Sunday, April 1, 2012

Alexander, Jackson, and Newton

This week’s readings dealt with the elaborate systems of control in place in our society, which are embedded, discriminatory, biased, and powerful suggesting that we need to move away from ideas such as reforms or reorganizations and towards a revolution. Alexander discusses this system of control through the criminal justice system, claiming that it is wrought with political disenfranchisement and legalized discrimination in multiple realms. (Alexander 191) Although these ideas have been discussed throughout Alexander’s book, what became apparent in chapter 5 and the other readings is that these systems that perpetuate racial discrimination are not new but rather have adapted to modern times. These systems, such as The Jim Crow Laws and the present justice system, have consistently defined race in different time periods. Black once meant slave, but now means criminal (Alexander, 193). The issue remains then that not only do these issues exist, but they are so embedded into our society and culture that they continue to morph and change in order to get around the new laws created to attempt to eradicate racial discrimination. By having prisoners “out of site, out of mind” both within the prison and the places they tend to be released to afterwards, our society becomes blind to the reality behind what our criminal justice system is doing: using its power, in ways that are not explicitly discriminatory, to keep blacks repressed (Alexander, 183) Alexander discusses Young’s birdcage example explaining how each wire represents a different way of oppressing an individual, and the multiple wires woven together build a trap almost impossible to escape from (Alexander, 184). In my opinion, one main issue that keeps perpetuating this birdcage of oppression, and therefore allowing discrimination of different races to occur, is the ignorance of our society. Perhaps we claim knowledge of overarching problems like the rate of mass incarceration, but the level and numerous subsystems (how arrests, prosecution, imprisonment etc. works) that deepen the discrimination often remain invisible. This is not to shame anyone for not knowing, for I myself am naïve in many areas. So what then needs to happen if these systems keep getting “fixed” and then resurface? Jackson would state that a revolution, not reform, should to occur.

Perhaps the issue with our solutions to fix inequalities is that we just rearrange systems in place, when what we need to do is completely change them. As Jackson states, “revolution within a modern industrial capitalist society can only mean the overthrow of all existing property relations and the destruction of all institutions that directly or indirectly support existing property relations.” (Jackson, 7) Reform, he claims, is merely reordering and reshaping the systems that are already in place. What needs to happen is the creation of a completely new form of economics and culture, built from a recognition that it is not only the actual practices in place that are discriminatory, but the systems themselves. Jackson calls for an appreciation of improvements from the past and the attempts made to fight for equality, but also demands new actions that do not rely on old practices; actions that tend to hold more force and violence, as it is time to stop using words and time to fight. (Jackson, 12) In order to deal with some of the ignorance I mentioned above, people need to work on raising consciousness not only on the discrimination and oppression that is occurring, but also the idea that each person is part of a universal action and interaction. (Jackson, 22) Revolutions rely on the connectedness of all those involved to challenge and expose the discrimination such as the criminal justice system. However, revolutions are not always pretty things, and there also needs to be an acceptance that systems need to completely change, an idea that will inevitably be met with large resistance.

What strikes me the most when discussing ideas such as the discrimination embedded in the criminal justice system and the revolution needed to change these systems is how easy it is to forget the fact that you are talking about people and the treatment they are receiving. As Newton discusses, people are not inanimate objects but are beings that are filled with human spirit, beliefs, and ideas of freedom. When we discriminate and incarcerate people in prisons, we are not just locking up a body behind bars, but a mind as well. This is where our criminal justice system becomes problematic if people who should not be behind bars are put there. Newton claims that, “the human whole is much greater than the sum of its parts” and “walls, bars, and guards cannot conquer or hold down an idea”, yet those same bars that trap someone and give them a prison label can break down that human spirit. I begin to really see the importance of not just looking at these discussions as ones involving themes, systems, and policies, but directly affecting the lives of many human beings.


  1. I think that Eliza’s focus on the recycling of racism in our current penal system is pivotal to our study of systemic violence in this course. As Eliza cites, the criminalization of the black male serves as the most recent installment in the narrative of racism and white fear of the African American community. During the slavery era, the black man was treated as a commodity, a tool in the pursuit of financial success. Under Jim Crow, the black man was marginalized and denied basic human rights. Now, as a felon, the black man continues to face disenfranchisement as welfare programs and opportunities are denied to him upon release from prison. Alexander goes so far as to say that the discrimination that blacks experience once labeled a criminal is arguably worse than the treatment received during both slavery and during Jim Crow (Alexander 183). While I agree with Alexander that denied public housing and unemployment after release function to make modern discrimination as severe as that under Jim Crow, what I think is most regrettable is the fact that we fail to acknowledge that these systemic factors are in place, and that they are innately racist. There was no bashfulness during slavery and Jim Crow among whites—the desire to disenfranchise African Americans was something that was not only acknowledged by society, but also vocalized. The quickness for our society to deny even the remote possibility for racism or discrimination in our criminal justice system augments the extent that blacks are discriminated against.
    Jackson approaches the history of discrimination of blacks using “property relations” rhetoric (Jackson 8). As I read this I was reminded of Caroline’s post from last week, in which she discussed the white elite’s desire to keep the African American disenfranchised so that they, powerful white men, could continue to enjoy their position of privilege. If black men are denied the ability to acquire property, and are dehumanized to the status of mere property (slavery being an explicit example of this), the whole system can then be likened to that of colonialism during the age of imperialism. People in a position of power, just as was the case during imperialism, maintain that privilege by conquering and exploiting others.

