atualidades · Educação · English · literatura · reflexão

A new system of racial control? Understanding mass incarceration and its similarities between the United States and Brazil

In the book “The New Jim Crow”, Alexander makes some valid arguments about how mass incarceration in the United States has become the new system of racial control, even though the laws are not explicitly discriminatory or based on race. She talks about how black people grow up with the notion that they are going to be considered potential criminals for the rest of their lives, and how mass incarceration has affected the minorities connection and support through the dissemination of shame between them. She also discusses how black and underprivileged communities are targeted by the war on drugs even though white people are as much inclined to buy and consume drugs as the rest of society. Her book is very centralized in how the United States and especially how black people and other minorities in the country have been affected by mass incarceration. However, Alexander’s discussion about the war on drugs can also be applied in my country, Brazil, which made me reflect on my own personal experience with this system of control. 

 When I was in High School, I was talking to my friend Danilo about the first time he was searched by the police with his friends. Since I never saw myself in a situation like that, I was listening carefully to compare what he would say with everything that I already knew about police searches in students back in my country. However, what he told me struck me at first. Even though the police searched his friends and found marijuana, which is considered illegal in Brazil, nothing really happened to him or his friends, and later he saw the cops laughing with his one friend that had the drug on him. I was relieved to know that nothing bad happened to my friend’s group, but I kept thinking about how his experience was different from the ones that I had heard before. In Brazil, there are many official stories of people who are incarcerated for having as little as less than 5 grams of marijuana, and I have seen news in which the police were found incriminating people during the searches by putting drugs on them. Therefore, when he first told me about his experience, I did not know how there could be so many discrepancies between his friend’s treatment and all the other stories that I already knew about this type of situation.

Then, I realized. Everyone in my friend’s group was white, and they were searched in an area that is most frequented by underprivileged black or pardo people. After they were searched, the police specifically told them that they were not their target, so my friend’s group was set free. Danilo told me that he was in the wrong location at the wrong time, and I started to understand that he was completely correct about it. First of all, Danilo’s friends would never be searched if they were in the areas that they actually lived and studied, which are frequented by people from the higher middle – and mostly white – class in my city. Even though young people in these areas usually consume a lot of drugs, we rarely hear stories about problems with the police related to it. 

As Alexander mentioned in her book, more specifically in chapters 2 and 3, the war on drugs has set the grounds for the police to work with maximum discretion while they target mostly poor and black communities. Therefore, Danilo’s situation and treatment of his friends would definitely not happen with a group of black or pardo people of the same age and in the same place, even though studies have shown that whites – and particularly the white youth – are more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than people of color (99). Like in the US, however, the majority of prisoners in Brazil are young males, aged 18 to 29, black or pardo, with minimal or no schooling – 89 percent have not completed primary education -, and the majority of prisons is drug-related.

After Danilo told me about his experience, I was inquiet at first, but then with time I just stopped thinking about it. We often study racism in history classes, and we learn from an early age how our country, which was mostly built based on the slavery of Africans and indigenous people, had discriminatory laws that prevented African descendants from having access to opportunities and rights in our society. In the same context that we are taught about our country in the past, however, we are also taught about how our modern laws are so focused on equal rights for every individual that our constitution of 1988 is commonly called the “Citizen Constitution”, aiming to provide free and quality access to education, healthcare, job opportunities and equal rights for everyone. We no longer have discriminatory laws. We offer free access to education and healthcare to everyone. Every citizen has the right to be treated equally. Our country now surfs on the waves of equality, and even though African descendants were not able to go to public universities 60 years ago, now we have absolutely no vestiges of racism in our society and culture overall. 

Well, this is a good dream, and I wanted to believe it. I wanted to believe in the beauty of our laws, and therefore, I let go of the strange feeling in my chest when I compared Danilo’s experience with all the others that I had heard before. Even though I knew something was wrong, I just did not want to acknowledge it. As King explained, my perspective was of a white moderate, in which I did not agree with the means taken by the government and police to achieve “order,” but at the same time I did not want to do something about it or even think about it too much.

In his text “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, King reflects on the negative role of the white moderate, “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (4). He, therefore, condemns the white moderate for its passive acceptance of the racial inequality and the injustices happening in order to achieve the so-called “order” that I preferred to believe it existed rather than to search for justice actively. After all, if those black kids were arrested or killed, they must have done something to deserve it, right? 

According to The New Jim Crow, this thought of mine represents the majority of the population that “know and do not know” what is happening in the country. It is the so-called state of denial, in which “we tell ourselves they “deserve” their fate, even though we know— and don’t know — that whites are just as likely to commit many crimes, especially drug crimes” (182). It is almost the same situation discussed in the book “Circle of Love over Death”, even though the issue of race is not debated, but rather the passive acceptance of order over justice and the collective denial of the social circumstances and injustices happening in the country. 

