Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
28Jul/145

Amor Mundi 7/27/14

Amor Mundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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Campbell's Law

1Rachel Aviv tells the heartrending and maddening story of the rise and fall of Damany Lewis, a dedicated and innovative teacher who helped teachers correct wrong answers on standardized test scores. One of the arguments for the Common Core and other data-driven educational reforms is that it has the dignity to hold students in poor districts to the same standards as students in wealthier districts. Lewis sees this demand as simply unrealistic: "He felt as if he and his colleagues were part of a nationwide 'biological experiment' in which the variables-the fact that so many children were hungry and transient, and witnessing violence-hadn't been controlled. David Berliner, the former dean of the school of education at Arizona State University, told me that, with the passage of the law, teachers were asked to compensate for factors outside their control. He said, 'The people who say poverty is no excuse for low performance are now using teacher accountability as an excuse for doing nothing about poverty.' Confronted with the need to reach impossible goals, Lewis and his fellow teachers took the easy way out: they cheated. The choice was made easy for them because 'they viewed the cheating as a door they had to pass through in order to focus on issues that seemed more relevant to their students' lives.'" In telling a compelling and devastating story, Aviv raises fundamental questions about the over-reliance on data in education: "John Ewing, who served as the executive director of the American Mathematical Society for fifteen years, told me that he is perplexed by educators' 'infatuation with data,' their faith that it is more authoritative than using their own judgment. He explains the problem in terms of Campbell's law, a principle that describes the risks of using a single indicator to measure complex social phenomena: the greater the value placed on a quantitative measure, like test scores, the more likely it is that the people using it and the process it measures will be corrupted. 'The end goal of education isn't to get students to answer the right number of questions,' he said. 'The goal is to have curious and creative students who can function in life.' In a 2011 paper in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, he warned that policymakers were using mathematics 'to intimidate-to preëmpt debate about the goals of education and measures of success.'"

Incarceration on a Scale Unexampled in Human History

jailIn the Atlantic, Matt Ford looks at the United States' obsession with incarceration. "Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today-perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system-in prison, on probation, or on parole-than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under 'correctional supervision' in America-more than six million-than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.... The common retort is that people of color statistically commit more crimes, although criminologists and scholars like Michelle Alexander have consistently found no correlation between the incarceration rate and the crime rate. Claims about a 'black pathology' also fall short. But police scrutiny often falls most heavily on people of color nonetheless. In New York City alone, officers carried out nearly 700,000 stop-and-frisk searches in 2011. Eighty-five percent of those stops targeted black and Hispanic individuals, although they constitute only half the city's population. Overall, NYPD officers stopped and frisked more young black men in New York than actually live there. Similar patterns of discrimination can be found nationwide, especially on drug-related charges. Black and white Americans use marijuana at an almost-equal rate, but blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession nationally. In Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other Midwestern states, that arrest disparity jumps to a factor of five."

The Transcendent and Sequential Art

transcendant_artBrian Cremins takes on the relationship between the mundane and the transcendental both in comics and in art more broadly: "the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn't work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn't differentiate between the 'major and minor,' but sees all of history's actors-from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens-as playing roles of equal weight and significance."

The Secularization of the Sacred, the Sacralizing of the Secular

turk_politicsKaya Genç notes the way that Turkey's secular nationalists have taken on characteristics of the religious, while its competing group of Muslim nationalists have taken to certain secular aspects. The result makes the country's politics unusual: "Religion in Turkey has become secularized and the secular sphere sacralized, resulting in a struggle over the definition of what is sacred, accompanied by accusations of blasphemy (phrased as disloyalty to the nation and even treason). Individual choice - the choice to be suurlu, a 'consciously' believing Muslim, as opposed to blindly following tradition - has become highly valued as a sign of Muslim modernity. Islamic practice increasingly has come to be expressed as participation in economic networks and through a commodified lifestyle of self-consciously Muslim fashion and leisure. Meanwhile, Kemalist secularism has taken on aspects of the sacred. To discuss this reversal of cultural values and show how religion could have a Weberian association with a certain entrepreneurial mood, [writer Jenny] White paints a picture of the complexities behind Turkey's competing political discourses. The camps described above may have different approaches to nationalism, but they also have many things in common. The motif of the flag, for example, symbolizes both 'secular nationalism' and what White refers to as 'Muslim nationalism.' But beyond the flag, particularly when it comes to race and religion, Turkey's competing nationalisms have a number of not very easily reconcilable differences."

