Reforming the Racist Criminal Justice System

Throughout the Democratic primaries, police brutality and systematic discrimination in the criminal justice system have become critical campaign issues, due in large part to the unrelenting pressure placed on candidates by activists involved in Black Lives Matter and other social movements. Criminal-justice reform, with an emphasis on abolishing racial inequality, now occupies a central place in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.

The party’s criminal-justice-reform agenda is outlined under a section of the platform entitled "Bring Americans Together and Remove Barriers to Opportunity" and appears third in line after the subsections on “Ending Systemic Racism” and “Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” The terms of the outline are by now familiar: A socially unjust and economically unsustainable carceral apparatus must go. Mass incarceration is a consequence of racial profiling, the war on drugs, the unnecessary use of force, policing for profit, mandatory minimum sentencing, privately owned prisons, the disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated, restrictions on employment for the formerly incarcerated, and the death penalty.

There is a just alternative signaled by research and evidence: more training for police officers, guidelines for use of force, body cameras, national data reporting on policing strategies, better public defense, drug courts and other diversionary programs, better drug rehabilitation, investment in reentry programs, and increased bonds of trust between police and the communities they serve. The fundamental assumption of these reforms is that racism and racialized practices are accidental to the American justice system, an aberration to its ideal state. These reforms take racial difference to be external to the institutions of law enforcement and criminal justice. The selections here undermine this fundamental assumption—and examine the ways in which racial difference has always been an organizing principle of the criminal justice system in America.

The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Muhammad provides a penetrating intellectual history of the criminalization of blackness in progressive-era northern cities. The field of urban social science and racialized crime statistics emerged simultaneously, providing the "objective data" supporting the assumption of black criminality. Muhammad shows how the work of early black social scientists, intellectuals, journalists, and reformers was interpreted through the lens of white supremacy. The notion of inherent black deviance would come to shape social policy in America long before the rise of racially coded law-and-order discourse in the 1960s and '70s.

The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America by Naomi Murakawa

Murakawa’s text provides an important corrective to the conventional origin story of the mass incarceration of black men in America. That story locates the linkage of blackness with criminality in the 1960s conservative backlash against the Civil Rights movement. What Murakawa demonstrates is that it was in fact post-war racial liberalism that first connected black political mobilization and social unrest with growing anxieties about urban lawlessness and violence. Rather than beginning her history with the usual suspects—George Wallace, the Nixon presidential campaign organizers and architects of the “Southern strategy,” and various political strategists under the Reagan administration—Murakawa goes back further, looking at the portrayal of black criminality in the immediate post-war period, through Johnson’s Great Society, and into the twenty-first century. This important work renders inadequate any polemic that places liberalism in opposition to the coded racism of post-Civil Rights conservatism.

Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness by Simone Browne

Browne looks at how blackness is bound up with surveillance. Through a series of incisive case studies, she links surveillance with critical race theory, black feminism, and media and cultural studies. In doing so she reveals, and then begins to remedy, a troubling lacuna in the surveillance-studies corpus that can be traced back to the seminal work of Michel Foucault. For instance, in response to the architecture of the panopticon, Browne offers the inherently racialized architectural principles of the slave ship. To flesh out the concept of biometric surveillance, Browne examines the practice of branding the skin of slaves, showing that biometric technologies long predate the retinal scan or digital fingerprint used today. Moving to the contemporary, Browne analyzes the racialized security practices of the TSA post-9/11. This important work underscores the fact that the surveilling gaze has always been white, male, and hetero-, and thus any critique of surveillance must also be a critique of racial discrimination, whether rooted in conscious racism or “implicit bias.”

The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease by Jonathan Metzl

In the 1960s, schizophrenia was redefined in the psychiatric nosology from a relatively benign affliction affecting primarily white middle-class women to a violent disorder afflicting urban black men. Metzl shows how the diagnosis of schizophrenia was used to pathologize black political unrest and mobilization. At the same time, as the de-institutionalization movement led to the closure of inpatient psychiatric hospitals, the carceral system expanded to take in the mentally ill—a tremendous disservice to prisoners who were actually did suffer from mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The architectural remnants of Ionia State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, the records of which comprise the bulk of Metzl’s archival material, have since been incorporated into Riverside prison.

John Middleton is a graduate student in anthropology.