I once read somewhere that the story of creation from the Book of Genesis is the ultimate Western archetypal male fantasy writ epic. Here, minor responsibilities are elevated to prominence in order to inflate an insecure sense of self. The way that the author of the tale manages to ascribe the greatest portion of culpability to the women, mostly absolving the men of responsibility, is beautiful, bordering on elegant. Take Adam for example. Although he is in charge of the Garden of Eden, he fails to prevent the serpent’s entry, fails to obey God’s single commandment, yet it is supposedly Eve’s fault that Adam bites the apple. Honestly? How could this happen? Adam named all the animals—he knows them all. God made sure to bring them to Adam, one by one. When Eve approaches him to say, “Hey baby, this serpent started talking to me, and it told me God is no good, and we should eat the apple…,” why didn’t Adam say, “Serpent? What serpent? What do you mean a talking serpent?” and then immediately investigate and take appropriate action? The point is that after Adam’s spectacular fall from grace, the presumably male author still fails to hold Adam responsible for his expulsion from the Garden. Failure blamed on an “other” is the ultimate rejection of accountability. While I happily delved, sleuth-like, into the psychology behind this allegory, it was the obsession with names that most fascinated me.
Naming is so important, that it is given feature billing in the story. Adam is not only given dominion over the Garden, but also given the apparently important job of naming every bush, every tree, every single thing that walketh, swimmeth, or flieth. Why was this process of naming so important? Because naming a thing gives you power over it.
To name a thing is to define it, to gain mastery over it, to subjugate it, whether or not it is willing to submit.
The power to define is among the greatest of all powers. Defining is inextricably intertwined with control. To name something is to implicitly exert control over the thing thus named. The urge to name a thing satisfies the primal need to control. It is a reflection of subconscious, often unacknowledged, desires resting on the relationship between the person and the thing they would like to own.
Everybody's Black Once People Get Angry
It seems that in younger generations, as soon as two people become angry with each other, they start calling each other “nigga.” They adopt the language and mannerisms of hip hop artists emulating an angry life in the ghetto.
Since this project embraces multiple perspectives and multimedia, I have been spending a great deal of time looking at YouTube videos. Apparently Google knows I have a “bully-gets-his-comeuppance” fixation, because a large number of the videos YouTube serves up have titles like, “Boy Gets Beat Up by Older Bro for Swinging on His Baby and Disrespecting Him” and “Good Samaritan Thwarts Crime, Hits ‘Armed’ Bank Robber So Hard It Breaks His Hand” and “Big Bully Gets Beat Up by Small Kid – JUSTICE IS SERVED” and “Dad Teaches his Son a Lesson for Being a Bully by Making Him Fight a Pro Boxer.” Google knows me so well. However, these videos also taught me that in America, at least the parts of it on YouTube, “thug” is code for “black male.”
You can almost always tell, before the video even starts, when one of the combatants is black or brown. The title will read: “Thug vs Muay Thai Fighter!!” or “Street Fight MMA Fighter Vs Gangster (HD).” The word “thug” then, is more than a description—it is an epithet, a label, a dehumanizing brand. Why is it so important for white people to dehumanize black or brown people?
Why is a black male always a thug? Or a “gangsta?” Why does everyone automatically assume the role of a black man by emulating a violent vision of blackness when violence becomes inevitable?
Why is labeling so gosh-darn important and why is it contagious? Why do so many people do it reflexively, without even being aware of it? And why do white people apparently fantasize about small white males meting out “justice” to large black males? The internet is littered with these videos—they have astronomic numbers of hits and an extremely large viewership. These videos touch a deep nerve in the male white psyche. There is more than wishful thinking at work here. Though the emphasis, I think, is on the wishing.
On Whistling at Subhuman Pitch
I am fascinated by the fact that, every time there is a disaster, otherwise sane white Americans seem to absolutely lose their minds. They stockpile weapons and food, and if you ask them why, they will tell you that black people are “unhappy” the same way a suburban housewife might tell you she is locking her doors because apes have escaped from a zoo. Their expressions show well how revolutionaries ready to fight off a British invasion must have felt when Revere rode through towns screaming warnings at the top of his voice: “The British are coming!” Except no angry negroes are milling about staging areas, regimenting themselves, or plotting martial retribution. No negroes are coming.