  2. I agree with Eliza’s idea that the issue of racial discrimination continues to be problematic because it is so embedded in our cultural processes and institutions- that because the issues are so adaptable for modern times, they are impossible to completely eliminate. Alexander illustrates this point when she reveals how the justice system functions as a form of social control for young black people. I found myself shocked reading about all the rights that people lose after leaving prison, such as the right to vote, the right to public housing (for five years), the right to welfare benefits, etc. The majority of released prisoners find it hard, if not impossible to find a home and job that can sustain them. Many find themselves in major debt because of their legal fees and the difficulty of finding a sustainable job because of the “criminal” label that contains them.

    Because the War on Drugs led to a tradition of targeting black males in urban communities, it is mostly blacks that are on the losing end of this process. Alexander highlights the disproportion when she writes that 65% of black men labeled criminals are unemployed. While Alexander calls for a focus on the “human-ness” of people to begin the process of atoning for this racial discrimination, Jackson calls for something more radical- the complete destruction of all the institutions that support this capitalist process, which in turn discriminate against black people.

    I agree with Jackson that only a complete overthrow of the current systems would begin to change the process, but question the feasibility of it, particularly because the way in which this racial discrimination is so entrenched in America. The fact that not many of us know about the roadblocks that freed prisoners face seems to reinforce these institutions, so that they go unnoticed and therefore accepted in society. However, I too was angered and shocked when reading about the way in which American makes it nearly impossible for people to regain their life after prison. The fact that America is unique in the roadblocks it sets up for freed prisoners makes me question why America is so keen on maintaining these rules? Is it because they need them to control the black populations? It is interesting that the symbol of justice wears a blindfold, because it appears that the justice system works to ensure that it is not blind, but in fact sensitive to racial differences. If this is so entrenched, how do we, as ordinary people change these institutions for the future?

  3. I really enjoyed the reading for tomorrow because i thought they were a great way to tie all the ideas we have been talking about in class. Jackson gave us a historical approach to the idea of discrimination and marginalization. Slavery was for instance was a way for rich, powerful, white people to keep their control of a loosely stated New World. Slaves were dehumanized and humiliated simply because of the ideals of power and greed. I like the way Jackson brings the past to the present. When we think about the oppression of minorities most of us fail to realize that this has been happening for hundreds of years, so we forget that racism is more than just a modern conception. Even though we have indeed come a long way from Slavery the next step needs to be made challenge those same ideas that created slavery with Imprisonment. As we have talked about with Alexander. Minorities are continually being imprisoned at a rate that is higher than those who are not, with drug related arrest being one of the most evident. As we talked about, the systematic funneling of drugs into inner-city areas is something that most people are blind too. How else could we explain the drug use and arrests in inner-city areas? These are all forms of control, trying to keep the richest and most powerful people in our country still rich and powerful, just like slavery. I agree with everyone posting today when they say that the only way to change this is to completely overthrow all of those who control this.

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  5. One of my professors used a metaphor in class yesterday, which is, I think, particularly apt for the discussion on this week’s readings. He conjured up the image of a person standing in Memorial Park in Washington, DC in front of one of the war memorials (though my Canadian brain now can’t remember which one). That person is standing there, saying to himself, “I am in the heart of America—this is America, I can see America.” But that man is wrong. He cannot see America precisely because he is in America, in Memorial Park in front of a war memorial. This is, in fact, specifically impeding him from seeing America as a whole.

    “Precisely how the system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage can best be understood by viewing the system as a whole,” Alexander wrote in Chapter 5. “In earlier chapters, we consider various wires of the cage in isolation; here, we put the pieces together, step back, and view the cage in its entirety” (185). The step back that this chapter takes, the inclusion of historical frames of reference about the Jim Crow era, etc. and information about how the system fits together, this allows us to see the corruption in our system. I think the failure to step back, or even to see a need to step back, traps most Americans in pieces of the story which allow them to continue to deny the existence of contemporary systemic racism.

