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Political: Race and the Carceral State

Video transcript

(intro music) I'm Olufemi O. Taiwo. I'm a graduate student in philosophy at UCLA, and today I'll be talking about race and the carceral state. We often use racial terms like "white" and "black." Sometimes we mix these terms with ones about ethnicity and geographic descriptions, like nationalities. But ethnicity is primarily defined by intergroup social definition, and nationality is defined by citizenship. And these don't always conform to the visual classifications we might expect. Someone who's, for example, Latina could look like this or like this. And someone from Asia could look like this or like this. We often use race to describe what someone looks like, and so you might think that race is something intrinsic to a person's body or identity, since your body looks the same everywhere. But actually, it's more complicated. For example, here we might identify this person as some kind of exotic ethnicity, which isn't exactly race. But the same person in, say, Brazil might be called "white." So we need a definition of race that accounts for how it travels, as Ronke Oke describes it: how racial expectations and conceptions change based on which social environment we're in. Falguni Sheth's explains race this way: as a technology that works as a mode or vehicle of division, separation, hierarchy, as opposed to, say, a description of a set of natural kinds to categories. What's important is that race isn't fundamentally about what individual people are, but about what this identity category does for a state or other managerial organization. Jason Stanley uses the term "managerial state" to refer to a government where things are organized around efficiency, defined and organized around the interests and perspectives of the managers, or the people in charge. This is an important term in a world globally organized around money, influenced by how markets are regulated and constructed. The leaders of world governments aren't always themselves businesspeople, but get lots of input in their decision-making by various interests. One way by which the technologies of race and incarceration manage is by way of the threat of incarceration, policing, and criminalization of movement. All of these have disciplinary effects. Racist stigmas might convince us to accept and perpetuate treatment of some people of color as inherently criminal, most obvious in the American political context by the epithet "thug" for black men, and the disproportionate labeling of migrants from Central and South America as "illegals." This might prime us to accept their mass incarceration, detention, and deportation as unproblematic, while also priming those targeted populations to view it as expected. Douglas Massey and Ta-Nehisi Coates have examined the ways in which now hyper-policed communities were constructed geographically by interlocking policies, particularly around housing and zoning. This concentrates poverty and, as a result, crime which will then seem to justify the disproportionate policing of those spaces. Loic Wacquant notes the ways in which impoverished communities and prisons structurally inform each other, which has wide-reaching social consequences. At least some of those features seem to have been articulated clearly through artistic means, from the poetry of The Watts Prophets in the 60s to the music of recent decades, like Illmatic Illadelph Halflife, The New America parts one and two, and Black Messiah. We can make two conclusions. One, the justifications for hyper-policing are sociologically circular. Two, if we have a problem with crime, we're probably not going to find a solution anywhere in this circle. We can view this question pessimistically or optimistically. If we're pessimists, there might be nothing we can do. Maybe all we can end up doing is shifting around who is included, who is excluded, and various ways of parsing violent identities. But maybe there's reason for optimism. If we think we live in genuine democracy, then race might only function as a technology if enough people are disposed to accept the marginalization of their fellow citizens on, ultimately, racial grounds. Chris Lebron has noted that this crucially involves an issue of national character, or the kind of nation a country would like to be. That is, this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Changing a nation's character comes down to more than proving facts or winning specific electoral battles. It comes down to motivating everyone to do the tough work of restructuring systems. Subtitles by the Amara.org community