But you may not believe it if you frequent conservative circles.
There is an obsession with race in conservative circles, so much so that there is a code for speaking about race in public; a code which allows one to appeal to one’s constituency while dodging a “racist” tail being pinned on one’s ass. It is called Dog Whistle Politics, and it’s one of the few pillars on which the modern Republican Party stands. Look no further than an interview with James K. Glassman on Bill Maher’s Real Time in the aftermath of Katrina. Rather than discuss solutions to the problems resulting from the largest natural disaster to ever befall the United States, Mr. Glassman, onetime senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, seems fixated on race. It was as if he could not help himself. President Bush is white, so goes his articulation, so the President absolutely did whatever was necessary to mitigate the damage caused by Katrina and to respond appropriately to the disaster, while New Orleans’s mayor was incompetent or lazy—the subtext being because he is black. As a related aside, I only knew the Mayor, Ray Nagin, was black because Glassman referred to him explicitly, stating that Nagin was “an African-American himself.” From the conservative perch, the race of the parties not only matters, it heralds important implications for their qualities, their capabilities, and their capacities. In Glassman’s psyche, betrayed as it is by his choice of words and focus, knowing someone’s race is an accurate way to predict their values and beliefs, their behavior, and their work ethic. Race explains everything. Glassman is flummoxed by the idea that there are people who do not conceive of all human interaction occurring through racial filters. When Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, responded to the dog whistle by dispelling the notion that Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell’s behaviors and achievements stem from their race as opposed to their social class, Glassman was incredulous. “So race doesn’t matter then?” he asked. “It’s class that matters?”
Does race matter?
If you remove culture from the equation, can race impart any meaningful information about an individual? Can you make accurate assessments and predictions about a person based solely on their race? And if your answer is yes, how does one explain the achievements of Hannibal Barca? Or Colin Powell? Or Condoleeza Rice? If it is race that matters, and not culture, whence then Kofi Annan?
Even when Maher attempted to make the point that there were two kinds of looting—one borne from hunger and the drive for survival, and the other from materialist opportunism, itself weaned on Capitalism’s pabulum—the only thing Glassman heard was “people stole stereo equipment.” Glassman was deafened by the dog whistle. He wondered, aloud even, where these people intended to watch the stolen TVs given the absence of electricity in New Orleans. I’m sure this joke plays well among Glassman's friends, pivoting on the assumption that black people do not plan, and are categorically stupid and impatient. Are we to accept that black people, as a race, lack the very qualities and abilities that make us human—patience, foresight, planning, ingenuity? Glassman seems to accept this without a second thought. Here we have the largest natural disaster on American soil, more than a thousand dead bodies, and Glassman’s concern is using code words to link the black mayor of the city where the disaster occurred to indifference and criminality. Yet the white president is by definition blameless. Who holds greater authority and responsibility, mayor or president? This recalls our opening paragraph—white President Adam, responsible but blameless, and black Mayor Eve, the scapegoated Other.
A black person is automatically defended by common morality that, of necessity, must be extended to every person in society if society is to claim that it is imbued with ethics. To do away with these automatic protections is to nullify equality, parity, ethics, and by extension, authority. Yet it calls into question, to what extent do these protections actually exist for black people more so than felons if people like Glassman can get up and say everything short of “nigger” on national television? The difference between a felon and a nigger however, is that a black person is permitted, even encouraged, to make recourse to dignity, should they be labeled a “nigger.” In contrast, a felon is, by law, and to much celebration and satisfaction, stripped of their humanity. We, society, finally achieve in the felon the goal of othering and dehumanizing, which, should we go by the very abundant and lengthy historical record, society thinks it desperately needs. Irving Goffman (2009) would argue these individuals are no longer seen as whole persons, but rather “tainted, discounted one[s]” (p. 2). Succinctly stated, and I openly admit to appropriation in my paraphrasing here—Before my conviction I was American, I was a person; now, after release, I am back to being black.
