The killings of African American citizens by local police have generated a more broad, national conversation about race and the criminal justice system. This week on the Campbell Conversations, a conversation with Angela Hattery and Earl Smith, two researchers who have written a new book about the systemic racism in the criminal justice system. The book is called Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change.
Reeher: Is there one thing in particular that you want your book to accomplish or try to help to accomplish?
Hattery: I think what we really want the book to accomplish is to connect the dots among a number of things that people see in the news, whether it’s the shooting of an unarmed black man…or exonerations in general or protests in the street. So, really revealing the interconnected nature of all the various in which the criminal injustice system continues to police black bodies.
Reeher: Let me stick…with the initial catalyst for this—the killings by police of African American citizens…Do you think that those killings have raised the public’s awareness in a positive way for conversations about race and race relations? Or, have they reinforced previously existing divisions in those attitudes or maybe something else that isn’t covered by those two possibilities?
Hattery: I think they’ve actually been very, very polarizing. I think when we talk about raising awareness…especially now in an era of social media…a lot of people in the black community are saying, “Yeah, we’ve known about this for centuries. This is not something new.” I think for many white people, it’s something very new. So I think in that way, it raises awareness for white people. But I think it really polarizes the conversations so that it becomes a conversation about, “Well about the white men that are killed by the police?” or “What about the black police officers who kill unarmed black men?” And so, it polarizes a conversation, [and] that’s not helpful. It actually makes it harder to do the hard work of unpacking what all of the historical context is, which is a lot of what the book is about. Why did it happen there? Why does it happen then? And why does the community react in a certain way? And we never really get to that conversation.
Reeher: Earl, you mentioned…the school-to-prison pipeline, and there’s been a lot of discussion of that in recent years and also the mass incarceration of African American men. And you write about this phenomenon in your book, and in your treatment, you describe this as…“the new plantation economy.” That’s a very provocative term. Could you tell me what you mean by this?
Smith: We deliberately wanted that term to be provocative…We highlight in that chapter on the school-to-prison pipeline a young kid whose family is receiving free or reduced lunch at their particular school in this area. And this young kid probably didn’t follow the rules of how you line up and go up to the counter. But he took a 64 cent carton of milk, and he was nabbed for it. What happens next is unbelievable. He’s handcuffed, he’s put in the back of a police cruiser, and he’s taken down to the local police station. This is a juvenile. When you think of the criminalization of deviant behavior—nonviolent, deviant behavior…just think of the trauma that inflicts this young man…This is what we mean in terms of moving the conversation in this school-to-prison pipeline where you just begin to criminalize what is essentially young people’s behavior.
Reeher: Tell me a bit more…about using that word “plantation economy.” What is the economic aspect of this? Tell me more about the systemic thing that you’re getting at there in this school-to-prison pipeline.
Hattery: It’s both about the school-to-prison pipeline but also the prison-industrial complex. So, Michelle Alexander wrote a book: “The New Jim Crow.” And so part of the new plantation economy moniker is a little bit of a play to move Michelle Alexander’s conversation forward so that it’s not simply that we’re locking up black people and restricting their movement, as Jim Crow laws did, but also that we’re extrapolating and exploiting labor that allows companies to become profitable and make a ton of money off the same black bodies that 150 years ago were enslaved. So we can’t enslave people anymore, but we can lock them up, and then we can extract that labor…Billions of dollars in profit is being made off the backs of incarcerated people. And we don’t have a problem at all with incarcerated people working…but a typical inmate is paid less than a dollar an hour, and the companies that use that labor continue to sell the product at market value…It doesn’t take a PhD in math to figure out how much profit is being made. Connected to the school-to-prison pipeline, we talk about the same young black man who can’t get a job at McDonald’s is then making the uniforms for McDonald’s workers while he’s incarcerated. So it’s an interesting twist of fate.
Reeher: Earl mentioned…the policing of black women’s bodies and the treatment of that in your book. Tell us a little bit about how that might be different or what’s going on in that particular regard.
Hattery: There are a couple of things I would point to. One: everybody has been paying a lot of attention to the opioid crisis and women who get pregnant while they’re addicted to drugs. And what we document in the book is that the opioid crisis, which is more or less a rural, white phenomenon, is treated gently and with rehabilitation. And that’s fantastic, and the outcomes have been really great. But black women who are pregnant and addicted to crack are sent to prison, often for years…About 6 percent of women arrive in jail or prison pregnant, and they’re incarcerated through the term of that pregnancy. And so, we devote some attention to…women we interviewed who delivered their children while they were incarcerated…Though it’s illegal, women are shackled through labor and delivery. And if you ask any woman who’s had a baby, that’s really not the best way to bring a new life into the world. Then, women are sent immediately back to prison. Often, the children end up in foster care if a family member doesn’t show up in time to pick them up. So we talk about that as policing black babies’ bodies before they’ve even had a chance. They haven’t done anything wrong.
