Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jan/131

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

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