Zone of Non-being

Darryl Walker Jr

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Review: 13th (Directed by Ava DuVernay)

I recently watched “13th” – a documentary on Netflix about the criminalization and incarceration of black folks since slavery “ended.” The film is good overall, and I recommend it to everyone. The documentary does a good job synthesizing history and casting suspicion on reformism. But we should be honest about the shortcomings of the film, and the problematic narratives it perpetuates.

1. The film includes interviews with Henry Louis Gates and Newt Gingrich. Enough said.

2. The film subordinates race to an analysis of class. An overwhelming bulk of the film frames mass incarceration as a result of the “prison industrial complex” – whereby corporations lock people up for profit and cheap labor. This angle is certainly valid, but it does not have full explanatory power. There comes a time when it is simply no longer about capitalism, and we need to move beyond discussions of the economy. The sadistic desire to terrorize black folks is not captured by terms like “capital” and “labor.” We need to focus, also, on the anti-black collective unconscious and the way it organizes the economy, laws, and institutions. A problem with the film is that it is only able to explain anti-blackness by saying it is a result of something else.

3. Even though the film was directed by a black woman (Ava DuVernay) and includes a guest appearance from Angela Davis, there is virtually no discussion of the ways black women and girls are objects of state violence. We are bombarded with statistics and stories about black men being endangered, which is all true. But the film does not mention that black women are the fastest growing population in prison. More than 70 black women have been killed by the police in the past 3 years. Black women are sexually abused and raped by prison officials. The failure to discuss this renders black women and girls invisible.

There are at least two reasons the film does not focus on black women. First, it would shift attention away from the whole endangered black man narrative. Second, it would threaten the film’s emphasis on the economy. If we centered black women, we would have to admit that mass incarceration is not simply about capitalism; it is also about the pleasures of sexual violence.

Films like this are part of the reason the #SayHerName campaign was created and needs to continue.

There Is No Housing Shortage, Just a Lack of Compassion

“A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization. A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization” -Aime Cesaire

The true measure of a country is not the height of its skyscrapers or might of its military – but the treatment of vulnerable populations. On any given night, more than half a million people experience homelessness in the United States. But in the midst of massive wealth accumulation is a dearth of compassion for the downtrodden.

Homeless People, Peopleless Homes

Embedded in the discourse of politicians and civilians alike is the idea that homelessness is caused by a “housing shortage.” Pundits sprain their brains when they explain the relationship between supply and demand in the housing market. However, this line of reasoning completely overlooks the fact that there are 6 vacant properties for every homeless person in the United States. Even if we use more conservative figures, there are still 2.3 empty houses for every person that is homeless. There are more peopleless homes than homeless people because houses do not exist to satisfy human needs. Under capitalism, houses are instruments to extract profit. If someone cannot afford their monthly rent or mortgage payment, they are thrown onto the streets. There is no such thing as a “housing shortage” – there is only a shortage of humanity.

Everyday Dehumanization

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with America’s inner cities has borne witness to people holding cardboard signs and begging for spare change. Reactions tend to fall into two camps: ignore the victims or punish them, or both. Motorists are notorious for avoiding eye contact with ‘bums’ – and pedestrians are known to simply step over ‘hobos’ laying on the sidewalk. This warped mentality is validated and reproduced at the structural level by governments that criminalize poverty. Across the country, anti-panhandling ordinances are being passed that subject the poor to heavy fines and jail time. Consider the fact that between 2011 and 2014, the number of cities that banned panhandling increased by 25%. It is evident that people who beg for money are demonized as ‘public nuisances’ and blemishes on the body politic. Police departments are utilized as instruments that fumigate these ‘menaces’ from gentrifying areas – quelling the concerns of wealthy, white developers and residents about their ‘quality of life.’ Adding insult to injury is the fact that local governments are altering the public spaces frequented by transient populations. Specifically, municipalities are investing in defensive architecture: street furniture (i.e. park benches) that is rigged with spikes or bars to prevent prolonged stays by people who are homeless.


Image: vertical bars installed on bench to prevent people from laying down. Photo Credit

A common idea is that people who are homeless and beg for money deserve to suffer because they are (more likely to be) substance abusers. Empirical studies have found that individuals who are homeless do, in fact, consume drugs and alcohol at higher rates than the general population. However, our analysis needs to be expanded to view the entire picture. Addiction to drugs/alcohol is often a cause of homelessness. Detoxification programs often advance the idea that “the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection.” From this perspective, addiction is a consequence of dehumanization – a turning inward and away from people. Children who suffer adverse childhood experiences and trauma are significantly more likely to become alcoholics as adults. That being stated, there is a significant chance that the people who are living on the streets were denied meaningful human connections from an early age. Now, consider their feelings when a motorist avoids eye contact or a pedestrian steps over them. These responses reaffirm the original feelings of violation, vulnerability, and solitude experienced in childhood – all of which might exacerbate their substance abuse, which worsens their financial plight.

