Monday, March 19, 2012

Alexander, Kafka, Gawande

I’m reading this from a different lens and I’m not sure if this is relevant but I think its important to recognize we are not all getting the same things from these readings, they have different significance/meaning for people. I am reading this as a person is familiar with drugs, jail, prisons, police raids, and poverty. I am getting background information about things I see and why/how they came to be that way. I am reading this and when I argue things by using experience, my experience is validated by the facts in her book. I am also learning some history that I wasn’t necessarily familiar with. This is not theoretical, this is real life.
 Random thoughts are provided below:

So, starting with Michelle Alexander, the introduction and first chapter introduce her argument that mass incarceration is The New Jim Crow in the sense that it’s a continuation of social control in order to keep black people inferior and take away their rights. This is all institutionalized through our laws and punishments for felons, which just so happen to be young black males (who have been targeted after a declaration of war on drugs). Race is socially constructed and there are structures in place to ensure that separation continues and people are treated differently based off of that. There’s also this idea of an underclass-“a group so estranged from mainstream society that is no longer in reach of the mythical ladder of opportunity”, there is social exclusion and people see this as okay because they look at these people like they deserve it.

Random Thoughts on Alexander:
·         The implications of this kind of punishment for felons are stated early on in her book where Alexander says what these people are deprived of. People cannot vote because of legalized discrimination based off the fact that they’re felons. “Once labeled a felon, the old form of discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits…” (2) The idea is that these people committed crimes; if they commit these crimes they no longer have a right to these “privileges”. It’s seen like they don't deserve it anymore, which makes it hard to fight because it’s argued in that way. I don’t know if it’s understood what this could create. When released from jail/prison (which are different) you have a harder time adjusting to the real world, your record follows you not only with jobs but also with public assistance. So if you can’t find a job when you are out of jail and the government refuses to support you, you are pretty much screwed. You are trapped in a cycle of poverty and stigma without much support leading to the kind of second class citizenship Alexander describes.

·         The idea of the War on Drugs as a conspiracy is really interesting. It’s described as the effort to address rampant drug crime in poor minority neighborhoods. The fact that it was announced before crack became an issue implies this was a conspiracy. Declaring war on something that wasn’t necessarily an issue is sketchy. I also thought it was really interesting how at the time he declared the new war, less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation. (49) As soon as I saw this I thought about the word war and what it implies. I was confused because you can’t have a war with something inanimate right? Who were the two sides fighting in this war? Drugs are merely catalysts, then later Alexander points out how there was a justification for an all-out war on an “enemy” that had been racially defined years ago. (52)

·         I also thought the media’s role in this was interesting, especially after our section on photography/media. It was pointed out a few times when stalking about how the war on drugs got really popular and the social construction of stereotypes regarding black people, welfare and crack. Media’s role “saturated with images of black ‘crack whores’, ‘crack dealers’, and ‘crack babies’, seemed to confirm the worst negative racial stereotype.” (5) I thought about who’s controlling these images and stories and who’s watching it and the long term effects of this. I also thought about how this shames people on welfare and how white people seeing this felt (who are also on welfare). Did they internalize this or did they displace themselves from these images because they’re white. How about middle class or upper class black people? Were they challenging these images or did their class privilege blind them?They repeatedly raised the issue of welfare, subtly framing it as a contest between hardworking blue collar whites and poor blacks who refused to work. Reagan’s colorblind rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and statuses rights was clearly understood by white (and black) voters as having a racial dimension."

·         Alexander describes this war on drugs and mass incarceration as a genocidal plan on page 5- I’m not sure what she meant by this but it thought the choice of words were interesting because genocide is intent to eliminate a specific group of people. Even though in the context of this conversation language seems menial, I still thought the choice of words needed to be reflected and explained more to make sure it wasn’t to dramatize anything, but that she really believed this was a form of genocide people were trying to do.

·         Use of punishment as social control where the severity of punishment is unrelated to the actual crime patterns (7). Who decides which crime is worse? It’s frustrating because there are times where people have had more time in jail for jumping someone or stealing than rape. What crimes are seen as worse and why? In order to level it out are there people voting to see how much the minimum years should be for a particular crime?

