Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
18Oct/145

American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?

American_progress

Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
30May/140

The True American

ArendtWeekendReading

Anand Giridharadas has written a thoughtful and thrilling new book, The True American. It tells two interlocking stories of Rais Bhuiyan and Mark Stroman. Bhuiyan is a striver, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and a Muslim. Stroman is a drug addict, a charmer, and a Texan who is hateful and broken. Shortly after the attacks on 9/11, Stroman goes on a rampage and shoots three people he thinks are Muslim. Two die. Rais Bhuiyan, the third, is badly wounded; losing his right eye, his face becomes permanently disfigured.

Giridharadas chronicles their lives. Rais seeks to rise above his adversity and live the American dream; Stroman finds God and redemption on death row. Ultimately Rais forgives Stroman and wages an international campaign to stop his execution. The story risks being cliché at every turn. But Giridharadas discovers amidst banality a brutal, shattering, and also inspiring window into modern America.

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Reviewing The True American in the Washington Post, Eboo Patel writes:

The premise is simple — Bhuiyan forgives his attacker in the name of Islam and then wages a campaign to save Stroman from execution. An inspiring enough story, surely worthy of the flurry of news coverage it received around the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But a book-length treatment, especially with a title like “The True American,” runs the risk of being taken for a middle-school morality tale. Simply put, it’s not. This is a haunting book, one that penetrates deep into the lives of two complex individuals and reveals the worlds that made them.

Patel rightly sees that the richness of Giridharadas’ book is the way he offers two very different Americans in attempting to explore the sense of what it means to be a “true American.”

The individual stories are certainly compelling, but what sets this book apart is when it zooms out and illuminates the broader social context of the lives at the center. We get Bhuiyan’s immigrant eyes on America: his gratitude for the upward opportunities provided to the resourceful and industrious; his despair for those who have fallen into what he calls the SAD life, beholden to empty sex, alcohol and drugs; and above all his confusion at how so many Americans seem abandoned, unable to find family members to co-sign for car loans or take them in when they have no place to go.

Rais Bhuiyan is at once enraptured by the America he adopts and also aghast at the loneliness and dysfunction he witnesses – something so different from his life back home. Poverty in Bangladesh was much worse than in America, but the lives of the poor in the USA are worse than back home.

If he had only recently settled in America and already had friends who would sign on a lease for him, how could people who had been here for donkey’s years lack such connections? Rais saw his colleagues having to beg for rides or commute by foot on major roads in the searing heat, and he wondered why their family members weren’t picking them up—especially the young women. He felt offended on their behalf.

And Rais has more than a bit of that immigrant hubris, a frustration bordering on contempt for Americans who want a good life without struggle:

Ever since his arrival in America, a part of Rais—at first a small part, swollen by time—had wanted to grab these people, shake them by the shoulders, and wake them from their misery and depression and self-loathing and family-breaking and money-grabbing and loneliness and violence. He wanted to tell them: “Look, why you guys are still suffering? If I can overcome, if I can turn around my life, with the mercy of God, in this country, from that negative point to this point—you guys are born here, you guys speak better than me, you understand the culture better than me, you have more networks, more resource. Why can’t you stay in the same place—even going down day by day? Why you have to struggle on a regular basis, just to survive?

As Rais resolves to forgive Stroman for his violence, Giridharadas shows that the real agenda is more grand. Rais is out to save America from itself. In seeking to save him, Rais wants not only to save Stroman’s life from what in Texas is called “The Death,” but to save his soul and the souls of millions of other Americans like him. Rais, a newly minted American, wants to “stay true to this vision of waking his countrymen up.” The True American is a story of regeneration, a call to America from its optimistic and immigrant soul, to reclaim its freedom.

[Rais] wanted, he said, to save them from childhoods with “no peace at home”; from an idea of life centered on “sex, alcohol, and drugs, starting from your teenage until when you grow up”; from people staying poor “generation-wise because of lack of education”; from members of an overclass that “never even know what is happening in the poor people’s life”; from “lack of in-touch with family”; from stressed and fragmented parents “busy with their own lives,” who tell their young to “just feel comfortable, just make your life happy” and thus nudge them towards things like drugs; from people who are “free, but the way they’re living their life, they’re losing their freedom.”

