Convenient Racial Conversations

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In light of the horrific murders of Chris Lane and Trayvon Martin, it has become increasingly apparent how journalists and academics alike continually commodify moments that should imbibe real conversations on America's color line, as marketable news stories. These opportunists confine America's race issues to a few moments of heinous violence, avoiding the tougher conversations on how the contemporary racial trends in our nation perpetuates these moments-even if these trends are in the public eye. Instead of talking about the plight of young black men in dead zones of poverty, the school-to-prison pipeline, or our gun laws, we are left trying to compare Chris Lane and Trayvon Martin and/or playing judge by sifting through the details of these cases.

The first black tenured Professor at Harvard's Law School, Derrick Bell once postulated “whites will promote racial advances for blacks only when they also promote white self-interest.” This pessimistic supposition comes as no surprise from a theorist who asserts that racism is a permanent fixture of America's liberal democracy. Now I believe (hope) that Bell's assertion is not categorically true but, it's hard to discount Bell's ideas on “Interest Convergence,” given the discourse and framing around American Attorney General Eric Holder's “watershed” speech on mandatory minimum sentencing.

 Since the “tough on crime” Republican mantra propelled George H.W. Bush and Richard Nixon to victories, Democrats responded with just-as-harsh, or harsher, punitive changes in America's criminal justice architecture. In what was seen as the Democrats finally overcoming their punitive overcompensation, Holder set a precedent for “smart crime” policy. In his San Francisco speech Holder called on Congress to “expand indigent legal defense services” and outlined a three-step plan for the Department of Justice, which included:

“First, the Justice Department will no longer charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders without ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels with offenses that impose mandatory minimum sentences. Second, the Bureau of Prisons will allow more elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences out of prison earlier. And third, the Justice Department is actively identifying best practices for enhancing the use of jail and prison diversion programs that reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding.”

–Nick Hudson, Burnt Orange Report, 8/15/13

Leading political media outlets such as the National Journal, Politico, and The Hill (at most) briefly mentioned the racialization of these incarcerations stating that “black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males,” a quote which was Holder's only talk of race. Holder's speech should have been a great impetus mention mass incarceration and the plight of black/brown folk. Hell, Holder's speech should have been about the prejudices of our criminal justice system. Instead pundits and politicians alike have utilized the increasing cost of punitive containment as the crux of political compromise. Flouting the glaringly noticeable empirical and theoretical scaffolding around our racist carceral state (read this), America's body politic has opted to use their pocket books as an argument in favor of reform.

Perhaps, Eric Holder and the Obama administration are simply playing the political game. Perhaps they are appealing to an argument that will resonate with the conservative mantra so as to engineer a coalition for prison reform that will help thousands. I applaud Holder's speech as a (very small) stepping-stone in the right direction.

It just irks me that the American media is fundamentally unable to discuss race. These discursive obstacles led to an age of mass incarceration. As Michelle Alexander notes in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” The impotence of pundits/leaders to talk about race in the face of prison reform was the same silence that legitimized the archipelagos of penitentiaries, the privatization of punishment, and the irrational conviction laws. Even as this failing system is slowly starting to come into conversation in American liberal democratic discourse; we are making the same mistakes.

America's racial silence is in fact, a stifle. Racism, as a structural formation, has become a taboo subject in normative discussions on politics, stifling any activist voices that demand that civil society see how racism has become a fixture on any number of social ills. Instead murders, kidnaps, and other sensational isolated incidents monopolize mainstream discourse on race and racism. Under this specter of “colorblindness” perhaps Derrick Bell is correct. The only way to help people of color in dire straits is to message and package your policy prescription in a way that will appeal to the majority of Americans. What better way than by talking about money?  


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