24 August 2009

criminality in "post-race" america

I've been under a rock these past weeks - packing, moving, unpacking, getting settled in my new place, and preparing for my new job. It's been a hectic month... and I am missing New York terribly. But now that I am finally hitting my groove again :) it's time to write, reflect, and keep sendin' out into the universe conscious vibration...

I started a piece a while back about the arrest of Professor Gates, but didn't get a chance to finish it till now. I don't want to re-hash any of the debates already out there about his arrest. But rather I want to use this situation as an opportunity to discuss criminality in what many are calling a "post-race" moment. The most disturbing part of this entire issue was (and still is) the lack of critical discourse about "justice" and the prison system (or the prison industrial complex); AND the accusations hurled at Professor Gates - that he played the race card.

U.S. racial politics and the long history of serious injustice in “the law” and criminal system must be considered. The law and police as institutions are mired in this sordid history. Racial profiling is an everyday experience for people of color. So it is a fallacy to say that Professor Gates “played the race card” – because race was/is already an issue within the daily social, political, and legal fabric of this country. Black, Latino, and Native American men are incarcerated at higher levels than white men NOT because they commit more crimes, but rather because their bodies are criminalized and policed more than white bodies. Black and Latina women face the same harsh reality. (I hate statistics, and I know they can be manipulated to serve different agendas, but these stats have been used by a number of different sources: The 2006 U.S. Dept of Justice Reports "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group. Men are still roughly 13 times more likely to be incarcerated, but the female population is expanding at a far brisker pace. For black women in their mid- to late-30s, the incarceration rate also has hit the one-in-100 mark").

Unfortunately, these stats are often used to sustain the fear of the Black male in america, and it also perpetuates the racial stereotype of inherent criminality onto Black and Brown bodies. But these numbers/reports should make us want to understand why so many people of color are locked up in prison, and ask ourselves who profits from this system. The drug sentencing laws alone reveal injustice in the system - from the disparities in crack/cocaine laws to the fact that more than HALF of the people locked up are in there for NON-VIOLENT drug offenses.

(Do your own research; read the latest Pew Report on the prison system; check out Law Professor Ian Haney Lopez’s book titled White By Law for a detailed study of the law and race; AND read Angela Davis' Are Prisons Obsolete? -- she traces the connection between the end of slavery, the rise of the chain gang and the prison industrial complex, which fed/feeds the country's & corporations' need for cheap/free labor.)

NUMEROUS studies show that racial profiling, longer/harsher sentencing, unjust/racist laws, privatization of prisons, and the intense policing of poor communities is what in fact contributes to the high numbers of people of color being locked up in U.S. Jails and Prisons. Again, there are more people of color in prison NOT because crime is on the rise OR that we commit more crimes, its because of the system itself -- longer sentences, ridiculous probation laws that basically guarantee return to prison, lack of resources to help people coming out of prison, and the grim reality of poor communities with few resources exacerbated by state/federal monies going to build prisons instead of schools, spending money on war instead of community.

The prison system in its present state DOES NOT WORK and it certainly doesn't make our communities any safer. But we are suppose to believe in the law and the police without question. And so when Professor Gates gets arrested, it is easier for us to believe that it was an accident, that he "acted out" and therefore deserved it, that the police are just doing their job, that the system and law are colorblind, that he should have just "behaved" properly. It is much harder to question the system itself or consider that the police may lie - they have a code (all police) and they abide by it. And it is much harder to ask why Professor Gates' Black body is seen as threatening in so called "post-race" america -- especially with a Black president. It is even harder to admit that our belief and dependency in/on the prison system makes it work even more.

Ironically, Professor Gates has really never been one to talk about these difficult issues (in terms of the law, prison system, and injustice). In one of his PBS specials "America Beyond the Color Line," he briefly addressed the issue of Black men in prison, but he only touched upon racial profiling. And so now, Professor Gates is faced with the toughest of questions and challenges in an “america” that so wants to believe it is colorblind. He's already lined up to do a special on racial profiling. Is it too much too hope for that he offers a deep analysis of the system? All I can do is dream at this point.