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Meanwhile, Giridharadas paints an equally nuanced and at times compelling picture of Mark Stroman. Stroman insists that he is no racist because he is married to a Mexican. Yet he spouts racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Here is Patel:

It would be easy to dismiss Stroman, with his Aryan Nation friends and swastika tattoo, as simply a murderous white supremacist. But Giridharadas spends time with Stroman’s kids, visiting his son Robert in the maximum-security area of a maximum-security prison, and hanging out in a halfway house with Stroman’s first wife and their daughters as they try to beat addictions and hold down fast-food jobs. The Stromans’ problems are replicated throughout lower-class America: the uncertain parentages and anarchic families, the ubiquity of meth, the race-gang-dominated prisons, the sex that begins at the turn of puberty.

Giridharadas also tells the story of the friendship between Stroman and Ilan Ziv, an Israeli documentarian who comes to befriend Stroman. Ziv tells of the days after the killing of 13 soldiers at the Fort Hood military base by an American Muslim of Palestinian provenance.

[T]hey spoke of a book that Stroman had been reading and had grown infatuated with: Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. It was not clear whether he had read it because of his relationship with Ziv. … They spoke at length about the book that first day. There was much in the work—born of Frankl’s years in Nazi concentration camps and his investigation of how people survive the direst circumstances—to calm a man in Stroman’s situation: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Stroman, who used to spout terms like “nigger-loving Jew,” now found himself drawn to one Jewish man’s story of inner transformation: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Yet even as Stroman spoke of his power to change and the “responsibility he bears toward a human being,” he remains also the bigot he has been. When he learns of the Fort Hood shootings,

that news of the attack had reawakened the specter of 9/11 for him and roused his dormant hatred of Muslims, whom he still thought to be evil. “You know me and Muslims,” Stroman snarled.

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Ziv responds angrily and honestly:

“I looked him in the eye,” Ziv said, “and I say, ‘You know what, Mark? You’re a fucked-up person, and now I see how fucked you are,’ because that’s the way we talked. I said, ‘I see how fucked-up because you know what your problem is? You don’t see people. You see groups, right? You see groups, and I see people. And that person who did this killing is a very fucked-up individual. From everyone’s perspective, you’re a very fucked-up person. Nobody would say you’re white and you’re Christian, and all white Christians are fucked up. You’re fucked up.’”

Stroman looked at Ziv for the longest time and finally said, “So this is what they did to the Jews, right?”

Giridharadas has written an excellent book about America, hate, and redemption. At once despairing of and affirming the American dream, The True American is your Weekend Read.  You can read an excerpt here. Better yet, order The True American here.

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
24Mar/140

Amor Mundi 3/23/14

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.

What Silver Knows

foxData journalist Nate Silver reopened his FiveThirtyEight blog this past week, after leaving the New York Times last year. Although the website launched with a full slate of articles, the opening salvo is a manifesto he calls "What The Fox Knows," referencing the maxim from the poet Archilochus’, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” For Silver, this means, “We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.” What separates FiveThirtyEight is its focus on big data, the long trail of information left by everything we do in a digital world. From big data, Silver believes he can predict outcomes more accurately than traditional journalism, and that he will also be better able to explain and predict human behavior. “Indeed, as more human behaviors are being measured, the line between the quantitative and the qualitative has blurred. I admire Brian Burke, who led the U.S. men’s hockey team on an Olympic run in 2010 and who has been an outspoken advocate for gay-rights causes in sports. But Burke said something on the hockey analytics panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last month that I took issue with. He expressed concern that statistics couldn’t measure a hockey player’s perseverance. For instance, he asked, would one of his forwards retain control of the puck when Zdeno Chara, the Boston Bruins’ intimidating 6’9″ defenseman, was bearing down on him? The thing is, this is something you could measure. You could watch video of all Bruins games and record how often different forwards kept control of the puck. Soon, the NHL may install motion-tracking cameras in its arenas, as other sports leagues have done, creating a record of each player’s x- and y-coordinates throughout the game and making this data collection process much easier.” As the availability of data increases beyond comprehension, humans will necessarily turn the effort of analysis over to machines running algorithms. Predictions and simulations will abound and human actions—whether voting for a president or holding on to a hockey puck—will increasingly appear to be predictable behavior. The fact that actions are never fully predictable is already fading from view; we have become accustomed to knowing how things will end before they begin. At the very least, Nate Silver and his team at FiveThirtyEight will try to “critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage.”

