Playing Field to Prison Pipeline?

Hank Willis Thomas – “Strange Fruit”

Playing Field to Prison Pipeline?
by David J. Leonard |

In our contemporary moment, sport does much of the ideological work of mass incarceration.  Even more than other forms of popular culture, which peddle in racial stereotypes, celebrate law and order, and turn police into righteous crime fighters, sports has increasingly become a space that is central to maintaining America’s prison nation.  Because of the visibility and cultural resonance of sports, because of the number of African Americans involved in professional sports, and because of the centrality of “American Dream” narratives, sports serve as the public relations wing of mass incarceration.

None of this should be surprising given the racist nature of America’s criminal justice system, and the centrality of race within contemporary discourses.  Public discourses around sports and criminal justice center race.

Writing about basketball, Todd Boyd argues that the NBA “remains one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse,” where race, whether directly or indirectly, is the subject of conversation at all times (Boyd 2000, p. 60).  This is equally resonant with football and therefore it is not surprising that racialized conversations of sports and the criminal justice inform one another.

Of course this is nothing new.  According to Elizabeth Alexander, the history of American racism has always been defined by practices where black bodies are put on display “for public consumption,” whether in the form of “public rapes, beatings, and lynchings” or in “the gladiatorial arenas of basketball and boxing.”

Jonathan Markowitz highlights ways in which the sports media contributes to the widespread criminalization of the black body: “The bodies of African American athletes from a variety of sports have been at the center of a number of mass media spectacles in recent years, most notably involving Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson, but NBA players have been particularly likely to occupy center stage in American racial discourse.”

Whether through the media spectacles surrounding Tyson, O.J. Kobe Bryant, Aaron Hernandez and countless other cases, or the adoration and fear imbued in physical bodies (that which is desired on the field is also that which rationalizes mass incarceration, stop and frisk, and law and order), we see the convergence of the front and back pages.

Not coincidently, the increased focus on law-breaking athletes mirrors the integration of sports (and the rise of America’s prison nation).  That is, as collegiate and professional sports became more integrated, sports media and fans began to show an increasing concern about “criminal athletes.”  This is especially the case in a post-1980s context, whereupon President Reagan seized upon the death of Len Bias to expand the racialized war on drugs.

Since then, and with proliferation of ESPN industrial complex, there has been an immense focus on crime and athletes, giving credence to the widely circulated ideas about the pathology of blackness.   The shared language of “discipline” and the administering of punishment for those who violate the rules of society/sports further illustrates the convergence of the sports and the (in)justice system.

If sports are central to the prison industrial complex, ESPN represents the CEO of its public relations firm. Given the longstanding role of the Disney Corporation in circulating dehumanizing images, it should be of little surprise that ESPN is doing the ideological grunt work of contemporary racism and mass incarceration.

Whether publishing articles about drugs and Oregon football, or sensationalizing each and every traffic stop involving a (black) athlete (never mind issues of pretext stops and racial profiling) or becoming the mouth piece for bringing law and order to a post-Palace Brawl NBA, ESPN has been a willing partner in the prison industrial complex.

In recent weeks, ESPN has turned this job over to Jason Whitlock. This is the same man who once refereed to Serena Williams as an “unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round.”  Fear and loathing of black youth jumps off his pages; the same sort of stereotypes and narratives that rationalize stop and frisk, and shoot first mentality that plagues this nation.

The sustained nature of Whitlock’s discussion of personal/communal/cultural failures and mass incarceration (see Whitlock Gone Wild), raises the stakes here.  For example, in a recent column on Thanksgiving (never mind the history of genocide and white supremacy), where Whitlock denounced Professor Michael Eric Dyson, he once again peddled his simplistic vision of the world: the personal and cultural failures of African Americans, facilitated by intellectual and cultural enablers, has led to mass incarceration.

And while Mr. Whitlock wants to locate mass incarceration at the doorstep of hip-hop culture, at the feet of Jay Z, Allen Iverson, and Michael Eric Dyson, he is asking us to ignore history.  He wants to erase the linkages between mass incarceration and the history of slavery, between white supremacy, “Black Social Death,” and America’s prison system.  In turning the discussion into choices, values (respectability), culture, single-parented homes, and bad role models, he denies the links between deindustrialization and prison expansion, between the militarization of America’s police forces and the number of African American youth locked up.

As I read column after column that blames hip-hop or the N-Word for mass incarceration, I cannot help but wonder if Richard’s Nixon’s launching of the war on drugs, if the Rockefeller laws, the federal sentencing guidelines for crack, the disenfranchisement laws that saturate our nation, the centrality of racial appeals for law and order, President Bill Clinton’s massive expansion of America’s prison system, and the he investment in police and not schools, was all because of hip-hop.  If you live in Jason Whitlock’s world, and that of the vast number of celebratory commentators, that seems to be the conclusion.

