But our failure did not begin the day Florida decided to prosecute you for standing your ground; we did not fall short in the aftermath of a sham of a trial and the horror of a 20-year sentence. We, and by we here I am specifically talking about men, failed you long before you said enough to abuse. We have failed to create a culture that repels violence against women, which shuns and denounces every instance of domestic violence. We failed you in 2009 when your husband was arrested for abuse. The system has failed you over again. And we have failed in not holding that system accountable, in demanding a system that actual works to create a environment. In 2010, your husband said, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” Reading this hurts me because it is further evidence of our failure. We rear men who think this is ok, who are empowered to abuse. Where were we then? Where was the criminal justice system that is so concerned about protection and safety? We have failed you and for that I am sorry. Read more…
By Guest Contributor Kimberly Bernita Ross
The prison comedy-drama, Orange is The New Black (OITNB), is projected to trump House of Cards in viewership by the end of the year, giving it the distinction of being Netflix’s most-watched original series. The show is an adaptation of Piper Kerman’s memoir by the same name, which recounts her time in prison after being convicted for drug smuggling and money laundering a decade after the offense. Actress Taylor Schilling plays Piper in the series, depicting the sometimes-comical angst that the White upper-middle class, 30-something feels, upon entering what in real life was Danbury Federal Prison in Connecticut.
OITNB joins the ranks of other popular women in prison TV and film productions like Bad Girls, Stranger Inside and Prisoner: Cell Block H. All of these shows and films touch upon relevant issues facing real women in prison, such as a lack of physical and mental healthcare, sexual assault and separation from children; yet they also draw on some of the more sensationalized themes of an earlier generation of women-in-prison (WIP) exploitation films first popularized in the late 1960s and 70s. While OITNB is a significant departure from the B- Movie, WIP film subgenre, the show still relies on subjects of female subjugation, violence, and lesbian sex, themes heavily prevalent in WIP films. And just as WIP movies often cross into revolutionary plots and sometimes Blaxploitation motifs, OITNB delves into the stories of Black and Afro-Latina women in prison. Comparing the women-in-prison film genre with OITNB is a ripe opportunity to analyze changing representations of sexual orientation, gender and race on screen.
There is a dearth of critical examination within portrayals of race and the criminal justice system. Black and Latina women’s plot lines predictably include criminal women from the “menacing urban underclass” without much nuance or context. Writers rarely, if ever, analyze the racialized society that has created the prison industrial complex in which these women find themselves entangled. Jenji Kohen, creator of the show, has been quoted as saying she used the WASP character, fashioned after Piper Kerman, as a ploy to pitch the series to different networks—a sort of subterfuge to tell other stories that the industry is reluctant to touch. The White woman lens as a means of telling the stories of women of color has been a scheme in Hollywood for a long time, and is an oft-criticized element of OITNB. At the same time, much of the show’s appeal rests on this juxtaposition of race and class and the laughable observations of an ignorant Piper. While the stories of real women of color are still held hostage by Hollywood stratagem, OITNB has developed Black and Latino characters that differ from the static, underdeveloped roles of the WIP film subgenre. But how much has really changed?
By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson
It isn’t until the end of director Marta Cunningham’s new HBO documentary film Valentine Road, the gut-wrenching chronicle of the 2008 classroom murder of 15 year-old Lawrence King, a homeless gay youth of color, that the viewer learns the significance of the film’s name. Valentine Road is the location of King’s Oxnard, California grave, the final resting place of a caring, intelligent child whose death became a lightning rod for a racist homophobic heterosexist nation ill-equipped to see much less affirm King’s personhood. Place is a central character in this film, which dubiously frames King and white working class “boy next door” murderer Brandon McInerney as bookends in an American tragedy set in multicultural Oxnard. The film opens with a collage of the moments leading up to King’s execution in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School. We are treated to the sterile interior of the school, the gray tyranny of the computer lab where King was shot at point blank range, the blood-soaked floor that cradled King’s head after the slaying. Throughout the film King is represented in still photos, in the blurred fleeting footage of a campus security camera, in whimsical stylized animation that attempts to capture King’s transition from Larry to Letisha/Latonya (which friends say was her preferred identity before her death). The recollections of schoolmates, teachers, social workers and a foster parent touch on her fragility and kind-heartedness, yet in many of these testimonies her emerging identity is reduced to the “ungainly” performance of “cross-dressing”, crudely applied makeup, and awkward high heel boots. It is clear that King’s “inappropriate” gender expression was construed by the school as an embarrassment, a behavior problem that school administrators sought to contain with vapid compliance memos which downplayed the culture of structural violence against LGBTQ youth.