All in All, Another Tweet in the Wall

tejuAuthor Teju Cole recently composed and released an essay called “A Piece of The Wall” exclusively on Twitter. In an interview, along with details about the technical aspects of putting together what's more like a piece of radio journalism than a piece of print journalism, Cole notes that there may be a connection between readership and change: "I’m not getting my hopes up, but the point of writing about these things, and hoping they reach a big audience, has nothing to do with “innovation” or with “writing.” It’s about the hope that more and more people will have their conscience moved about the plight of other human beings. In the case of drones, for example, I think that all the writing and sorrow about it has led to a scaling back of operations: It continues, it’s still awful, but the rate has been scaled back, and this has been in specific response to public criticism. I continue to believe the emperor has a soul."

A Religious Age?

bergerPeter Berger has a thoughtful critique of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, one that accepts Taylor’s philosophical premise but denies its sociological reality. “I think that Taylor’s magnum opus makes a very significant contribution, though I disagree with its central proposition: We don’t live in a “secular age”; rather in most of the world we live in a turbulently religious age (with the exception of a few places, like university philosophy departments in Canada and football clubs in Britain). (Has Taylor been recently in Nepal? Or for that matter in central Texas?) Taylor is a very sophisticated philosopher, not an empirically oriented sociologist of religion. It so happens that we now have a sizable body of empirical data from much of the world (including America and Europe) on what ordinary religious people actually believe and how they relate their faith to various secular definitions of reality). Let me just mention the rich work of Robert Wuthnow, Nancy Ammerman and Tanya Luhrmann in the US, and Grace Davie, Linda Woodhead and Daniele Hervieu-Leger in Europe. There is a phrase that sociology students learn in the first year of graduate study—frequency distribution:  It is important for me to understand just what X is; it is even more important for me to know how much X there is at a given time in a given place. The phrase is to be recommended to all inclined to make a priori  statements about anything. In this case, I think that Taylor has made a very useful contribution in his careful description of what he calls “the immanent frame” (he also calls it “exclusive humanism”)—a sense of reality that excludes all references to transcendence or anything beyond mundane human experience. Taylor also traced the historical development of this definition of reality.” Maybe the disagreement is more subtle: Religion continues in the secular age, but it is more personal. Quite simply, churches were once the tallest and most central buildings, representing the center of public and civic life. That is no longer the case in Europe; nor in Nepal.

Looking Under the Skin

scarlettAnthony Lane in The New Yorker asks the question, “Why should we watch Scarlett Johansson with any more attention than we pay to other actors?” His answer concerns Johansson’s role and performance in her new movie “Under the Skin.” Lane is near obsessed with Johansson’s ability to reveal nothing and everything with a look—what he calls the “Johansson look, already potent and unnerving. She was starting to poke under the skin.” He continues describing Johansson in a photo shoot: ““Give me nothing,” Dukovic said, and Johansson wiped the expression from her face, saying, “I’ll just pretend to be a model.” Pause. “I rarely have anything inside me.” Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini. Invited to simulate a Renaissance picture, she immediately slipped into a sixteenth-century persona, pretending to hold a pose for a painter and kvetching about it: “How long do I have to sit here for? My sciatica is killing me.” You could not wish for a more plausible insight into the mind-set of the Mona Lisa. A small table and a stool were provided, and Johansson sat down with her arms folded in front of her. “I want to look Presidential,” she declared. “I want this to be my Mt. Rushmore portrait.” Once more, Dukovic told her what to show: “Absolutely nothing.” Not long after, he and his team began to pack up. The whole shoot had taken seventeen minutes. She had given him absolutely everything. We should not be surprised by this. After all, film stars are those unlikely beings who seem more alive, not less, when images are made of them; who unfurl and reach toward the light, instead of seizing up, when confronted by a camera; and who, by some miracle or trick, become enriched versions of themselves, even as they ramify into other selves on cue. Clarence Sinclair Bull, the great stills photographer at M-G-M, said of Greta Garbo that “she seems to feel the emotion for each pose as part of her personality.” From the late nineteen-twenties, he held a near-monopoly on pictures of Garbo, so uncanny was their rapport. “All I did was to light the face and wait. And watch,” he said. Why should we watch Johansson with any more attention than we pay to other actors?”