·         Prison doesn’t deter crime so why the heavy reliance on it to help decrease some of the crimes?

·         I’m not sure I agree with one of her statements on page 9. She said that virtually every progressive national civil rights organization rallied in defense of affirmative action leading the public to believe affirmative action is the main battlefront in the US. I thought that was an overgeneralization even though I don't know much, I know there are organizations that fight hard for health care, jobs, and education. Also, on the next page she lists all the issues people were discussing, besides affirmative action. Although criminal justice reform wasn’t a part of the fight, I guess that doesn’t mean you should say they all only focus on affirmative action because I felt like she was delegitimizing or ignoring all the other work these organizations were doing. Maybe I just read it weird.

·         Barack Obama and Oprah with black exceptionalism is always a conversation that gets intense. I guess referring to Rachel’s blog post, it seems like the American dream is achievable since we have those few people make it. They are not a reflection of the entire race though, and there were specific circumstances that allowed them to move across class. I like the way Alexander acknowledges their strides yet critiques it without critiquing them as individuals. There are Obamas and Oprah’s but that shouldn’t make people dismiss the issues that still exist in society for black people.

·         The focus on eliminating the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites was really interesting. Especially when thinking about the Poor Movement and the way that was dismantled. Every time there’s hope for building coalitions with intersectional oppression something comes up that further the gap and difference between people.

·         Constitution is colorblind, what does it say about our country. Black people were not really people so the rights didn’t necessarily apply to them.

·         Vagrancy laws, what’s the difference between rules and legit crimes?

·         Interesting to think about with the enforcing these rules where the black people had to take their cases to federal courts, waste their time, money, risk threats and violence. It wasn’t worth it. (30)Do you think this still applies to things that happen today?

·         Convict leasing? Is this for real? Selling these people,, were they comfortable doing this to white people as well/ were they auctioned off/ the people were treated badly because they were seen as replaceable, disposable tools. Slavery remained an appropriate as punishment for a crime. I was just really upset about it. It also made me think about if white people were a part of this leasing as well? Who practiced this, and where? From what Alexander said it didn’t seem like anyone was regulating the treatment of prisoners being leased, they had no protection, that’s dehumanizing and just wrong.

·         I didn’t understand what she was talking about on p. 32. I didn’t completely understand what was happening with the conservatives blaming liberals for the aggressive ‘war’ with black people. Were they arguing that this hostility they’re facing I because the liberals are waging rights in the wrong way? I’m not sure.

·         Arguing civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime because people were choosing which laws follow and not. Harsh responses to lawbreakers, it’s funny because the crimes against these people are worse than the crimes they’re actually committing.

·         FBI antidrug funding increased from $8 million to $95 million. This got me really upset because we waste so much money on things that are just selfish and stupid.

·         This is a little personal but this is slowly helping me make sense of some of the things I see in real life. For example I live in the south Bronx, in Hunt’s Point which is 640 acres, with over ½ the population below the poverty line, 90% Black and Latino. Three detention centers exist: Spofford Juvenile Center, Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center and Rikers Island which is between the Bronx and Queens. There was also rallying to prevent another jail to be made.  In addition to that, in this area the narcotics police bought three apartment buildings (621-624 Manida Street) in order to catch those who sell and use drugs. I thought about how that money could’ve gone to books for a school but instead we prioritize drugs. We prioritize wars, those outside the US and inside, we prioritize/fund terrorism and it’s beyond frustrating. The book is helping me make sense of why we have so many jails in such a small area that’s poor and filled with people of color. It’s an interesting argument she’s making, and I’m not completely convinced but look forward to the rest of the book.

That Kafka story was really sad to me. That was my initial reaction. I’m still processing the story though. (it takes me a while sometimes)


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  4. “It’s all about those damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there” (47). This alone sends shivers down my spine.