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Burning Down the Ivory Tower

ivy_league_schoolsWilliam Deresiewicz' new book Excellent Sheep takes on the academic-industrial complex. In an essay in the New Republic he argues that the Ivy League is ruining the best and the brightest: "These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it. When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them-the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.... So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk."

How to Rebirth the Virtuous (Puritanical) University

excellent_sheepJim Sleeper responds to Deresiewicz' in an essay in Bookforum and argues that there is a lost tradition in the liberal arts university itself that Deresiewicz ignores but that needs to be reawakened. "[W]hat's most consequentially wrong with Deresiewicz's jeremiad is his selective history of the old colleges: 'We need to go back before the start, to the Gilded Age, the last decades of the nineteenth century,' a period he knows well as a scholar of its fiction. He dismisses the colleges' founding missions as too little, too early; like the sociologist Jerome Karabel in The Chosen, he doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that, as late as the 1960s, the Ivy WASPs mobilized their oldest, toughest Protestant and civic-republican virtues to prepare 'the ground for their own supersession' by retiring age-old quotas based on ethnicity and race (though, significantly, not the ones based on economic clout) and to 'put the interests of the nation as a whole above their own.' I witnessed that firsthand as an undergraduate at Yale, whose president Kingman Brewster Jr., a descendant of the minister on the Mayflower, gave an honorary doctorate to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964, when some alumni still considered King a rabble-rouser. Brewster understood that the civil rights movement was renewing the Exodus myth that had moved his Puritan ancestors (and my own Jewish ones) to make history. Yale's radically Calvinist chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., leading resistance to the Vietnam War, defied the state in the name of a higher power that, for some of us, was the living American republic itself. So have Howard Dean, Jonathan Schell, Ned Lamont, and other Ivy graduates in our time.That mystic chord of memory seems broken now, as do the colleges that honored it. Deresiewicz tells them to stop cooperating with commercial college-ranking systems; to base affirmative action on class, not race; to discard preferences for legacies and athletes; to weight SAT scores for socioeconomic factors; to discourage résumé stuffing by curbing extracurriculars and by counting financial-aid service jobs as service. And he makes his grand, sweeping calls for change. But how to summon the will to fight for these worthy goals? Beyond his exhortations and potted invocations of George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad, the preacher hasn't a clue."

From the Archives: Eichmann in Jerusalem

new_yorkerThis past week, The New Yorker put its whole archive online for free, for a limited time (of course). Over the next few weeks, we'll be combing the archives, finding articles worth your attention. In the meantime, it seems like there are two good places to start. The first, of course, is Hannah Arendt's dispatch from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, published in the magazine in five parts and then published separately as the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, a piece of journalism and philosophy that remains important and controversial. There are a lot of rumors about what Arendt said and about what she didn't say-- this is an opportunity to read the work and then judge for yourself as it first appeared.

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From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Arie Amaya-Akkermans explores the sources of Arendt's indebtedness to storytelling in the Quote of the Week. French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We look back on a racism lecture Robert Bernasconi delivered in 2011 in our Video Archives. As a special treat, we learn about a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar that was taught on Arendt at Bard this summer. And Roger Berkowitz celebrates the memory of author Nadine Gordimer and recognizes mankind's ability to change the world in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Jan/133

The House We All Live in

This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.

Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.

In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.

Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.

At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?

Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.

I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.

Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Jul/120

American Criminal Justice, Made in Texas (Part 2)

In my last blog (June 20, 2012), I highlighted a few scholars’ recent efforts to situate current patterns of African American imprisonment within this country’s longer history of racial conflict and subjugation. More specifically, I focused on some of the central claims in Robert Perkinson’s book Texas Tough (2010), which offers a sharp account of the historical connections between racial hierarchy and mass imprisonment in the Lone Star State and the larger American South. In its broadest outlines, Perkinson’s book contends that incarceration in Texas has, from its very outset, been closely bound up with chattel slavery and its legacies.

This entanglement is perhaps most evident in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced inmate labor, much of which took place—as late as the 1970s—on state-run prison farms that bore a striking resemblance to antebellum plantations. It is also discernible in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practice of “convict leasing,” which allowed private entrepreneurs to purchase the right to use inmate labor power from the state prison system.

