Mass Incarceration of Black Citizens: Redesigning Racial Caste in America

Blog 3

The article, “Virginia Governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”, describes the arrest of Martese Johnson: a 20-year-old, Black student at the University of Virginia (BBC 2015). He is being charged with obstruction of justice without force, public swearing and intoxication. The article recounts that Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents arrested him using brute force, tackling the unarmed man to the ground, claiming that he was “very agitated and belligerent”. However, witnesses testify that “he didn’t need to be tackled, he wasn’t being aggressive at all”. There is not much to dissect from what little is said in the article, as it leaves out the incident’s connections to a systemic and historical struggle of disproportionate law enforcement and conviction of racial ethnic minorities and frames it as an isolated incident.

Blog 1Public swearing and intoxication, as well as drug use and possession are prime examples of what sociologists call “crimes without victims”. Crimes without victims are a form of formal state control, and are arbitrary decisions of the state that dictate behaviours worth convicting, but the lack of victims creates room for individual law enforcement agents to arrest and penalize suspects at their own discretion (Tepperman and Tepperman 2012). Since 2002, the United States has had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world with about 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Forty percent of the total two million male inmates in US jails and prisons are African-American, while African-Americans only make up 12% of the total American population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009). Black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. This disproportionate black representation in the criminal system does not indicate any inherent traits of African Americans, it merely points to a legal discretionary tool being used to criminalize and silence a particular racial ethnic group. Mandatory minimum sentences confiscate discretionary power from judges who are advertised as informed decision-makers to the public eye, such that the average citizen feels a false sense of confidence and security about the integrity of the justice system.

A discussion of the US Criminal Justice System cannot be complete without exploring the influence of neoliberalism: a free-market philosophy which parallels profit-making to democracy, and consumerism as the only ticket of citizenship. This provides the foundation on which previously public services have been handed over to reigns of private interests to maximize personal profit through the commodification of “practically everything” (Giroux 2012). As a collateral result of the privatization of state functions such as imprisonment, government oversight is lost and therefore there is no governing body to mitigate social damage. The state demands inmates because for-profit prisons aim to maintain an alarmingly high quantity of prisoners. More prisoners mean cheaper labour, through conditions rarely scrutinized under the law. These people become: undocumented bodies, property of the state, and the modern day equivalent of a slave (Lopez, 2015).

Blog 2The U.S. legal system undeniably favours the incarceration of black males; while popular media depicts black males, as less educated and violent to convince the public of this notion that Black people inherently second-class citizens. Negative representations of black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through news channels, film, music videos, reality television, and other forms of popular media. Typical roles are aggressive black sidekicks of a white protagonist, the comedic relief, the hyper-sexualized “ladies’ man”, or the violent black man as a drug-dealing criminal (Smith 2013). To the public, these messages draw a simple explanation for the mass incarceration of black people, thereby deflecting inquiries into what is truly an expanding form of institutionalized racism.

Alexander, in her widely acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow”, describes mass incarceration as a functional extension of the legacy of American anti-black racism. The war on drugs disproportionately targets blacks and other minorities and the poor across all racial demographics (Kain 2011). In the course text, Gendered Worlds, Aulette and Wittner (2003) describe the US war on drugs where, despite the decline in drug use in the early 1980s, the US government expanded its efforts to stop drug abuse by increasing incarceration of drug offenders. The war on drugs, along with the rest of the “get tough on crime” movement, is directed toward African Americans. While Mr. Johnson’s case described in the article is indicative of overt racial ethnic discrimination by the law enforcement agents, there are other techniques through which higher arrest rates among African Americans exist. For example, enforcement priority is placed on outdoor drug venues, the geographic concentration of police resources in racially heterogeneous areas, and focuses on crack cocaine, which is used by African Americans while the wealthy whites use powdered cocaine (Beckett, Nyrop, and Pfingst 2006). Until 2007, the sentencing laws dictated a minimum sentence of five years for crack cocaine for possession of 1/100th of the amount of powdered cocaine needed to trigger the mandatory minimum penalty, which carried no mandatory sentence.