    Walking through El Barrio (that’s East Harlem for those that don’t live in NYC) over spring break , chillin’, there was this Latino couple walking casually in front of me when all of a sudden police in civilian clothing randomly came towards them and pushed both onto the nearest wall and arrested them. Why? (Yes, I stayed and watch the whole thing and took pictures like a real New Yorker…) Apparently, they looked suspicious and thus were randomly selected to be searched for drugs; turns out, they were clean.

    Michelle Alexander is amazing for writing this book. For years I’ve been trying to explain the interconnected ways that those living in low socio-economic communities (the undercaste (13)) are suppressed by the government ‘we’ “trust”. Alexander elegantly explains how movements of the 1960’s and 70’s that cultivated critical political consciousness and activism (15) was completely shut down by the government essentially because they were scared of the poor that would “shake the foundations of the power structure and force the government to respond to the needs to the ignored underclass” (39). (WOOO! finally, the truth on paper!) Covered up by pretty words, the government enjoys putting up the façade that we are all equal and free to do as we please—obviously, that’s not the case as presented by Alexander’s argument, an argument that should not sound unfamiliar.

    To relate the reading more towards the educational system, when schools create zero-tolerance policies such as the “Clinton Administration’s ‘tough on crime’ policies” (56) students are molded to function and be complacent within prison-like structure. Criminalizing childhood and adolescent behaviors is allowing our future leaders to fail these codes of conduct and as a result, become more likely to enter the judicial system. Also, by obeying these codes, they become contributing citizens to a growing militarized state. Now I ask and leave you with this, in the words of Young Lord Iris Morales “Where are you today? Are you sitting in the university deconstructing the latest paradigm shift, while your sisters in the street collect the next “baby daddy” and then die of AIDS? Are you watching your young brother trade in the newest Nikes for prison shoes with no laces?”(*)

    OH! And this too:

    *Enck-Wanzer, Darrel. The Young Lords: A Reader. New York: New York UP, 2010.

  5. Dear Melissa,
    First of all, your post is way too long!! But I like the way you wrote it. I actually visualized you saying these "random" thoughts in class.
    Anyway! That is really random of me saying those stuff. Let's get down to real busyness. I would like to comment on some of the thoughts that you had.
    I think her argument regarding “once a felon, forever excluded from society” is actually more than just a circle of unemployment, stigmatization, and poverty. I am not sure about the statistic, but I think most of the people in prison are between 25 to 35 years old. What would you suppose to do during that time? Mostly finding job. And one of the key element to find job in this world where “once the job is posted, it is already gone” is networking. The relationships and the connections that one makes is the social capital that one will have to possess in order to find a job. Yet, 1 out of 3 young African American will serve time in prison, so, lacking all the networking skills and crucial relationship, 30% of the African American population will not be able to be employed in a highly regarded places. And think about all of their children will grow up in the absence of good housing, good health care, good education, and good connections. It can continue for generation after generation. Who gets the blame for both the poverty and the immobility? The black victims and their “black poor culture.” And those blames are perfectly logical. These logical blames are the direct result of the portraits of black community in the media, which leads to your, and mine, next point: the role of media. You asked whether the middle class and upper class black people were challenging the stereotypical images. I am not sure if I can answer for all of them (well, simply because I am not black, and I don’t know), but I think that now, since the conversation in the media and in real life is so racial neutral or color blind, some people, both black and white, forget about race and consciously attribute their success to something else rather than race. So, generally and simplistically, privileged people, both financially and racially, do not have to think about race as much or in the same way that we are learning from this book.
    I came to the same conclusion on the black exceptionalism and the success story of Obama and Oprah, and I want to expand them a little bit more. It is true that we should not think of those success stories as excuse to dismiss the issue of racism. And racism and mass incarceration still matter because as I argued above, when 1 in 3 every young African American is wasting their time and youth in prison, how many other Obama’s and Oprah’s have, and will continue to, die in vain?

