed the implications of Davis’s theory if the subjection of the functional analysis was not an institution, but a set of beliefs or an ideology.

Acceptance of these beliefs is based in various social consequences, he explained.

“Ideologies foster the oppressive latent functions of prisons,” he said, citing negative stereotypes that have led to tangible social consequences for black people. “However, the functional critique of ideology cannot ground the abolition of prisons in the absence of a refutation of the public justification of the practice of imprisonment.”

Shelby pointed out that although prisons can be instances of institutional racism, the racism can be corrected without ending the practice of imprisonment. So the question of abolition will turn on whether imprisonment has a legitimate goal that justifies its costs, criminal justice rules can justly achieve this goal, sufficient personnel can impartially follow these rules, and a feasible alternative exists that can achieve the goal with fewer costs and lesser risk.

If it turns out that prisons serve no legitimate function or that there is a better alternative that is functionally equivalent, abolition would follow.

“[However,] the functional critique does not rule out an institution serving both its latent function and its manifest function,” Shelby said.

While Davis makes the radical claim that the racial disparity in the prison system is a necessary consequence of a capitalist system — specifically, one with deep roots in racism — Shelby argues that prisons are not inherently racist. Instead, in some environments, such as the current prison system, racial subjugation occurs.

Additionally, some unjust societies may be self-adjusting, maintaining their oppressive structure despite changes to the system, Shelby explained. 

In this case, “prison abolition is either a pointless project or a matter of revolutionary tactics,” according to Shelby.

He considers a “radical” prison moratorium proposal: that we admit no new inmates and release those currently incarcerated until we make our society more just.

Shelby favors a more moderate view: until we transform our society into something more just, we should only imprison those who commit serious violent crimes, such as murder, rape, and aggravated assault.

“I actually have a lot of sympathy for this position,” he said, adding that he will defend it in the next lecture.

The talk, "The Limits of Functional Critique: Capitalism, Racism, and Political Repression,” was the second of three lectures in the philosophy department’s 2018 Carl G. Hempel Lectures series, "Incarceration as Punishment? Prison Abolition and Critical Theory,” which took place the first three days of this week at 4 p.m. in McCormick 101. A question-and-answer session takes place after each lecture, followed by a reception.

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