The struggle to define who is worthy: mass incarceration and mass deportation

I just finished watching an interview with Susan Burton, author of “Becoming Ms. Burton” and founder of A New Way of Life, a re-entry program for women of color who are adjusting to their new lives after prison, and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow,” on Democracy Now!. Alexander wrote the introduction to Burton’s book, in which she tells her story of losing her five-year-old son in a hit-and-run by an LAPD detective (the department never acknowledged her son’s death) and falling into depression, alcoholism, and eventual drug use. The War on Drugs had been powerfully in effect since the 1960s (see here for background, especially as it pertains to the criminalization of antiwar Black activists by the Nixon administration), and poor people of color, as an extension of what Alexander and others describe as the surveillance state, were being locked up for minor drug offenses that often received long sentences. Burton’s initiative is a powerful reminder that the U.S. narrative around this does not break from our generations-long tradition of other-ing Black and Brown people justified under various forms of political obfuscation, policy-making like gerrymandering and redlining, and media depictions that demonize people of color as simultaneously a threat and a problem to be solved.


This resonates powerfully with the parallel track of immigrant existence in this country – to which Black Americans in fact historically belong (slaves were the first immigrants, along with their captors) – which has been threaded into our story as a nation of White, Anglo people. Immigrants then and now maintain a position of lower-status people waiting to adapt and assimilate, often taking up blue-collar and unstable work that includes abuses and exploitation as part of the modus operandi. While this is not news for those of us who read and think on the progressive side of things, the connection made by Alexander in the Democracy Now! interview between the abuse of people of color and of immigrants heartened me. Under the script of settler colonialism, which arranges social relations via the White Western settler-as-savior/Black slave-as-laborer/Indigenous people-as-uncivilized-savage-awaiting-enlightenment, both Black Americans and immigrants are positioned to serve the dominant (White) state-supported control and use of resources inside our national borders. Those resources, recursively, include the labor of these individuals which is poorly compensated or even amounts to indentured servitude under corporate investment in prisons (in the case of convict lease, which some argue still happens today).

Alexander and Burton’s work makes a stunning claim: that we have choices about the way we look at drug use and the individuals who struggle with it. They speak of the ways in which we criminalize people, including poor women of color who have suffered trauma, abuse, and isolation in and out of prison, with the reckless malice which has resulted in the destruction of lives, families, and communities. This, Burton argues, itself is criminal, this seeing people as expendable, consumable, convert-able into fodder for the political fire and brimstone bursting from nativist, racist political pulpits. Alexander adds that immigrants, especially immigrants identified as people of color, are now suffering such similar depiction under the banner of racial politics that discursively justify punitive social controls which result in the dehumanization and division of people from each other:

Today, the enemy has been defined as those ‘brown-skinned immigrants sneaking across the border,’ and, you know, Donald Trump has been banging the podium, you know, saying, we must get rid of them…If we had risen to the challenge of the War on Drugs the way that we could have and should have, the system of mass deportation would not exist today…

And then:

I’m hoping that in the months and years to come that we’ll see more coordination and more unity between the movements to end mass incarceration and the movements to end mass deportation, and come to see it’s the same struggle to define who is worthy, who has dignity and value, and who is disposable, and ultimately, we are trying to birth a new America…

This speaks to the powerful need for social imagination, which Marx, Habermas, Stetsenko, and many others offer as a means of engaging with the possibilities always inherent to our realities and authoring ourselves and change through these possibilities. This world and its arrangements are contingent, open to disobedience as Hannah Arendt argued, and changeable.

Watch the full interview on Democracy Now! here (25:18-59:02).

The eye in the sky and “low-status” domestic workers

Not long ago, I watched a PBS Frontline video called “Rape on the Night Shift,” an expose delving into the abuse of and violence, often by their own supervisors, against female immigrants who work as janitors for poor wages in buildings that I would wager the majority of Americans have frequented for one reason or another. One of the reasons for the lack of oversight and protection of these women is due to the fact that they are invisible, so to speak, in terms of labor rights, or else cannot pursue recourse. Many of them are undocumented and/or lack the literacies and language use needed to advocate for themselves, things which most of us born as citizens and into English-speaking worlds have more access to.

How is it possible that we can allow such things to take place? It’s hard to fathom that we don’t feel compunction when we hear of such events, and I imagine that since Frontline added this to the queue, it has an audience. Still, there is a seemingly long distance between one’s couch and the ballot box or the street, where political action takes place…but where does this distance come from? I connect this to two points: the first, one of geopolitically-/economically-derived guilt, which inadvertently commits the middle-class White American to an uneasy avoidance, and the second, the straight-up social (and even geographic) distance we have from such lived experiences.

