Reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, I caught myself thinking on the connection between ourselves as individuals and the “law”. We see the Law (capital L) and Justice (capital J) as immutable forces, objective and separate from ourselves, operating beyond the psychic planes of social reality, rejecting the body social we engage in and operating on its own kind of plane of reality. This is often the case when we talk about issues such as Black Lives Matter, where the common refute of “All Lives Matter” relies on the idea that the “particularities of race” act independently of the law, that the law operates blindly in the face of these human-built barriers. But the law does not truly exist independent of our fallacies; we are the Law as much as the Law is us. The law, justice, and crime are informed by the very complexities of life that continue to divide us. We devise the laws and interpret them as such, and the ways of thinking that inform our interpretations are the ones that fuel the flames of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
As they read and prepare for the discussions they’ll have on campus, I implore students to think critically about their implicit participation in these “objective” structures of thought. We find the law to be “objective” but the reality of it is that we read into the law what we want out of it, and it is in these transactions we make with Justice (with a capital J) that tragic events like the senseless killings of black people across America occur. It is in these transactions that we say things like “well she was incapacitated so was it really assault?” There are many ways the Law, in its removal from the mires of society, becomes merely an extended reality of the horrors of oppression, frightening in its state-sponsored power to imprison and execute, terrifying in its ability to scar. Beyond issues of racism and state-sponsored discrimination, I believe that Alexander’s analysis opens the door to a paradigm that can be applied to various aspects of our lives.
The biggest questions for me going forward will be, how do we work to perpetuate structures of inequality? What does it mean to say “Silence is complicity”? How do we interact with these methods of oppression while remaining separate from them? There are many ways Alexander’s indictment of the prison-industrial complex forces us to reevaluate our interactions with other seemingly “objective” structures of society. These are questions that are frustratingly, maddeningly hard, and I look forward to reading students’ reactions and hearing from them face to face. But I think reading and digesting this wonderful book is an overwhelming and yet necessary first step towards an understanding of how we, as individuals, groups and societies, interact with each other and other things. This question, “How do I participate in this?”, is central to understandings of privilege and the like, and it will be a cornerstone in the path to becoming true cosmopolitan citizens.