Despite regulations that required the humane treatment of prisoners, convict leasing generated widespread neglect and abuse, and in the early twentieth century it drew the ire not only of many African Americans, but also of white labor leaders, radical farm organizers, and progressive middle-class reformers. This last group launched a concerted campaign to move the state prison system away from punitive revenue-bearing production and toward newer, ostensibly more benevolent forms of rehabilitation. In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernizers in the prison administration implemented a variety of reform measures, including better food and medical care, religious services and reading classes, ten-hour workdays, and even nominal compensation for prison workers (ten cents per diem). In Perkinson’s account, however, these efforts were undermined by vocal opposition from prison personnel and, perhaps counter-intuitively, a surge in inmate dissent and rebellion. This uptick in prisoner discontent in particular prompted administrators and lawmakers to reassert penal authority, and the prison system basically reverted to its former pattern of plantation agriculture and severe discipline.

To be sure, progressive reform campaigns reemerged in Texas in the late 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. They commonly looked for inspiration to similar initiatives in New York (which represented the cutting edge of inmate participation in prison management) and California (which led the way in inmate counseling and the professionalization of prison staff). But they also responded to homegrown scandals, including a spate of self-mutilations among Texas prisoners in the 1940s. In a desperate effort to avoid and/or protest harsh work conditions, unsanitary housing, and guard mistreatment, hundreds of inmates chopped off digits or limbs, injected gasoline into their arms and legs, or severed their Achilles tendons. As Perkinson notes, similar tactics were common in the era of slavery and convict leasing, and prisoners’ recourse to such deliberate violence against the self ultimately drew a more sustained response from the state government than previous reform efforts.

Texas Prison Board, 1930's

Nevertheless, when a new system of prison management coalesced in the 1950s, it continued to emphasize “work and force” (Perkinson, p. 228) as the central pillars of incarceration, even as it embraced certain forms of rehabilitative programming like church services, formal schooling, vocational training, and after-work programs. This emerging style became known as the “control model,” and it garnered significant praise for Texas in the national press and in professional organizations like the American Correctional Association. As eventually became clear, however, the “control” that this model promoted ultimately rested on a culture of routine repression among prison guards as well as systemic reliance on convict enforcers, or “building tenders.” Since the late nineteenth century, building tenders in Texas prisons had dispensed disciplinary violence against fellow inmates with impunity, and they had enjoyed a variety of unsanctioned privileges, including the prerogative to engage in consensual and non-consensual sex with other prisoners.

In the face of such endemic brutality, a small number of convict activists began to draw on the 1871 Civil Rights Act to sue the state of Texas for violations of their constitutional rights. One of the most prominent activists, David Ruíz, filed a petition in June 1972 that offered a harrowing chronicle of his treatment at the hands of prison staff and building tenders, and a small team of lawyers and judges transformed it into a class action lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, on behalf of the state’s entire inmate population. The presiding district judge ruled in 1980 that the Texas penal system had subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived them of due process of law on a massive scale, and he ordered the state government to undertake sweeping changes. The Ruiz decision effectively ended Texas’s regime of plantation-style prison farming, and it represented the most comprehensive reform order that a federal court had issued to a state penal system up to that point. Drawing on the momentum created by the lawsuit, prison modernizers in the early 1980s lobbied for the redistribution of the state’s inmate population into smaller, less isolated facilities with understated security and extensive links to outside communities.

These reform efforts were (yet again) outweighed, however, by rising crimes rates, the ascendance of the New Right, and a concomitant turn toward “law-and-order” politics on both the state and national level. Texas’s prisoner population increased dramatically as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed stiffer sentencing guidelines and curtailed inmates’ eligibility for parole. These trends spurred a massive prison construction boom, but with the collapse of the control model following the Ruiz decision, the new facilities were increasingly structured less like plantations and more like warehouses that emphasized “confinement, separation, and complete architectural control” (Perkinson, p. 315). As violence against both prisoners and guards increased once more, Texas prisons resorted to extended “administrative segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “super segregation” cell blocks in their efforts to contain not just disruptive inmates, but relatively compliant ones as well.