Within the testimonies of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, it is possible to see how the Argentinians knew that there was something wrong – children and people were disappearing every day, but nobody wanted to think about it – only the mothers and the families that were affected by it wanted to know what happened to their children and relatives. The majority of the population was living “the Argentinian belle epoque” (v), so they preferred to end their doubts with the same conclusion that I used to stop myself from thinking about the system in Brazil, and that is also used in most situations involving the suffering of others other than our own, because “there must have been some reason” (v). However, as explained in the book “Confessions of Dirty Warrior,” this passive acceptance and lack of personal responsibility often leads to even more violence and unjust actions, because, as it is said by Scilingo about the brutalities that happened during the dirty war, “If the majority of the population had demonstrated against it, things would have been different” (23).

I was a big believer in our laws, and the fact that they were not discriminatory made a significant influence on me not to challenge the mass incarceration system in Brazil. I was taught that we no longer had racism and everybody was treated equally, so I tried my hardest to let go of the feeling that there was something wrong when my friend told me about his story. However, it got to a point in which I was forced to realize that what was once put into paper to create a well written and inspiring constitution with no racial or gender bias was unfortunately not true at all. Almost every day, I would see stories such as the one of Evaldo Santos, a musician that was driving from home to a baby tea party with his family who was killed with 80 shots by the police. Ágatha Félix, an 8-year-old girl died after being hit by bullets from police in her back in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. Kauan Peixoto, a 12-year-old boy that left his home only to “buy some snacks,” died after being shot several times during a police operation. All of these deaths happened in underprivileged and black neighborhoods by the police. All of these people had done nothing more than trying to live their lives. Were they guilty of anything more than that? Well, yes. They were guilty of being born in a country in which there is a false promise of equal treatment and access to opportunities. But that is the only thing that they were guilty of. That is when I started to realize how I could not be a white moderate anymore.

Now, as I said previously, Alexander also discusses in her book how mass incarceration and structural racism affect black communities by breaking down their support system and sense of community through the dissemination of shame. This happens since the early stages of a black (and also pardo in Brazil) person’s life. First, they are born in unstructured families because there is a high chance that their parents have already been affected by the system, so their fathers might be in prison or have already been branded as criminals. Therefore, they turn to their fellows in “the streets” for support, in which they act to embrace the stigma surrounding blackness and criminality as if they were trying to own a destiny that they know it will eventually come true (which is what Alexander described as “gangsta love”). Then, they get arrested and officially enter the prison system without knowing the consequences of being labeled a criminal for the rest of their lives. When they get out, they need to face consequences such as shame and lack of proper reintegration into society. This case is also the exact same as in Brazil. 

I experienced some level of this issue through a friend of mine, called Yasmin, whom I consider as a sister without blood relations. I say that because when we were younger, she used to stay in our house for weeks and even months. I never asked myself why, all I knew was that we were really close to each other, besides our families as well. Then, she stopped coming to my house and our families kind of lost touch with one another. I never questioned what happened because her mother used to work in my neighborhood, but then she stopped, so I thought it had something to do with it. 

However, after some years, when I was in my final year of high school we reconnected, and she spent some days at my house. Then, one night she proceeded to tell me what happened to her brother, and how he was put in jail for a crime that he did not commit. He was blamed because he was with two other white guys from a much higher economic class than his, and he was the only one who was put in jail even though he was there as a witness. This situation was traumatic for her family, and they did not search for support in their friends because they were too ashamed to have a member of their family going to jail. Even though they knew he was not guilty, it was still an extremely sensitive subject, and they did not discuss it with others until her brother went out of jail. However, he still carries the label of a criminal, and it is still an extremely hard situation for her family. They still rarely ever talk about it, even between themselves. 

In Brazil, besides the situation described previously, there is also the case of people who enter prison with a minor offense, but because our prisons are extremely dangerous, they generally need to join criminal groups to protect themselves. Therefore, they are often forced to engage in illegal activities inside and outside of jail, and if they do not agree to do it, the consequences are often heavy beatings and even death. In my neighborhood, I had a friend called Kauan with whom his brother was arrested for having drugs on him. He entered the prison and was considered to have good behavior, so in some specific cases he was allowed to leave jail for a short amount of time. However, he was obligated by some of the others to re-enter the prison with drugs hidden on him, and once he did not accomplish it, he was killed inside his cell asphyxiated by one of the prisoners. This friend of mine went through such a traumatic time, and he dug so deep into drugs to cope for what had happened that I spent a while without knowing where he was, and the next time I saw him he was almost unrecognizable. What was once a strong boy full of life and happiness had become an extremely skinny and fragile person clearly addicted to drugs that would go missing for days and days without warning. 

I am saying all of this because, throughout all of those experiences, it became clearer how I could not just passively accept this system of mass incarceration as a means of racial control happening around my community. In Brazil, we have a lot of structural amnesia and humiliated silence in the sense that people in higher economic classes decided to collectively forget about all of our past and even recent events related to this issue since it does not affect them. Also, people in underprivileged communities have chosen not to talk about it because of the sense of shame and disconnection between the minorities that I discussed previously as being a result of mass incarceration. This is precisely what it is explained by Connerton, in which we have a situation where “we are faced with the silence of humiliation and shame.” 