Post Script (1/26/14)

In the aftermath of the sustained demonization of Richard Sherman I am struck by the continued role that sports as an instrument of mass incarceration.  The response to Sherman, the panics, and even the defense (“he is one of the good ones”) all points to the engrained nature of the criminalized/commodified black body within the dominant sporting imagination.

In 2011, C. Richard King and myself edited book – Criminalized and Commodified: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports –  on the anti-black racism that is central to American sports.  While including essays on different case studies, the cultural and media discourses that have been full display this week are prominent within this work.  The original title of this book  was “Thugs and Dollar Signs” in that black athletes are continuously subjected to the logics of racism and late twenty-first century capitalism – they are legible as criminals/”thugs” and dollar signs/source of profits.  And this is not a binary but rather indication that the criminalized black body is a source of profit – financial profit, ideological profit, political profit and indicative of the profits of racism. As evident in this instance (and before) Sherman has been imagined to be a “thug” all while the NFL, ESPN, and others found ways to continue to profit not only off his body but the “thug discourse.”  This represents a window into anti-black racism.  The rendering of Sherman as a “thug” and the profiting of his body and anti-black racism is ubiquitous.  The consequences of these ideological and material systems are daily.  It’s bigger than a play, it’s bigger than Sherman and it’s bigger than the game.

Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Forgotten Fathers:

Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex

by David J. Leonard | special to NewBlackMan

Happy father’s day to all the fathers and grandfathers, but especially to those in Attica, San Quentin, Angola, and countless other prisons throughout the United States. For many, this is a day of celebration, of happiness and reflection. It is a day where kids give their dads homemade gifts and extra-special hugs. While everyday as a parent brings smiles and laughter, it is day where it is hard not to feel special as a dad. Yet, it should also be a day of reflection, where we as a society think about those who are unable to celebrate as a family. I am speaking about those among us who as Angela Davis laments have disappeared from the public imagination: incarcerated fathers.

According to a report entitled “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” in 2007 America was home to 1.7 million children (under 18) whose parent was being held in state or federal prison – that is 2.3 percent of American children will likely be celebrating father’s day away from dad. Despite hegemonic clamoring about family values, the prison industrial complex continues to ravage American families. Since 1991, the number of children with a father in prison has increased from 881,500 to 1.5 million in 2007. Over this same time period, children of incarcerated mothers increased from 63,900 to 147,400. Roughly half of these children are younger than 9, with 32 percent being between the ages of 10 and 14.

The problem is even more pronounced when looking at Black and Latino fathers. The numbers are startling: 1 in 15 black children lives away from their parent because of incarceration. For Latinos that number is 1 in 41, compared to 1 in 110 for white children. For incarcerated African Americans (1 in 3 black men are currently in prison, jail, on probation or parole), father’s day isn’t simply a day of disconnect from their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, but one that highlights their separation from their own fathers and entire family.

The consequences of America’s war on drugs (a war principally waged against black and brown America), of America’s “New Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s work), are evident on this day. Too many fathers, particularly black and Latino fathers, will celebrate alone, away from their sons and daughters. Writing in response to the widespread debate about the state of black fatherhood, Michelle Alexander makes clear the links between the new Jim Crow and “missing black fathers” in America. “Here’s a hint for all those still scratching their heads about those missing black fathers: Look in prison,” writes Alexander. She continues,

The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.

The systematic efforts to break-apart families, destroy communities, and separate fathers and mothers from their children is a direct result of the incarceration of drug users. According to Alexander, as of 2005, 4 in 5 drug arrests were for possession by individuals with no history of violence; in the 1990s alone, a period that saw a massive expansion of America’s war on drug users, 80 percent of those sent to prison were done so for marijuana possession. Yet, again we see how this is not a war on drugs or even illicit drug use, but use within the black community even though whites are far more likely to use illegal drugs. In a number of states, between 80 and 90 percent of all drug convictions have been of African Americans.

The impact of the war on drugs transcends father’s day. The systematic effort to dismantle families results in isolation and disconnection from community, support systems, and loved ones 365 days per year. It has resulted in a brain drain and systematic removal of grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters – entire communities. On average, children live 100 miles away from their incarcerated parents. A 2000 U.S. Department of Justice Report found that over half of America’s prisoners have not been visited by their children. An expansive and far-reaching criminal justice system touches so many of our lives.