    1. I really liked the readings for today, I thought they brought home the point that racism, segregation, and marginalization still exists. But Hoa made a statement replying to Melissa’s comment that once a felon, you are forever stigmatized. I believe that this is true because once you become labeled as an outcast that title will always follow you no matter if you’re a minority or not. I also do believe that once you are convicted, whatever you do with your life from that part also has a major role in how you are viewed in the community. For example I have a friend who was in jail for dealing drugs and gang activity. After he got out he set up sports camps, after school programs for underprivileged kids like himself so that they don’t follow the same path that he went down. My community was in full support of him.
      With that being said there is this whole notion of being underprivileged, poverty stricken, and marginalized. Like Hoa and Melissa said there cannot be success if those who work towards it don’t get the support they need to achieve success. And then we come up with this stereotype that those people are lazy and don’t work for anything. But the point that I’m trying to make is that it is hard to uplift yourself when the world is against you. Therefore, these people resort to quick and easy roots of making a living such as dealing drugs, ext. Society creates this by continuing to suppress individuals when there is no need for it. I dare some people to try and support a family of 5 on $7.25 an hour.

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  7. I think Melissa brings up some very interesting points regarding Alexander's Introduction and Chapter 1. Not only does she thoroughly analyze the reading, but she incorporates personal experience which helps to put some of Alexander's argument into perspective. My comment will mainly reflect Melissa's closing statement: "It's an interesting argument she's making, and I'm not completely convinced but look forward to the rest of the book".

    In Alexander's Introduction, she states "What this book is intended to do - the only thing it is intended to do -is to stimulate a much-needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States" (16). Although this is a heavily weighted statement, I don't disagree that the incarceration system "perpetuates" racist hierarchy. It is a fact, plain and simple, that more African Americans and Latino Americans are incarcerated than Caucasians on a percentage-by-percentage basis. Therefore, stereotypes are created and beliefs trigger such as: an African American male should be more threatening to a Caucasian female than a Caucasian male should be perceived a threat to a Caucasian female. The cycle is then perpetuated. So to Alexander's intentions, I largely agree.

    Continued on next post...

  8. However, after reading these beginning pages, I think that Alexander takes her argument a step too far. Not only does she seem to claim that the CIA intended to eliminate African Americans from public life, but she claims much more that could easily be disputed. One quote that really bothered me was on page 40, where she claims that "conservative whites began, once again, to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time". She suggests that conservatives looked for informal ways of getting rid of African Americans, while formally following the constitutional rules set in place in the United States. Alexander, herself, is generalizing (and stereotyping) an entire group of people, something she is directly and indirectly asking other people to refrain from doing after having read her book. Furthermore, this quote implies that conservatives, white elites, etc., want to get rid of African Americans however possible. She might as well be making the claim that a majority of Americans would walk through the streets arresting African American after African American for the hell of it, if it were possible. Although I wasn't around during this period of time, where is her evidence to back this up? She does not have a footnote or reference here, which makes it look as though she has made a sweeping claim without proof. Assuming she has some sort of proof, do people in this class honestly believe this to be true? I don't. I think that, yes, racism has existed to varying degrees since the founding o our nation. But I also believe that as a generation passes, and a new generation emerges, different values are attained and different mentalities are born. The feelings that have once existed (founded on very little, or unfounded entirely) recede and are eliminated (or replaced by other feelings) across generations. Ultimately, I believe with positive reinforcement, as well as widespread reality checks, the United States can get to a point where all of the country's citizenry can believe that "all men are created equal". However, by placing blame, as Alexander appears to do, an entirely new group of people are put on the defensive as the minorities, such as African Americans and Latino Americans alike, have been in previous decades.

    In conclusion, I agree with Alexander's intentions. I also think she has the ability to make a VERY compelling argument and furthermore, promote this much-needed discussion that she refers to in her Introduction. However, in order to get all constituents on board with her argument, I think she needs to be a little bit more careful in placing blame (as it is not necessarily true or productive) and reduce generalizations.

