The Browning of Justice
People living along California's bucolic highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley are of different minds about Bush attorney general nominee Alberto Gonzales, a man who will soon be crowned the nation's first Latino attorney general. Following a recent drive along the 99, I saw some Latinos living in towns along the highway who, like most national Latino civil rights and political leaders – Democrat and Republican alike – consider it an act of ethnic fealty to support the Gonzales nomination.
Their sentiments in the Valley resemble those of former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, who expressed his "immense sense of pride" and of newly elected Sen. Ken Salazar, who trumpeted Latino triumph as he waxed emotional about Gonzales's "humble beginnings." Senate confirmation panelists, pundits and public-relations people know that talk of tough origins digs deep into the heart of farm workers, farm worker-descended families and other peoples of humble origin in the green Valley and across a browning United States.
But a friend who grew up in the Valley and who was accompanying me on the trip reminded me how a growing number of these same Latinos have sons, daughters, husbands or wives who are housed and growing up in a less-than-idyllic land some refer to as "Prison Valley." She told me that not everyone here is happy that Latinos incarcerated along the more than 200 miles of prisons sprouting along Highway 99 are now an exponentially-growing majority cash crop for businesses, prison guard unions and local governments in income-starved places like Avenal, Corcoran, and other towns across the country. These towns are reaping millions in prison-related funding and subcontracts for services to the prisons, guards and the incarcerated themselves.
In this sense, Alberto Gonzales represents a milestone in the browning of Justice, which refers to how Latinos are interfacing with and becoming part of the justice system. Young Latinos are the fastest growing and largest population in California prisons – (36 percent, according to a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute). And they are the fastest growing and largest population being employed in criminal justice jobs, jobs that pay as much as three times a teacher's salary, jobs as police officers, probation officers, and prisons guards that will be administered by Gonzales if he is confirmed.
As current trends continue in California and across the country, increasing numbers of Latinos in police uniforms will send increasing numbers of Latinos to prisons to be guarded by increasing numbers of Latino prison guards.
The implications of browning of justice are huge for Latinos and for the country as a whole. Traditional notions of a united Latino community, a united Latino political family crumble before the gray walls of new prisons that divide the Latino family in unprecedented ways: some Latinos lose money and the chance for a better future because their kids are incarcerated, while other Latinos build on their kids' future with money gained by arresting, prosecuting and jailing Latino youth. At the same time, traditional critiques of "white man's justice" become problematic when the head cop, head jailer and head prosecutor is a brown man with many brown folks working beneath him. Alberto Gonzales can be seen either as a symbol of justice in a community long left out of the economic and political pie, or as a brown front man for a gray system that imprisons Latinos and others with Soviet-like ferocity.
At a time when Semitic and mestizo features have become a liability to many since 9/11, failure to understand the browning of justice leads to dangerous consequences in what is a radical political moment. As prosecutors in places like the Bronx and police chiefs like L.A.'s William Bratton try feverishly to label, prosecute and imprison Latino and other gang members as "terrorists," having clean-cut Gonzales oversee the domestic application of the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws may ironically (or cynically) lead to an even deadlier criminalization of Latinos.
Images of Latino gangs on newscasts, TV shows and in movies are, along with a handful of other cartoonish and now embedded images of hot dancers and "illegal aliens," among the predominant representations of Latinos in U.S. media. In the same way that the Bush administration's global and local attempts to divide "good" and "evil" and "good Arab" from "bad Arab" have resulted in further demonization of Arab, Muslim and South Asian Americans, the browning of justice and its too-clear delineation of "good" Latino cop from "bad" Latino prisoner draws Latinos even closer to the vortex of the domestic "axis of evil" ideology gripping powerful interests in need of new enemies.
It will be harder to critique the soft-spoken Gonzales on these issues than outgoing Anglo-evangelical crusader Attorney General John Ashcroft. Liberal-left critics of the Gonzales nomination are right to attack Gonzales' alleged legal facilitation of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib. But no one, no Senate panelist, no one in the leadership of the mostly white left organizations, no one in the national Latino civil rights organizations has expressed concerns about the implications of Gonzales' alleged sanctioning of torture for domestic prisons like Corcoran. That's where Amnesty International, the California State Senate and the FBI have reported acts of sexual humiliation, torture and even murder committed by prison guards (some of whom are Latino.) In what may be a smart rightward tilt of the axis of racial and ethnic realpolitik, Gonzales' humble Latino roots may grow into a hard-to-penetrate dark forest obfuscating our view of justice.
Failure to understand and develop new critiques of the browning of justice will lead to devastating and dangerous consequences. Alberto Gonzales' humble origins and ethnic extraction must not divert our attention from a trend that threatens to imprison generations of young Latinos, blacks and others of humble extraction from towns like those dotting Highway 99, where the browning of justice is yielding rotten fruit.