Sunday, April 1, 2012

Alexander, Lind and Jackson

            In doing last Thursday’s reading as well as this weeks reading, I began to form a connection between Lind’s article Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment and Alexander’s chapter “The New Jim Crow.” The connection I formed was how the unintended imprisonment of mass amounts of women consequently affects black youth and ultimately leads to the continuation of the caste system. Alexander has consistently made the point the majority of people in jail are black men; however if we are to consider Lind’s point that the War on Drugs has also led to substantially more women ending up in jails, ultimately many black youth are left without families. Therefore Alexander’s argument that, “throughout the black community, there is widespread awareness that black ghetto youth have few, if any, realistic options, and therefore dealing drugs can be an irresistible temptation (Alexander, 2010, p. 209),” is just the inevitable out growth of a system that targets all people residing in inner cities and creates a pattern in which others are forced into drugs to survive. Alexander goes on to argue that, “for ghetto youth, drug sales…are often a means of survival, a means of helping to feed and clothe themselves and their families. The fact that this “career” path leads almost inevitably to jail is often understood as an unfortunate fact of life, part of what it means to be poor and black in America (Alexander, 2010, p. 209).” This should not be a fact of life. In a country that promotes equality for all, it should not be that the fact of life for most white suburban kids that they will get an education and go to college, but for others the fact of life is a bad education with the better option being to start a life outside of school. Therefore, the connection I am beginning to make is that the new caste system is a multi-faceted system that perpetuates and builds off of it’s many different sections.  
             If one were to stop and think about the implications of this system, it becomes evident that it is not just mass incarceration, but a total system that allows mass incarceration to go unquestioned. For example, we know that the majority of black men are in prisons, but as more black women are ending up in jail, black youth are forced into situations in which getting involved with drugs is not necessarily something they want to do but something they need to do to survive. While we could argue that if they were to stay in school and get an education then maybe the system could change, it is hard to think about staying in a failing school in which the odds are also against you, as a solution to the problem. Furthermore as Alexander uses Tommie Selby’s argument, “individuals are forced to make choices in an environment they did not choose. They would surely prefer to have a broad array of good opportunities (Alexander, 2010, p. 217).” Therefore people are being forced to make decisions they do not want to make as a result of the conditions the rest of society has provided them with. As Alexander says, “the genius of the current caste system…is that it appears voluntary (Alexander, 2010, p. 215).” It is genius precisely because it seems voluntary and therefore it goes unquestioned by those in positions of power, predominantely whites who are unaffected by such conditions. If those in power do not see a problem, then there is no need to “fix” anything; however there is nothing voluntary about a system that has been created to promote one group’s status in society and take away from others. Furthermore, it is easy for outsiders to say they should just not sell drugs or be involved in crime if they know the negative outcomes, but is that outcome worse than the conditions of inequality that are already being subject to? And what happens when the only option many of the black youth are left with is crime?  
            Our capitalist society is built off a need for an underclass. It is easy for this to remain true under the current system in which blacks end up in jail a disproportionate amount. Ultimately this leads me to consider Alexander’s use of Tommie Selby’s question of who’s responsibility is it to provide a better set of circumstances to people suffering in this caste system? And furthermore to what extent is this actually possible? This is inevitably a question of morals. My argument would fall into a category of we are all to some extent responsible and also are all responsible to provide better circumstances; however this is not an easy task as we would not be competing with individuals, we are competing against a system that has been embedded within the structure of our society. Furthermore, the changes that would need to occur, as Jackson argues, would involve a redistribution of the properties, which inevitably means a change in elite status. Therefore, after reading Jackson, it seems as though the only real answer is for a mass change to occur, but the likely hood that mass changes will occur is slim. Therefore my closing question is, to what extent are those in positions such as ours (educated, in college at a private university) responsible for changing these conditions? While I am a proponent of education for all, merely changing who can and will be educated does not seem like enough in this situation. But would reallocating funds from prisons to education be the realistic start for change in our society? 


  1. It think something as simple as the reallocation of funds is the bare minimum that needs to happen. ( Damn. It won't let me put a picture. Oh well. Cornell West agrees.

    Building off of your connections, not only is mass imprisonment of blacks and women destroying the black family structure, the perpetuation of negative black stereotypes in schools and politics is further harming the self-worth of youth of color. I'm pondering deficit thinking in both contexts. In schools or the political arenas, when black are held to lower expectations, expected to fail, expected to drop out and sell drugs, these become self-fulfilling prophecies. Expectations become realities. A discourse of disempowerment emerges, blaming the victim, seeing issues of black poverty, disproportional black imprisonment and failing black schools as a black problem, instead of the entire society's problem. We do not exist separately; we are all implicated in these systems and their failures.

