"The man described for us, whom we are invited to free, is already in himself the product of a subjection more profound than himself."- Michel Foucault
"The city of brotherly love/ hates blacks"- Mike Ladd on Social Policy Derelicts
I recently watched a lecture delivered by Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander where she distilled the message of her 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”. The book’s title evokes imprisonment and the language of humanism, which made me think of the most sweeping study of the historical connection between the prison and humanism, Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish”. The covert history of racism and incarceration that Alexander details jibes with Foucault’s analysis of the formation of the modern prison. The conclusion Michelle Alexander arrives at in her lecture is basically that, in order for real racial equality to be achieved, the criminal justice system must live up to its purpose and actually serve the greater good. However, when her work is viewed through a Foucauldian lens, it is illustrative of the fact that the ideals of humanistic progress are “rigorously indivisible” from the failures of the prison system.
The Jim Crow laws were obvious tools of exclusion. They were taken off the books in 1965, and shortly thereafter there was a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs from major urban centers, resulting in high levels of unemployment for African-Americans. If the apparent social progress brought about by the civil rights movement had had a thorough impact, there would have been economic stimulus measures to insure that the devastated communities could be integrated into society. Instead, the war on drugs was declared. Alexander points out that the war on drugs was declared prior to the crack epidemic- it was purely a political strategy. Alexander quotes Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman: “The whole problem is really about blacks. The key is to devise a system which recognizes this without appearing to.” In order to appeal to conservative white members of the electorate, the “war on drugs” was declared and destitute blacks were the primary targets. The large manufacturers which once employed African-Americans were replaced with prisons and the tactics of exclusion employed under Jim Crow were replaced with more efficient (i.e. cryptic) ones. Foucault wrote that a condition for the birth of modern institutions (hospitals, prisons etc.) was a benevolent condemnation of idleness. People who loitered and were unemployed- who were ‘unaccounted for’- were incorporated into various institutional contexts. This type of ‘benevolent condemnation’ is exemplified by the war on drugs, which allowed people who were formerly blatantly racist to express their racism in a benevolent form- the condemnation of drug use. As racism became less an obvious part of everyday life, the techniques of disenfranchisement and exclusion became more severe. In the (ongoing) war on drugs, blacks are arrested at a much higher rate than whites and the consequence of an arrest is being silenced- by being in prison and being a felon. Essentially, the story of black enfranchisement and integration- culminating in the election of a black president- is possible to tell because those who would contradict it do not have a voice. The virtue of ‘colorblindness’ is an objective failure to apprehend techniques of exclusion. They were in plain sight during the Jim Crow era, and the story of progress since the civil rights movement has actually been the Left’s rapid loss of vision.
Foucault observed that during the rise of capitalism, prisons ceased to be centers of forced labor and instead were seen as institutions that could reform individuals so that they could be fit to enter the job market. What the prisons (both the prototypical ones Foucault studied and current ones) really produced was recidivism. People who are mistreated and terrorized in prison grow resentful and return to society more ‘maladjusted’ than before. Foucault thinks that the failure of the prison to reform inmates is an intrinsic aspect of incarceration. The prison, as the paradigmatic institution of reform, is simultaneously the most efficient mechanism of exclusion.
In the lecture I linked to at the beginning, Michelle Alexander recounts an instance when she refused to use the opinions of a young African-American man in an ACLU campaign she was working on because he was a felon. Later it came to her knowledge that he had had drugs planted on him and was arrested by the Oakland police in a quota-reaching campaign. Of the event she says, “My great crime wasn’t refusing to represent an innocent man; my great crime was imagining that there was some path to racial justice that did not include those we view as ‘guilty’.” She ends her speech by advocating that the war on drugs be called off and saying that mass incarceration is perpetuated by the same core belief as Jim Crow, “that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, compassion and concern.” She still sees racial equality as an ideal to strive towards. What she fails to see is that, in a twisted way, we already have achieved it. Ask any nice person if all races are equal and the answer will be an unequivocal ‘yes’. After the demise of segregation and simultaneous, ironic rise of mass incarceration (segregation by another name) and integration, doesn’t it make sense that the most pernicious forms of imprisonment- spiritual and institutional- are accompanied by a broad affirmation of equality? In “The Agony of Power” Jean Baudrillard writes about “objective irony”, and the coincidence of the sentiments of integration with mass incarceration is an example of that. Foucault writes, “delinquency is the vengeance of the prison on justice”; as the sentiments of humanism become more and more universal, the world becomes a gigantic prison; individuals mere recidivists on a treadmill. The disillusionment and lack of agency experienced by the recidivist becomes the defining political experience. The seamless functioning of segregation and integration causes the endless turmoil of black consciousness; blacks are the product of a system that seeks to exclude them. In that sense, it will eventually become clear that we all really are equal.