Keep in mind that people who are homeless are typically ignored at their darkest hour. Not only are such individuals in a precarious position, but the masses of people fail to acknowledge as such. Making eye contact, smiling, and giving an uplifting word is important – as it establishes a connection and sends the message that there is still hope.


Cesaire, Aime. 1955. Discourse on Colonialism. Monthly Review Press: New York

Photo credit
Photo credit

State Coercion & the Treatment of Mental Illness

Coercion is the power to force compliance with authority using threats of physical punishment, deprivation and/or other undesirable consequences (Geller et. al, 2006). The fact of government coercion is inescapable, as it is the basis of an effective social control model. However, state intervention into the lives of its citizens is not equally distributed across the population. A major point of contention surrounds the ethics and efficacy of using involuntary outpatient commitment to mandate the treatment of mental illness. This post reviews the academic literature to present competing perspectives on this hotly debated topic.

What Is Involuntary Outpatient Commitment?

Involuntary outpatient commitment is a legal mechanism that mandates treatment for individuals with mental illness. As a condition of living in the community, people with psychiatric disorders must comply with court-ordered psychotropic drug and treatment demands. Compulsory measures often include that “a person participate in full-day treatment programs, undergo urine and blood tests, frequently attend meetings of addiction self-help groups, enter psychotherapy with a particular therapist, or reside in a supervised living situation” (Allen & Smith, 2001:342). An additional mechanism entails that a representative (also known as a ‘rep-payee’) control the budget of the person with mental illness. All of this is based on the premise that mental illness, when untreated, will become worse and adversely impact self and/or others.

Types of Involuntary Outpatient Commitment

There are three types of involuntary outpatient commitment:

  • Conditional release: Individuals are discharged from an inpatient setting into society. After an improvement of symptoms at the hospital, the person with mental illness is granted the privilege of living in the community. Continuation of this arrangement is contingent upon adherence to a treatment plan that often involves consumption of psychotropic medication (McCaffetery & Dooley, 1990).
  • Assisted outpatient treatment: This type of outpatient commitment uses the same standard as inpatient commitment, but gives individuals with mental illness the opportunity to live in the community (Geller et. al 2006). In comparison to inpatient treatment, this is deemed less restrictive.
  • Preventive outpatient commitment: Unlike assisted outpatient commitment, preventive outpatient commitment does not require a person meet inpatient standards (Cornwell & Deeney, 2003). Thus, persons with mental illness are coerced into outpatient treatment before they become a danger to self or others. At present, 42 states and the District of Columbia have involuntary commitment laws; with preventive outpatient commitment being legal in nine. In many areas, the time-frame for which treatment is compelled is both vague and expanded without uniformity (Bazelon Center, 1999).

Legal Doctrine & the Power of the State

There are two legal principles that grant the United States government the capacity to compel individuals with mental illness: police power, and parens patriae. These two doctrines have traditionally been applied to justify the interference of government in matters of personal autonomy. First, the state’s police power refers to the ability to prevent harm within the community. In mental health settings, “this justification is utilized when the behavior of a person with mental illness causes them to become a risk or harm to others” (Geller et. al 2006: 552). Ensuring public safety from the potential violence of individuals with mental illness is the main objective. The fulcrum of this legal standard is the idea of dangerousness. In Addington v Texas, the Supreme Court declared that the state has the power “to protect the community from the dangerous tendencies of those who are mentally ill” (emphasis added, 1979: 1). To accomplish this goal, clinical assessments are made about present danger or the likelihood of future harm. More concretely, the police power of the state compels a person with mental illness to submit to treatment because of existing or predicted violence.

The second justification for state intervention into the lives of people with mental illness is parens patriae. A clue into the nature of this principle is the Latin translation of the term, which is ‘parent of the fatherland.’ This legal standard is applied by the state to infringe upon the right to autonomy when the person’s “ability to make autonomous decisions is impaired to the extent that they become a risk to themselves” (Geller et. al 2006: 552). The state’s application of this justification often centers on the notion of competence. While individuals with mental illness are free to refuse treatment, the question is: does the person know they have the illness? In the event that the mentally ill person is unable to acknowledge their illness, the state can act in the ‘best interest’ of the individual by coercing them into treatment.

Are the Mentally Ill More Violent? 