    1. I'm sorry that it took me a while to really know what I want to response to your last comment in class. Now that I saw you left a similar comment here, I hope that it is not too late.
      About your first comment, which is about how Alexander did not provide any proof for her claim and she manipulated some facts, I would want say that everything is written by someone, and every writer has his/her way of framing the situation, and sometimes, if not most of the time, their writing in interfered by their unconscious racial idea. Moreover, I wonder why you chose to believe your search on the Internet over to believe Alexander. Think about who/which race mostly control the information. I am not saying that your source of information tells lie all the time, but I think we should be careful when we use one source to dismiss the credibility of another.
      I understand your skepticism on the claim that Alexander made on conservative white want to control black people, and I used to have the same thought: there is no proof for what she is saying. However, isn't it the problem that Alexander is talking about? The way racism is operating through the law is so covert, and there is no real noticeable proof. And one of the problem when any person of color faces when shares his/her experience is that people think that he/she is just too sensitive/ there is no such racist thing because other people can't see/feel it.
      I just want to say that Alexander is not wrong to say all conservative white people are racist. Well, I know that it is hard to accept. I know that there are a lot of conservative white people with good intention, but they really don't know a lot about race and racism, so that consciously and unconsciously, they can be racist time to time. Nobody is good all the time or bad all the time, but white people always enjoy privileges and they are raised in a racist society. Racism is power plus prejudice, so well, conservative white people have both of those things, even they want it or not.
      I am not saying that there is no hope, but the first step is that white people have to admit that racism is still happening. Thing has not get better that much for people of color, thing changes.

  9. I think Melissa’s point about perspective is extremely important. As Alexander argues, the prison system today is a racist institution. One fourth of young African American men in the U.S. were in prison in 1991 (Alexander 56). This statistic should be viewed as a prejudice and caste system issue rather than as a representation of the African American population. Melissa makes a point that most of the students in our class are white and did not grow up amongst Latino and Black friends and colleagues who may have been subjected to this system. I know I personally did not. In fact, I was shocked to read anything about the KKK in the last 20 years, not because I didn’t know they still existed, but I had no idea the power they still could yield.
    I then found myself reading Gawande’s article also considering that most of the people written about would be black or Latino. I found this article extremely interesting and very disturbing. I find it important to understand humans as social beings not only in understanding ourselves as defined by others socially but more scientifically, that our development as functional beings is dependent on our interactions with others. I thought it was very interesting, like in Alexander, to read the high statistics of not only incarceration but isolation. I wonder if it would be possible or realistic for the U.S. to implement the British model for difficult inmates mentioned in the article. You would expect, with all the money we spend on these systems (as Melissa mentioned), that we could afford to use this system rather than the one in place currently.
    In terms of Kafka I was also saddened. I felt that both stories were applicable to Alexander and Gawande in terms of racism and the caste system as well as the idea that those who cannot handle solitary confinement are also those who continue to be punished with it due to the behavior it brings out in them.
    My main concern in reading these three pieces was how to fix the system. Whenever we read things in this course I find myself frustrated with the lack of solutions. As was conveyed in both Alexander and Kafka, there is racism in the fundamental creation of our governance system, of our "land of the free". Our country needs to alter not only incarceration systems but also education, housing, and welfare. The infrastructure needs to be shifted. This idea frightens me because I do not know if we can do it. I hope that in class we can discuss not only how this system came about but what options we have for the future.

  10. Okay, so I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I will try to limit myself.

    First, Hoa made a fantastic point in that we have to look at how the incarceration rate affects other generations of blacks, not only those incarcerated. We have to critically examine how this system recreates itself. The rate of people (of all races) who get out of prison and get put back in is so high, not necessarily by any fault of their own. I am not trying to take the choice out of a person’s decisions to commit a “crime” (in quotes cause I think that the system is very skewed as to what it considers crime, but this is a whole other, long discussion with many, many other factors playing into it), but rather I would like to challenge that the system of incarceration in fact conditions people to commit more crimes. Bringing in Gawande’s article, I believe he very clearly illustrates this with Felton and Bobby. (Also, this might be a controversial addition and I am debating saying it, but might as well. I am curious and challenge you guys to be curious as to what race you pictured the men mentioned as being? Gawande does not mention race, but I would not be surprised if most people pictured them as black because of the stereotypes they have been ingrained with. Also, I think that sometimes people think the high rate of people of color in prisons must mean that people of color are the ones that most commit “crimes”… very untrue that they do, but still a belief/trust in the justice system… furthermore, who are actually the people that trust in the justice system? I would argue white people, so that means that the prison system is not going to get any change cause if it works for the white people in power, it obviously works for everyone and obviously is an effective system that only justly incarcerates people. (This last bit was completely sarcastic in case anyone missed that. I hate the prison/incarceration system and think it’s the most ineffective and racist piece of shit (sorry for the language).))