While King’s narrative plays out in fragments, the narrative of 14 year-old McInerney is vividly nuanced. The product of a violent home, McInerney’s drug-addicted mother and homicidal gun-toting father appear as deeply flawed yet loving. When he is cross-examined after the murder by a police detective he is treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity. When his case is taken up by two “juvenile justice” advocate attorneys enraged that he may be tried as an adult, the female half of the duo expresses her devotion and undying love for his so-called beautiful spirit.
In this regard Valentine Road ably, perhaps inadvertently, captures how the criminalization of people of color shapes American presumptions of white innocence. Despite McInerney’s apparent fondness for Nazi paraphernalia and use of racial slurs to refer to black classmates, prosecutors dropped a hate crime charge against him. His defense team trotted out the repugnant “gay panic” defense (which was prohibited for use in criminal trials under a 2006 California law named after Gwen Araujo, a transgender teen who was brutally murdered in 2002) egregiously portraying McInerney as a victim of King’s unrelenting sexual harassment. Unable to reach a unanimous verdict, the jury in McInerney’s first trial deadlocked. Some of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter and others for first-degree or second-degree murder. After the mistrial we see telling footage of white female jurors expressing sympathy for McInerney over pastries in a spacious suburban kitchen. In their minds King was clearly the aggressor; the dark sexual predator whose moral deviance sent the troubled young white boy into a (justifiably) murderous tailspin. Indeed, at least one of the jurors mailed prosecutors Religious Right propaganda excoriating the “abomination” of King’s sexuality and the injustice of “poor Brandon’s” plight. And in a show of motherly solidarity, the white female jurors even display “justice for Brandon” slogans.
In order for white hetero-normativity and heterosexism to flourish, violent masculinity must be fiercely protected by white women. The recurring theme of straight white innocence is one of the film’s most powerful subtexts. At every turn McInerney is humanized and contextualized; redemptively positioned as a son, boyfriend, brother, lost boy, conflicted student and victim of abject circumstances that were beyond his control. As per the national narratives of so many young white high profile murderers—from the Columbine shooters to Newtown killer Adam Lanza—we are carefully guided through McInerney’s world and made to “understand” his emotional turmoil and “damaged” psyche. While McInerney’s family members testify to his horrible upbringing Cunningham does not include interviews (save for one that was conducted with a short term foster parent) from King’s family members, guardians or adoptive parents, Gregory and Dawn King. The film never attempts to place King’s homelessness, her foster care status, biracial cultural background and history of sexual abuse in the broader context of systemic disenfranchisement of queer and trans youth of color. We learn from a classmate’s passing reference that King was “part-black” and that she strongly identified with and perhaps saw herself as an African American girl. Yet the implications of her biracial ancestry are never seriously explored with respect to the jury’s biases.
Aside from Dawn Boldrin, the instructor (who was subsequently terminated) who attempted to counsel and mentor King through her transition, many of the adults at the school policed and pathologized her behavior. Throughout the film, King’s queer and trans Latino classmates comment on the impact of her murder and how it influenced their own courageous struggles for empowerment. In one of the film’s most glaring oversights, it is unclear what, if anything, the school and district did in the aftermath of King’s murder to address the culture of institutionalized racism, homophobia and transphobia that contributed to her death.