The memory is still vivid. I was sitting in my office, preparing for parental leave of absence, when my phone rang. I could hear the sadness and fear in his voice. He had been convicted and was facing jail time. He was scared of losing his career, the life that he had worked so hard for up until that point, and a future of seeing his kids and grandkids grow up. Listening to my father’s voice was disheartening; the prospect of having to tell my children that grandpa wasn’t going to be there for our next visit was terrifying then for many months to come. Thankfully (and revealing the ways in which privilege operates within the criminal justice system), our family never had to see him go jail. I did, however, see the financial and personal difficulties that besiege so many families. Too many families are being split apart because of expanding and overzealous criminal justice system. Too many fathers and mothers have to tell their children that they have to go away. Too many children wake up each and every day with a parent locked up. Too many children have to go through a metal detector simply to deliver a father’s day wish today.

Last year, in  “Imagine What Father’s Day Is Like for All the Dads and Sons in Prison,” Stephen H. Phelps offered the following father’s day reminder: “Let us take advantage of this Father’s Day to turn our well-wishing toward the ends for which our hearts are shaped; toward compassion for every son and every father who is in prison. And especially for black and brown men in prison.” Reminding us all that “these men are your sons. We are all their fathers,” Phelps calls upon us to collectively remember those who are unable to share this day with their children, who because of the troubling war on drugs are unable to be the fathers they would like to be. So, on the 40th anniversary of the racially-based and ineffective war on drugs, lets work toward the greatest present of all to not only fathers, but mothers, children, and our society at large: its end.

via Forgotten Fathers: Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex | NewBlackMan (in Exile).

White Privilege, Wealth and the U.S. Criminal Justice System | Urban Cusp

White Privilege, Wealth and the U.S. Criminal Justice System

By David J. Leonard

I can still see myself standing in my office. I was gathering my things as I prepared to go on leave with the birth of my son that following day. Although my excitement and anxiety provided a joyous distraction, my focus was elsewhere. My father was in New York, awaiting the verdict in his trial. We were all waiting for the verdict yet he was probably waiting for judgment about his future. Having lived under the stress and anxiety of my father facing jail time for many years (including two prior trials that had ended with hung juries) and having lived under the continual fear that our collective lives could forever change in an instant, I sat almost paralyzed by my trepidation. I couldn’t help but think about a recent conversation with my father, where he asked me to help out my Mom if he was hauled off to jail without being able to tie up loose ends. Deep in these thoughts and unable to focus on anything, my phone rang. He had been found guilty on all counts and was convinced that he had not only been “screwed” but that his life was over.

While an injustice did take place, his life was not over. We have made it though these circumstances because of family, love, and privilege. Yes, privilege. My experience with an injustice, with a prosecutor who was more focused on creating a factual scenario that fit his preconceived conclusions, with a criminal justice system more focused on wins than truth or justice, with a bureaucracy focused on justifying its bloated budgets and state power than fostering peace and safety, and individuals more concerned with personal interests than the families and communities that their actions impacted, taught me about the power of privilege.

My dad had the financial privilege to be able to hire a top-notch lawyer; he had a house that could be used to offset the costs of a trial. Unlike the vast majority of people swept up by an unforgiving criminal justice system, he was able to go to trial (multiple times as it turned out). While he was not ultimately successful in blunting the power of the government (more than 90% of prosecutions by the federal government result in convictions), his lawyer’s efforts to highlight the injustice that was being done, surely played a role in keeping him out of prison. While clearly an injustice, the real-life meaning of whiteness, of class privilege, is hard to deny when thinking about our entire experiences with the criminal justice system.

Yes, my family faced what we knew was an injustice. Yet, as a middle-class white family from Los Angeles, we learned that we were (to a degree) exempt from many of the injustices that befall those who must fight the system without the benefits and privileges of being white and middle class. My father was able to contest a matter three thousand miles from his home. How many individuals can carry on a fight over many years at that kind of distance including numerous cross-country flights, weeks of living in a hotel, the cost of transporting witnesses across country and related financial burdens? Anyone without the financial resources to fight would have no choice but to simply concede defeat at the outset.

My father was able to hire an attorney. Access to a private attorney as opposed to a public defender or assigned counsel is in many ways determinative of one’s fate. According to Paul Rubin and Joanna Shepherd, economic professors at Emory University, and Morris B. Hoffman, a trial judge, “the average sentence with serious cases was almost three years longer than the average for clients of private attorneys.” The mere fact that 90-95% of criminal cases never go to trial, whereas my father was able to standup before the world and announce his innocence, is evidence of both our privileges and the injustice of the criminal justice system.

Continue reading White Privilege, Wealth and the U.S. Criminal Justice System | Urban Cusp.