June 20, 2010

"I'm a criminal and so are you"

We are living in an "age of prohibition," says Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast. Texas, he notes, has 11 felonies just involving oysters. Youth are especially criminalized, for everything from copyright piracy to "sexting" to truancy. As laws proliferate, so do the number of violators, bringing us to the point of this guest essay by author and activist Michelle Alexander:

"I'm a criminal and so are you"

Guest essay by Michelle Alexander*

Who am I? How do I identify?

Lately, I've been telling people that I'm a criminal. This shocks most people, since I don't "look like" one. I'm a fairly clean-cut, light-skinned black woman with fancy degrees from Vanderbilt University and Stanford Law School. I'm a law professor and I once clerked for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice -- not the sort of thing you'd expect a criminal to do.

What'd you get convicted of? people ask. Nothing, I say. Well, then why do you say you're a criminal? Because I am a criminal, I say, just like you.

This is where the conversation gets interesting. Most of my acquaintances don't think of themselves as criminals. No matter what their color, age or gender, most of the people in my neighborhood and in my workplace seem to think criminals exist somewhere else -- in ghettos, mainly.

They have an unspoken, but deeply rooted identity as "law-abiding citizens." I ask them, "Haven't you ever committed a crime?" Oddly, people often seem perplexed by this question. What do you mean? they say. I mean, haven't you ever smoked pot, didn't you ever drink underage, don't you sometimes speed on the freeway, haven't you gotten behind the wheel after having a couple of drinks? Haven't you broken the law?

Well, yeah, they say, but I'm not a criminal. Oh, really? What are you, then? As I see it, you're just somebody who hasn't been caught. You're still a criminal, no better than many of those who've been branded felons for life.

Perhaps there should be a box on the census form that says "I'm a criminal." Everyone who has ever committed a crime would be required to check it. If everyone were forced to acknowledge their own criminality, maybe we, as a nation, would second-guess our apparent zeal for denying full citizenship to those branded felons.

In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime. Once labeled a felon, you are ushered into a parallel social universe. You can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits -- forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind.

This kind of stigma, discrimination and social exclusion may befall you for no reason other than you were once caught with drugs.

I doubt Barack Obama thinks of himself as a criminal, though he should. He has admitted to using illegal drugs during his college years -- lots, in fact. What if he thought of himself as a criminal? What if he identified that way? Would it lead him to feel a bit more compassion for those who are branded drug felons for life, unable to find work or housing, and deemed ineligible even for food stamps?

Maybe if Obama thought of himself as a criminal he wouldn't have just endorsed spending even more money on prisons at a time when scarce resources would be much better spent on education or health care, or just about anything else.

I am a criminal. Coming to terms with this aspect of my identity has helped me to see more clearly -- with blinders off -- the ways in which I have been encouraged not to feel any connection to "them," those labeled criminals. I see now that "they" are me, and I am them.

*This essay was first posted at CNN, and is reposted here with the permission of Michelle Alexander. Ms. Alexander is author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). She is former director of the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California and of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford Law School. She holds a joint appointment with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.


Dale said...

Once a criminal always a criminal.
Why should we spend even more money on criminals.
Let's make more laws making more criminals.

Once a criminal you are recognized for your worthlessness,
and should always be kept in check.
Hmmm... i have three kids.
Put them in jail now, before they break a really bad law.

And remember... keep them as children and do not let them interact with the adult world until they are adults. That way they will more likely break the law by acting as children in an adult world.

Anonymous said...

Wow, way to play the race card. You destroyed the whole rest of your argument by that one statement.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how speeding, drinking under age, and drug possession can be used to argue about how we all are felons. Those aren't felonies. Felonies are are giving alcohol to minors, having enough drugs on your person that you're suspected of distributing, and willfully driving recklessly so that you put others in danger. I don't do these things. The things you noted typically harm only ourselves. The things that "felons" are guilty of typically harm others. If somebody makes life decisions that harm others, I have no problem with making their lives a little more difficult. So I'm not a felon. If you are, you should stop practicing law, and you should certainly stop hiding behind the ruse of your qualifications to try to influence people on the internet.

JP Lizotte said...

I see how we are supposed to make all kinds of inferrences from the "In this country, we force millions of people -- who are largely black and brown -- into a permanent second-class status, simply because they once committed a crime".

Unfortunately, these inferrences that we need to do, in order to come to the same conclusion as you, I suppose, are certainly extremely subjective.

To be purely pragmatic about the prior argument "everyone is a criminal, just some are caught some not." It is not the fact that some people committed a crime that puts them as second class citizens, it would be the fact they were caught. But to go even further, you would have to say *AND they were convicted* because many are caught and not convicted.

Does american society brand theee people as second class too? It their a demographic for those as well?

So if you meant to say: "Those without sin should throw the firtst stone, the others should abstain". Allegedly, you are about 2000 years late.

I'm sorry, but from my perspective -some- blinders are still clearly sitting on your nose. Or your mirror it too cluttered with credentials, whatever metaphor fits.

tudza said...

How nice, we now have original sin written into law. Surely as a lawyer you must have heard that intent figures in here somewhere? Did you intend to be a criminal?

JuanLeggett said...

"Anonymous" has no problem making those caught up in the machine live lives " A little more difficult." What an asshole. It's not about that your life is a little more difficult. It is about your life being pretty much over, and the steering wheel being given over to morons like "Anonymous" So many great people are marginalized by a system designed to create a class of service workers. People like coke head, George Bush get a pass and look at the damage that is done to the world. Meanwhile some of our best and brightest (but less well connected.) languish in unfullfilled lives. There are millions of heroes out there denied the right to make this world what it could really be. All because they were unlucky enough not to be born to a station that can afford a good lawyer.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Juan, I agree. "Three-strikes" laws are an example of how vengeful and unforgiving our society has become. Back in the day, someone could get arrested for strong-armed robbery, assault and battery, and fleeing across state lines, as a juvenile be made a ward of the court, and still go on to lead a successful life as a well respected prosecutor and social reformer. (The example here is Terence Hallinan, former chief district attorney of San Francisco.) Not anymore. As you say, huge numbers of people are being barred from ever leading productive lives or contributing meaningfully to society. It's a waste, and it's short-sighted social policy in so many ways.

Bethany said...

I believe the point of this article, a point that may be muddled by the authors own statements, is that we need to examine the stigma we place on "criminals," a stigma that sometimes follows them for life. To argue about whether or not the crimes the author cited are felonies is unimportant within the context of the point being made.

It is not so clear, cut and dry, to say that "all criminals should have this stigma follow them forever," or to say that "no criminal should have this stigma follow them forever." It would be foolish to say that, "once a criminal, always a criminal," but it would also to be foolish to think that all "criminals" can be rehabilitated. Rather, we should examine what is really going on with the system of laws, the prisons, and the people that are caught up in those things: how many, what kind of people, and the effect is has on them and on society as a whole.

"Playing the race card," as it was stated, makes perfect sense when we look at the data on who is actually in prison. The fact is that the minority of people incarcerated are white, leaving the rest "mostly black and brown."

Really, what the author is trying to say, and what is most important about this article, is that the average person's perspective with the us vs them (criminals) mentality should be questioned, so we can examine the way the system works.

Karen Franklin, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Bethany. A voice of reason. :-}

Anonymous said...

No, I don't do any of those things, actually. I find it kind of appalling you think they are normal.