Fantasizing About Being Lost

malaysiaGeoffrey Gray suggests a reason why we've become obsessed with the missing plane: "Wherever the Malaysia Airlines plane is, it found a hiding place. And the longer it takes investigators to discover where it is and what went wrong, the longer we have to indulge in the fantasy that we too might be able to elude the computers tracking our clicks, text messages, and even our movements. Hidden from the rest of the world, if only for an imagined moment, we feel what the passengers of Flight 370 most likely don't: safe."

 

This Week on the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, learn more about the Program Associate position now available at the Arendt Center. In the Quote of the Week, Ian Zuckerman looks at the role some of Arendt's core themes play in Kubrik's famed nuclear satire, "Dr Strangelove." And, HannahArendt.net issues a call for papers for their upcoming 'Justice and Law' edition being released in August of this year.

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.
9Nov/120

A Milestone Election

The re-election of Barack Obama is a milestone. Barack Obama will always be remembered as the first black President of the United States. He will now also be remembered as the first black two-term President, one who was re-elected in spite of nearly 8% unemployment and a feeling of deep unease in society. He is the black President who was re-elected because he seemed, to most Americans, more presidential, more trustworthy, and more likable than his opponent—a white, Mormon, representative of the business elite. Whatever you want to say about this election, it is difficult to deny that the racial politics of the United States have now changed.

President Obama's re-election victory and his distinguished service have made the country a better place. The dream of America as a land of equality and the dream that our people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character—these dreams, while not realized, are closer to being realized today because of Barack Obama's presidency and his re-election.

There are some who don't see it that way. There is a map going around comparing the 2012 electoral college vote to the civil war map. It is striking, and it shows with pictorial clarity, that the Republic strongholds today are nearly identically matched with the states of the Confederacy 150 years ago. For some, this is an indictment not only of the Republican Party, but also of the United States. The argument made on Facebook and beyond is that the country is still deeply divided racially; that this election brought out the deep-seated racism underlying the country.

Election Results 2012

 

There is also the fact that Twitter apparently was awash in profoundly racist commentary after the election. According to the blog Floating Sheep, the worst of the racist commentary was concentrated in states that Mitt Romney won. Mississippi and Alabama were the states with the largest number of racist tweets on election night.

This could be evidence of a real racial problem. But I don't see it that way. Of course there are some people who are less trusting of a black President. But around the country, voters approved gay marriage, Latinos voted in record numbers, women swept into office, and we re-elected a black President to a second term. To see this election as a confirmation of racist intransigence is overly pessimistic.

Yes, Mitt Romney won the white vote, but he received 59% of the white vote; not exactly a landslide given that the country has real problems. Among white voters over 65, Romney received 61% of the vote. But among white voters under 29, he received only 51% of the vote, a sure sign of things to come. And the white vote was only 72% of the national vote, a record low. As David Simon writes in "Barack Obama and the Death of Normal":

The country is changing. And this may be the last election in which anyone but a fool tries to play — on a national level, at least — the cards of racial exclusion, of immigrant fear, of the patronization of women and hegemony over their bodies, of self-righteous discrimination against homosexuals. ... This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

This is all good news.

And yet, we should not celebrate too loudly. Race still matters in these United States. How it does and why is changing, and will continue to change.

Amidst the progress, one fact remains stubbornly true: black Americans still lag behind white Americans in metrics of education, employment, income, and success. Nearly 5% of black men are in prison in the United States, compared to 1.8% of Hispanic men and .7% of white men.

More than 70% of babies born to black mothers are born out-of-wedlock. When looked at honestly, the problem with race in this country remains stark. It is too big a problem to be swept under the carpet.

And yet that is what is happening. The Obama Presidency has not been kind to blacks. Here is how Frederick C. Harris puts it in the New York Times before the election:

[F]or those who had seen in President Obama’s election the culmination of four centuries of black hopes and aspirations and the realization of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community,” the last four years must be reckoned a disappointment. Whether it ends in 2013 or 2017, the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centered on challenging racial inequality. The tragedy is that black elites — from intellectuals and civil rights leaders to politicians and clergy members — have acquiesced to this decline, seeing it as the necessary price for the pride and satisfaction of having a black family in the White House.