In my sociology class this semester entitled Immigration in an Era of Globalization, our class read a book called Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, which charted the experiences of Mexican and Central American women who work as nannies and housecleaners for wealthy White and Latino families in Los Angeles. These workers are not referred to as such, according to the text, by many employers, who prefer to call them “the babysitter” or “the help” because class guilt makes more direct (and perhaps honest) references distasteful. This doesn’t just happen in LA; I know people who use such indirect ways of speaking about physical laborers who come to their houses, almost as an aside when talking about what’s happening with their day. “We need to be out of the house when the cleaners come,” they say, “because we don’t want to be here when they’re here.”

The Eye in the Sky allusion in the title of this post brings in my second thought, which is one more of the lack of global consciousness (if such a thing exists) of those of us in positions of wealth and power in the world relative to those who have less. I saw a movie tonight with the same title, which brought much of this home to me. Eye in the Sky deals with the complex philosophical terrain underneath the decision-making in questions of war, especially as it relates to questions of contingency and the value of human life held in the hand as an abstraction or a real proposition. I strongly recommend the film, especially as it brings to bear the same struggle I mention above, asking the following question: Does our ability to disarticulate ourselves from others, especially those who are dark, who are poor, who are foreign-tongued and strange-ritualed, who live far away from us geographically and/or culturally, make it easier to ignore their suffering? Clearly put: do we employ an “eye in the sky” when we train our sights on those whose lives are convenient to us only insofar as we do not see a better reason to extinguish them? Does this metaphysical distance cloak these people with an invisibility that is only vaguely and temporarily lifted (if at all, when the other risk of course is commodification, a topic which merits its own post) by Frontline or a well-crafted movie?

ca. 1910 - 1930 --- Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

ca. 1910 – 1930 — Hindu servant serving tea to a European colonial woman. Undated photograph. BPA#2 4362 — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

PS – Such questions are clearly philosophical but require deeper exploration using various lenses, including postcolonial and critical race theory as well as feminist theory, among many. Another good step is to avoid luxuriating in white guilt and other Western catharses.

Discourse, voice, and rightness in an animal rights activist talk

Tonight I attended a talk at the Blue Stockings Bookstore on Allen Street in lower Manhattan with a friend, where we partook in a conversation about animal rights called Animal Rights Campaigning and Racism. Interesting questions framed the talk:

  • How can we campaign for animal liberation while being self-aware of privilege, xenophobia, imperialism, and the ongoing instrumentalization of animal welfare issues by racist parties and groups?
  • Who has the “right” to criticize “other” cultural practices?
  • What role does our language and imagery play?
  • Which targets should we choose?
  • How are we to remain sincere to our anarchist, emancipatory ideals for total liberation?

My friend, a near-vegan and animal rights proponent, had invited me to join her and I was looking forward to learning something new, especially with such a critical frame. Topics like decolonization, anthropocentrism, and speciesism came into the thread, and some of the important racist dimensions of the construction of animals-as-inferior, which include anti-indigenous and genocidal practices in the past and present, were discussed by the moderators, three young people of color who had studied, participated in, and taught about animal activism.

I struggled with some of the discourse generated by the talk. A recurring theme was the indictment of the White Eurocentric settler colonialist tradition, which is absolutely important to discuss in terms of topics relating to oppression and consumption. Yet at times it seemed reductive. American thinking tends to be very race-centric as a way of constructing difference, and there is so much more to explore when thinking about the cultural relationships we have to our environments as human beings, including geography, religion, economics and labor relations (though capitalism and neoliberalism, in fairness, were referenced a couple of times). At times where someone brought up a point not considered supportive of the overarching theme mentioned above, like a comment by a young woman about food deserts, it was shot down fairly quickly either by the moderators, or with their support.

This is good to observe, as a budding professor and future moderator of conferences (I hope). I felt that the way the moderators spoke implied (a) a strong belief in one’s rightness, which was drawn from what were assumed to be common understandings among the group, and (b) an emphasis on pontification and proselytization. As a participant, this became a sort of drone that I ended up taking little away from.