After the outrage of the mistrial, McInerney eventually received a 21 year sentence for murdering King. He will be released at the age of 39. One of the final scenes shows him rejoicing in juvenile detention with his family after receiving his high school diploma—a beneficiary of the criminal justice system’s devaluation of black queer and transgender lives. Despite the advocacy of Larry King’s friends there is still no monument to or recognition of King at E.O. Green Middle School.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the author of the newly released Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels and Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars.
Dear Kalpen Suresh Modi,
I’ve been a big fan of yours for some time.
Even though I don’t know you, you always struck me as someone who was thoughtful about race.
When I heard your stage name Kal Penn really came from your wanting to see if white casting directors would be more responsive to “Kal” than to “Kalpeen,” I found it was so hilariously insightful that I couldn’t help but become a fan.
For whatever reason, I assumed you and I were similar. But on Tuesday when you tweeted that you were supportive of Stop and Frisk, I knew we weren’t as similar as I once assumed.
We had a brief back and forth about the policy on twitter, and while I appreciated you taking the time to share your thoughts, 140 characters isn’t enough space to adequately tell you misinformed you really are on Stop and Frisk.
From the Poli-Sci Perspective Blog at The Washington Post: John Sides interviews the authors of Justice in America: The Separate Realities of Blacks and Whites. When asked how different perspectives on the justice system affect black and white views of issues like the recent Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, they responded:
These separate realities are consequential in several important ways. First, when blacks are cynical and whites are sanguine about the justice system, they tend to interpret the behaviors of agents of the system (such as police officers and judges) through these lenses, leading to what might be a perpetual spiraling effect. In one study, we gave individuals a chance to explain the behaviors of police officers in different scenarios—for example, whether the police department could conduct a fair and thorough investigation into charges of police brutality. In one scenario, the brutality victim was described as white, and in the other scenario he was described as black.
Blacks believed that the police could conduct a fair investigation into brutality charges—but only if the victim of the brutality was white. If he was black, black respondents doubted that the police could be even remotely fair. To whites, however, the race of the victim was irrelevant. They tended to believe the police department could do its job fairly regardless of whether the victim of brutality was white or black.
In another scenario, we described a police search and arrest of two men, identified as either white or black, who were walking by a house “where the police know that drugs are being sold.” Again, when the two men were identified as black, African Americans were extremely skeptical about the circumstances surrounding the police search and were much more likely to think the police planted the drugs on the men. By contrast, whites trusted the police because they think the system is fair and color blind. Thus, in both the police brutality and the racial profiling scenarios, when either the victim or the suspects were identified as black, African American respondents reacted with great skepticism, whereas whites appeared to form their impressions in a racial vacuum, as if unaware of the many sources of injustice that blacks face on a regular basis.
President Obama talked about this discrepancy as well: “And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” In these words, the president summarized the views of many African Americans that the justice system is not a level playing field. Read more…
Image Credit: longislandwins on Flickr
By Guest Contributor Lisa Wade, Ph. D.; originally published at Sociological Images
Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely than Whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite having equivalent use rates. It’s a war on what again?
You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.
There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.
And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.
Now, this isn’t to say that the African American community is naïve about the fact that African American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact — although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context. They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history.
And so the fact that sometimes that’s unacknowledged adds to the frustration. And the fact that a lot of African American boys are painted with a broad brush and the excuse is given, well, there are these statistics out there that show that African American boys are more violent — using that as an excuse to then see sons treated differently causes pain.
- Full transcript available via The White House
By Arturo R. García
It did not take long for business interests and other unsavory elements to pop up in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Beyond the professional ghouls, bloviators and racial profiling apologists to Zimmerman’s brother acting as a media surrogate to, perhaps even more disturbingly, one of the six jurors attempting to cash in on her brush with “fame.”
But thankfully, there are already people, online and off, in the streets marching and working from their homes, and even from behind bars, pushing back against this odious tide.