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…
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).