Friday, February 10, 2012

Crucified by Conscientious Blindness

Someone branded me with the scarlet “R” today.  In prison, race is the fault line which runs under every crash-gate, every kilometer of razor wire.  Like being called a “snitch”, labeling someone as a “racist” normally means practically nothing: such labels are the literary equivalent of a Mac-10, the low-hanging fruit on the great Pejorative Tree, the tried-and-true response when someone in prison wants to tar another person quickly and easily.  It means quite another thing when the person doing the labeling is both serious and rational.  This is the third time I have traipsed ignorantly into the minefield of race, so you would think that I would have learned my lesson by now.  Maybe I really am as dumb as I look, despite the myriad declarations over the years to the contrary.

The first time this happened was roughly 4.5 years ago.  On this occasion I was formally awarded the appellation of “race traitor” for not being white enough. (Haha, I know; if they could have seen me dance, I think I could have assuaged any lingering doubts as to the true depths of my caucasianosity.)  It was quickly discovered that A) I grew up in the suburbs, not the country B) I am a political liberal (and later on, a Marxist, gasp!), and well, C) I didn’t help myself out any by pointing out that historically the Aryan people were actually Iranian and that the modern version of the term was entirely fabricated by political opportunists desperate to throw up a few additional in/out group divisions.  I put the final nail in that particular coffin by taking (and then having the poor graces to then win) several large bets on the 2008 Presidential election cycle.  Needless to say, the AB will not be inviting me to any box socials or Kick-ass Koffee Klatches, or whatever it is that social troglodytes do when they get together to felate old Adolf.

My second instance of racial foot-in-mouthery was a bit more serious.  Several of the Black Panther-type guys on my section were discussing Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The daughter of one of these men (who is black, obviously) was upset over the fact that her teacher (who is white) had forced the class to read sections of this work out loud, including copious examples of the N-word.  I grew up in a suburb inundated with political correctness.  My lack of bigotry may be the best part about me, considering how so many of my friends turned out.  Aside from a few rare instances in literature or the movies, I had never heard this word spoken out loud until I came to prison.  It shocked me to witness how casually certain types of African Americans (the ones who most closely adhere to the norms of the “street” subculture, and who are directly opposed in many aspects by the discipline of the Muslims and Black Panther set) utilized this term as a synonym for “bro” or “dude”.  Though distasteful to me (as it will always be to those of us conscious of the true  extremes of our nation’s history, the only sort of American “exceptionalism” available to the to the reality-afflicted), I came to see a certain brilliance in this common usage.  By relegating “nigger” to the mundane, the commonplace, these men had robbed the term of its punch:  it no longer meant what it once did, and therefore had lost its power to wound to maximal effect.  When you sanction a label, you automatically embue it with force, impact.  I tried to point this out, that when you forbid high school kids to having the type of ah-ha! Moment that comes from a dialogue surrounding the shocking reality found in Twain’s writings, you do not address the social realities of our past, and you rob them of something vital.  Huck Finn is an incredibly didactic tale, and I am never banning any book, especially ones so capable of fostering moral development.  I eventually got my point across, and the knives stopped being sharpened.  Still, it was a good long while before I participated in a conversation with these guys, and I was always cognizant of the fact that this word had – once again – driven a wedge between us. I didn’t press the point, but I hope that some of them noticed the divide that comes from an inability to simply talk in an open and unfettered manner.

Despite this lesson, I stepped in it again today.  Several months ago, a contact of mine in San Quentin recommended to a mutual friend Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow.  She read it, enjoyed it, and sent me a copy.  It has taken me several months to find the time to read it, due to the fact that a few of my present classes are rather enjoying the experience of proving to me what a doofus I am.  Still,  I have managed to carve out a chunk of time this week to give it a once-over, because Alexander has developed a rather large following here on the Row.  In nearly seven years behind bars, I have never seen any book so swiftly course through a subset of the prison community.  This fact, more than any other, motivated me to crack it open.

I can see why The New Jim Crow has garnered such a following.  In my opinion, humans are at their most noble when they are dialoguing over new data: exploring, debating, and discovering a deeper and more empirical reality.  It was very endearing watching men who had not read a book in years delving in with abandon, and then carting the book out to the dayrooms to discuss what a certain passage meant to them.  The last time I recommended a book on this site (Dr. Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning), the response was positive, so I will go out on a limb and humbly suggest that you add this book to your iBooks wish-list.  For the technologically challenged, I know that Alexander’s book just came out in paperback form, so you should be able to find a used copy on Amazon for a few bucks.  I never appreciated before how true this is, but healthy democracies really do depend on a well-informed populace.  I know you are all busy little bees out there, but take a moment to learn something new.  It’s a great feeling.