This recent punitive turn in criminal justice has not been restricted to Texas: rates of incarceration and prison construction have increased sharply in most states over the past three decades, as has the proportion of African American and Latino inmates. Meanwhile, the federal government—particularly under former Texas governor George W. Bush—has displayed a striking commitment to expanded law enforcement, extended sentencing, and more frequent recourse to capital punishment. In Perkinson’s analysis, then, the historical arc of American imprisonment has not bent toward the rehabilitative goals championed most forcefully in northern states like New York. Rather, “the northern prison became more southern rather than the other way around…. If northern prisons once gestured toward freedom and southern penal farms toward bondage, the whole Union is in alignment now, pointing back toward the eternal bifurcations of slavery” (Perkinson, pp. 362-363).

This provocative argument raises serious questions about America’s commitment to the granting of ostensibly inalienable rights to all its citizens, and it suggests that race continues to shape how we approach the protection and violation of human dignity. To be sure, there are moments when Perkinson’s claims overstep the limits of his evidence. I am not convinced that the recent proliferation of prisons in Texas and other parts of the South and wider U.S. can be read as a reaction to the end of Jim Crow and the successes of the civil rights movement. I also doubt that the second Bush administration’s conduct in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be traced to the practices of southern slavery and imprisonment as neatly as he suggests. Nevertheless, the heart of Perkinson’s argument skillfully outlines disturbing historical linkages between slavery and incarceration without equating these two forms of domination. In the process, he implies that we may need to rethink the relationship that prisoners, especially prisoners of color, have maintained with American citizenship in both the past and present.

On some occasions, incarcerated people have not merely constituted a recognized exception to juridical norms, which nevertheless enjoys “some kind of human equality,” as Hannah Arendt described criminals in The Origins of Totalitarianism (p. 286). Rather, they have formed a social category whose claim to “retain [their] rights over [their] bodies” (p. 444) has been substantially limited by their exposure to forced labor, sexual degradation, and violence that often has not been subject to public scrutiny and political accountability. This point does not imply that prisoners’ experiences can therefore be conflated with those of slaves, stateless persons, or concentration camp inmates, to name only a few of the dominated groups that concerned Arendt in the Origins. But it does suggest that prisoners’ enjoyment of constitutional and human rights cannot be taken for granted, as she seems to presume. It is still an exaggeration, I think, to say that prison inmates live “outside the pale of the law” (p. 277) in Arendt’s understanding of that phrase. But I would also insist that, in all too many instances, they have resided closer to its margins than we may care to admit.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Jun/120

American Criminal Justice – Made in Texas (Part 1)

African Americans were imprisoned at roughly four times the rate of whites in the U.S. at the dawn of the civil rights era. Today it is seven times. How can we explain this persistent—indeed, widening—disparity in rates of incarceration? Are contemporary patterns of imprisonment merely the incidental byproduct of economic restructuring, intensive policing, and stiffer sentencing guidelines? Or are they rather the latest development in a lengthy history of American racial conflict and subjugation? Does the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans even represent the continuation of chattel slavery and state-sanctioned segregation?

These questions tread fraught moral and political terrain, and they invite the construction of overdrawn parallels and facile analogies. After all, present-day African American inmates are not born into bondage in the same way slaves were, and racial hierarchy today is not legally codified in the fashion it was under slavery and Jim Crow. Nevertheless, a few scholars have recently insisted that American penal institutions play a decisive role in long-running patterns of racial formation and social control.

Probably the most prominent work in this school of thought is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), which offers a sweeping indictment of the War on Drugs and its impact on African American men. Another less acclaimed but finer-grained study is that of historian Robert Perkinson, whose book Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (2010) traces the history of incarceration in one of the bastions of the American South.

I intend to devote my next few contributions to the Arendt Center blog to Perkinson’s book, which offers a bracing, accessible, and generally well argued account of American criminal justice. His work, while not equating enslavement and imprisonment in any superficial manner, goes a long way toward demonstrating the deep connections between slavery and imprisonment.

In Texas’s case, these connections are rooted in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced labor as the essence of incarceration. Whereas northern penal institutions have often sought to reclaim offenders through confinement and discipline, Texas’s penal institutions have focused on putting prisoners to work for revenue-generating purposes and paid little heed to reformist ideals of rehabilitation. In the 1850s, for example, the state penitentiary at Huntsville specialized in the for-profit production of cotton and wool fabrics, and during the Civil War its inmates became the chief textile manufacturers and suppliers for the Confederate army. Up to this point, the vast majority of the state’s inmates were white, given that the state’s 1848 penal code prescribed whipping and other forms of sanguinary punishment, but not incarceration, for slaves and “free persons of color.”

