Teaching ethnic studies is hard. You have, on one side, folks who would universalize all human experience, not out of meanness but out of sincerity: “I know how you feel,” they say, “because my uncle had a similar experience, and let me tell you. . . .” Of course the uncle’s experience is nothing like the experience of poverty, or of Driving While Black, or of being hassled for formal identifying papers. On the other side, you have folks who insist that their own experiences, and the experiences of their narrowly defined communities, are unique, so that any effort to help or even understand would amount to colonization: “You can’t possibly understand my experience,” they jealously grouse, “so stay away, you rapacious appropriator.”
I prefer to teach themes and narratives, to teach more about processes targeting peoples than about the peoples who are targeted. This is not always easy. One theme that is easy to get is the theme of punishment. The Reagan administration and its War on Drugs created a Punishment Culture that operates on a principle of flipping revisionist narratives so that oppressors are victims and victims are blamed. So now we love to punish people. Courts allow the testimony of crime victims and their families to influence the severity of prison sentences. Children who commit crimes are sometimes tried as adults. Whereas TV shows about lawyers once made heroes of defense attorneys, now they make heroes of prosecutors. Immigrants are not only criminalized but also regarded as threats to national security. If you claim to be defending your property and your neighborhood, laws will allow you to shoot people of color, who somehow are the only people who ever look suspicious. Victims of Hurricane Katrina are blamed for being too lazy to rescue themselves. Poverty is criminalized.
In the last few semesters my classes in social justice have been studying the racializing of law enforcement and incarceration. I have assigned books by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and, more recently, Michelle Alexander on the severely disproportionate imprisoning of young black men. All these authors trace the phenomenon to policies launched during the War on Drugs. Davis says the prison is now the new plantation, and Alexander says that laws targeting young black men constitute a new Jim Crow. These arguments are based on the histories of young black men in the United States, and they are particular. But they are not essentialist, and Alexander stresses the flexibility and opportunism of white supremacy. In the 1980s, white supremacy distorted economic and cultural trends so that middle-class Americans came to believe that crime rates were rising and immediate drastic responses were necessary. That same white supremacy, expressing its flexibility in another direction at a slightly later date, declares undocumented Mexican immigrants a threat to national security and the teaching of Chicano Studies a danger. Alexander does not dwell on the flip side of such flexibility, but she does say, hopefully, that recurrences of Jim Crow-like policies are not inevitable.
I would argue that one of many flip sides is the possibility of what has come to be called, in other but not altogether unrelated contexts, overstretch. In our current Punishment Culture, institutional white America is sending assault after assault against communities of color, on as many fronts as there are communities. In different times, this might be a flexing of racial muscle, an exercise in power, the Great White Father knowing best. But in a time of a global economic instability that at least wobbles the nominally lone superpower, of a rising class consciousness awakened at least partly by the Occupy movement, of severe cuts to services such as education that even working-class whites have come to regard as rights rather than privileges, and especially of demographics changing surely enough to assert that whites will themselves become a racial minority in only three decades — in such times as these, the Punishment Culture seems like overstretch, even like paranoid desperation.
Lest this claim itself seem like overstretch, consider the message that Punishment Culture sends to the punished:
1) If you are poor, it is your own fault, and government has no obligation to help you.
2) If you are sick or disabled, you should have already arranged payments for treatments and medications, even if those services cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if you cannot afford sufficient insurance, then it is because you must be poor, and if you are poor, then, as we already know, it is your own fault, etc.
3) If you are a victim of racial violence, then, before crying “racism” consider your own complicity in the event. Were you wearing a hoodie, for example? Were you walking in a neighborhood that is too good for you, so that you were conspicuously suspicious and should have expected to be confronted? If you were pulled over while driving, remember that the security of the nation may be at stake, and you must do your share by complying with police officers’ reasonable requests — and all requests are reasonable.
4) If you were denied a loan or a promotion that you know less qualified whites received, remember that loan officers and supervisors have stacks of data supporting their decisions.
5) If your SAT score is lower than your less intelligent white classmates’ scores, just remember that, for decades, whiners have whined about testing bias and that the testmakers are doing their best to address such concerns but that nobody is perfect and, besides, as standardized tests become more important than ever in determining your future, obviously no one listens to whiners.
6) If you are an immigrant, or the child or even grandchild of an immigrant, just accept that white folks will expect you to speak English as clearly and as incorrectly as they do, and if, being six generations removed from immigration, you still look “foreign” but speak perfect English, then feel no contempt for those who express surprise at your command of the language. You should instead be grateful for their kindly efforts to assimilate you.
7) If you are an immigrant, be grateful for laws requiring you to carry reams of identifying documents. If you become a victim of racial violence, authorities will appreciate the ready access to your papers so that they might quickly notify your next of kin.
8) If you have a job, and if your wages do not meet all your expenses — rent, health care, education, transportation, utilities, food — then you are poor, and if you are poor, then it is, as we all know, your own damn fault, etc.
9) If you are unemployed, then you are also poor, and, if you are poor, etc.
10) If you are in prison, then regard yourself a beacon of Punishment Culture working as it is supposed to work. You will probably be expected to perform low-skilled labor, at the very least telemarketing but possibly culvert-clearing, so that you will earn back at least a portion of the money spent on your upkeep by the prison system. Your relatives live in squalor now that you are incarcerated, but their squalor is their own fault, as we already know.
John Streamas is Associate Professor of Comparative Culture, Gender, and Race Studies, Washington State University.