Monday, March 26, 2012

Alexander, Brown, and Abu-Jamal

This week’s reading elucidated how both structural and individual prejudices play a role in creating and perpetuating racial discrimination in the penal system. Our legal policies and the media structurally produce the discrimination. Law enforcement personal and we as recipients of the media, then internalize structurally created discrimination and project individual prejudice. These practices maintain our caste system in the United States with the privileged whites safely at the top. Regan’s war on drugs helped to make this kind of discrimination possible and his campaign made people firstly think the war existed, and produced an image of blacks being those responsible for the problem. For more than just crimes involving drugs, the media ensures that many view blacks as usual suspects who commit crimes with no excuse other than being thugs and evil. Brown calls the Western press the “Fourth Estate, the fourth arm of the ruling class…the last branch of the ruling power structure” (Brown, 37). I thought this was a good explanation for how the media works. We must examine who is in charge of running our news stations, papers, and websites, and more often than not, it is the “ruling class” of privileged whites.  The media has been successful in presenting the crimes committed by white people as unfortunate circumstances in which psychological and social misfortunes caused a person to behave in an irrational way. On top of the media manipulating national sentiment towards crimes committed by people of color, the prosecution process is also biased towards a black defendant. Juries often end up being composed of all-white jurors, which by no means is a jury of one’s own peers. However, it is easy to make up reasons other than race as a to why a black person is not qualified to be on a jury. Furthermore, jury lists are often based off DMV lists, so that people of color who are less likely to have cars or register to vote, are excluded.
With all the adversity blacks must face after being accused of a crime, the practices that allow for the actual charges are just as racially discriminatory.  Once again, we see colorblind policies at work that legally make discrimination easier. The Supreme Court argues that pulling people over for traffic violations means anyone can be searched for drugs, so it is not prejudiced.  However, police can racially profile on an individual level. It is up to their own discretion and blacks are often unreasonably pulled over and searched simply because of their race. Police also engage in discriminatory practices in their choices of where to search for drugs. They often pick the “hood” and argue it is due to the high frequency of drug trafficking. However, frat houses and other white neighborhoods are just, if not more likely to have drugs. This has always amazed me, how it is so obvious that certain people have drugs, but probably because they are white and have connections to some type of political power, police act oblivious. In the “hood” drug deals are more public because there is less space to conduct deal behind closed doors. This argument makes drug raids in ghettos seem race neutral but Alexander argues that ghettos were created to “contain and control groups of people defined by race” (Alexander, 132).
What was even more disturbing to me than what I have already mentioned, is how hopeless it seems for people of color to file law suits against discriminatory practices by law enforcement. There are so many hurdles to jump over; it is totally understandable why one may give up on the whole process. Furthermore, there is a risk that the law enforcement one is trying to sue could turn the tables and get the person of color into more trouble. Finally, some lawsuits simply cannot happen because neither the state or police can be sued for damages and city departments are often off limits as well. This leaves me to wonder, if our legal system cannot be used to combat this prejudice, what can other than a revolution of some sort?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Caroline brings up the sense of hopelessness that becomes the reality for people of color in this country in the final paragraph of her post. This hopelessness, for me, struck chords with the powerlessness we witnessed during our investigation of the US military and the torture it conducted. As we mentioned in lecture, parallels can be drawn between the reframing vocabulary used by the Bush administration to cover up torture, and the vocabulary our society now uses to guise deep-seeded racism. The “cracking down on crime” rhetoric employed by the US penal system simultaneously continues the disenfranchisement of people of color while guaranteeing that no one particular element of the system can be held accountable. This deliberate ambiguity within a power structure is reminiscent of the chain of command in the military, where fingers were pointed every which way when it came time that someone had to be held responsible for the torture at GTMO and Abu Ghraib.
    Brown hints at this when discussing the discrepancy in media coverage following the murders at Columbine and the crimes committed by Yummy Sandifer, a young member of a black gang. As Brown explains, the crimes committed by two white teenagers were met with widespread incredulity—everyone was dumbfounded that two, nice white boys were capable of such horrible deeds, and could not begin to understand why it was that they would do it. Brown writes, “The question of ‘why’ had never come up in the cover story about Yummy—an omission made even more interesting by the fact that lead reporter for both pieces was Julie Grace” (Brown 44). Here, Brown touches upon an American resignation that black and brown people commit crimes; because people have come to normalize the association of crime with darker skin, there is no reflex to question why boys like Yummy would break the law. To question why Yummy and people of color commit crime, or why they are reprehended for crimes at rates much higher than whites, would be to invite unwelcome investigation of the penal system. As Abu Jamal writes, “How true. McClesky can’t be correct, or else the whole system is incorrect. Now that couldn’t be the case, could it?” (Abu Jamal 78).