In his article “Seven types of forgetting,” Connerton reflects about the different “types of act that cluster together under the single term to forget” (abstract). Then, he distinguishes the concepts of structural amnesia and humiliated silence, with the first relating to the fact that “a person tends to remember only those links in his or her pedigree that are socially important” (64), and the latter being connected to both the “desire to forget and sometimes the actual effect of forgetting” (67). 

Therefore, with this collective silence based on shame from black communities and the lack of personal connection and responsibility from the higher white class, it gets harder to break the cycle and disrupt the system in order to achieve justice. The majority of the middle and higher white class in Brazil is being passive about everything that is happening because they can not empathize and put themselves in the shoes of the ones affected by the system. Even though Alexander argues that in this new system white people can also be affected by mass incarceration, she also states how the rates are extremely low if comparable to black or Latinos in the United States, and the same goes for black and pardos in Brazil. This context is well-explained by King’s mentions in his letter, “I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action” (4).

The people from black and underprivileged communities grow up with a clear definition that being black means to be a criminal, and it does not matter what they do; they will always be considered as such. This is related to the solitarist approach discussed by Sen in his book “Identity and Violence,” which “sees human beings as members of exactly one group” (xii) rather than belonging to a variety of essential identities that makes us who we really are. Then, when they finally get arrested, they often face situations in which they may be obligated to engage in activities much worse than the ones they entered prison for. If they happen to leave prison, they also face increasingly shame that stops them from searching for support within their communities. This situation clearly does not affect only one person, but everybody around them. And even though it is such a massive and relatable problem for almost every black or pardo community in Brazil, it is still extremely hard to talk about it, hence the collective silence.

But after so many extreme experiences and stories such as the Evaldo’s one, some people are starting to light the sparkle for change. During my high school, I decided that I wanted to work with education and social action especially because I wanted students from all backgrounds to have a more equalized access to education and opportunities. As Coates experience, schools in underprivileged and black communities are often places presented merely as a “means of escape from death and penal warehousing” (26), and this totally correlates to my country as well. Frequently, young black students do not even try to do well at school because they are taught that despite how hard they study and try to do well, they will always remain potential suspects. They are continuously reminded of it by the police, educators, family, and government authorities. Like Prince Jones, even though they can be well-educated, good Christians, and warm people, they are still considered potential criminals with an uncertain future, no matter the situation.

However, I believe it is possible to change these circumstances by creating programs to equalize access to quality education for underprivileged and minority communities, besides raising awareness of the real problems that are affecting our country, and I know I am not alone. Besides education, we also have people working in different areas such as politics, public policy, social sciences, arts, media, and academia to dismantle this system of racial control. People are writing about it and showing the truth to encourage social action, and some movements are also starting to discuss the issue of color blindness to promote the acceptance that we are all “diversely different,” as Sen arguments in his book “Identity and Violence.”

As Sen’s critique, the system of mass incarceration is influencing our society to be under what he calls a “solitarist view of identity.” Therefore, instead of being appreciated for all that they are, people are being crammed into single boxes that are usually not of their choosing – such as race. Thus, even though a person may have several essential identities – a woman, a father, an African descent, a teacher, and so on – the solitarist approach would claim that only one of these identities is necessary for understanding an individual. The mass incarceration system, then, is putting black people into only one box by labeling all of them as criminals, creating a new method of racial discrimination “in the era of color blindness,” which is why it is so hard to protest against it – we have no proof that it is racially discriminatory.

Therefore, by tackling these issues such as the war on drugs, the solitarist perspective of identity, and the color blindness strategy – which are some of the critical parts for this system of mass incarceration to continue moving – we can hope for a future in which black people are no longer going to be treated as the undercast of our society. Alexander also argues in chapter 6 that dismantling this system would require actions such as ending racial profiling, demilitarizing conventional police forces, eradicating drug confiscation laws, ending affirmative action, repealing mandatory sentences, legalizing marijuana and potentially other drugs, as well as many other steps. I agree with her except for the part of ending affirmative action – especially when it comes to entering public universities – which I believe it is still necessary in Brazil as a temporary strategy.  

In this context, it is already possible to see some of her ideas to end the war on drugs and the system of mass incarceration already happening in the United States. Some of them are also starting to be conceptualized in Brazil and other countries that are affected by the same problem. The legalization of marijuana, for example, is already happening in the US, and I am confident that the other countries will follow this attitude as well. There is also a substantial debate about racial profiling, mandatory sentences, and demilitarization of police, which I am hoping to soon be the cases for discussion in Brazil. Our current president wants to move backward in some of these subjects, but our population is already waking up and moving for change. Therefore, with all of these new actions happening to overcome this problem, even if it takes some time due to the challenges offered by this system of control, I believe we are gradually moving in the right direction.

For reasons of privacy, the names in this text are not the real ones.

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