    My research for my Race and Education course this semester is focusing on the model minority, but I have also come across the "inferior minority." The same way many Asian Americans are expected to be extremely intelligent, people of color are assumed to be poor students. This stereotype is harmful as members of other groups continue to project that belief on students of color, but this assumption is often internalized as well, creating a deadly cycle that legitimates poor academic standing, drug dealing and eventual prison time.

    It starts with awareness. Awareness that these cycles exist, awareness when you, yourself personally jump to conclusions when we read the headlines of the New York Times. Then we, again, my favorite collective we, can actively push back and fight against that way of thinking. We need to empower students of all colors, not just whites. Teachers, school boards, and society as a whole needs to stop marginalizing students from cultures other than the white middle class. Curriculum that reflects the experiences of all the students has to become the new norm. Black History Month cannot be the only month celebrating black culture and role models. However, we cannot get trapped in black exceptionalism either. The same way white students have a plethora of people who look like them to look up to, we need to bring successful people of color into the picture. That means racially diversifying the teacher base, not just talking about Oprah.

  2. Anna’s point that the current system of mass incarceration has created a caste system that is “is a multi-faceted system that perpetuates and builds off of it’s many different sections” is an extremely important and interesting one. I realize now that before this week’s readings, I had not fully considered the effects of mass incarceration on groups other than black males. What I found most interesting was the analysis of mass incarceration’s effect on women, both in that having a husband in prison has large ramifications on a woman’s role as a mother, but also that recent legislation that has risen out of the war on drugs has also directly affected women. In Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment, Chesney-Lind describes two phenomena, “gender-blind sentencing,” and the “increased policing of women’s behavior while on probation or parole,” and argues that these phenomena have both played important roles in the perpetuation of women’s imprisonment (91). The thoughtful consideration of both of these aspects of female incarceration involves the question of whether or not women should be treated the same as men in the criminal justice system, or the idea of “vengeful equity” (Chesney-Lind 91). While the idea of “vengeful equity” seems reasonable and perhaps “the socially just thing to do” at first, after consideration and reading Chesney-Lind’s article, I strongly agree with Chesney-Lind that our criminal-justice system needs to take into account the special needs of women rather than treating men and women as exactly the same.

    Chesney-Lind argues that because most women are not violent criminals, they should be let back out into society. I agree with this point. However, I also believe that releasing women from of prison is not a drastic enough step to be wholly reformative; like Anna and Olivia discuss above, there needs to be an emphasis on traditional and non-traditional education programs for women, so that many women have an easier time reentering society. The implementation of programs which would allow ex-convict women to gain high school (or even college) diplomas could potentially help get more women off the street and keep more women out of prison, and this a goal that our society definitely needs to strive towards.

  3. I find the juxtaposition of Anna’s potential plan of action regarding the “mass change” (a reallocation of funds from prisons to education) and Jackson’s plan of action regarding this “mass change” (a violent revolution) to illustrate the impact that race and socio-economic status have on both the urgency a person feels and the ideology behind said person’s viewpoint regarding the issue of mass incarceration and its broader racial implications. I don’t mean to throw Anna under the bus (sorry, Anna); I’m just using her as an example of what I guess can be considered the “privileged white view” of the issue of mass incarceration. I suppose I fall under this group, too. Anyway, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with Anna’s plan for “mass change,” I’m just simply acknowledging that her plan would fall under the category of “reform,” not “revolution,” as articulated by Jackson. He 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…anything less than this is reform” (7). He continues by explaining that “Government and the infrastructure of the enemy capitalist state must be destroyed to get at the heart of the problem: property relations. Otherwise there is no revolution” (8). Allocating funds to education would definitely be considered the reformation of governmental infrastructure, as opposed to its entire eradication. That’s not to say it wouldn’t work, or that it’s not a good plan. I just want to consider that Anna’s plan of the reformation of governmental infrastructure probably comes from the fact that to a white, college-educated female, the issue of the mass incarceration of blacks is not urgent enough to call for a violent revolution. In Jackson’s point of view, this issue had become so pressing, so relevant, that there was no other option other than a violent revolution. Which is why he was a Black Panther, and also formed his own militant prison group.

