Mychal Denzel Smith | The Nation

Mychal Denzel Smith

Mychal Denzel Smith

All the blackness that’s fit to print. And some that isn’t. 

The School-to-Prison Pipeline Starts in Preschool

School-to-prison pipeline

(Courtesy of Steven Depolo, CC BY 2.0)

The school-to-prison pipeline, to my mind, is the most insidious arm of this country's prison-industrial complex. Under the guise of protecting our children, we push many of them out of school and into prisons, limit their opportunities, fail to and/or undereducate them, all while feeding our addiction to mass incarceration and retribution that is not justice at all. That the students who find themselves funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline are predominantly black is further proof that the United States system of racist oppression chugs along through the rhetoric of colorblindness.

Now that we have the niceties out of the way, let's talk about what really makes the school-to-prison pipeline the worst.

A study conducted by U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights shows that black preschoolers (yes, four and five year olds) make up almost half of all out-of-school suspensions for preschoolers. What any preschool student has to do in order to be suspended is beyond me. That said, black students are receiving the message—at younger and younger ages—that their behavior will be regarded differently, as inherently more disruptive and therefore more deserving of punishment. They are being denied the right to their formative years of education and socialization. And then we wonder why there is an "education gap."

Across all grade levels, Black students represent about 16 percent of the overall student population, but are 32-42 percent of students who face out-of-school suspension, 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students who experience a school-related arrest. Black students are suspended or expelled at a rate three times higher than white students. 20 percent of black boys and 12 percent of black girls face out-of-school suspensions.

It's tempting to focus on the disproportionate percentage of black boys who are suspended—and when we talk about racism and racial injustice, we often focus on what's happening to boys and men. However, it's important to note, as Crystal Lewis does, that girls—especially black girls—often find themselves caught in the juvenile justice system for infractions much less serious those of boys. "In 2010," Lewis writes, "67 percent of the 500,000 young women in the juvenile justice system were arrested for larceny-theft, loitering or violating curfew, disorderly conduct and other low-level offenses. In comparison, 52 percent of males were arrested because of offenses they committed in these categories." Girls are more likely to be arrested on status offenses (like truancy, running away and incorrigibility—being a disobedient youth), things that would not be crimes were they adults.

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It's those lighter offenses that often result in black girls being suspended from school, as well. Monique Morris, co-founder of the National Black Women's Justice Institute, told Women's eNews, "The majority of black girls who have been suspended got kicked out for being loud, even if they weren't being disrespectful." It's consistent with the way school discplined is meted out: black students' behavior is interpreted as more threatening than that of their white counterparts. Combined with "zero tolerance" policies that heavily rely on the use of police to deal with school-level discplinary problems, this means more interaction with the law enforcement/criminal justice system for more and more black students.

It's appalling. Worse, it's completely unnecessary. But it's the logical result of a system dedicated to ensuring inequality persists along racial and gender lines. That alternatives exist apparently doesn't matter. We'll just keep criminalizing, suspending, arresting and locking away black children until there simply aren't any left.


Read Next: Respectability politics still won't save us.

Respectability Politics Still Won’t Save Us

Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Jonathan Chait takes issue with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assertion that Paul Ryan’s rhetoric about “culture of work” and “inner-city men” isn’t any different than President Obama’s admonishing of young black men and blaming the lack of fathers in the home for their perceived failures. He says:

Ryan’s analysis—or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda—is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.

Figures like Obama, [Bill] Clinton, and (I think) [Bill] Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it. Clinton combined welfare reform with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, higher minimum wage, and other direct benefits. Obama has done the same.

While it’s true that the Obama administration has taken on certain aspects of institutional racism, most notably drug policy and voting rights, it’s also the case that Obama’s rhetoric around black youth and the inequities they face always circle back to issues of “culture,” the willingness to name and deconstruct structural racism in explicit terms is absent. We can discuss the explosion of the prison population under Clinton’s presidency some other time.

But Chait’s biggest misfire is here:

Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.