Walter Russell Mead makes a similar point in a rich essay published in The American Interest over the summer. He writes:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The housing bubble and its crash have disproportionately impacted black and Latino Americans, who most recently achieved the dream of home ownership. And the loss of jobs in manufacturing and public unions have disproportionately impacted blacks, since these were important routes through which black Americans have entered the middle class. The results for blacks in this country are harrowing. As Mead reports:

Black unemployment under President Obama hit 16.2 percent (June 2011). The median net worth of black households collapsed, falling by 59 percent between 2005 and 2010, wiping out twenty years of progress and plunging to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan’s first term. By comparison, the net worth of white households only fell by 18 percent from 2005 to 2010. The gap between black and white net worth doubled during the Great Recession, and the “wealth gap” between the races rose; the median white household had 22 times the net worth of the median black household. Moreover, the damage to black prospects will not soon be repaired. Indeed, if we now (as seems likely) face a prolonged period of austerity and restructuring in government, there will be fewer job openings and stagnant or falling wages and benefits in the middle-class occupations where blacks have enjoyed the greatest success.

What is more, those national statistics like unemployment, exclude inmates in our nation's penitentiaries. Were we to add the 5% of black men in prison into those cumulative statistics, the situation would look even more perilous.

Mead's essay, The Last Compromise, is essential reading. He argues that race relations in America are marked by three main historical compromises. The first compromise, in 1787, is well known. Including the counting of slaves as three fifths of a citizen and the granting of slave states equal representation in the Senate, this original compromise allowed the country to emerge as a democracy without dealing with the obvious scar of slavery.

Image taken from The American Interest

The Civil War led to what Mead calls the second major compromise on Race that moved the nation forward without actually granting rights to blacks. In the compromise of 1877,

the white South accepted the results of the Civil War, acknowledging that slavery, secession and the quest for sectional equality were all at an end. The South would live peacefully and ultimately patriotically in a union dominated by Northern capitalists. White Southerners might complain about Northern banks and plutocrats (and they did for decades), but they would not take up arms. For its part, the North agreed to ignore some inconvenient constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period, allowing each Southern state to manage race relations as its white voters saw fit. In particular, the North allowed the South to deny blacks the vote while counting them for representational purposes.

As Mead writes, this compromise was a disaster for blacks. And yet, there was some progress. Denied the vote and made second-class citizens in much of the country, and faced with continued violence and oppression, blacks could, nevertheless, work to create a small and thriving middle class.

The compromise of 1877 last about 100 years until, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, a new compromise emerged. This compromise of 1977 brought with it desegregation of public institutions, affirmative action, the entry of blacks into government and civil service, voting rights, and the chance for success. But it came with a dark side. As Mead summarizes:

At its core, the compromise offered blacks unprecedented economic opportunity and social equality, but it also allowed for the stern and unrelenting repression of inner-city lawlessness and crime. Blacks who were ready, willing and able to participate in the American system found an open door and a favoring wind; blacks who for whatever reason were unable or unwilling to “play by the rules” faced long terms in prisons where gang violence and rape were routine.

The election of President Obama shows the promise and the limits of our current state of race relations. On the one hand, black Americans in the middle and upper classes live in a society that if it is not color blind, is at least open to success, entrepreneurship, and leadership by black Americans. On the other hand, the misery of the black poor continues, largely invisible. This is not simply a racial matter, since it is poverty in general, and not only black poverty, that is ignored. There are many impoverished white people. But it would be dishonest to deny the racial components of poverty.

The 2012 election is a milestone. It proves that 2008 was not a fluke, and it shows that most of the United States will vote for the candidate they feel is better, no matter that candidate's race. This is an enormous achievement and one to celebrate. In many ways the future looks bright. But that is no excuse to refuse an honest confrontation of the problems many black Americans continue to have. President Obama has largely avoided the issue of race, for obvious reasons. It is time to insist that we bring the issue to light.

One good way to begin is to read The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead. It is well worth the price of subscription to The American Interest. It is your weekend read.

-RB

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.