*Reposted in part, with the author’s permission. Read the full essay at Black Agenda Report*
“The reform of mass incarceration, as it has been absorbed by the cultural ensemble of the state and its distensions, endorses an expansion of policing logics.”
“Mass incarceration,” “police brutality,” “school-to-prison pipeline,” and other terms of crisis have permeated the political theater of post-racialism and its apparent white nationalist aftermath. Such keywords of the early-21st century liberal-to-progressive critique of racist state violence form an increasingly shared vernacular for academic scholarship, policy reform, nonprofit campaigns, foundation grants, and ongoing dialogue and debate across various communities and publics.
But there is something troublesome in the ongoing, industrialized circulation of these keywords, a territorialization and corruption—at times, a statecraft—of crisis-terms that undermines the collective genius of periodic radical rearticulation (e.g. Black radical and anti-colonialist practitioners seizing control of these terms and transforming them into active literatures of liberation combat, to paraphrase Frantz Fanon). As the particular phrase “mass incarceration” spreads across venues and publics, a relatively coherent reform parable attains increasing political-ideological traction.
We can concisely outline the progression of this increasingly hegemonic, liberal-progressive mass incarceration reform narrative as such:
First, there is an uneven though growing national acknowledgement that over the course of the last few decades, there has been a systemic expansion of the institutional and cultural capacity and will to profile, criminalize, incarcerate, and denigrate targeted bodies, places, and populations. We might consider this as a spreading, though sometimes hesitant and certainly overdue acknowledgement of the raw, long-irrefutable facts of gendered racist state terror.
“The parable holds that targeted Black and Brown incarceration is not the problem in-and-of-itself.”
Next in this parable, quickly and slowly, alarmed responses spill across journalistic, testimonial, activist, and social scientific revelations of the damage done to communities, families, and otherwise good people. This is confirmation of the suspicion that the contemporary carceral domestic war may have misidentified or exceeded its operational objectives. (We should be clear that this part of the reform narrative is the counter-abolitionist, counter-Black radical rejoinder: [targeted Black, Brown] “incarceration” is not the problem in-and-of-itself; rather, it is the excess of “mass” incarceration—the white supremacist embarrassment it creates for respectable liberal/post-racial white nationhood—that requires reform.)
The mass incarceration parable then opens into spreading, dense accounts of the degradation and suffering that traverse stories of individualized tragedy to collectively-communally voiced, insurgent outrage. These accounts are mobilized and repurposed by various narrators (journalists, reform advocates, progressive pundits, elected officials, academics) as the ethnographic, deeply personalized, and urgent reasons for reforming “mass incarceration”—here, they proclaim, is the accumulated primary evidence of the state’s alleged criminological dysfunction. (Of course, what complicates this part of the narrative is that many of these accounts not only preceded the recent, increasingly generalized acknowledgement of the so-called mass incarceration crisis, but also seem to suggest that what has happened during the time in question is not the result of a dysfunctional state, but rather of an entirely functional one.)
“Well-placed intellectuals collectively strive to restore a paradigmatic liberal faith in the virtues and possibilities of righteous national reform against the state sanctioned climate of atrocity.”
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