Reeher: Earl, you mentioned earlier the exoneration of people who are wrongly convicted of crimes. And in the book, the two of you describe this as it’s the ultimate failure in all of this process…Tell me a little bit more detail about why the two of you describe exoneration process as the ultimate failure.
Smith: One of our concerns with projects like the Innocence Project—the big one down in New York—is that when they push out for contributions and donations and all the fundraising they have to do for a good cause, they always push out white exonerees… Here’s what happens with “the ultimate.” On the front end, you’re convicted for something you didn’t do. You have to sit in a prison, and you’re treated like every other prisoner, in many cases, [in] non-human conditions…If I had 100 exonerees in front of me, 60 of that 100 would be black men…and most of the crimes that these black men are convicted of are murder and rape of white people…So, they sit there for 15 or 20 years, putting up with all the nonsense you have to put up with in prison, and then through the hard work that these people in the Innocence Project do…they get out and splashed across the pages of the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, etc. But what people don’t know after that is only a handful of states give compensation for the time you’ve been wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Then they get out, [and] they still have a record. They can’t get a job. And so, now we’re seeing in the literature all of these concerns about how these men…reenter society. So, they’re basically no better off than the felons who have done the crime, served their time and are released from prison. In fact, they’re the same unless they achieve celebrity status…It’s absolutely sad to talk to these people who’ve sat there 15, 20, 40 years in prison, and now they’re out…You know that there’s some mental health issues for sure that takes place. It’s over. It’s absolutely over.
Reeher: Angela, you discuss, also, another important…provocative concept in the book that you call “colorblind racism.” Tell me what that means and why it’s important.
Hattery: The theory of colorblind racism, really, is one of the analytical tools that we use in the book. And what we hope is that once readers begin to take off their colorblind glasses, they’ll begin to see all of the stuff that we’re writing about in the book. A lot of people think that colorblind racism means “I don’t see race,” and at the individual level, that’s really what it is. But at the structural level, colorblind racism is really a way of masking what are actually racist policies but appear to be race neutral. So, for example, if we return back to the discussion of women who are addicted and pregnant at the same time, nobody wants addicted women to be pregnant…We don’t want to be delivering drug-addicted children, so we apply laws, and those laws first came around in the 1980s to address the crack epidemic. What’s hidden inside of that is the application of those laws are not colorblind or race neutral. In fact…white women go to rehab, and black women go to prison. So, there’s a lot of policies that we [integrate] in the book that appear to be race neutral but are not. Stop and frisk would be another example of that. Sure, we want officers to be able to get drugs off the street to protect our communities, but when they’re stopping and frisking in racialized patterns, then a policy that appears to be race neutral is in fact a policy that’s targeting black people’s bodies.
Reeher: What do we do? It’s the second part of the subtitle of your book, “How to work for change.”…Is there a best way for us to have the conversations that we need to have about race and this issue of policing and surveillance?
Smith: This is a big, big issue, and we’ll start with the big, big proposal. We need to move back…to this older concept of community policing. We need to move back to…police community relations boards…These are set up in your community where citizens of the community can come together, talk to the police people—the authorities—about what’s going on in their communities, how to better patrol their communities. And we need to put police back on the street where they’re not riding around in cruisers all day and night, but they’re actually out there intermingling with the people that live in these communities where they’re doing the things we talk about in our book…We think that if we really want to get over the hump, we need police people, policemen, policewomen, talking to community residents.
Reeher: In terms of having these conversations that we need to have with each other…What are the things that white people need to know and need to be bearing in mind?
Hattery: I think the first thing that white people need to do is take off the colorblind glasses. I think that white people need to listen, and they need to understand that what black people have been saying for centuries is real. It’s not made up. It’s not people over-exaggerating…This is actually real. And we talk in the book about the over-policing of lots of communities where individuals are stop and frisked 40 times in a couple of years. Nobody wants to live that way, and white people need to listen to that and hear it, and what we hope they will do is also not be afraid to talk about race, which is where we started this conversation. When we don’t talk about it, we continue to render invisible the history but also the contemporary vestiges of the ways in which white people are benefiting from the exploitation of black bodies and the removal of black bodies into a prison system that means that they’re not competing anymore with white people at college admission or getting a job. And I think white people need to own that and they need to not be afraid to talk about it, and mostly, they need to listen.