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This really signals the important question of voice, which resonated with questions I have about how to manage my classes in a way which is fair and values all participants. Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the night (it went on too long for my taste, with too much showing-off of knowledge, intermingled with teary accounts of one’s deep convictions and struggles), I’ll just say that events like this are instructive. They remind teachers like me that any leadership posture we have in a group confers power over internal norms and language use, terminology, processes of inclusion and exclusion, and other ways of shaping how the group interacts. And I hate to say it, but after this, I don’t know if I ever want to be a part of a “group” like this again.

This runaway beast  

I’m on my way home for Thanksgiving on a bus that has been delayed several times due to traffic. What should be a 4-5 hour ride is looking like at least 7 in total. Weird that a group of people who don’t know each other (except for those who bought tickets together) are found careening together through space, hurtling from one city to another, seeking out loved ones hundreds of miles away and stiffening away from the slumbering person in the seat next to them.

What is our community, nowadays? Do we have one, or are we members of many? We are Westerners, by and large, and even those of us who wouldn’t identify as Western World by birth still buy into the values espoused in Western societies: economies exist to support the population (thus positioning resources – human, natural and manmade – as having a value in direct relationship to their support of our society), and work is considered the most valid contribution to this economy. Capitalism dominates now, but socialism and communism also existed as economic models in the past (and still do today, though they have adopted capitalist priorities, as in China); through the gradual building of civilizations that consider themselves now above, and custodially linked to, the fate of Nature, our world has become a web of extraction of energy to be converted into a life support system that sustains, albeit more and more weakly, an ever-growing world population.

Yet feelings of isolation and depression, even in an era of massive connectivity dominated by social media, advertising, cell phones and computers, and other means of shuttling messages and meanings across space, are growing. Experiments have been done to show that when people use more social media, they feel less connected to each other. Perhaps a bit less human, as well.

All of these disquieting thoughts are inspired by a speech given in 1980 by Russell Means of the Lakota Tribe, which is called one of the First Nations. Means – who supported an interesting explanation as to why the term “American Indian” may not the misnomer we have been trained to think it is – spoke in 1980 about the sickness of humankind that has been brought by European thinking, European ways, European influence, and European dominance in modern times. He argued that capitalism’s ills cannot be remedied by Marxist solutions, because Marx’s thinking – like that of other social “radicals” such as Paulo Freire and John Dewey – originated in the same mode of Westernism, which dictates first and foremost that man stands above Nature, and uses it to his benefit. This thinking I remember seeing in John Locke, as he spoke about the conversion of Nature in his theory of property, which is inert and without inherent value, into something of use to humanity through labor. The purpose of Nature, by this logic, is to serve man. While this is both a pre-capitalist and pre-Marxist view, each economic system indicates such a viewpoint as instrumental, if latent, to its formula.

Why is this a problem? Take a look around. We are causing the global temperature to rise, emitting more pollution than we can ever hope to eliminate, and soaking up fossil fuels, forests, animal populations, and natural habitats so quickly that projections for the end of natural energy in the form of fossil fuels are signaling crisis within 100 years. With the notion of human capital as developed by Becker in the mid-20th century, we have turned to each other – or more often, to the less powerful among us – to be producers of value as well. Couldn’t we argue that the “labor” a manager or CEO applies to the potential of a worker “converts” this worker into a source of value?

With such a functionalist view of our environment and even each other, we alter our ability to perceive loss or the subjugation of what is natural without our interference. This has become much, much more sinister in the last couple of decades of corporate involvement in government decision-making, education, health care, policing and prisons, and environmental actions. Such influence carries a familiar banner: it’s all about the value added! We seek to quantify, to measure, to calculate outcomes nowadays – I’m using neoliberal discourse here now – and further mediate our ability to perceive through this lens. A good example of such changes is taking place in education; by this model, our children are only doing well if a test can tell us so, thus indicating their “success” or “failure”; we are working on the beginnings of a system which will monitor their “progress” and report back constantly on every change, hiccup, or moment of resistance. We will then reward submission with more opportunities to submit in the future, in the form of jobs.

Sound conspiracy theory-y? Might be. I have heard recently that people tend to reach for such theories when they have become desperate, losing a sense of control over their lives. I know we’ve lost a sense of control over the machine that inhales raw materials into its hungry mouth and spits out products for the many and profits for the few. And I feel a loss of control over my role in that process. I feel useless, powerless, ineffective, and hopelessly bleeding-heart leftist.

And I want to ask Russell Means of the Lakota People: If my culture has made me, and I make my culture, what room is there for you and yours…even if you are right? How do we stop this runaway beast tearing down the mountainside, savage and faceless, mouth full of dying forests and choking air, to consume us all?

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