  4. Anna’s claim that racism goes “unquestioned by those in positions of power, predominately whites who are unaffected by such conditions” reminded me of a conversation I feel like I have all the time. I’ve heard many white people who have struggled in their lives, but who have ultimately succeeded, argue that they faced odds just as daunting as poor black people. Since they overcame their obstacles, surely anyone who hasn’t just isn’t trying hard enough. Compounding that type of thinking is the presence of illustrious success stories. It amazes me how many people still insist that because we now have a black President, racism is gone. The same argument is made; if President Obama allegedly wasn’t held back by his race, what is everyone else’s excuse? As Alexander says, “the genius of the current caste system [. . .] is that it appears voluntary” (215). Because it has been drilled into our brains that we live in a meritocracy and that we get what we work for, it can be genuinely difficult to readjust our thinking to accommodate the realities of institutionalized racism.

    I agree with all of the previous comments that the reallocation of funds and education that is of a high quality and that is accessible to all are important steps toward a solution. But that won’t even come close to fixing anything. As Anna reminded us, capitalism requires an underclass. The ruling class has amassed such incredible wealth and power that they will not be affected by lower dropout rates. With our current economic and political policies, the wealthiest Americans are virtually untouchable. And since those organizations and individuals benefit directly from the prison system, as well as the constant availability of fresh, cheap labor, there is really no way for us to change the system as a whole. Education will only help individuals; ending injustice would require an overhaul of our entire system, which doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon.

  5. While reading Alexander’s book, I have mostly been focusing on how those incarcerated are directly affected. I have forgotten that many of these black men have wives, children, family, and friends who are affected by their imprisonment. Some people try to blame the black culture for why so many are incarcerated. They say things like family is not valued enough, and the increase of single parent households is linked to high incarceration rates. At some level this may be true, but we must look at what creates these single-parent families, and a big part of it is our prison system. Black men are so easily imprisoned due to things like the war on drugs and blatant racial profiling that our penal system is what propels the conditions that can be used as excuses for why people are troubled and go to prison. Furthermore, the racialized caste system in the United States makes it that much harder for black to get jobs, invest in real estate—do anything that gives privileged whites the ability to secure their future and safety. With such adversity, desperation sets in, hence the reason that some black men commit crimes to support their families.
    The women who are left behind or who are simply hurt by being stuck in the under class of the American class system are also forced to engage in acts outside the legal sphere to help their families survive. Prisons for women are even less accommodating than they are for men. Chesney-Lind’s article describes the makeshift conditions for female penitentiaries, taking very little into account about their gender and different needs than men. However, better accommodations existing for both male and female prisoners would not per-say improve the goals of our penal system. Newton argues that prison cannot actually reform prisoners the ways in which we desire them to do so. Prisoners can change physically, they can be contained as a body, but their ideologies still exist. While prisoners are objectified, the fact of the matter is that they are human, and humans are not objects. Furthermore, there are always others affected by the lives of prisoners who will continue to embody the thoughts and goals of those contained within the walls of a prison. Prison therefore can never truly stop or correct the behavior it intends to eliminate from society.

  6. Alexander's observation that “the genius of the current caste system…is that it appears voluntary" really spoke to many of my personal experiences discussing race or socioeconomic issues with my peers. What most people fail to acknowledge is that the current situation is not voluntary at all, but rather a symptom of systemic racial discrimination. The Chesney-Lind piece is a glaring counterexample to this assertion of voluntariness. While reading this, I started to consider the ways in which circumstance factors into crime. In a capitalistic society, everyone is pressured to get ahead. Many times, this means taking illegal short cuts. Lucky for white, middle class students, the cheating that sometimes accompanies the pressure to do well in classes is most often penalized with a slap on the wrist. Fortunately for top-level executives, the embezzling and money laundering that sometimes accompanies the pressure to make more money (commonly known as greed) is most often met with a sentence at a federal penitentiary aptly regarded as “Club Fed.” Not so fortunately for women -and men, and children- in a system of racial inequality that has rendered them poor and uneducated, the drug offenses and property crimes that often accompany the pressure to feed their children and pay their rent (commonly known as survival) are most often met with harsh sentences in state prisons. The common theme that transcends race and socioeconomic status is that people break the rules to get ahead. The disparity lies in the way that people break the rules, and, much more importantly, the way that the legal system in this country is structured to more harshly punish the crimes of poor, black people.
    There are over 90,000 incarcerated women (57.2% of whom have been sexually or physically abused) whose convictions are mostly drug and property related (probably as a symptom of their financial situations – which might be exacerbated by the fact that their fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and mothers might have been incarcerated considering the amount of poor blacks currently incarcerated) that are denied welfare upon their release from prison. So where should these women turn for financial relief? Education that has failed them or that they can’t afford? Jobs that were already difficult to get and will only be more difficult to secure with a criminal record? Or crime? Crime seems like the most viable option, which only perpetuates the new caste system. And makes the whole thing look voluntary in the process.
    As an aside, a lot of the things that we learn in this class shock me. Not because I didn’t realize that human beings have the capacity for evil or apathy, but because I didn’t realize that I was a part of a society that is built upon it. This is the good news though. If I didn’t know, then a lot of people probably don’t know. So yes, obviously I agree with just about everyone in the class when I say that reform (and maybe even revolution) is necessary. But maybe all of this talk and education about the issues isn’t completely useless. Awareness is definitely the first step.