  3. Caroline states in her post that, “Law enforcement personal and we as recipients of the media internalize structurally created discrimination and project individual prejudice.” Throughout reading Alexander and this week’s Brown’s reading, I really began to grapple with the subliminal messages that influence members of society creating the internalization that Caroline discusses. These messages, transmitted through media, court cases, policing policy and practices, and other law enforcement areas, influence both through what is said and what is not said. Brown discusses the ways in which media can influence opinions and stereotypes by their portrayal of different crimes. In the case of “Little B”, news reports showed not his actions to be “evil” but that he was evil himself. Everyone came to know about the horrid crimes this evil boy committed. However, when reality showed Little B’s innocence, Brown discusses the silence within the media that followed. Despite gaining innocence, nothing was said to apologize or negate what the media had portrayed of the fourteen year old boy. Similar and worse crimes committed later on by white boys of similar ages led to the pitying of such disturbed, but not evil, individuals, who were clearly at the mercy of bad circumstances that led them to act the way they did. Their actions were evil, but not the boys themselves.

    Alexander discusses how many facts and supposed truths about incarceration rates and the methods or policies by which they occur perpetuate stereotypes and create false statistics about who are really committing these “drug crimes”. By not showing the staggering statistics and explaining the horrifying stories of individuals being denied equal rights and experiencing racial discrimination in many aspects of the law, people begin to internalize the messages they are being told: black people represent the majority of criminals. I am guilty myself of believing certain “myths” about the War on Drugs, and have felt both enlightened and alarmed by certain statistics concerning the reality behind the legal system. Messages are constantly being absorbed in society both through what is seen and heard and what is not. As Abu-Jamal states in the excerpts from “Live from Death Row”, the “solution is not in the courts but in an awake, aware people.” (84) It is time more people are made conscious of the messages that are everywhere in today’s society that distort the reality of crime and our legal system.

  4. I was also struck by the media's manipulation of facts so as to stereotype black kids as evil criminals that were terrorizing America and threatening its innocence. Brown emphasized this point perfectly in his presentation of specific cases to highlight the way in which the journalists were essential in racializing and urbanizing crime. I was struck by the harsh words the reporters used to describe these young black boys; they described Little B, a teenage boy of "evil in the city" and claimed that Yummy, a dead child that had been abandoned at the age of eight, as "intimidating the neighborhood with knives, fire and guns" even though this was not the case.

    Brown demonstrates the power of the press when he describes it as the fourth arm of the ruling social class. Therefore, the government and the ruling class, because of the influence of their money, were able to use the media to justify their actions and further the process of using the justice system for social control.

    These issues become important when thinking about freedom of the press. It seems that the press, in exercising their freedom is essential in limiting the freedoms of young black Americans, because of their support for policies that allow the justice system to take away their rights during and after release. We argue that freedom of the press is necessary for maintaining a liberal and democratic government, but it also allows them to limit the rights of others, something that goes against our supposed liberal ideals. While I believe freedom of the press to be essential to our country, I think it becomes problematic when it is used to work against the vital principles of equal rights and freedom for all people.

    It seems that the US justice system continues to limit the rights of others through its use of certain super max prisons. Jamal illustrates the extent of this process in his article, in which he claims that US prisons now aim to dehumanize instead of rehabilitate. When talking about Pelican Bay prison’s special housing unit, he writes, “nearly thirteen hundred men are consigned to a state program of torture and governmental terrorism so much that the major news agencies…have commented on it” (83). I found this description especially disheartening and felt that it revealed a gap between American goals and practices. American officials often rationalize super max prisons by arguing that they remove dangerous criminals and therefore protect the rights of the American people and America’s fundamental ideals. However, this goal seems hypocritical when one looks at the fact that in doing so, they are destroying the rights of other citizens and acting completely against their liberal principles.

  5. Between this class, Peace and Nonviolence, and Political Education, which I took last semester with Professor Stern, I have learned that the media plays a huge role in the way we as Americans think. The media does a great job in manipulating our thoughts. The article I am mainly referring to is Evil in the City by Elaine Brown. Major Newspaper organizations have a lot of power over the average individual. What I mean by this is, the wording of the authors headline can say the complete opposite of what actually happened. Like Caroline points out “we need to be aware of who is in charge of running our news stations, papers, and websites because more often then not, it is the “ruling class” of privileged whites. Brown does a good job in her argument to point out that blacks are not treated fairly amongst white criminals. The most interesting part of the article was how she pointed out that when a newspaper or magazine is covering a story about robbery or murder whenever a black person was supposable responsible they were written as evil human beings. However, when a white person was reported responsible for a murder or shooting they were said to be overtaken by the demon, or they were going insane. “The nation had evidently reached a consensus that when white boys killed it was a matter of alienation” (Brown 43). One example that I am thinking of from the article in particular is the Columbine killings. The way the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were described in the media was troubled teens rather than vicious killers. It leaves us to wonder that if the teenagers responsible for the Columbine shootings were black what would the media have to say about them.
    We as Americans say that we have come a long way in history and the fact that everyone is created equal is suppose to make us feel proud of ourselves, and our country. Well in fact we really haven’t come a long way and we continue to stereotype individuals. It is hard to know if we as a Country will ever over come this obstacle.

