28 March 2011

the imprisonment of a race.

Last Friday I trekked out to Princeton for the Center for African American Studies' conference "The Imprisonment of a Race." The conference was the brainchild of an undergraduate student in molecular biology. Originally from Inglewood, California, he was troubled by the fact that more young black men go to prison than to college. He wanted to raise awareness about the issue, so he went to CAAS. He expected maybe a professor and some kids in chairs in a classroom. What he got, however, was to help plan a conference that brought together some of the finest scholars writing about race and incarceration today. It was the kind of event that made me feel grateful to live where I do; it's a gift to have access to the resources of the Ivies.

It was a major event for me. It wasn't just that it was a networking event, or that there was some really interesting research I hadn't heard about yet-- though both of those things were big draws. It was the power of sitting in a room with several hundred people having a consciousness-raising experience.  The research was provocative-- I learned about, for instance, how children are policed and conditioned to punative punisment in schools and neighborhoods, how census counting of inmates in prisons rather than their neighborhoods of origin means less money for already poor communities (reproducing the circumstances of poverty that spawn most crime), and how it costs the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania twice as much to incarcerate a prisoner than to pay the tuition of a student at Penn State. I heard the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner on death row-- that he joined our conference by phone, with the periodic interuptions of a recording us telling us that the phone could be being recorded, added a potent sense of urgency to the day's proceedings. I heard research I am familiar with-- how prison riots and internal resistance show that "the carceral state is, in fact, fragile," and how during the Progressive era whites were treated for poverty, blacks were neglected because of their assumed criminal pathology, and these events laid the foundations for mass incarceration. I heard all of the familiar statistics about incarceration in America- how of 2 million people incarcerated today, half are African-American, how 5 million people in this country are disenfranchised because they committed felonies. Everyone agrees that there are evil people who should be locked up, but that locking up for non-violent crimes and racist policing have occurred on such a grand scale of inequality that it they have become less effective, and indeed, manifestations of the fundamentally undemocratic nature of American governance and a need for a continued human rights struggle.

I heard over and over again:
Prisons destroy the spirit.
Prisons do not correct behaviors.
Prisons undermine family life. 
Prisons produce fractured citizenship that encourages recidivism. 
Prisons are the only policy Democrats and Republicans seem to be able to agree on. 
Prisons-- in all their dehumanizing, demonizing, unjust incarnations-- are evidence of our society in it most realized form (Foucault). 

The word "suffering" must have been said a hundred times.

There were moments when I felt close to tears. I feel that way when I read about prisons, too-- a sense of despair that these institutions are so entrenched that they seem beyond reform. 

It was a blessing, then, to round out the day with a conversation between public intellectual Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.  West offered me hope-- he reminded me that I have the power, in our my own life, to infuse my work with a spiritual motivation. He spoke plainly, truthfully: Justice is love practiced in public. Michelle Alexander reminded me that for everything I'd heard, I have a responsibility to bring awareness to the issues surrounding incarceration and inequality.  I can change the words I use- I don't have to use the term "felon" to describe the formerly-incarcerated because I can use my language to show others than I believe in forgiving those who have done their time. I can work for reform and rule shifting but I can also work for a revolutionary transformation of culture.  There is hope in that. 

My favorite quote came from Khalilah Brown-Dean, and I think I might have to embroider it to hang over my desk as I write my dissertation:
"My research is my advocacy."


@KBD said...

I'm so glad the words encouraged you as I often have to remind myself how the work we do via research is part of a broader struggle. Best to you as you complete your dissertation.

Professor Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

portlandize.com said...

I'm glad there are people like you thinking about these kinds of things.