    To move on, echoing Melissa’s, Kerry’s, Alexander’s, and Gawande’s points, there is CLEAR evidence that this damned prison system does not fucking work and is really fucking racist (I don’t know if I would go so far as to say it is genocide as Alexander does, but I definitely think that it is a system to keep people of color down) and ineffective system. Britain proves this. (Sorry, I am getting really angry, so I am forgetting my points.) There is nothing in place for people who get out of prison to help them lead “good” (I do not like this word here, but I am getting so angry, I can’t think) lives after they get out.

    Also, ugh, this is what gets me every fucking time. The damned fucking rich, white men who STEAL from so many fucking people and RUIN so many damned lives that get only two fucking minutes in prison or getting some fucking bullshit house arrest. I am not a violent person, but if I were able to meet Barry Madoff, I would so GLADLY with the cheesiest smile on my face stab that asshole in the stomach.

    Okay, sorry Stern, this is getting very un-academic and very emotional. But then again, maybe we are missing emotion and anger out of education and social action. Anger is very good and can be very constructive and it is not something that should turn people off, but it is. I just do not know how to talk about this without getting super angry. Okay, deep breath.

    I may have to post again later because the one thing about anger and writing is that my brain moves so much faster than my fingers (especially when my fingers are shaking with anger), so yeah.

  11. Oh, and the War on Drugs being “created” when there wasn’t a drug problem… woo. That is just some nerve of the damned government and CIA.

    Also, the prison system is SUPER lucrative. SO MUCH MONEY involved and to be earned. I think this is a big reason that the War on Drugs was created. The big reason that it’s people of color that are targeted both by the War on Drugs and being arrested in general.

    ALSO, this bullshit about people of color using more drugs is just that… bullshit. No they do not. Alexander points this out. And look at the damned fucking Colgate campus. Who the fuck is the majority that uses fucking harder drugs? White kids. And in general, it’s white people that use drugs a ton, but they do it in the comfort of their beautiful white picket fenced suburban homes, so of course no one suspects them.

    Now, I would like to point out that there are exceptions and other identities that also get targeted, but not in the same way as people of color.

  12. I think it is very interesting that no one challenged the readings regarding torture or photographs of suffering in this way. While I think it's important to analyze the author's claims and challenge ideas we see as unfounded, it is interesting that these challenges only seem to be raised with regards to race. Repeatedly throughout my experiences at colgate, i have seen students challenge ideas regarding continuing racism and racial inequity in American society that I have never seen raised with regard to other topics.

    I also find it Interesting that people choose to challenge the author's argument on a post where two different people have explained that these are things they have seen in their own lives.

    I also took issue with a statement lauren made.
    She stated,"The feelings that have once existed (founded on very little, or unfounded entirely) recede and are eliminated (or replaced by other feelings) across generations. Ultimately, I believe with positive reinforcement, as well as widespread reality checks, the United States can get to a point where all of the country's citizenry can believe that "all men are created equal". However, by placing blame, as Alexander appears to do, an entirely new group of people are put on the defensive as the minorities, such as African Americans and Latino Americans alike, have been in previous decades."

    I understood the feelings Lauren was referring to, to be racism. If this the case, I disagree that these feelings have receded overtime; they continue although they have perhaps manifested themselves in different ways. We do not live in a post racial society, contrary to popular belief. Incidents on our campus over the last 4 years prove this. Students have been called the n word by their fellow students and the racist graffiti cowardly written in an Alumni bathroom after Obama was elected suggested we "lynch them all." I don't think anyone should feel defensive regarding this conversation, but consider it he only way here will ever be any change.