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White privilege and the U.S. prison system

Lisa Taylor | Sunday, November 24, 2013

For a class trip last fall, I visited an empty prison block in Jackson, Mich. where inmates were formerly housed before a new prison was built. As we wandered through the empty spaces of the prison, surrounded by eerie silence, cold iron and steel, our imaginations labored to construct the missing element: the human people. To add to the theatrics of the tour, our guide instructed us to enter the empty cells in order to get the “true prison experience.” When we stood back on the cellblock floor, he used an electronic remote to open and close all of the cell doors at once. The grinding open and metallic slamming of the doors viscerally affected me as I shuddered in the cold, empty, eerie atmosphere. Where were the people?
At one point during the tour, as we were walking up to the second level, our tour guide stopped us quickly and whispered excitedly to us. The prisoners were outside, quick, look. Self-consciously, my classmates and I peered through a broken shutter to look outside. The inmates from the prison next door (the operational prison) were outside playing tennis, and we stared uncomfortably down upon them, ourselves obscured and unseen. We gazed in a zoo-like fashion, observing the men outside as if they were something outside of our normal realm – something subhuman, animal-like and trapped. After spending most of the day imaginatively constructing an image of an inmate in my mind, suddenly the real deal was thrust in my face. Look! Criminals! They’re outside!
For me, this marked a rare moment of clarity, as I recognized something so ingrained in the way I think: privilege. As a white, upper-middle class girl attending a prestigious university, I am incredibly privileged and set apart from the unjust reality that many people face. Odds are, I will never be on the other end of that unequal gaze – I will never be looked down upon by strangers from a prison window and objectified and judged. Unlike half of the black, male population, I will most likely never spend time behind bars and thus be stamped with the prison label for the rest of my life, permitting legal discrimination. In the past 25 years, the U.S. prison population has increased from 350,000 to a staggering 2.3 million, a statistic mostly reflecting new federal policies and mandatory minimums from the War on Drugs, not crime rates. Within this huge prison population, blacks are incarcerated approximately seven times as often as whites, even though studies indicate crime rates are equal across races. In certain cities like Washington, D.C., for example, an estimated three out of four young black men, mostly from poor neighborhoods, will serve time in prison.
Race is an uncomfortable topic to speak about, but racialized thinking dominates the way we perceive each other as human beings. Media and political rhetoric have led us to quietly associate blackness with deviancy and criminality, and thus, minority communities are policed stringently and unjustly, too often with unprovoked police brutality (stop-and-frisk laws in New York City, for example). Although racist terms are explicitly evoked less and less, race still acts as an important heuristic in daily life. Nervous about crime and safety living off campus in South Bend this year (there have been at least two armed robberies and five houses broken into near my place), I find myself thinking in racialized terms all too often. At night, I find myself gazing at the two African-American houses on the block, judging the men loitering outside, clutching my backpack tighter and racing to get inside my house and lock the door. I must uncomfortably acknowledge that I often think in racialized terms, that I, too, have been socialized to associate blackness with deviancy.
How do we get beyond this? While I am only one person, I think it begins with a conversation about race and privilege, two concepts intimately wrapped up with each other. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge my own privilege, but as a human being constituted by relationships and the lives of others, this conversation is incredibly important. I wholeheartedly support civil rights advocate and scholar Michelle Alexander when she issues this powerful calling to all people: “If we want to do more than just end mass incarceration – if we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America – we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: ‘Accept all of us or none.'”
Only then can we build a genuine ethos of compassion for all human people, regardless of race.

Lisa Taylor is a senior studying
political science. She can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.