At any rate, I committed my most recent addition to the blooper reel that is my life by pointing out a few errors or points of analogy-departure in Alexander’s work.  I didn’t realize that this thing had practically become a part of the Black Convict’s Holy Canon, but I certainly did know that the post-critique looks meant which were instantly beamed at me.  It seems to be my lot in life to be the heretic.  What a joke that the very quality that drove me to insanity as a youth should become the cornerstone of my identity as an adult.

Prison is not a locale known for subtlety and nuance, and my constant nit-pickings are seldom received in the spirit with which they were intended.  I am not a post-modernist;  I believe in facts which are objectively true, and this pursuit is central to nearly all that I do.  I know as well as anyone what happens to a person when everything they believe in is shown to be a lie, and I will not allow this to happen to me again.  Alas, I *finally* understand why people who live under the yoke of strong principles seldom have many friends.  Who could have known that the spectrum of loneliness extends from believing in nothing to believing in something so strongly that it utterly defines you?  Despite how my comments were taken, I enjoyed the book.  I agreed with many of Alexander’s points.  I just think that her views tend to obscure some vital points about American society at large.  These are deep waters, and she needs a different set of equipment if she is ever going to reach the true seabed.

But first, the good stuff, the reasons this book is worth reading in the first place.  Right now, this very minute, roughly 2.3 million Americans are locked up behind bars.  Something like an additional 5 or 6 million are living under some form of parole or probation.  One out of every four prisoners on the planet are prisoners of Red, White, and Blue, to the tune of more than 200 billion dollars a year (when you factor in lost economic activity rather than direct costs of imprisonment, this number easily tops one trillion dollars per annum in every estimate produced in the last ten years).  It would be silly to attempt to explain these statistics by saying that we Yanks are son inveterately dangerous that we are responsible for 25% of the world’s crime.  Clearly, there is a policy difference at work here, and any book that attempts to shed some light on how we managed to create such a boondoggle is welcomed and appreciated.  Humans in general and Americans in particular, have an almost supernatural ability to ignore the things we aren’t comfortable talking about.  Unless an outrage happens right in front of our faces, it’s not our problem (a fact that the pushers of the mass incarceration politics knew well when they constructed nearly 100% of the new prisons built over the past 30 years in rural areas).  James Baldwin put it more succinctly when he wrote:

 This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them; that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is their innocence which constitutes the crime…

Given the economic realities of our age (not to mention our supposed moral superiority), one would think that criminal justice reform would be a constant hot-button issue.  Instead, prisons and prisoners are like a gigantic pillar that we constantly must speak around.  I don’t say it enough, but I respect every last one of you (even the haters, yes) for coming to this site so consistently.  The writing blows (at least mine does, though things are looking up thanks to all the recent submissions from other writers), the topics can be painful to read at times, but you do not shy away.  For about ten seconds, I managed to convince myself that this was because I was so brilliant and interesting.  I quickly came to realize that you come here in an attempt to resolve the dissonance inherent in all intelligent people between crime and punishment.  You give me hope, something that I am as nearly deprived of as good sense.  If nothing else, Alexander’s work attempts to propel the subject of mass incarceration into the limelight.  The book will introduce you to some unpleasant realities of American society, realities intentionally occluded from view.  I have spoken of some of them on this site, so it is a bit of a relief to see someone with more skill picking up the baton.

Her basic premise is that mass incarceration represents a new form of social control over African Americans, similar in scope to slavery or Jim Crow.  This is a provocative statement, but she backs it up with mountains of real data. (In any case, an instinctual disagreement with her thesis is exactly the reason to buy the book in the first place.)  My view is that as long as we are talking about drug crimes, her analogy holds up to the inspection.  I was too young to remember the beginning of the War on Drugs, so the section describing how political conservatives – led by Reagan – created this conflict out of thin air was very informative to me.  Alexander’s explanations of how federal grant money was awarded to police departments for certain types of arrests which in turn led to a near total focus on inner city (i.e. black) neighborhoods are convincing.  So too is her analysis of how the SCOTUS basically eliminated the Fourth Amendment (“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the person or things to be seized”) in order to crack down on suspected drug criminals.  I have long known that statistics for drug use and abuse are shockingly consistent across racial lines, but Alexander shows that African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.  It is an undeniable fact that if you were to search a college dorm on any campus in the nation, you would find a higher rate of illegal drug seizures than in any ghetto.  This is a known fact.  At Baylor, it was easier to get cocaine than beer, and I had a fake ID.  And yet…I am trying to imagine the shit storm that would be churned up if the Waco Police Department’s SWAT team raided Pendleton at 3 AM with helicopters and automatic weapons.  Where you police matters, and it is also known fact that the spotlights of the police state are most focused on minority neighborhoods.