Dress it up in all the sports metaphors you want, but I know respectability politics when I see it, and Chait commits the fallacy of lending it any credibility.

Yes, people like to feel in control of their own lives, and thus a conservative response to structural racism has been to strive for achievement despite the odds. Go to school, dress well, speak articulately, work hard, be unflinchingly kind. And because that formula works for some people, it becomes the official playbook (to extend Chait’s metaphor) for dealing with racism in one’s personal life. These are the things people can control. They can comport themselves according to the rules of white supremacy and hope for the best.

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Fine. If that helps one to preserve their sanity and survive in this rigged system, I’m not here to knock it (too much). But what Chait sees as rational, I see as an irrational response to an irrational problem. Racism doesn’t make sense. It is not rooted in logic. Its metrics shift with the times. It can go from claiming black men do not have the intellectual fortitude to participate in professional sports, to marveling at black athletes’ natural ability to excel. It can turn from hiring black women to perform all domestic duties, to admonishing them for being lazy “welfare queens.” It can say simultaneously that black people are naturally inferior to white people, while fearing that very existence of blackness is a threat to white people’s livelihoods.

There is no rational response to a system of oppression that refutes its own logic. And if there were, respectability politics would be the least rational. Because even if you win that one game against the shady refs by ignoring their imposition and playing your best, it’s just one game. It’s just one team. The rest of league still suffers.

Also, the basketball metaphor is utterly ridiculous.


Read Next: Melissa Harris-Perry on what Paul Ryan and Obama have in common

Like Obama Himself, My Brother’s Keeper Is Admirable but Flawed

President Obama

President Barack Obama reveals his new initiative, "My Brother's Keeper," on February 27, 2014. (Whitehouse.gov)

Yesterday, President Obama launched a new initiative called “My Brother’s Keeper,” aimed at improving the quality of life for young black and Latino boys in this country. Let me be clear: when he said, “This is an issue of national importance. This is as important as any issue that I work on. It’s an issue that goes to the very heart of why I ran for president,” I believed him. There’s no doubt, in my mind, that the president cares very deeply about the pervasive inequality in education, incarceration, poverty and violence afflicting black and brown boys and he wants to do something about it. This is important and commendable. But I take issue with what the president considers “something.”

My very first problem is that the initiative is aimed solely at young men. When fighting racism we are often exhorted to help our men and boys overcome it. But women and girls are affected by racism, too, and also suffer from race-based disparities. It’s as if to say that the path to equality for black and brown people is to uphold patriarchy. It’s counterproductive.

Also, the president said over and over again “young men of color,” but was only really addressing black and Latino boys. If that’s his focus, so be it—there are specific disparities black and Latino boys face in education, incarceration and economic opportunity—but repeating “of color” and only meaning black and Latino erases other nonwhite people who fall under that umbrella term.

So we’re talking about black and Latino boys. Then let’s talk about them.

Black and Latino boys are disproportionately targeted by police actions like stop-and-frisk. One in every fifteen black men and one in every thirty-six Hispanic men are incarcerated, as compared to one in every 106 white men. They receive harsher punishments in both schools and the justice system. They experience an unemployment rate typically double that of the national average. These are the statistics My Brother’s Keeper is concerned with.

President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America.

But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history.

When President Obama says, “We can reform our criminal justice system to ensure that it’s not infected with bias. But nothing keeps a young man out of trouble like a father who takes an active role in his son’s life,” he’s not pandering. This is what he actually believes.

But that’s ignoring the root problem. We can turn every black and brown boy into a “respectable” citizen. But the moment we do, the rules for what constitutes “respectable” will change. That’s how racism works (check this history of American barbers and facial hair for one example). That’s how white supremacy sustains itself. It isn’t a rational ideology built on facts, statistics or empirical observations. It’s a system of oppression meant to concentrate power and resources into the hands of white people at the expense of the livelihoods of all nonwhites.