With emancipation in 1865, however, Texas prison demographics shifted dramatically as increasing numbers of former slaves were sentenced to prison terms, often for minor offenses on the basis of flimsy evidence. These black convicts—and their Mexican and Native American counterparts—were rarely detained in the state’s main penitentiaries; instead, they were deployed on public works projects or agricultural plantations around the state. (American popular imagery of chain gangs and hoe squads, epitomized in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, hearkens back to the Reconstruction era in Texas and other southern states.) Impressed and largely nonwhite convict labor thereby played a key role in the construction of the state’s railroads and other infrastructure, and it contributed significantly to the lucrative production of cotton and sugar. Indeed, most of the plantations on which these prisoners labored had been worked by slaves only a few years before.

This use of involuntary labor reached its apotheosis in “convict leasing,” the term used in the later nineteenth century to describe the state’s hiring out of imprisoned workers to private contractors. These leases were initially concluded on a piecemeal basis, but in 1871 one Galveston firm, Ward, Dewey & Co., paid $325,000 to take possession of the entire Texas penal system and every state prisoner, more than half of whom were former slaves. (The proliferation of for-profit prisons in the past few decades is thus not the first time that American carceral institutions have been privatized.) Although Ward, Dewey & Co. agreed to treat “all convicts with care and humanity,” the living and working conditions they provided shocked many state supervisors and other observers. At least one of them regarded the company’s management as “a system of vilest slavery” (Perkinson, p. 93).

Imperial Farm, 1908

Yet even when the Texas government regained full control of its penal system in 1883, it did not abandon the pursuit of profit as much as bring it under state control. Among the most significant steps, Texas established its own state-run prison farms, which did not merely grow cash crops with unpaid convict labor, but carried on work traditions that bore striking resemblances to the era of convict leasing and, ultimately, plantation slavery. State-run farms remained a mainstay of the Texas penal system as late as the 1970s, and even as periodic reforms led to modest (if often short-lived) improvements in living conditions, they continued to be organized in starkly racialized terms: largely black prisoners labored involuntarily under the supervision of armed, largely white prison personnel.

Perkinson’s careful attention to the nineteenth century brings the phenomena of slavery and imprisonment into close proximity, and it demonstrates how early forms of incarceration in Texas bore the imprint of the South’s “peculiar institution.” It thereby sets the stage for the developments in the twentieth century, when Texas became one of the nation’s leaders—and models—in matters of mass incarceration. I shall take up the threads of this narrative in my next blog, which will also consider some of the implications of imprisonment for our understandings of civil liberty and democracy.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
30Mar/121

Contending with Youth Crime

There has been much attention paid to the arguments before the Supreme Court concerning the 2010 health care law. And such attention is entirely justified, for the upcoming decision will have a decisive impact on the availability and quality of medical care for millions of Americans. But we should not forget another question that has recently come before the Court: whether it is constitutional for states to sentence juvenile offenders to life without the possibility of parole.

This case raises important questions not only about the purpose of criminal prosecution and incarceration, but also about our conceptions of personhood and the legal, moral, and other boundaries we construct between youth and adulthood. These issues have been on my mind a great deal these days: as part of my work with the Bard Prison Initiative, I am currently teaching a writing-oriented anthropology course entitled “Youth and Youth Politics” to two groups of incarcerated students. But they came even more pointedly to the fore as I was listening to the March 24th edition of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” This broadcast reported on a recent gathering that brought families of victims together with families of offenders sentenced to life without parole for crimes they committed as teenagers. Significantly, all those in attendance hope that the Supreme Court would declare such sentences unconstitutional.

If you have not already heard the report, I would recommend that you take a listen (and not merely read the text available on the NPR website). Aside from the power of the emotions expressed, I appreciate the way it neatly outlines and complicates the terms of debate. On the one hand, it presents the viewpoint of Scott Burns, head of the National District Attorneys Association, who sketches the potential reasons for long criminal sentences in starkly dichotomous terms. “Is it the goal [of prosecution and incarceration] to rehabilitate someone to see if they change? Or is the goal to do justice for the victims and others?” He inclines to the latter position, as is evident in the brief he filed that urged the Court not to overturn life sentences without parole.