Even more alarming is the fact – again, backed up by a multitude of statistical surveys – that once arrested, blacks are sent at far higher rates to prison than whites.  My first college roommate actually got arrested with more than 3 ounces of hydroponically grown marijuana.  He was taken downtown, given a stern lecture, and offered a chance to keep his record clean by attending voluntary drug rehab courses.  Of course, he accepted.  When I was first released from seg in the county jail, my first cellie was a 17 year-old kid arrested for possession of 12 grams of pot.  He was a first-time offender, and he ended up signing a plea agreement for 6 years in the TDCJ.  He was black, whereas my roommate was white.  Was race the differentiating factor?  Alexander makes a pretty good argument for this, one worth your consideration. 

There is an extended section on the realities all offenders face upon release, though Alexander again tends to focus on those convicted of drug offenses.  Felons in most states exit the prison compound into a world of civic death:  they cannot serve on a jury, they cannot vote; Section 8 housing is forever off-limits to them, as are all forms of welfare.  Increasingly, employment in all but the most menial and low-wage job fields is made impossible by having a conviction, even if that conviction is for a tiny amount of narcotic.  It is in this section that the Jim Crow analogy holds up best:  more than all of the rest of the democracies on the planet combined, America actively disenfranchises huge sections of its own population.  The reality that a large chunk of these politically impotent souls are black is not missed by Alexander.  Neither is the point that when a recently released convict cannot find a job to support his family, he experiences severe mental strain.  That he often returns to crime is the inevitable result.  Mass incarceration, when seen clearly, turns out to be not a response to crime but a creator of crime.

There are some problems with this analogy, though.  Alexander was not the first to push the idea of a “new” Jim Crow, and there are plenty of criticisms of her work out there.  I would like to simply add a few points of my own.  First, there are a number of major American cities (Washington DC, Detroit, Baltimore, etc.) where African Americans represent a clear voting majority.  DC, in particular, has been politically controlled by blacks since home rule was established in 1975:  all six of its mayors have been black, and the city council has been majority black for nearly all of that time.  If the criminal justice ideology currently en vogue were entirely racist, one would expect these sort of cities to have very different policies in place.  By and large, however, criminal justice policies in DC and Detroit harmonize with most of the rest of the country.  If this is a new Jim Crow – a system predicated on indifference or animus of whites against blacks – a curious amount of black voters seem on board with it.

In many ways, blacks tend to promote “Tough on Crime” politicians for the same reasons that whites do, and this synchronization has less to do with race than Alexander believes.  All people dislike crime, especially violent crime.  It is important to note that roughly half of all state prisoners are incarcerated for crimes of violence.  21% are behind bars for property crimes, with drug crimes polling in at 20%.  When you factor in the federal system (where drug offenders do represent a majority of 51%), about one-quarter of the prisoners in the US are serving time for drug offenses.  Even if all of these men were to be instantaneously released, we would still have the largest prison system in the world by a huge margin.

If you believe the pundits, the rising rate of violent crime incarceration is directly due to the rising levels of violence.  Seems intuitive, right?  Except violence is not rising, it is falling at a steady and consistent rate, even as incarceration levels consistently tick upwards.  The state’s response to crime is what changed, in the form of longer sentences (such as mandatory minimum sentences, three strikes laws, and “truth-in-sentencing” statutes) and a near total elimination of prison diversion programs.  The rise of the private prison industry is not mentioned in Alexander’s book, but the existence of companies that get paid to lock people up certainly impacts this discussion

Violence is a tough thing to talk about for many reasons.  It is very, very easy to tar-and-feather offenders while totally ignoring the conditions that gave rise to their actions.  Even attempting to ameliorate these conditions is seen nowadays as pandering to criminals, or “hugging a thug”.  (Never mind that this is actually the only way we are ever going to solve any of this mess…Christians: when are you going to get angry that the party you vote for in droves has made compassion into a sin?)  It is so easy to forget about conditions producing crime that many of us have no knowledge of nearly 100 years of criminological research that proves that crime is not simply a matter of choice.  It is not my purpose to delve into all of that here; I am merely pointing out that by ignoring the issue of violent crime in American, Alexander plays into this tendency to focus her argument on the War on Drugs.  Blacks may be against these policies, but the visceral response to violent crime keeps sending them back into the arms of the politicians who advocate them.  Until we get serious about addressing the underlying social conditions in America that produce so much anger and existential angst, violent crime will never totally disappear, even if the rates continue to fall.