If it’s meaningful that our first black president is able to articulate the experience of young black men in this country, it’s also meaningful when that same first black president lends legitimacy to the racist beliefs of someone like Bill O’Reilly. It’s not an achievement to get O’Reilly in the same room as Rev. Al Sharpton, as the president joked during his address, when nothing about this initiative is going to challenge the racist worldview the FOX News host and his followers hold dear.

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I’m sure this initiative will have real benefits for a good number of black and Latino boys. They will be provided mentorship and role models, be afforded opportunities that may have previously existed outside of their imaginations and know that someone out there cares. But that’s a severely limited view of what is needed. It’s basically charity. “Philanthropy is not policy,” Princeton professor Imani Perry said on last night’s All In with Chris Hayes. The role of government should be making philanthropy less necessary.

My Brother’s Keeper is in essence an initiative aimed at helping black and Latino boys find success within a racist system. In some ways, it’s admirable. But finding “success,” however narrowly defined, in the face of racism is not the same as defeating racism. In order to cure what truly ails us as a country, it will take a more concerted effort to reckon with our actual historical record and undo the system of racism that has produced the conditions people of color face today. That’s beyond the power of one American president. But he could put it on the agenda.

Read Next: Jordan Davis and the refrain of black death

Jordan Davis and the Refrain of Black Death

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis (Flickr/kelseu, CC 2.0)

Here is cultural critic Greg Tate writing in 1987 about the death of 23-year-old Michael Griffith:

My gut reaction to the lynching of Michael Griffith wasn’t anger, shock, or empathy, but cynicism—cynicism born of the suspicion that the black community would prove too impotent to respond in the form of symbolic protest, let alone retaliation. I’ve grown so used to thinking of black people as inevitable victims that the fact of Griffith’s murder registered more as an ideological abstraction—another act of white racist violence crying out for our collective uproar or avenging even—than as the killing of an individual black man….

To be black and conscious is not just, as James Baldwin once quipped, to be in a constant state of rage, but to rage constantly against those who would deny how America’s past racism sets the stage for present injustices. The anger and pain that Griffith’s lynching arouses is no more immediate than what I feel when I see illustrations of slave ship holds, or read about the black war heroes slaughtered in the Red Summer of 1919, or wish I could raise an army to keep black elders from being terrorized out of slumlord properties. Everywhere we turn, whether back through history or around the corner, we see black people being laid low and driven to their deaths. My heart goes out to Griffith’s friends and family, but I was mad about the America that killed him long before he was beaten and chased into the path of a car whose driver now claims he thought the body that collided with his windshield was an ‘animal’ or a ‘tire.’

Change the name to Jordan Davis, alter a few details, and it’s no different from what we’re dealing with today. Change the name to Trayvon Martin, alter a few details, and it’s no different from what we dealt with last year. Change the name to Oscar Grant, alter a few details, etc., etc., etc. There’s nothing new under America’s racist sun.

It’s where the fatigue comes from, knowing that Michael Griffith wasn’t the first, Jordan Davis wasn’t the last, and the system that produced their murders will outlast our anger. In response to their deaths, we survivors of racism and white supremacy produce elegant eulogies and fiery protests. We scream “Murder! Lynching!” We desperately reaffirm for ourselves and our children the value of black life in a country that declares us worthless. We cry and renew our hope. And then we move on to the next one.

What then? How many more eye-opening essays must we write? How many more freedom songs must we sing? How many more marches and protests must we organize? How many more bodies must we lay to rest before America gets tired, too?

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The cynic in me starts to believe this is exactly what white people want. It’s as though our cries of “Murder! Lynching!” only make it easier for white America to accept black death. I want to believe differently. But it’s hard not to see the same scene play out over and over again and not think that there’s a pleasure derived from seeing black suffering, then being berated by black rage. It starts to feel as if we’re trapped in some sadomasochistic fantasy of white American imagination.

But silence isn’t an option. We owe more than silence to Michael and Jordan and Trayvon and Rekia and Aiyana and Jonathan. But we also owe more than beautiful words mined from our pain.

We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to keep getting angry, until that type of justice is served.