On the other hand, the NPR report also includes the perspective of people like Mary Johnson, a mother whose son was shot and killed at a party by a sixteen-year-old boy. In the immediate aftermath, she regarded her son’s killer as an “animal”: “I wanted him charged with first-degree murder, imprisoned for the rest of his life.” But she now contends that retribution and rehabilitation cannot be easily separated from one another, and she suggests that offenders should not be defined for the entirety of their lives by the crimes they committed as young people.

This report does not offer nuanced arguments for one position or another on the constitutionality of life sentences without parole. But by providing a vivid account of how some people have sought to work through, and live with, the conundrums of “juvenile crime,” it offers a useful starting point for reflecting on our own moral intuitions.

You can listen to the excerpt here.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Feb/121

Prisoner of Time

Adam Gopnik’s piece in the January 30th edition of The New Yorker, “The Caging of America,” offers sober and sobering commentary on our country’s predilection for mass incarceration. Gopnik passionately denounces the indifference if not callous disregard that many Americans exhibit toward prisons and prisoners, and he unsettles some of the rigid certainties that dog run-of-the-mill discussions of criminal justice. And yet my appreciation is also mixed with a degree of unease, in no small part because his rendering of the experience of incarceration strikes me as one-sided. This one-sidedness in turn has implications for how we might conduct public conversations about this vital facet of contemporary American life.

Full disclosure: I am not a prison activist or expert, and I have never been imprisoned. I instead write as an anthropologist and educator with the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI), a program that offers a rigorous liberal arts education to incarcerated students in five New York prisons.

This work affords me a measure of insight into the social dynamics of American incarceration, but my angle of vision is also (inevitably) limited and partial. I therefore approach this topic with considerable humility, but as shall become clear, such humility is precisely my point.

Many of us tend to think of imprisonment first and foremost in terms of physical confinement, but one of the real strengths of Gopnik’s article is his attention to the centrality of time. Indeed, the nature of American prison life gives new meaning to the “empty, homogeneous time” that Walter Benjamin diagnosed as a hallmark of modern existence. In Gopnik’s words:

“It isn’t the horror of the time at hand but the unimaginable sameness of the time ahead that makes prisons unendurable for their inmates…. The basic reality of American prisons is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock.”

My own experience with BPI certainly attests to this tyranny of time. Two of my students once asked if they could remove the clock from the classroom wall so that they would not have to look at it. They explained that time would pass faster this way, and making the time pass, in whatever way possible, was one of their chief concerns.

Yet even as inmates recognize the heavy weight of carceral time, many insist that they are not powerless in the face of it. As another of my students noted, inmates urge one another to take control of their situation to the extent that they are able. “You do the time,” the common injunction apparently goes. “Don’t let the time do you.” That is to say, many inmates aspire to endure and even exert a measure of autonomy, despite the regimentation, dreariness, and pain that often pervade their existence.

Gopnik says too little for my taste about this dimension of incarceration. I sympathize with his claim that “the scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life." And he is right to emphasize the anxiety, boredom and fear that so often suffuse prison life, just as he is to note the frequency of physical violence, including rape, committed by and against prisoners. But we do a disservice to inmates if we believe that they are entirely at the mercy of the institutions in which they reside—and that the time they serve is merely (to paraphrase Gopnik) “something being done to them.” Most of the inmates I know through BPI seek actively to give shape and direction to the time during and after their imprisonment. They are not defeated and destroyed by their current circumstances, but acutely reflective and articulate about them.

We would do well not merely to hold incarcerated men and women accountable for the offenses they have committed, but also to include their perspectives in necessary public deliberation over the ongoing epidemic of incarceration. They have inhabited and negotiated social worlds that many Americans cannot readily imagine, and they could contribute a great deal to debates where glib self-assurance and easy moralizing are far too common.

There is a pressing need for a more nuanced and democratic conversation about the state of American prisons, particularly when the poor and people of color bear the brunt of incarceration. But such a conversation will not happen if we disqualify current and former inmates from public discussion, either because we believe we know what prison is like and can therefore speak for them, or because we believe that they are not worthy or capable of participating.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.