    As Kate pointed out above, “the quickness for our society to deny even the remote possibility for racism or discrimination in our criminal justice system augments the extent that blacks are discriminated against.” I completely agree. I think the reform versus revolution ideas taken from Jackson are discussed well above; I think that revolution is, at times, necessary. But I also think that there has to be some way to force people to step out of the system for long enough to see the problem. Denial is only really possible from the inside; once you see something at a distance, be it historical, geographical, or even mental in some cases, you cannot deny the facts. Maybe this is idealist of me but I think that more Americans should be able to see these problems if they were just forced to look at the facts, to step away for a second.

    I was particularly captivated by Newton’s article this week. Though he was talking about literal prisoners, the idea of “illegitimate capitalists” and “political prisoners” could be extended to the rest of society as well—anybody who exists within a system that does not have a firm grasp on them (and this includes most of us, on the basis of the discussion we are currently having) is effectively a political prisoner. Despite my resistance (as stated above) to move to revolution without first trying to force a nation-wide reality check, this is a way that I am able to reconcile with Jackson. In a sense, he is saying that this larger contingent of “political prisoners” must finally liberate themselves.

    1. The similarities between Jim Crow segregation and the current discrimination eminent in today's criminal justice system are clearly evident as seen in Alexander. Most prominently is the fact that this new system traps entire communities of color, not a single individual. Much like the Jim Crow laws then, our criminal justice system shows signs of discrimination within the phases of the process. Alexander highlights the steps of the entrapment very clearly. The first step is the roundup. This relies on the ability of law enforcement agents to exercise discretion over who they will target and arrest. They have free rein in determining who they should target and when they should make an arrest. The second phase is the sentencing. Black men are sentenced to far more serious penalties than white men charged with the same crime. These sentences are the harshest in the world – from jail time to time on probation or parole. The final stage is that of the criminal sanctions imposed on people after they leave prison. These sanctions “operate collectively to ensure that the vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society” (Alexander, 186).

      I agree with Becca’s comments on the fact that our society cannot see the racial discrimination evident in our criminal justice system because we cannot see the problem as a whole. Alexander writes that “many people ‘know’ and ‘not-know’ the truth about human suffering at the same time. They choose to ignore the signs of racial discrimination evident in the statistics presented to them. Our society understands that a majority of the criminals held within the system are in fact black, but they do not question why those statistics are the way they are. “Precisely how the system of mass incarceration works to trap African Americans in a virtual (and literal) cage can best be understood by viewing the system as a whole” (Alexander, ). Our society must begin to look at the problem as a whole. Only then will we be able to see the causes of the imbalance within our criminal justice system.

  6. Out of this day’s readings, Newton’s article spoke most loudly to me and tied together so much of what we have been discussing in class. “…it is an illegitimate system, since it rests upon the suffering of humans who are as worthy and as dignified of those who do not suffer” (Newton 82). This is such a poignant and clear point, illustrating the privilege that too many receive at the expense of too many others (this can be applied to all of the “-ism’s”). The United States is an “illegitimate system” completely dependent on privileges: white privilege, wealth privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, ability privilege, etc. There are only a few who are privileged in every single one of those categories; however, the privilege that people do receive from each (some) of those individual categories/identities cannot and should not be denied at the rationale that they do not receive privileges from another category/identity. But that is another point, just a pet peeve when people try to deny a privilege they receive based on another aspect of their identity. No, just because you do not receive X privilege does not negate the fact that you receive Y privilege.
    Anyway, each of these privileges work based on a system that inherently keeps down a people of the respective, “lesser” identities. So, for example, people of color are kept down in order for whites to be able to assert their power. How are they kept down? Well, Alexander has been answering part of this question for us. Black men are kept (pushed) down with the help of the prison system and the set of (false) beliefs that it breeds. For example, as Alexander described, even Obama is seemingly ignorant of the full reasons behind his insistence that black fathers need to be more present in their children’s lives… the system is so twisted (way too light of a word) that even black men do not fully realize the myths that white people have woven to justify keeping down people of color/black men. Part of the myth perpetuates the idea that black men in prisons are not intelligent or deserving, etc. However, as Newton and Jackson (and many others) exemplify, this is not clearly true.
    Alexander’s unpacking of “gangsta love” and different stereotypes perpetuated in society (Ch. 4) again illustrate the twisted myths that are perpetuated within society. I dunno. It just astounds (but doesn’t surprise me) me how deeply imbedded and rooted these myths are in everyone’s minds.
    This is why I actually disagree with Bekah and agree with Jackson: revolution is necessary. Now, the exact means by which that revolution is carried out are negligible (not meaning unimportant, just discuss-able), just so long as there is one.
    Also, this brings into conversation a point that I have been recently discovering through conversations, etc. But let me bring it back a step. In order to successfully create a revolutionary change within society, one needs to work both within and outside of the institutions in place. I am a strong advocate of working from the outside, but there do need to be people working on the inside. It’s kinda like what Newton is describing with “illegitimate capitalists” and “political prisoners” – the first which work within the system and the second that refuse to legitimate society’s beliefs. And the beauty of both is that the idea/goal cannot never be killed or contained. I dunno though.