Read Next: How to create a thug.

How to Create a Thug

Richard Sherman and Marcus Smart

Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman (L) and Oklahoma State Cowboys player Marcus Smart (Images courtesy of Youtube)

“I’m not trying to be racist…”

Last night, a stranger started a “conversation” with me using those exact words. There was nothing positive that could have come out of this exchange.

“I’m not trying to be racist, but do you know where I can score some coke?”

I heard him. It was a pretty noisy bar, but I heard him loud and clear. Still, I wanted him to say it again.

“What?” He repeated himself. My gut reaction? Punch in the face. I didn’t.

“So, what you’re saying is, because I’m black, you picked me to come ask to help you find cocaine?”

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not trying to be offensive…”

No need to try. He succeeded without it.

“OK, I’ve lived in New York for five months…”

“I don’t give a fuck where you’re from, I’m just trying to get some coke.” He cut me off before I could finish telling him that in my five months, this was one of most racist things that had happened to me, but still didn’t rank that high on a lifetime scale. He wasn’t worth my time. He could get the fuck out of my face.

After my friends told him to leave, repeatedly, he did so while saying over and over again, “I wasn’t trying to be offensive, I’m sorry if I offended you.” Hollow, drunken apologies. He came back to the table with a friend. Immediately, we told them both to leave. They offered us drinks. We didn’t want them. I didn’t want them. The friend said, “He’s just an asshole, he was trying to be funny.” No, he wasn’t. He was trying to be racist. He made that abundantly clear.

I could have punched him in the face. I wanted to punch him in the face. I would have felt completely justified had I punched him in the face.

At 19, I definitely would have punched him in the face.

I didn’t punch him because I was attempting to “rise above” or “be the bigger person.” In that moment, I simply decided that the inevitable night in jail and subsequent assault charges wouldn’t be worth it. At 19, I had a completely different calculus.

At 19, I wasn’t just angry, I felt I was living on borrowed time. At 19, I thought I was supposed to have been dead by 18, and knew 21 wasn’t an option. At 19, I was living ready to die.

I’m a little older, no less angry, but of a different state of mind. I’m not totally opposed to (physically) fighting back. It has its limitations, and violence begets more violence, etc., etc. However, I’m pro self-defense. Given the context of our history, where racist language and violent acts often go hand-in-hand, I see racist language as violent language and violent language as violence. I see no issue with defending one’s self against violence. (That would seem to contradict my opposition to Stand Your Ground laws, but those provide a justification for the use of deadly force even where there is no actual threat of violence, and that is a gross distortion of self-defense.)

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But I made my choice last night on the basis of feeling that I had something to lose. I haven’t always felt that way. Being black in America feels like having nothing. But at 27, there’s something I try to live for. I use my anger in a way that feels productive. I write, I speak, I teach, I shout, I learn, I grow. Last night, I decided to keep doing that. I decided that’s how I fight back.

Imagine having to make that decision when every muscle in your body tells you to do otherwise. Imagine having to make that decision when you don’t know how to operate on anything but anger. Imagine having to make that decision on an almost daily basis. Imagine having to make the decision when you’re sure there isn’t a future for you in this world. Imagine having to make the decision knowing it could be your last.

Are we still thugs now?

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the effects of ignoring systemic racism

Fuck George Zimmerman and the Culture He Rode In On

George Zimmerman

George Zimmerman, seen here on trial in Sanford, Florida, on July 1, 2013, will soon fight rapper DMX in a celebrity boxing match. (REUTERS/Joe Burbank/Pool)

For the rest of my life, there won’t be a February that goes by where I won’t reflect on the life of Trayvon Martin and how he went from a boy to a martyr to a symbol of a movement. Trayvon’s death is a painful reminder of the way white supremacy lords over black life in the United States.

And it’s only getting worse.

From CNN:

Let’s get ready to … mumble. As in, what now, George Zimmerman? Seems like the former neighborhood watchman has found yet another way to remain in the public limelight. This time, he’ll be stepping into a boxing ring to fight rapper DMX….