Every Sentence is a Life Sentence
There are more black people in prison than logic, statistics, or poverty can account for. The U.S. population break-down shakes out to about 12.6% African American, and 16% Hispanic. Caucasians comprise 64% of the population with other minorities rounding out the remaining 7%, according to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative.
Figures in the aforementioned report show that nationwide, black people make up more than 40 percent of prisoners. Black people do not go to prison in greater numbers, for lengthier periods, at faster rates than other ethnicities by accident—not unless the real world consequences of subconscious stereotyping count as accidental. Most of these prisoners are eventually released. However, life is hardly better after release. The labels that people released from prison are forced to bear reflect the reality that a prison sentence never, ever ends.
Labels matter. Dog Whistle Politics matter. The subliminal pandering to racists has real consequences for people; for actual, real, flesh and blood people.
It is very important, apparently, that people who are convicted of a crime continually bear the label of their past transgressions—thief, drunk driver, killer. They are labeled by the worst of the acts they committed in their past. I have noticed that no one is ever referred to as an ex “fruit eater” or “flower giver” or “nose picker.” A criminal conviction, even one that does not result in a prison sentence, automatically becomes the most important component in the locus of characteristics that make one human. Such labels automatically encapsulate and advertise the worst thing we ever did. No other category of people in society bears that treatment. We do not grant so much leeway elsewhere to our baser natures. While we may call people by their professions—writer, teacher, policeman, we don’t politely greet our neighbors: “Hi, adulterer!” “Hey there, hypocrite.”
More black Americans are permanently scarred, burnt, marked, branded by the felon stigma and the “collateral consequences” that attend a conviction than any other ethnic representation. Fact. And the so-called collateral consequences don't feel so collateral when you live with them daily. Absent these collateral consequences being legitimized by legislation, regulations, policies, operational procedures, and informal rules, a conviction could be a life lesson one could learn and rebound from. The way it actually works, a person with a criminal record is usually forced out of the legitimate economy, the legitimate public square, more or less permanently. The collateral consequences hurt more than the actual conviction, and for much longer. The collateral consequences are what give a contemporary felony its permanent character.
A felon label is not supposed to be permanent. According to the Century dictionary, originally published in 1889, the word felon, “is not applicable after legal punishment has been completed” (Etymonline.com, n.d.). Some definitions have been eroded by the constant shifting of the sands of time. Today, both the legal designation and the appellation are permanent. To be branded a felon is to wear that badge of dishonor until death. Not even a pardon changes this state of affairs. All a pardon does is add a modifier to the label transforming a felon into an ex-felon. In contemporary America, felon is a blot, a permanent stain, a “black mark.” Pardon the pun.
There is even a reason, vestigial though it may be, why the term felon smacks of the permanent. In the early days of the republic, a “felony” was a “hanging affair.” If you were convicted of a felony, your life and your reputation were terminated almost simultaneously. There was no need to mitigate the permanent effects of the label. This is likely why we continue to posthumously “pardon” erroneously convicted people. But like other famous vestigial human characteristics—appendix, tailbone, pleasure in punishment—we no longer need the term felon to retain its permanent character. Yet it persists.
The word itself has become a weapon, an armament leveled at people society sets aside for the expiation of sins like a scapegoat staked out in the wilderness. In America, we don’t actually exile our scapegoats. We tie the goat, the felon, to a stake in the wilderness and society gets to do what it pleases and gloat. A legal whipping used to justify all manner of treachery, in this “post racial” American society. Defacing a person with the felon brand grants citizens the legal right to deny a person basic human rights. This is written into the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, not two pages from the Bill of Rights, and into the basal ganglia of the average citizen it seems. A felon has no rights and is therefore not a human. Deny a person a job? Unethical unless we're talking about felons. There are legal protections to ensure that people—black, white, male, female, or disabled—cannot be denied a job based solely on that one distinctive characteristic. Not so for felons.
