† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
The “Criminal Court” and the Needlessly Divided “Left”
by nancy a heitzeg
Today, I was going to post a nice uplifting tribute to Sister Helen Prejean – on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of the publication of Dead Man Walking. The power of one voice, and yes that is true.
Maybe someday. In light of recent news items and SCOTUS rulings, frankly i am not in the mood. While media and many are distracted by cult of personality wars over Paula Deen, Edward Snowden and his mouthpiece, The Supreme Court of the United States set the Civil Rights clock back on many issues of legal equality, I can’t even began to calculate just how far.
Yes the odious Section 3 of DOMA was ruled unconstitutional today in United States v. Windsor and SCOTUS further invalidated the California same-sex marriage ban in Hollingsworth v. Perry. (Please note: these rulings do not over-turn the same-sex marriage bans in 37 states.) These are great and overdue victories on the long road to LGBTQ equal rights under the law. Forward.
But the whiplash inducing “logic” of SCOTUS both giveth and taketh away. A series of decisions this term undercut hard fought legislation that served to protect minorities and women. All, of course, while strengthening the power of corporations, as ever post – Citizens United. Key cases this term decided mostly by 5 old smug
white black-robed white-minded men:
- University of Tex. Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar and Vance v. Ball State Univ. – limits the ability of employees to bring discrimination suits against employers on the basis of race, gender and religion.
- Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl – weakens The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978
- Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin – requires the high standard of “strict scrutiny” in the consideration of race in college admissions
- Shelby County v. Holder – effectively nullifies the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by declaring the formula used in Section 4 unconstitutional.
So, who beyond the immediately impacted groups and their proven allies is gonna care? And then what are you gonna do? And i am talking about real world ACTION not signing some damn on-line petition. or tweeting until your fingers blee,d or writing a blog post calling for the fantasy of a Constitutional Amendment on Voting. Doesn’t count – doesn’t cut it. People died for these rights – where you gonna be for the next round?
Let me say it plain – I am sick to death of the mighty white “left” expressing their outrage over Bradley Manning alone while Herman Wallace is about to die in the cage he spent 40+ years in. So tired of sudden shock over Civil Liberties when the privacy of the white and well-off is impacted — what’s your stand on NYPD Stop and Frisk? So tired of hair on fire over whether Snowden might be called “traitor” while failing to rise up! over Assata labeled as “terrorist“. So tired of incarceration concerns that extend only to Gitmo — ignoring the 2.2 million who anguish in US prisons and jails. Ignoring too the crew at Pelican Bay about to starve themselves again over the right to be treated as humans.
I know berating your audience is not an effective teaching tool, nor necessarily persuasive. I usually attempt to avoid this. Not today. Maybe if somebody just boldly calls out the hypocrisy, that might shock some in waking up ?
And to be fair, I know that some just plain don’t know – via the privilege of not having to know in order to survive, through mis-education, and what – not.
Case in point. Last weekend I spoke on Commodities and Cages at the North American Institute on Critical Animal Studies Conference. The theme was Race Class Gender Intersections with Species, so the topic should have come as no surprise. Years ago, in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Hill Collins laid it out clearer than I can.
The Matrix of Domination
Additive models of oppression are firmly rooted in the either/or dichotomous thinking of Eurocentric, masculinist thought. One must be either Black or white in such thought systems–persons of ambiguous racial and ethnic identity constantly battle with questions such as “what are your, anyway?” This emphasis on quantification and categorization occurs in conjunction with the belief that either/or categories must be ranked. The search for certainty of this sort requires that one side of a dichotomy be privileged while its other is denigrated. Privilege becomes defined in relation to its other.
Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women. Other people of color, Jews, the poor white women, and gays and lesbians have all had similar ideological justifications offered for their subordination. All categories of humans labeled Others have been equated to one another, to animals, and to nature.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.
While there was certainly support in the room, i must say many glazed over with that deer -in- the-headline gaze at my suggestion that our horror at intense animal agriculture must translate to outrage over the prison industrial complex, that we must not hijack the language/icons of other struggles, and that if we say we want to Open the Cages — then yes — We Must Open Them All. This should be Resisting Oppression 101 for these people, who are ready to go to jail themselves — for a lab rat.
But it wasn’t.
Oppressions are systemically connected. And, these oppressions, each and all, are perpetuated – not necessarily by the intentions of individuals – but by the reproduction of structures of power, privilege and domination. This system of dominance relies on the use of exploitation, marginalization, powerless, cultural imperialism and violence against the oppressed and, it relies upon division.
The evil insidious genius of the USA is its ‘ability to work divisions like no other. Raw individualism at the center — I got Mine in a zero sum game. Construct all others as competition, especially those who can be visually identified as “other”. Divide and divide again — slave/master, heathen/Christian, savage/civilized, Black/White. Toss a few crumbs here and there to various contingents — keep them in line with some hope of acceptance if they are willing to ride out, as Morrison says, “on the Backs of Blacks”. Foment further divisions between and within race class gender lines — leaving only the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy at the pinnacle intact, and invisibly against everyone. Untouched by the divisive distractions.
Recognizing the common threads of this system and how it harms us all is essential. Nothing changes without this; nothing changes without coalitions, and the realization that the oft-used/too little understood MLK quote is right. You know the one he wrote — we sometimes forget — as an inmate while in the damn Birmingham Jail:
” Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”
And, it is times like these that i return again – as i always do — to Audre Lorde, who clearly articulates how race class gender differences are used to silence and divide those with common interests in dismantling oppressive systems.
Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ig¬nore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is domi-nant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion…
Those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish.
It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.
For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action….
In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower..
And so we will.
Ironically, while Tuesday started in a SCOTUS disaster, it ended in victory, believe it or not in Texas. The same Texas who is about to execute their 500th inmate since 1976 – a Black Woman.
As the Texas GOP tried to force one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws through a special session, the people said No. Yes, there was the power of one voice — Wendy Davis – who filibustered for 12 hours with no food, water, sitting, or breaks per the Texas Senate Rules. But her voice was amplified by thousands at the Capital, hundreds of thousands on the live stream and Twitter – #StandWithWendy. Men Women children straight gay all races classes. Everybody.
Of course, the GOP broke all their own rules to try to halt the endeavor and rush to a vote. But the clock ran out, with too many witnesses and screenshots to rig it. SB5 Dead for now. By 3 minutes.
We are going to have to fight like this again — every day, every issue in a million and one ways. And fight just to retain rights we had long ago won.
So get it together people — Ride or Die.
It will be better With You than Without You.