“Prior to the incident, I was actually going to the gym for weight loss and doing boxing-type training for weight loss,” he told Radar. “A mutual friend put me in contact with Damon and provided me with an opportunity and motivation to get back in shape and continue with my weight loss goals and also be able to help a charity out.” Damon is Damon Feldman, owner of Celebrity Boxing and self-described opportunist, whose claim to fame is putting together bizarre matchups. Think Tonya Harding, Michael Lohan. He said last week that he was accepting offers for someone to step into the ring for a three-round, pay-per-view fight with Zimmerman….

Early Wednesday morning, he said he’s picked the contender. Out of more than 15,000 e-mailed requests, he’s going with DMX. “The match will be one of the Biggest Celebrity Boxing matches of all time,” his news release said (uppercase emphasis his). But in order to find out where and when it will take place, we’ll have to wait until next week.

This is one of the most disgusting things ever. It’s not enough that Zimmerman killed Trayvon in cold blood, not enough that he walked away from it without being arrested immediately, not enough that it took thousands of people across the country marching and protesting to bring charges against him, not enough that he was acquitted and not enough that he remains free to accumulate more domestic violence charges. No, he has to also become a celebrity, built on his “career” of killing black children and abusing women.

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Shame on the organizers and promoters. Shame on the thousands who e-mailed wanting to fight him and legitimize this. Shame on anyone who pays money to see it. Shame on all of us for allowing Trayvon’s life and death to turned into a spectacle.

And fuck George Zimmerman. Fuck him and everything he represents. Fuck the culture that supports his existence. But a sincere “thank you” for reminding us what black life is worth in this country. As if we didn’t already know.

Happy Black History Month.

Read Next: the Jordan Davis case—a black kid is killed by a white man over “loud music”—comes to trial.

Trans Lives Matter. Islan Nettles’s Life Matters.

Islan Nettles rally

The Justice for Islan Nattles Rally took place in New York City on January 30, 2014. (All-Nite Images/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This past Thursday, I attended a rally for Islan Nettles in New York City. Well over 100 people were in attendance. If that doesn’t sound like a large gathering of protesters, consider first that it was a below-freezing twenty-eight degrees outside, and secondly that over 100 people showing up in the cold for a murdered black trans woman is far from meaningless.

Islan Nettles was attacked on August 17 of last year in Harlem. Her attacker is alleged to be 20-year-old Paris Wilson, who is believed to have catcalled Islan, then upon finding out she was trans, struck her in the face and continued beating her after she had fallen to the ground. She was found “unconscious…with a swollen shut eye and blood on her face.” Islan was hospitalized and died later the next week.

Wilson was initially charged with misdemeanor assault. When another man came forward to say he was responsible for the attack, but was too drunk to remember what exactly he did, prosecutors declined to bring Wilson before a grand jury. He remains free and the case is still open.

That isn’t enough for those who gathered at One Police Plaza on Thursday, and understandably so. As we stood there and listened to speaker after speaker—some who knew Islan personally and others who are leaders from organizations that work on trans rights—and heard the sobering statistics about suicide, homelessness and violence inflicted upon trans people, it is unconscionable that nearly six months after this horrific murder, the police and district attorney are no closer to a resolution than they were after it initially happened. As many who took the megaphone reminded us, had Islan looked more like Pamela Anderson, there would have been a much different societal and institutional response to her death.

But Islan was black. She was trans. She was a woman. (One of the speakers, perhaps inadvertently, misgendered Islan during their speech. I thought about that moment the next day while watching actress Laverne Cox’s keynote address at Creating Change 2014 and hearing her say, “When a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.”) She had been homeless at one point in her life, though she had her own apartment at the time of her death. She was everything our culture has made clear it despises. Her existence threatened our ideas about the worth of lives outside of the “norm.” Her presence made someone so uncomfortable that they killed her. Whether that person was Wilson, the drunken man who can’t remember or someone else, the fact is, someone killed Islan. Her family deserves answers as to who.

