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Prison Racism and the Myth of a Colorblind Justice System

A conversation with author Michelle Alexander on media manipulations and the mass injustice incarcerated minorities face across the United States.

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A big part of the reason is media imagery. What you often see are Black men arrested and handcuffed for drug crimes; in movies, on television news, you see Black men depicted as drug criminals. And, again, this is no accident. At the time the War was launched, very few people cared about drug crime. And then, in the public consciousness, most people located drug use as White hippies smoking pot. That image changed profoundly after the Reagan administration launched a media campaign to publicize drug abuse and drug violence. The media became saturated with Black users as drug offenders. And by the time the War was unleashed, you couldn’t turn on the evening news without seeing images of Black and Brown men rounded in handcuffs as a result of drug sweeps. Now, routine coverage of drug sweeps aren’t as prevalent as they were in the ‘80s, but they still persist unabated, and the targets remain.

Now, that being said, there has always been a connection between African-American crime and the public consciousness—even dating back to Slavery up through Jim Crow. Every caste system has always been rationalized to some extent based on Black proclivity to crime.

On this issue, of media machinations, you raise a very serious concern, one of Public Pedagogy, where, as you lament, shows like Law & Order offer strikingly mythical misrepresentations of the justice system and the impacts on poor people of color caught up. Some arrested fellow screams, “I want my lawyer!” and, in the next scene, he’s sitting across a very competent, Yale-trained defendant willing to go to bat for him.

It’s such a myth. In reality, most people, if they’re lucky enough to meet with an attorney before they appear in court, meet for a matter of minutes before being forced to make decisions that would profoundly affect the rest of their lives. And the system is so set up to ensure innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit, from the threat of harsh mandatory minimum sentences or from probation promises—without being told that as a felon you’ll be discriminated against for the rest of your life: the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. All of these come true because people are processed through the Criminal Justice System—like widgets moving through an assembly factory line.

I’m not sure you know of The Good Wife, but I’ve found it willing to let out some uncomfortable truths about inmates on Death Row, for-profit prisons, and the games politicians play with innocent lives hanging in the balance. Are there any shows getting it right on this issue, or is television just cursed from the start and innately untrustworthy?

Well, for the last several years I haven’t watched much television. I have three young kids, and I’ve been trying to write a book. I’ve been told that The Wire is very good. And I’ve heard good things about The Good Wife, too.

In Ohio, as you note, 90% of children charged have no lawyers. And across the country, young people, children even—some too young to brandish their skins with tattoos, or purchase Rated-R movie tickets, or legally drive cars—are sent to adult prisons, struck with lengthy sentences. (In fact, a brilliant book was released last year on this very frightening predicament, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?) I’m wondering, how has media portrayal—demonization—of youth helped lead to a time and place where these ridiculously punitive policies are accepted as sane measures to address social problems plaguing young people?

Yes. There has definitely been a wave of punitiveness that has washed over. But I don’t think the effects are evenly felt. I mean, it’s extremely rare to have drug sweeps at fraternity houses or college campuses, to have upper-middle class kids courted to prisons and branded felons for the rest of their lives. So, I don’t think society has written off all youth—I think it’s written off some youth; and this has been defined widely by Race. Today, mass incarceration is really about marginalization—the disposal—of a group of people who are no longer essential to the functioning of our economy and our society.

 
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