Decomposing Race


Decomposing Race

Political correctness has been pushed to propagate the idea of distance between the political elite to the working class and distract people from the larger, more substantial issues at hand. One of the most relevant issues, racism, has been skirted around despite its continual relevancy to the problems of modern society. Racism has always existed, and continues to exist. Its presence, impact, and definition have changed, but are still visible. During my time transcribing Bertillon cards from the Ohio State Reformatory and Penitentiary, I have found trends between complexion and crime as well as racial undertones and early usages of political correctness.

Historically, Black people have been underprivileged and marginalized. They were granted only second-class citizenship, if at all. This influence was clear in the transcription data that Ashley Cipcic, my research partner, and I have collected. In the prisoner records--the cards we catalogue into the Decomposing Bodies online dataset, Omeka--Laborer, the most menial job, was also the most common job. It appeared 96 times in our (growing) dataset of 642. People with dark, brown, chocolate, or mulatto complexions held 60 of those 96 positions. Medium complexions held another 27 of the 96 positions. The presence of race as a determining factor of socioeconomic status was significant. From birth, Black people’s occupational limits were predetermined.

Black people’s “tendencies” to commit crimes, too, may have been predetermined. It is interesting to note the demographics of Ohio in 1900. At the time, only 97,000 people of the total population of 4,158,000 (2.3%) were Black. Nevertheless, 40.6% of the prisoners we archived were of complexions that carry racially charged language; of our compiled list of 642 prisoners, 261 were labeled as dark, chocolate, brown, or mulatto. Though it is not necessarily true that police purposefully sought out Black people to arrest, or that Black people may have had a propensity to commit felonies due to their exposure to crime, poverty segregation, and inhumane treatment, there is a notable correlation between complexion and entering prison. Efforts to treat people fairly were, however, somewhat present. It should be noted that some White people were labeled dark as well. Furthermore, 199 prisoners (this excludes those that were specified as medium brown, dark, etc.) were ambiguously labeled as “medium.”

The fact that “medium” could have been attributed to any person also speaks to the slowly encroaching idea of political correctness and unbiased treatment of people--not insofar that it would be defined as such, but that America of the 1900s began its attempt to enforce equal rights and treatment. The Civil Rights Movement did not even begin to form until Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), but the idea that all peoples deserved respect may have started to develop.

The irony of this situation (other than the categorization of the descent of all Black people as “Negro,” regardless that they were most likely born in America like their white “American” counterparts) is that the historical mistreatment of Black people in America has created a situation in which people are never truly equal. Equality does not exist now, nor has it ever. The effects of racism in America still linger.

I do not claim to have found anything that directs us to the beginning of inequality or answers our problems (in regards to race and prison), or to have better defined the proper usage of political correctness. I do, however, think that the trends that Ashley Cipcic and I have stumbled upon may lead to the beginnings of the answer to why the prison system in America is prejudiced.


All state demographic data was from which collected census data.

  • Decomposing Bodies
  • Undergraduate Work
  • VMW