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Islan’s mother, Delores Nettles, was the last to speak at the rally. She reminded us all that Islan arrived to the hospital missing part of her brain. She still sees Wilson walking down the street in her neighborhood. There hasn’t been a night where she hasn’t cried herself to sleep. But she appreciated those who had shown up in support of her daughter.

When I arrived to the rally, one of Islan’s close friends was delivering an impassioned speech. She ended with something that would seem elementary, but given the circumstances was piercing and poignant: “Trans lives matter. Youth lives matter. Our lives matter. Her life matters.”

That’s as true today as it was standing in the cold while hoping the police heard her and the other hundred protesters. It will always be true. Now it’s a matter of the rest of the world accepting that truth.

Read Next: A trans activist’s journey

2014 State of the Youth Address

Phillip B. Agnew

Here’s Phillip B. Agnew, executive director of the Dream Defenders, delivering the real State of the Union:

The only way that we can overcome the debilitating deficiencies of our country is through a mass movement of the people. We must be about the business of building power, person by person, corner by corner, block by block. It’s up to us…. The revolution isn’t coming it’s already here. On what side will you stand?

The state of our youth is the state of our union, and as this country continues to fail us in every way imaginable, it’s only proper that we begin to speak up and fight for our own futures. We will be silenced no longer. We will own that our struggles are all interconnected and we stand alongside one another for freedom, justice, equality, peace and love. Some of our elders will scoff. They will laugh. They will call us naïve and misguided. They will tell us our ideas aren’t practical and we need to be more realistic. They will try to deny us a seat at the table.

We will build our own table. We will win.

Read Next: John Nichols’s take on Obama’s State of the Union.

The Effects of Ignoring Systemic Racism

Jonathan Ferrell

Jonathan Ferrell was shot and killed September 14, 2013, by North Carolina police officer Randall Kerrick. Ferrell was unarmed. (AP Photo/Florida A&M University)

In my (short, incomplete) list of ways to fight racism in 2014, the first thing I mentioned was reclaiming the definition of racism—from one primarily concerned with individual acts of bias or discrimination to a definition that understands the systemic nature of the problem. The good folks at Race Forward (formerly Applied Research Center) and Ill Doctrine vlogger Jay Smooth have wasted no time in doing just that. Last week, they released a new research paper, “Moving the Race Conversation Forward,” detailing the ways in which the media mishandle stories about race and racism. In the accompanying video, Jay Smooth lays out the differences between individual and systemic racism:

This report and video arrived around the same time we found out a grand jury chose not to indict Randall Kerrick, the police officer responsible for shooting and killing 24-year-old unarmed black man Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, North Carolina. We also learned that Darrin Manning, a 16-year-old Philadelphia high school student who was stopped and frisked so aggressively that one of his testicles was ruptured, would face charges for assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment.

This is what systemic racism looks like. Whether Kerrick or the officer who assaulted Manning have a personal animosity toward these young men because of their race doesn’t matter. What matters is the institutional mechanisms that degrade black life. Kerrick shot an unarmed Ferrell after receiving an emergency call that he was attempting to rob a home. Only he wasn’t. Ferrell had been in a bad car accident and was seeking help. Before he could explain that to the police who arrived on scene, he was shot dead. Nothing will happen to Kerrick. He will go free.

Manning and his friends ran from police because they were being stared down. Manning then stopped because he felt he had no reason to run. He hadn’t done anything wrong. For that, he received a ruptured testicle and a set of misdemeanor charges. In a racist country, Manning’s black body is guilty by virtue of existing. The officers responsible for his assault and injury are only doing what’s necessary. Her punishment, so far as this system is concerned, need not go beyond desk duty.

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When these are the institutions that govern us, when black life is disposable, when black bodies are guilty before and after being proven innocent, when there is no recourse for injustice or even a belief that injustice has been done, when these institutions actively work to push inequality, we are dealing with something much more dangerous than a personal beef with blackness.