Blog 4Public response has become more visible and vocal recently, but it is barely a start. In class we discussed the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which was started three years ago after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer. The movement aims to dismantle the New Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex. In many ways, the modern day mistreatment of the non-white populations in the U.S. using justifications of the law, parallel the happenings of pre-Civil Rights Movement U.S. When the Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson or George Zimmerman in the shooting of unarmed teen Black males, it incited the trauma that Black citizens whose ancestors experienced Master-Slave dynamics in which the death of a slave at the hand of their master was deemed an “accident” under the law. The unyielding state violence and mass incarceration of Black citizens of the U.S. is a testament to Michele Alexander’s almost too-true summary of the phenomenon: “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed. Print.

Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

BBC.” Virginia Governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”. BBC News U.S and Canada. Accessed on April 2 2015. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-31965856

Beckett, Katherine, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst. “Race, Drugs, And Policing: Understanding Disparities In Drug Delivery Arrests*.” Criminology 44.1 (2006): 105-137.

Giroux, Henry A. “Radical Art Initiative.” Radical Art Initiative. 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Kain, Erik. “The War on Drugs Is a War on Minorities and the Poor.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 28 June 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Lopez, Alan. “How American Police Forces & Higher Legal Systems Embody Master/Slave Mentalities -.” 7 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Minton, Todd D. “Jail inmates at midyear 2010–statistical tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC (2011).
Smith, Ph.D. “Images of Black Males in Popular Media.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Tepperman, Lorne and Alex Tepperman. Deviance, crime, and control: beyond the straight and narrow. Oxford University Press, 2012.

“Support the Movement for Black Lives!” Black Lives Matter. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

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Mass Incarceration of Black Citizens: Redesigning Racial Caste in America

Why Racialized Trans Women Deserve Their Own Discourse

Laverne Cox is a racialized trans woman best known for her role as Sophia Burset on the Netflix television series Orange Is the New Black. She holds a strong presence in LGBTQ advocacy, and this clip captures her explaining her unique positionality as not only a trans woman but, what that means for her as a Black woman. She begins the speech with a personal anecdote, in which two males harass her for being Black, for being female, and for being trans. She then goes on to describe the intersecting avenues of oppression that work in unison with each other to silence, marginalize, and undervalue her.

We must first understand transmisogyny in terms of how it differs from cismisogyny, and the role it plays in modern day feminism. In a society that views all non-male bodies through the lens of the male gaze, trans women are often viewed as “traps” (Devereaux 2015). The media actively leaves out anecdotes of trans women being in relationships, and those experiencing intimate partner violence have new narratives slapped on them that claim, “he didn’t know” or that “he was tricked, of course he reacted that way” (Devereaux 2015). Transphobia, the discrimination of and negative attitudes toward transgender people based on their gender expression, is ever present and permeates the lived realities for every trans identity in some way or another (Kacere 2014). Transmisogyny then, describes the unique lived experience of misogyny (the hatred and devaluing of females and characteristics deemed feminine) that trans women face, where the oppression takes the form of negative attitudes, cultural hate, overt or covert individual and state violence, targeted toward gender non-conforming people that err on the feminine end of the gender spectrum.

We cannot understand the true motivation behind transmisogyny without considering the socio-historical context in which this oppression exists. The European colonization of the lands we now know as North America brought industrial capitalism to the previously naturalist land, which not only exploited the land and resources of pre-modern naturalists, but also introduced a division of labour and market between men and women (Aulette and Wittner 2012). In this capitalist society that profits by subscribing to a clear-cut gender binary system and marginalizing those who pose a threat to the validity of this otherwise arbitrary system, there is little room to tolerate those who deviate from this falsified standard of “normative” gender identities.

Laverne Cox emphasizes that most of the harassment she experiences comes from other “black folks”. This phenomenon, as Cox explains, does not imply that Black bodies are inherently more violent or intolerant. Rather, it is indicative of the trauma that Black males are inclined to feel, due to the historic emasculation of Black male bodies in a society driven by white supremacy. As a result, Black trans women are seen as an embodiment of a disgraceful past (Cox 2014). There is merit to her emphasis on this observation. In my personal life I often encounter people who advocate for the cessation of anti-racism discourse, insisting that racism no longer exists, or that it is a “thing of the past”. The millenials have re-invented history and distanced themselves from the happenings of history so much so that we disregard the fact that Jim Crow laws were enforced until the 1960’s, and the Civil Rights Movement was really only 50 years ago (Deutsch 2014). The “trauma” that Cox speaks of is not individual trauma, but a systemic trauma that Black identities in the United States continue to experience as a result of living in a society still peppered with the remnants of such discrimination that happened only a generation ago.