While the arrest rates for blacks may have skyrocketed in recent decades, they decreased for one important subset of that population: educated blacks. This points to another major piece of the argument, that what we are dealing with here is not a racial issue entirely, but rather a class welded to race so closely that they appear inseparable at first glance.  Education is closely correlated to income level, and it is a fact that most prisoners are poorly educated.  Class privilege mitigates racial disadvantage, a clear sign that mass incarceration is not completely analogous to Jim Crow. (As a brief aside, let me point out that even though we have all known for about 100 years that the single greatest weapon we as a society have against recidivism is education, southern prisons refuse to educate their inmates.  I have written about this many times.  What is interesting to note is that even portions of the TDCJ are now rebelling against the administration’s willful ignorance on this matter.  In TDCJ, we have an internal newspaper released every month called, appropriately, The Echo.  This is a propaganda rag in the purest sense of the word, with all of the articles promoting pro-prison policies.  Only once in 5 years have I seen an article which contrasts with the official line, which you can read HERE. Officially, when all of these budget cuts came down the last few years, Texan politicians claimed that the cuts would “foster efficiency”, and not endanger public safety.  This article seems to lay the blame directly on the 82nd Lege, where it belongs.  Just read the article, and pay special attention to the numbers of jobs lost by these cuts, and the decrease in offenders taking classes in 2012.  One of these days, these people are going to start having to face reality…)

My final departure with Alexander deals with the fact that one-third of prisoners are white.  Incarceration rates have risen for whites and Latinos, too, over the past few decades, so if this were a Jim Crow system, you wouldn’t tend to see that.  Alexander calls this “collateral damage”, a result of anti-black policies straying off the target.  In some cases, she might be correct, such as the 100 to 1 sentencing difference between crack cocaine and its powder form.  A thought experiment: picture in your mind, if you will, a “crack whore” or a “crack fiend”.  What did they look like?  They were black, right?  All of the news stories that you have ever seen on television depict crack as a black problem.  Except, the hard data shows us that they majority of crack users are, in fact, white.  She might be on to something here: that racist legislators managed to push these laws through Congress, using the power of their offices to create a “colorblind” racism.  Still, when you look at the fact that 60% of the inmates are not black, that seems like a whole ton of “collateral damage”.  Alexander is right about much, but the problem is more complicated than she realizes.  Maybe the fact that my college roommate was white had nothing to do with the reason he didn’t go to jail.  Maybe it was the fact that his father was a noted attorney, someone in real political power.  Law enforcement, just like everyone else, usually picks the easiest path down the mountain.

The real risk here is that if you divide this issue up into racial camps, you prevent an organic constituency from ever growing up around it.  As has happened many times in the history of this nation, the coalition of the poorest and most down trodden has been divided up by the powerful;  Jim Crow (as well as slavery) worked because poor whites got behind it.  Instead of recognizing the class similarities and common ground poor whites shared with poor blacks, they cashed in on the ability to feel superior to someone, even if that someone was economically equivalent to them.  Our issues coincide.  Pretending otherwise plays right into the hands of the politicians who survive at their jobs by building more prisons.

Alexander does successfully prove that what we have here in America is not a crime problem, but rather a policy problem in response to crime.  Those are very different matters.  We got her by ignoring compassion and all the rest of the better angels of our dispositions.  We got here by being distracted by political and moral charlatans who have no policy expertise save managing to stay in office, by believing them when they traipsed out the frightening figure of the criminal monster-man.  Safety, they cry, as an excuse to make you forget the true potential of this nation.  While I disagree with Alexander on some major points, she is right about much, and her positions are excellent ones for debate.  Unless, of course, you are content with the status quo and comfortably snug in your deliberate cruelty and indifference.

DISCLAIMER:  I am a prisoner.  It has been pointed out to me by one of my friendly neighborhood cyber-stalkers that I only care about this stuff because I have a dog in the fight.  As I have stated on numerous occasions, nothing I advocate here on MB6 will change my situation; in fact, my prosecutor has already attempted to use this site as evidence of my monstrous character deficiencies.  None of the policy changes I recommend would apply to a lifer, even if I were to have my sentence commuted.  To put it simply:  my dog is barred from this track, so ad hominem arguments are not going to cut it if you are trying to disprove my point.  Stop pointing fingers and get the facts before you open your trap.  I have witnessed the depravations of this system firsthand, and feel morally compelled to have my voice heard.  I hope that due to my efforts and manner of living that I will be allowed to participate in the discussion of penal reform.  I do not expect to personally profit from this stance in any way.  Some slaves wrote about the evils of slavery.  Some blacks wrote about the evils of racism under Jim Crow.  Did they have an interest in the outcome of such a discussion?  Certainly.  This didn’t make them liars.  It didn’t make them dishonest.  It simply made them involved.

© Copyright 2012 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved


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