The control of black bodies is foundational to American democracy. It is a structural reality. Our institutions are built to protect that reality. White supremacy is our core identity. Ignoring this reality prevents us from building an alternate reality. Ignoring the reality of racism only makes us more racist.

Read Next: On the issue of mass incarceration, does Chris Christie agree with Mumia Abu-Jamal?

On Mass Incarceration, Does Chris Christie Agree With Mumia Abu-Jamal?

Chris Christie

Chris Christie speaking during his recent inauguration on January 21, 2014. (Youtube)

Let’s play a game: is the following quote attributable to (A) Mumia Abu-Jamal, former Black Panther and now political prisoner currently serving life without parole at State Correctional Institution–Mahanoy, or (B) sitting New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Republican with a nasty reputation who is embroiled in a potentially career ending scandal?

We will end the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse. We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands this simple truth: every life has value and no life is disposable.

I’d forgive you if you got this one wrong. That’s an excerpt from Christie’s second inaugural address delivered after he was sworn in as governor again yesterday (January 21). It’s surprising on a few levels. Usually when Republicans are engaged in anti-drug war/incarceration rhetoric, it has more to do with a desire to reduce government spending, not any type of compassion for the people who are being thrown in these cages. It’s also genuinely shocking that a potential presidential candidate, of either major party, would think it wise (in a major speech, no less) to push back against the idea of incarceration as an answer to the so-called “drug problem.”

Now, it’s true, as Radley Balko points out in The Washington Post, “Christie is facing a major, career-threatening scandal right now. It’s entirely possible that this is an attempt at deflection.” That can’t be ignored. It also can’t be ignored that one of the country’s most visible politicians has provided an opening to talk about one of the most pressing social justice issues of our time.

Which brings me back to Mumia. The Feminist Wire is running a weeklong series centered around the issue of mass incarceration and including new works from Mumia Abu-Jamal. What Mumia did say about mass incarceration and the current model of our criminal justice system:

Social structures—courts, police, prisons, etc.—have within them a deep bias about what constitutes crime and what does not. Any social structure is a product of its previous historical, economic and social iterations, and these previous forms bear significant influence on later forms. The present system, in addition to being increasingly repressive, is the logical inheritance of its racist, hierarchical, exploitative past, and it is also a reactive formation to attempts to transform, democratize, and socialize it.

It’s certainly a more radical take than Christie would ever venture, but it’s also an examination of this country’s history of oppression that is necessary to take into account when discussing prison/mass incarceration. Our current carceral state is not an accident. It is necessary for the maintenance of a white supremacist/capitalist United States. It is an extension of the philosophies that have made this country what it is.

But we have the capacity for change. Scholar/activist/former political prisoner Angela Y. Davis has also contributed to The Feminist Wire’s forum and offered up a series of reforms that would dramatically alter (dare I say, revolutionize) the way we approach crime:

  • End mass incarceration by prison abolition

  • Abolish the death penalty

  • Establish communal courts

  • Make education a constitutional and human right

  • Make human needs more primary than property rights.

Realistically, prison abolition/communal courts/education as a constitutional right are not on the table as of this moment. There is too deep of an investment, by people of all political stripes, in the idea of prison, punishment and retributive justice to have a real discussion about abolition. And in an anti-intellectual environment that values the ability to make money, it’s difficult to convince people that education is necessary, let alone that it should be a constitutionally guaranteed right. But there has been promising movement made toward abolishing the death penalty.

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The most important of those, what the others hinge on, is “make human needs more primary than property rights.” We have to divest from the capitalist idea that property trumps humanity. We have to believe, as Governor Christie, of all people, said, “every life has value and no life is disposable.”

In her introduction to The Feminist Wire series, Tanisha C. Ford wrote, “We abuse and cage those whose bodies we deem unlawful, unwanted, and undeserving of our protection and resources.” The word choice is different, but this isn’t too far off from what Christie said. If the Republicans are inching near the same page as the radicals, we may be closer to progress than we think.

Read Next: Chrisie’s jam is now also the GOP’s.

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