Though Cox does not engage in discussion about the different lived experiences between trans men and trans women, it is an analysis worth exploring. In the last decade, trans activism has made undeniable progress in Western societies. However, those who spearhead and take the visible roles in this activism are almost always white trans men. Ultimately, this activism contributes in part to the silencing of trans women of colour. Trans women, especially those of colour, are denied the agency to advocate for their own realities and challenges while white trans men continue to use their anecdotes to promote the “need for trans visibility” (Leftytgirl 2012).

Additionally, Cox fails to explore systems of oppression that span on greater magnitudes than individual encounters. The oppression of trans women occurs at all levels of societal functions, including state violence. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), transgender women report disproportionately higher rates of incarceration and victimization while incarcerated, with Black, Latina, and mixed race transgender women experiencing an even higher rate of victimization (Reisner et al 2014). These statistics are indicative of the blatant gender and racial policing that incarcerates women into institutions unwilling to recognize minority gender identities by housing trans women in male correctional institutions, thereby creating the breeding grounds for the in-house violence that targets trans women.

In collaboration with white supremacy and patriarchal ideals working in unison with a dichotomous system of gender, we are left with racialized trans women like Laverne Cox experiencing multiple avenues of oppression. Many that identify as a Black trans woman are forced into unemployment, poverty, sex work and higher rates of poor health. The statistics are undeniable, and yet the voices are unheard. Why? Because, as Cox reminds us, we have not yet learned to love each other… “Justice is what love looks like in public” (Cox, 2014).

Works Cited

“A Concise History of Black-White Relations in the United States” Everyday Feminism. 8 Oct, 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/10/history-of-black-white-relations/

“Laverne Cox Explains the Intersection of Transphobia, Racism, and Misogyny (And What to Do About It)” Everyday Feminism. 7 Dec, 2014. Web. 16 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/

“On Transmisogyny, Racism: Trans Women of Colour Speak for Themselves” Leftytgirl. 27 May, 2012. Web. 16 Mar 2015. Retrieved from https://leftytgirl.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/on-trans-misogyny-racism-trans-women-of-color-speak-for-themselves/

“Prison Detention and Reform” Transequality.org. Web. 17 Mar 2015. Retrieved from http://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/resources/NCTE_Blueprint_for_Equality2012_Prison_Reform.pdf

“Transmisogyny 101: What It Is and What Can We Do About It” Everyday Feminism. 27 Jan, 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/01/transmisogyny/

“When Every Summer Is Your Own Personal ‘Summer of Sam’: On the Taking of Black Trans Women’s Lives and How To Stop it Now” Black Girl Dangerous. 12 March, 2015. Web. 16 Mar 2015. Retrieved from http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2015/03/personal-summer-of-sam-black-lives/

Root Aulette, Judy and Wittner, Judith. Gendered Words, Third Edition. New York: Oxford, 2015.

Walker, Julia K. “Investigating Trans People’s Vulnerabilities to Intimate Partner Violence/Abuse.” Partner Abuse 6.1(2015): 107-125

Why Racialized Trans Women Deserve Their Own Discourse

Film Review: The Way He Looks

“The Way He Looks” features a blind teenager, Leonardo, who searches in vain for a sense of independence that he cannot seem to accomplish with the unwarranted protective gestures of both his parents and his best friend, Giovana. Everything takes a turn with the arrival of a new kid at school, Gabriel, who guides Leo through new avenues of exploration.