The situation for housing is the same. Healthcare and welfare the same.
Why does society seem to desperately need this hierarchical organization? Does society mean to intentionally disenfranchise vulnerable members of society? Why is it that one person’s self-worth is dependent on the perspicacious value of another person? It is important to thresh this out, because labeling hurts; it damages. It is painful to be labeled; to be reduced, to be confined. To have freedom, but be forced to carry one’s own prison. A label there for all to see, but a prison made permanently for me. It is a cruel trick: to have a person believe they’ve been let out of prison, when all society ever does is exchange the corporeal bastille for a portable one. You never leave prison; you just take it with you.
Prisons as a Racially-Motivated Lever of Violence and Control
I cannot actually prove that prisons exist solely to control what we blithely refer to as the “minority” population, but it is obvious to me that prison is a tool of social control constantly directed at the “other”. Homosexuals, youth, the poor, single women, anyone marginalized, anyone not in the mainstream. The fact that America seems fundamentally racist means that the “other” is more often than not a minority. As I was recently reminded, slavery isn’t exactly ancient history, and civil rights for people of color are laughably recent, tenuous, and incomplete. One could reasonably argue that white America really seems to hate black people. Black people are poor (and all good Americans know to hate poor folk) and we are ethnically dissimilar—two strikes automatically. You see this happen with Latinos as well—Ted Cruz is Latino, but nobody talks about this. We pretend he’s white because he’s not the Mexican kind of brown. The guy's name is Rafael Edward Cruz, yet he chose to adopt the moniker “Ted” which sounds more American. Marco Rubio could be the king of Florida if he wanted to with his name. Not U.S. President though. Not from the Republican party. Marc Ruebens could be President, though the name might still be a smidgen too Jewish for some voters, so I was told. Marco Rubio though?
Prison is a socially sanctioned weapon deployed against the “other.” Black folks just so happen to be the most visible “other” in America for a variety of historical, and social reasons (and dare I say obvious physical ones). Foucault (1977) called it the “omnipresent armature” (p. 301) of the panoptic society. Prison is a weapon that’s being used to kill black folk. It is a sufficiently powerful weapon to commit genocide. You would need a billion guns and God only knows how many bullets to commit genocide. You only need 1,518,559 prisons. And people are watching it happen every single day. Not a day goes by without this genocide occurring, and without people advocating it by viewing it. It’s like the guy in New York who did performance art by moving so slowly it was imperceptible. Though no one ever actually saw him move, if you saw him before you went to work, and then again on your lunch break, you’d notice he was facing a different direction. When exactly will we stop murdering an entire race of our population? Prison is a genocide as performance art, a genocide as a pirouette in slow motion.
Putting parents in prisons damages kids who later wind up in prisons because of the damage done to them while they were children, then putting these kids-now-adults in prison damages their kids, and so on and so on. Genocide in slow motion. Soon black people will all be either dead or in prison. There are only 39 million black people in America. One million of them are in prison already. 38 million to go.
It matters how a person is defined, the terms that are applied to him or her. We tend to live up to our labels. Like Parkinson’s Law scaled up to societal proportions, we seek to fill up the available space between the reality and the perception. We identify with our labels until we inhabit them. We project label identities onto the things we name, onto the people we label. We have expectations and make predictions based on our labels—irrespective of whether the thing, or person, actually concurs with or deserves these projected expectations, these projected identities.
The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions (CNUS), a public policy think tank organized and founded by people rebuilding their lives after release, takes issue with what it calls “the official language of the media, law enforcement, the prison industrial complex, and public policy agencies.” CNUS correctly identifies that the purpose of these labels, these epithets, is to dehumanize people. They grant society permission to ostracize and mistreat selected members of our society. The group proposes this very apt replacement for these terms:
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish (trans. Alan Sheridan). Pantheon, New York.
Goffman, E. (2009). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity [Kindle version]. Retrieved from http://amazon.com (Original work published in 1963)