We must think critically about our acceptance of a criminal justice system that is firmly rooted in a white supremacist culture.
As white people who desire the realities of life for all who reside in this country to match the ideals that this country espouses, we must think critically about our acceptance of a criminal justice system that is firmly rooted in a white supremacist culture. To be clear, we are not just talking about the brand of white supremacy touted by people who wear white hoods, or cover themselves in swastika tattoos. It is the underlying white supremacy culture that created the racial divide in the first place, and awards white people both material and psychic benefits, causing us to distance ourselves from aligning with people of color to challenge together the power structures that oppress all of us. This centuries old scheme has allowed and encouraged white people to support “law and order” policies that devastate poor white communities as well as communities of color. The law and order policies, under the guise of public safety, serve to indoctrinate the vast majority of white people into a culture that supports and promotes incarceration as the tool to solve so many of our racial and social problems. We end up criminalizing people with mental health issues, poverty, and public health issues, that funnel so many Black and Brown people and poor white people into prison, effectively guaranteeing and relegating them to second class citizenship thereafter.
If we listen to the rhetoric of mainstream politicians and news media, we become socialized to believe that resources are scarce, and in that scarcity emerges a social hierarchy of who is deserving and not deserving. We see good, hard working (white) people as deserving of prosperity, while those who are not prosperous are simply not trying hard enough. If people fail, it is not due to structural factors, but because they are flawed individuals. Through the limitations and privileges of our white gaze, we easily extend that logic to criminality; we see those who commit crimes belonging at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and as such, must be removed from the rest of us and denied opportunities to thrive, or simply live.
The Politics Of Shunning
Social norms, and the socialization of most white people, lead us to believe that our criminal justice system generally works, and — despite some flaws — it does. With this in mind, the logic for white people usually follows these steps: 1) people who commit crimes are criminals; 2) criminals are bad; 3) criminals go to prison, and 4) criminals get exactly what they deserve — to be uprooted, ostracized and outcast from mainstream society for a period of time and confined in subhuman conditions. The logic goes that when one causes harm, one must pay a price, and that price usually entails some form of social shunning. The degree to which this occurs will vary, of course, depending on the person and the degree of felt harm. But the shunning is only compounded the more we feel disconnected from our fellow human beings, particularly when they’re treated as less than human and as society’s others. We begin to lose sight of their full humanity, dignity, or circumstances, and are more easily able to accept the criminal justice system’s punitive and counterproductive retribution. We also see this “otherness” in our society’s treatment of people who are experiencing homelessness, addiction, and severe mental health issues — who, as a result, are at increased risk for interaction with the criminal justice system. It is no accident that those we deem undeserving of our empathy — the “other” — usually don’t look like us.
The Criminal Justice System
What the above logic of our “white” socialization fails to take into account, however, are the flaws in our criminal justice system that have a disproportionately negative impact on Black and Brown people. For Black people in particular, engagement with the system begins with local law enforcement “over-policing” their communities as well as disparate treatment by police from initial stop and through the entire process from arrest to sentencing. Sentencing disparities are especially blatant. Thus, one encounter with a law enforcement officer becomes a gateway to a system that is stacked against you if you are Black, whether you actually commit a crime or not. Race also plays a factor in the likelihood of being convicted generally, and in receiving longer, harsher sentences; Black people will receive a felony conviction for a crime that would result in a misdemeanor for a white person.
The experience of being locked in a cage for days, months, weeks, and years, is detrimental to one’s physical health and mental health. To be dehumanized, demoralized, beaten, and to live without control over your body has long term and lasting mental and physical consequences.
According to the Justice LA campaign, in Los Angeles, Black people represent 43.7% of the county jail population designated with a serious mental health disability; 63% of L.A. County’s jail population would be better served by a community based alternative and without charges or convictions that would block judges or prosecutors from making that happen; research shows that people with mental health conditions inevitably get worse in jails; the chances of developing a mental health condition for people with no previous history of mental health issues doubles once they are incarcerated; jail and prison conditions exacerbate drug and alcohol addictions.
Many jails and prisons are known to abuse and torture inmates. Prison guards have carte blanche access over the bodies of thousands of people annually, with no accountability for mistreatment.
The horrendous conditions in jails and prisons also include dangerous overcrowding, solitary confinement, lack of water and nutritious food, and physical and sexual abuse. Should someone survive the experience of incarceration, they are mandated afterward to engage in society in positive and meaningful ways. Yet, they are denied almost all avenues to succeed. Felony convictions function as a scarlet letter, effectively denying access to employment, housing, voting rights, and social safety net programs.
Imagine Another World Being Possible
What if we reframed harm and the consequences of harm and relied less on criminal justice and more on restorative justice? The difference is this: In criminal justice, crime is a violation of laws and the state, violations create guilt, justice requires the state to determine both blame and punishment, and offenders get what they deserve. In this case, the ownership of harm is taken from the “victim” and placed onto the state to determine what constitutes accountability, without input from those who have been harmed. In restorative justice, crime is a violation of people and obligations, violations create obligations, justice involves victims, offenders and community, and the focus then becomes victim’s needs and the offender’s responsibility for repairing harm. To be clear, an alternative to criminal justice assumes a high level of accountability for harms caused, but there is also a path forward that suggests an option for integration, without a lifetime of exclusion.
Voting Restoration and Democracy Act and Societal Integration
The Voter Restoration and Democracy Act is a ballot initiative being spearheaded by Initiate Justice (IJ) to restore voting rights to people who are currently incarcerated in state prison and people on parole. If passed, this initiative would restore voting rights to 162,000 Californians, the majority of whom are people of color. To get this on November’s ballot, IJ needs to get 600,000 signatures by April 17, 2018. IJ has brought together an incredible coalition of mostly people of color-led groups from across California to make this happen.
Initiate Justice was founded last year by Taina Vargas-Edmond. Over the past year, IJ has taken a lead on organizing around Prop 57 and has done incredible organizing on the inside, working with thousands of incarcerated people in CA. You can read more about their inside-outside strategy, focused specifically on organizing people impacted by mass incarceration here.
There are various arguments for considering the positive impact of restoring the right to vote for people who are serving time or are on parole from state prison in California. Initiate Justice suggests that eliminating voting restrictions to ensure that all people ages 18 and over can vote is not only the foundation of a strong democracy, but also lowers recidivism. Furthermore, the campaign leaders cite that most developed countries allow people to vote from prison, as do Maine and Vermont. The foundation of this country was built, supposedly, on principles of fairness, equality and justice for all. The question, then, fairness, equality, and justice for who? With a criminal justice system so structurally unjust, re-enfranchising the state prisoners is a step toward reintegration and repair.
The road to transformation will require white people to engage in a paradigm shift. As a result, we could achieve a respect for our interconnectedness as humans, rather than a parallel society of the shunned and outcast. If we took the path less travelled, perhaps we would feel less beholden to the outcome that supports a lifetime of disenfranchisement from society generally, allow full integration into society specifically; with all the rights equally bestowed upon those of us who reside here, including the right to vote.
This piece is written by Dahlia Ferlito, co-founder of White People 4 Black Lives (WP4BL) with special thanks to Adam Smith, Karen Hilfman and Stacey Martino for editing. WP4BL is a white anti-racist collective and activist project of the Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere (AWARE-LA) and operates within a national network of white anti-racists called Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). WP4BL is rooted in acting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter: Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.awarela.org