  7. I mean, to go along with the idea of educating everyone on race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc… I just… I dunno… I am not convinced that will “work.” I mean, for example, I bet there are people (giving benefit of the doubt, I’ll say not the majority) in our class who aren’t convinced yet and probably won’t be anytime soon and probably won’t be able to critically analyze themselves to see how racism pervaded their own minds. (I know many people at Colgate aren’t.) I dunno. That’s just why I don’t think education is enough, especially not at the college level. I mean, once people are set in their ways/mindsets (also kinda reiterating Newman in that ideas are hard to kill/contain), it’s hard to break out of those ways. It’s hard for people to critically analyze themselves (the United States to critically analyze itself) in order to work on making a (“positive”) change, I dunno. And well, the United States has in fact made societal/policy changes already… but, contrary to Brian, I would not argue that it’s been progressive… it’s just language coded differently. I dunno.

    Anyway, “fun” side-note: the Supreme Court just ruled that strip-searching for any offense, however minor, is legal…

  8. I wanted to address Eliza’s comment about “the ignorance of society” because I think she has a valid point; I do think that most people in society are ignorant and have no knowledge or understanding of the corruption and discrimination that still occurs in within the judicial system and prisons. Unless they had the privilege of going to an academic institutions that taught this to them then they really would have no way of understanding how racially discriminating the criminal system is. An academic institution who would have even shared this kind of information would have had to been pretty special because there is no way a public elementary school would have had this sort of knowledge in their curriculum. To be honest, I really didn’t even know until this class and I am a senior in college. This leads to my next point that although I do think there is a large portion of society missing this sort of knowledge, I also believe there is a large portion of society who is completely aware of how racially discriminating the judicial system and prisons are and they may even be the ones who help make it this way. I would argue that almost everything regarding how society is structured stems from the people in power within our society, the wealthy, elite, white males. I am not targeting all people who fall into this category but the majority of them play a significant part in how our criminal system is run. They have control over education, law enforcements, political institutions, and the greater society so if they wanted to they could create change but they don’t. Instead they have found alterative ways to keep black people out of society. As Alexander says, “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate.” Criminalizing people gives people a reason to not treat them like members in society. A woman in the book commented about her experience she said, “Like society kicked me out. They’re like, ‘okay, the criminal element, we don’t want them in society, we’re going to put them in prisons.’ Okay, but once I get out, then what do you do? What do you do with all these millions of people that have been in prison and been released? I mean, do you accept them back? Or do you keep them as outcasts?” That is exactly what they do, black people are imprisoned as a means to keep them out of society but what’s even more terrible about this is once they are in prison they will never be welcomed back into society.

  9. I think Eliza makes a good point when she warns us of the tendency to “forget the fact that you are talking about people and the treatment they are receiving.” While the statistics regarding the clear prejudice in incarceration rates are disturbing, I think giving “a face” to discrimination and suffering might be even more powerful. The stories we’ve read about individuals who spent lifetimes withering away in prisons because of a crime they never committed are particularly affective and might be more influential than objective statistics. Recognizing the humanity of the incarcerated person is crucial to taking action. Much like the way photos can haunt us, perhaps after becoming invested in a story of personal suffering we become shocked, disturbed, and haunted. Much of the racism we read about today is blatant (like the case of IWW organizer Joe Hill who was framed for a crime that did not even exist). However, Davis touches on “more subtle forms of racism” that have thwarted the resistance movement. In my Visual Rhetorics class, we read an article titled “Race, Pigskin, and Semiotics.” Last week in this class we talked about semiotics and how certain words acquire certain meanings. This article analyzes a campaign ad used against former black Congressman, J.C. Watts, in the 1994 Congressional race in Oklahoma. The ad uses the trope of the “Afro” to provoke and play on voters’ fear of black militancy. The Afro became a signifying image associated with the black power movement and by showing a H.S. photo of Watts when he had an Afro, the ad exploited existing racism, and the nostalgia transported the audience back to the time when there was hysteria over the black power movement. I think the effectiveness of the ad demonstrates how deeply rooted these racists beliefs can be, how difficult they are to eradicate, and how easy they are to reproduce.