Media and Political Messaging

A hot topic of discussion currently is the media’s role in influencing the public perception of politics and issues of race. As portrayed in “13th” the media has long played an extremely important role in how the American public perceives race.

The manipulative use of language by political platforms to disguise racism is a very interesting topic discussed by the film. For example, Regan administration officials were caught on tape explaining how although you can’t use blatantly racist slurs or terms, you can be more abstract and still get the same result. Focusing on “crime”, but using “crime” as a stand in for race, was the predominant example. This has been an important discussion surrounding Trump’s administration as well. The film showed how confident these politicians, such as Nixon or Reagan, were that they could paint a certain picture of race and crime for the American public, and convince the people that they could solve a problem they were in fact defining and creating. We can see the evidence of the same confidence in Trump during his campaign, painting all Mexican immigrants as criminals and proposing a wall as a solution, for example.

Transformation of Racism – Slavery to Mass Incarceration

“13th” added some new topics to the discussion of mass incarceration that I had not previously considered. The reading of the 13th Amendment, that emphasizes the loophole that accepts indentured servitude/slavery being acceptable as long as its victims are criminal, was a completely new concept to me. When we study the 13th Amendment, it is always with the positive view of progress achieved by its addition to our Constitution, not with an eye toward the door left open for racism to make its way through to a new era.

The mass incarceration issue, has been a topic of discussion on the political platform for most of my life. Often we are shown statistics of how racially imbalanced our prison systems are. However, “13th” went into detail as to how this imbalance came about and the many contributing factors. I had not realized how being “hard on crime” was a theme so heavily repeated over the past few decades that it has become a significant factor in the U.S. political stage, with so many politicians relying on it to get elected. This emphasis on being “hard on crime” has made it seem that only the losing side would propose such things as prison reform, or treating drug addicts for their health issues rather than as criminals, or to look to the true causes for the increase in prison population. What was extremely surprising is to hear politicians and their advisors recorded describing this racist political plan, with the Nixon administration describing how an attack on drugs would be the method to stifle groups they couldn’t technically arrest (“hippies” and “blacks”). It was also interesting to learn of the theory that mass incarceration of African Americans began as an effort to rebuild the labor workforce in the south after the end of slavery.

This transformation of racism, from slavery to mass incarceration, shows how despite efforts to change the laws, racism continued to manifest in new forms. The law was changed to outlaw slavery, but segregation and mass incarceration, along with the “war on drugs”, created new methods for racism to integrate within our society.

Application of Mark Halstead’s 6 Different Types of Racism

In Mark Halstead’s piece, “Education, Justice, and Cultural Diversity: An Examination of the Honeyford Affair,” Halstead identifies six (6) different types of racism: Pre-reflective gut racism, post-reflective gut racism; cultural racism, institutional racism, paternalistic racism, and color-blind racism. A discussion around America’s mass incarceration, as discussed in “13th”, likely involves a combination of multiple types of racism. Institutional racism “generally refers to the way that the institutional arrangements and the distribution of resources in our society serve to reinforce the advantages of the white majority.” [1] The United States incarceration system was not originally created with a racist intent, which is the first factor to evaluate for institutional racism. The prison system serves a general purpose as part of the justice system, to keep the peace and punish those who commit crimes, and presumably, was created for that intent, not for any race specific reason.

Secondly, over time a change must occur where minority groups are disadvantaged by the system, which is the dynamic discussed in “13th” as well as The New Jim Crow.  The third factor is the power of the white majority over the institution. Arguably, this could be displayed either by a showing of power of the white majority in the justice system overall, from the police population to judges to wardens, or this factor could be met by an analysis of the white political leaders, such as those in the Reagan administration, who consciously took control over the “war on drugs” leading to the mass incarceration we have today. The fourth factor is that once the discriminatory effects of the institution are made known, those who continue to follow the ways of the institution are considered racist.

Because institutions, like the prison system, were originally created for non race-related purposes, by the time their transformation into a system with discriminatory effects is complete, it can be difficult to identify how to undo the transformation. With institutionalized racism, so many people can be involved, including those who are consciously or unconsciously perpetuating the racist effects. There are many factors that contributed to the mass incarceration problem in America, and it will take understanding and addressing those many factors to work toward a solution.

Allison Nunes

[1] Halstead, Mark Education, Justice and Cultural Diversity: An Examination of the Honeyford Affair, (1988) London: Falmer Press; 139-155