  6. I’m surprisingly not surprised by the statistics that Alexander offered on the rates of drug activity amongst the White population (I mean, look at Colgate). However, as Alexander’s chapter continues to deconstruct the way in which American opinion has been influenced by government policies and then to later learn from Elaine Browne that the media impacts our thoughts on race, I’m appalled. It is disgusting to see the way mankind’s superficial pursuit to “do the right thing” has doomed many of us.
    Relating to Caroline’s comment on the targeting of minorities within inner cities, the fact that “Black” has become synonymous with “crime” is truly disappointing. After learning the statistics that Alexander pointed out, I just thought of Nantucket (that little rich island off the coast of Massachusetts) which is filled with people with money but also filled with loads of drugs. Where is the law there? WHAT is the law there? Fuck equality as long as there’s money involved, right?
    What is striking about Whites however is how they are more likely to plead for their death sentences ahead of time in order to deal with their suspension from society since they can't deal with the situation (104). I’m surprised that this alone (White people being in jail and essentially killing themselves) has not resulted in a prison revolution (or segregation) of sorts where some semblance of a “correctional facility” is put in place instead of hotels with free room and board to appease others by not killing the criminals for what they have been allegedly accused of—maybe this way Whites won’t ask for death sentences, since they’ll be doing something meaningful for themselves, the community, and society – just like Uncle Sam wants. With respect to ‘Evil in the City’, this issue of serving as a correctional facility without the correctional component does not alleviate the situation of public safety for anyone of any race, class, gender, etc. I’m not sure if juvenile correctional facilities help in the rehabilitation of youth in the US, but if there is research available that concludes that these behaviors will persist if youth (and adults) are restricted to solitary confinement or any other detrimental activity that will in the end serve as a disadvantage to their life beyond the cell something must be done.

  7. So this might be a stream of random thoughts, but bear with me.

    These readings, while they outraged and angered me all over, are nothing new. And no offense to anyone who has written so far (because I do agree with your posts in general) but I believe that there is a step further that we need to take with these readings.

    We can all agree (I hope) that African-Americans are clearly targeted by police and law enforcement.

    We can all talk about the role media plays in perpetuating this internalization of racism and bigotry in a way which makes (white) people honestly believe they are not racist, but rather believe that they judge people justly and not based on their race.

    Following Stephanie’s suit and bringing this conversation to Colgate, the glossing over of language that Alexander speaks throughout her chapter about (of making racist policies/statements/etc. without using explicitly racist language) is something that happens at Colgate all the time, especially in classrooms, including this one. Just food for thought… just to show how much this “I am not a racist nor do I judge people based on their race” sentiment pervades everyone’s minds to some extent. (I mean, the above paragraph/sentence applies to Colgate as well.)

    This is what makes the racism of the institution of prisons and law enforcement so difficult to attack, also articulated by Alexander in the end of Chapter 3.

    Also, to combat the myth that the media is the be-all-end-all-evil perpetuating racism, schools do a fantastic job (look at Colgate’s curriculum), families, communities, etc.

    Now, back to the readings. The way all people perceive the reason for committing a “crime” must be read in a racial context. Alexander said “Blacks committed crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. Whites did so because of external conditions such as family conflict” (118). Brown’s article clearly articulates and elaborates on these two sentences. I mean, there is not much to elaborate on this besides express the disgusting-ness of all of the facts in (and not in) the article.

  8. I began to have a conversation about these readings with a friend of mine and I was expressing my frustration about the way that the courts (specifically the Supreme Court) handled the cases presented to them. She argued that the Courts were under pressure to make decisions holding true to the Constitution. This did not sit well with me for a lot of reasons, but I will list two.
    1. Going back into Chapter 2 and looking at the Ohio v. Robinette case (68), I looked up more information on that one and Justice Ginsburg, although agreeing with the majority opinion that the search was just, recognized how unjust it was to agree with the majority opinion in that most people do not know that they can not consent to being searched. Despite this, she “had” to agree with the majority opinion because Ohio did not have a first-tell-then-ask rule concerning searches. This in my opinion is utterly fucked up. How can you recognize something is wrong, but not vote to change it for reasons of “pride” of a 300 year old document that is not relevant anymore and is very racist in and of itself? ALSO, there is precedent in 1886 with Yick Wo v. Hopkins (Alexander 116) in which the Supreme Court overturned a conviction reasoning that “thought the law itself may be fair on its face, and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations, between persons in similar circumstance… the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution” (116). Essentially, what I got out of this is that it is wrong to discriminate based on race. But this does not apply present day to laws which clearly discriminate because we live in a colorblind society. Chew on that. (Unless I interpreted that whole quote wrong.)
    2. The Supreme Court is “the one branch of government charged with the responsibility of protecting ‘discrete and insular minorities’ from the excesses of majoritarian democracy, and guaranteeing constitutional rights for groups deemed unpopular or subject to prejudice” (Alexander 108). The Court is clearly not doing this. I think it is going against its job in doing so if its job articulates that it needs to protect disenfranchised groups. Messed up.

    I guess with these readings, it is easy to get caught up in the emotion of it all (I know I do), whether being appalled or angered or etc; and I think that the reason behind why people are socialized to believe they are colorblind is obvious; I don’t know, actually, I am not sure what I am getting at here. I will have to think more about the “more” that I want out of analyzing these readings.