One theme that permeates the entire plotline is ability. The very first scene is indicative of the approach the director takes in addressing Leo as a differently abled teen; he incorporates it as an aspect of Leo’s identity, instead of incorporating Leo into a discussion of able-ism. Leo and Giovanna are laying by the pool having a discussion about kissing, and though Leo’s gaze does not fall directly on Giovanna’s face, one does not immediately deduce his visual impairment nor is the audience forced to focus on it. Rather, it is simply a scene of two teens having a juvenile conversation. As the scene continues, one naturally comes to realize his blindness, and personally I felt embarrassed at my flinching reaction when Leo jumps into the water at the end of the scene. I imagine this was the intent of the director.

Leo’s parents and Giovana are reluctant to allow Leo to take control of his own life. From a curfew inappropriately early for his age, to Giovana insisting that she put the key in the door for him, it is evident towards the beginning of the film that Leo has passively accepted a false sense of lack of ability that extends beyond his physical impairments. His internalized able-ism is shattered when Gabriel enters his life and provides the confidence and opportunity for Leo to explore abilities he never knew he could have (i.e. going to the movies), and his newly attained sense of ability is symbolized when Giovana once again tries to unlock a door for him, and he insists he does it himself.

The class bullies depicted in the plot are all male, exhibiting a classic modern day manifestation of hegemonic masculinity. In Gendered Worlds, hegemonic masculinity is defined as a set of social practices designed to emphasize a male’s “normative” masculinity, features of which involve being heterosexual as well as dominant to women. At first glance, it seems as though Giovana holds her own when she stands up for Leo in opposition to these boys. A further analysis shows that in fact, Giovana often times exits the conflict in frustration while the males remain in satisfaction. This can be interpreted as a subtle display of a common stereotype that women are emotional and less capable than men. Additionally, the aforementioned bullies craft offensive jokes designed to tackle their suspicions that Leo and Gabriel are both homosexual. It is refreshing to see that the film was designed to acknowledge the existence of such stigma surrounding homosexuality that continues to exist today, and to do so in the context of adolescent milieu.

The bullies not only target Leo for their suspicions that he is homosexual, but also for his different ability. Their comments are often essentialist assumptions, declaring untrue comments about Leo’s identity that were extrapolated only from the fact that he is blind. For example, in the earlier parts of the movie, one scene displays a classmate declaring that Leo must be academically challenged and refuses to sit near him. The script for this scene made me cringe but was effective in the sense that it acknowledges essentialist reasoning that people often give for being presumptuous towards those with different abilities.

My personal qualm with this film was that it fails to acknowledge racial and ethnic minorities in the context of the plot. There is no representation of any ethnic group other than those of Brazilian descent (as far as one can tell). Perhaps this is the out of the scope of the argument the director aimed to target with this plot line, but in my humble opinion, a product that claims to promote discourse on homosexuality and able-ism cannot maintain full integrity without considering a cross-cultural variation in perspective or what ethnic diversity changes for the sequence of events of those involved.

The Reelout Film Festival provides an extremely unique and welcoming atmosphere that very obviously caters to a wide portion of the demographic of the Kingston community. I arrived at the Screening Room an hour early to ensure a spot in the screening, and was surprised to see that there were four people that had come even earlier. Throughout the hour the line accumulated about 30 eager Kingston residents and students, and unfortunately the capacity of the theatre was not able to accommodate everyone. The only seat left was near the very corner of the back row but I was thrilled to be there nonetheless. As it was one of the first screenings of the festival, Matt Salton gave a small spiel before the commencement of the film, to inform the audience of the upcoming screenings, as we as to announce the contest winner of a basket of goods from local businesses (I cannot say that I was not jealous of the winner). I frequent the Screening Room, and I have never seen a full house like I did that night. It is evident that the Reelout Film Festival is catering to the interests of the community and I am confident in their potential to further the growth of this incredible event.

Campbell, Fiona A. Kumari. “Exploring internalized ableism using critical race theory.” Disability & Society 23.2 (2008): 151-162.

Judy Aulette Root and Judith Wittner. Gendered Words, Second Edition. (New York: Oxford, 2012)

Martino, Wayne. “‘Cool boys’,’party animals’,’squids’ and’poofters’: interrogating the dynamics and politics of adolescent masculinities in school.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 20.2 (1999): 239-263.

The Way He Looks. Dir. Daniel Ribeiro. Vitrine Films, 2014. Film.

Film Review: The Way He Looks