  7. I think Rachel made a really interesting point in recognizing that for many of us, our sense of urgency in the need for change is influenced by our privileged position in society. Despite the frustration I feel when I read for this class, it is hard for me to fully understand Jackson's compelling call for revolution, simply because I am so far removed from the impacts of the system of mass incarceration. The disconnect in the frustrations of those directly affected by the system and outsiders who study the system academically became particularly pronounced to me in Blood in My Eye. I believe that most of the readings we have examined thus far have been written by academics with little first-hand experience with incarceration and their suggestions for diplomatic political reform reflect that experience. Jackson, however, captures the sentiment of those who have actually suffered the consequences of a system of mass incarceration. He makes the argument that "[t]he only effective challenge to power is one that is broad enough to make isolation impossible, and intensive enough to cause repression to affect the normal life style of as many members of the society as possible" (29). As Alexander repeatedly suggests, however, those suffering under a system of mass incarceration lack the political power and resources to influence diplomatic change. This is also apparent in Chesney-Lind's discussion of female imprisonment, in which she notes that "[b]ecause women tend to be working at the lowest levels of the drug hierarchy, they are often unable to negotiate plea reductions successfully" (89). I think this exemplifies the need for a heightened sense of urgency among those who aren't directly impacted by this system.

  8. As many people have discussed, Alexander elucidates how our current caste system appears voluntary. This is something I have observed even within our Colgate community. Although many privileged white students are bothered by the racial divisions in the Colgate social scene, they are disproportionately underrepresented when it comes to actually taking action. I think that even within Colgate, there is an idea that minority students are under-represented in Greek life simply because they prefer to not be involved. This explanation ignores the structural and social influences that contribute to this disparity. Moreover, students' willingness to take action exemplifies the discrepancy in the sense of urgency experienced by those directly affected by racism.

    Stereotypical images of angry black men make change even more challenging, as those marginalized by a racial system of incarceration have to walk a fine line in advocating for themselves. I agree with Britt that awareness is the first step towards change. However, I think further steps can be taken by first recognizing racial inequality within our own community. The campus climate survey overwhelmingly suggests that upper-class, white, male students are most satisfied with their Colgate experience. While these students might still recognize social inequality, their privileged position dampens the sense of urgency they feel in addressing it. In order to bring about real social change for the system of mass incarceration, it is crucial that the people who wield real political power, who, generally speaking, are not directly affected by the system, work towards serious policy change. Jackson argues that "a people can never be so repressed that they can't strike back in some way" (33). While this is an important point, I think that solutions could be reached far more peacefully, diplomatically, and quickly if those who aren't marginalized by this system choose to take real political action. In relation to Britt's point, I think we can apply what we discuss in this class to our own lives by first addressing social division within our own community. If privileged, white students were more vocal in their dissatisfaction with racial divisions at Colgate, real change could ensue and we could all gain a lot more from our liberal arts education. Perhaps change within our own community can one day be translated into the national political change that we so urgently need.

  9. Reading the Alexander chapter for today brought up ideas in my head from earlier this semester when we were discussing the power of photographs. The problem raised by photographs representing torture or topics of the like, is that once you view these pictures, once a topic like this is even brought up in your company, it feels wrong not to react. There is a basic human instinct that kicks in telling you to help the person in need. But how can we help, how can a person so far removed from the situation make a difference? Often the common response is to distance yourself from the situation, the only way you can make yourself feel somewhat "okay" about what you saw or what news you heard, is to accept that you can do nothing about the situation. This type of thinking validates "ignoring" the issue at hand, and we spent the first part of the semester trying to understand what the proper response to these forms of media are, if there are any. In the same respect, Alexander speaks to people "knowing" but "not knowing" about the problems with mass incaration in our society. "Denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don't know at the same time"(Alexander 182). I think the first step to fixing this cycle, to bringing about a reform that could put an end to racial discrimination and the government policies that perpetuate them, is to raise a genuine awareness of the issues at hand. It is not enough for people to "know" what is going on. We know about a lot of things like global warming, poverty, and starving people throughout the world, but we are never forced to confront these problems. I'm not sure how to make that happen, I don't know if anything in my post made any sense. But the point I am trying to get across is that in order for change to be made, it is imperative that people no longer turn their heads to the issues at stake. People must be made aware of the problems, in a way that sparks change.