Hola mi gente,
If you’re in the NYC area, please come join the Alliance of Families for Justice at the Black National Theater tonight at 6PM as we begin to shape the organization and plan events. Your input — especially the input of those directly impacted by criminal justice policies — is important.
The following was partly inspired by a question submitted by a friend on Facebook. The person asked why almost no one addresses individual responsibility in the context of mass incarceration and racialized social control.
Individual Agency & the Carceral State
It was the myth of fingerprints
I’ve seen them all and man
They’re all the same.
— Paul Simon, The Myth of Fingerprints
A CEO at a major financial institution once asked me to address an audience at an awards ceremony for a foundation that will remain nameless (I feel a need to protect myself, since I’m sure what follows will offend almost everyone). What follows is glommed from parts of that speech:
One of the great ironies in the history of the United States is the way freedom and liberty were developed for white Americans on the backs of African Americans and other Americans of color. Until Michelle Obama noted it during a speech, it is a little-known fact, for example, that the first part of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., for a long time where a white-dominated U.S. congress has deliberated, was built by enslaved African Americans, whose white owners were paid for that labor.
Those who actually toiled on this great symbol of democracy were not paid, nor have their descendants been compensated for their labor.
The situation becomes more ironic when one considers the fact that it was enslaved African Americans who put the statue of Freedom at the top of the Capitol in the 1860s. This statue was of a Native American woman warrior dressed in a flowing robe and helmet. Those who cast the statue, loaded its pieces onto wagons, assembled it, and hoisted it to the top of the Capitol building were African American workers who did not have access to the freedom they were helping celebrate. In addition, the indigenous American peoples represented in this statue to freedom were in the process of being systematically eliminated.
However, this is not a narrative of a racism of old that no longer exists. I am here to tell you that the same forces that oppressed and denied people of color in the past, and which are dismissed or denied by most white Americans (and conservative people of color) today, still exist. U.S. society and its basic institutions — indeed, the very rhythm of contemporary life — continue to be infested with the elements of racism, a systematic reality with deep roots in the past and major consequences for all Americans in the present. This is a continuing reality (Bell, 1993).
But before I directly address the question of individual responsibility, I need to come to terms with you, the reader. I conceptualize racism in structural and institutional as well as individual terms. My definition of racism describes a system of oppression of African Americans and other people of color by white Europeans and white Americans. There is no black racism because there is no centuries-old system of racial domination designed by African Americans that excludes white Americans from full participation in the rights, privileges, and benefits of this society. Racism requires not only a widely accepted racist ideology but also the systematic power to exclude people of color from opportunities and major economic rewards (Feagin, Vera, & Batur, 2000).
Now, let me address the thorny (and admittedly complicated) question of “personal responsibility” with regard to those who have been incarcerated.
First, I am going to disagree with the premise that most people working in the nonprofit/ industrial complex do not emphasize personal responsibility. In fact, most of the people assisting persons returning to society after incarceration (“reentry”) I know and have observed over the last 20+ years of doing this work, certainly stress personal responsibility and the need to acknowledge agency. I see this question of personal responsibility versus societal accountability similar to the charge of black and brown disinterest of “black on black” crime racists use to excuse state-sanctioned violence. Even a cursory Google search will yield untold organized efforts to reduce crime in our communities. In fact, black on black crime is a myth, as most crime is intra-racial. In other words, where’s the outrage on “white on white” crime?
I perceive the question of personal responsibility from the opposite end of the spectrum: I believe people in this field stress individual agency at the expense of societal responsibility. This is especially true of people who are intellectually lazy and want to place “failure” solely on the individual. Part of this can be explained that reentry work (which is in actuality a recycling) is hard, challenging work that can cause burn out can erode our view of humanity. Very few, in my experience, have a good grasp of the systemic forces that impact choice, opportunity, and options.
In any case, a part of personal responsibility is to learn about and attempt to transcend the systemic nature of oppression. You can pull all you want on your bootstraps (and some don’t even have boots) and if you don’t have an adequate analysis of the problem, you’ll never get anywhere.
One type of explanation for the persistence of black poverty, mass incarceration, and inequality argues that blacks have been victims of themselves. Advocates of this point of view point out that formerly incarcerated people self-inflict damage by demanding unrealistic high wages, failing to enhance their skills, turning housing projects into crime and drug-infested areas, aided by females of low morality only too happy to have single parent families and live off welfare (D’Souza, 1995; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1999). Others dismiss the importance of race, citing other factors such as culture, gender, and class (Wilson, 1980).
I see this attempt to emphasize individual responsibility while ignoring or diminishing the importance of systemic oppression, as a newer form of racist expression that has come to prominence. One that is preoccupied with matters of moral character, informed by the virtues associated with the traditions of individualism (Kinder, D. R., & Mendelberg, 1996). Today, I say, racism is expressed by the language of the American mythology rugged individualism.
My work, as I see it, is to highlight how systemic racialized social control influences and impacts individual agency. Indeed, the biggest obstacle in taking down the carceral state isn’t so much about helping people empower themselves, though that’s part of it, but in changing this society’s obsession with the individual and while willfully blinding itself from systemic state-sanctioned abuse. Here my work is informed by a racial contract (Mills, 1997) predicated on a militant ignorance not merely confined to the illiterate and uneducated, but spread at the highest levels of the land, presenting itself unabashedly as knowledge.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…
Bell, D. (1993). Faces at the bottom of the well: The permanence of racism. New York: Basic Books
D’Souza, D. (1995). The end of racism. New York: Free Press.
Feagin, J. R., Vera, H., & Batur, P. (2000). White racism New York: Routledge.
Kinder, D. R., & Mendelberg, T. (1996). Individualism reconsidered. In D. O. Sears, J. Sidanius & L. Bobo (Eds.), Racialized politics: The debate about racism in America (pp. 44-74). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mills, C.W. (1997). The racial contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Thernstrom, S., & Thernstrom, A. (1999). America in black and white: One nation, indivisible. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wilson, W. J. (1980). The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.