We need alternatives. We need critique. We need to be armed with information/history/herstory to fight against racial stereotypes and misuse of statistics. We need to admit that race (gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, & ability) affect how we are treated within a given society and within institutions. We need to develop ways of building communities instead of destroying them. I am anti-prison and I think prison abolition is what we must fight for/towards -- a lot of people think this is ridiculous and some people think the system is too far entrenched to be changed. But I believe we have to start somewhere - and we should aim and struggle for RADICAL change at the root. Research and organizations already exist that offer maps/studies/visions for change. Places to start: - Instead of Prisons; Real Cost of Prisons; and Critical Resistance.

Critical Resistance (a national organization that works to dismantle the prison industrial complex) offers an important resource and space for us re-think, question, and challenge the prison system. Here is how CR defines the problem and their vision of change:

The U.S. uses prisons and policing as a failed “solution” to social problems. As a result, our communities are being destroyed.
• In the past two decades, the number of people in prison in the U.S. increased 400%.
• Prisons are filled with 68% people of color.
• 4 million people who have been in prison face barriers to jobs, parental rights, public assistance, and housing.
• In neighborhoods where people are most affected by mass imprisonment and policing, we see the direct impact of our annual $50 billion investment in prisons and policing: closed schools, homelessness, basic health care is out of reach, and poverty remains a reality in the richest country on earth.

Critical Resistance’s vision is the creation of genuinely safe, healthy communities that do not rely on prisons and policing to respond to harm. We call our vision “abolition.” We take the name “abolitionists” purposefully from those who called for the abolition of slavery in the 1800’s. Abolitionists believed that slavery could not be fixed or reformed – it needed to be abolished.

We must challenge the systems that keep us all locked up - physically, mentally, and spiritually. We must start thinking outside the box. We do not live in a "post-race" or colorblind world. But rather, we live in a world of difference - and we need to keep building across & through our differences to create the world we want to live in, the world we want for future generations.


Unknown said...

Thanks always, Devi, for your powerful and insightful words. I am teaching a social problems class this semester and found myself in a bunch trying to find demographic info on incarceration and other relevant info that would critically engage and challenge my students not just feed stereotypes that they already have. The suggested readings and the clipart are a great combo that will contextual this issue for them-I hope-in ways that some of the readings that I have were not going to do.

Chismatic said...

I like everything that you are about.


Ahma Daeus said...

Even if one does not ask or pretends not to see the rope and the flashing red flag draped around the philosophical question standing solemnly at attention in the middle of the room, it remains apparent that the mere presence of a private “for profit” driven prison business in our country undermines the U.S Constitution and subsequently the credibility of the American criminal justice system. In fact, until all private prisons in America have been abolished and outlawed, “the promise” of fairness and justice at every level of this country’s judicial system will remain unattainable. We must restore the principles and the vacant promise of our judicial system. Our government cannot continue to "job-out" its obligation and neglect its duty to the individuals confined in the correctional and rehabilitation facilities throughout this nation, nor can it ignore the will of the people that it was designed to serve and protect. There is urgent need for the good people of this country to emerge from the shadows of indifference, apathy, cynicism, fear, and those other dark places that we migrate to when we are overwhelmed by frustration and the loss of hope.
My hope is that you will support the National Public Service Council to Abolish Private Prisons (NPSCTAPP) with a show of solidarity by signing "The Single Voice Petition"

Please visit our website for further information: http://www.npsctapp.blogspot.com

–Ahma Daeus
"Practicing Humanity Without A License"…

Chef Bruce Lee said...

Excellent blog. Excellent resources. Are prisons obsolete? is an amazing body of work written by an amazing author, just like this blog! You are a beacon of light in these dark times; please keep up your hard work and continue to inspire us all.