A common justification used to support involuntary outpatient commitment is preventing harm to others. Kress (2000) contends that the violence perpetrated by people with mental illness often occurs when they are not being treated. The impulse here is that the physical harm inflicted by individuals with mental illness can be diverted with involuntary outpatient commitment. Interestingly, many preventive outpatient commitment laws have their root in highly publicized crimes committed by people with mental illness. For instance, ‘Kendra’s Law’ and ‘Laura’s Law’ were implemented in New York and North Carolina, respectively, as responses to murders committed by men with untreated delusions. While it is true that people with mental illness are no more likely to commit violence than the general population (Mental Health America, 2014), Torrey (1998) postulates that a subset of individuals with severe mental illness are more dangerous. The high resistance to treatment amongst this group exposes masses of people to tragedies that could have been prevented.

Research has evaluated the relationship between violence and mental illness. Overall, violence amongst persons with mental illness is indeed concentrated to a very small sub-population of the group. Link (1992) found that three symptoms of psychosis were related to violent behavior: the belief that other people wished to do harm to you, that your mind was dominated by forces beyond your control, and that existing thoughts were not your own. These symptoms have been termed threat/control-override. After controlling for sociodemographic factors (i.e. age, gender, etc) these symptoms were not appreciably higher than other social determinants as indicators of violence. Additionally, a study conducted by Stuart & Florez (2001) found that violence was higher among individuals struggling with substance abuse. In the final analysis, people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators (Mental Health America, 2014).

Double Maneuver of the State

One of the goals of involuntary outpatient treatment is to ensure public safety. However, Allen & Smith (2001) challenge the conventional belief that outpatient treatment is more advantageous than voluntary treatment in accomplishing this objective. They argue “when compared head-to-head with a program of enhanced and coordinated services, outpatient commitment is no more effective in preventing subsequent acts of violence and arrest” (p. 343). Hence, the usage of coercion to involuntarily commit people with mental illness to treatment may be unwarranted. The unchallenged link between ‘danger to others’ and the need for involuntary outpatient commitment misses two facts: 1). most people are willing to participate in treatment, and 2). there is a lack of resources that prevents people from receiving care. According to Mental Health America (2014), the mental health system has suffered $4.6 billion in budget cuts since 2009, and lacks the capacity to meet current demands. Discourse regarding a danger to others elides the fact that access to treatment is increasingly difficult. The state performs a double maneuver in this regard: it destabilizes the mental health system by withdrawing economically, only to re-insert itself as the provider of protection from the very group it continues to destabilize. Thus, it may be important to question widespread definitions of safety.

Violence Cannot Be Predicted

A premise supporting preventive outpatient treatment is that violence can be predicted. However, research has shown that risk assessments yield results that are similar to chance. Lidz et. al (1993) found that psychiatrists successfully identified 58% of individuals who did not engage in violence and 60% of people who did. These results are not impressive enough to justify preventive treatment. Mental Health America (2014) contends “mental health professionals possess no special knowledge or ability to predict future dangerous behavior” (p. 1). Nonetheless, there are at least four competing ways to frame the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of risk assessments. First, while the aforementioned results are not significantly better than chance, they are the best the system of mental health can offer. This imperfect system will help decrease the number of preventable attacks by screening for dangerous tendencies. Second, since violence assessments will inevitably yield false positives, individuals who truly pose no risk to public safety will be forced to forfeit their autonomy. The problem here is that people will lose their liberty and be unfairly criminalized in a way that does not improve their condition. Third, violence is a complex phenomena, and what ‘counts’ as violence is rooted in political, economic, and social structures. Thus, an individual level of analysis elides the social structures that work in tandem in producing this behavior. Fourth, the wisdom of a risk assessment is ill-advised. The social world changes constantly. However, violence assessments are based on an isolated snapshot of a ever-fluctuating terrain. It is thus impossible to make accurate predictions of violence.

The Failures of Parens Patriae

A subset of the parens patriae principle is the idea that people with severe mental illnesses have impaired insight. The argument from this perspective is that the severity of certain psychiatric disorders leads to anosognosia: lacking awareness of one’s illness. Torrey & Zdanowicz (2001) posit that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder damage the brain and negatively affect decision-making capacities. These neurologically-based incapacitations render people incapable of making informed medical decisions regarding treatment. While this line of reasoning is persuasive on a visceral level, basic research on these claims reveals unconvincing results. Flashman et. al(2000) analyzed physical abnormalities of the brain and the presence of absence of ‘insight,’ and found no definitive evidence.

A fatal flaw with the application of parens patriae is that most states do not require a determination of incompetence. This is asinine – especially when the fact that most people with mental illness are competent is considered (Appelbaum, 1994). This is more than mere paternalism; it is the state’s attempt to present itself as the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-wise Supreme Being. While a doctrine of American jurisprudence is ‘innocent until proven guilty’ – the courts in many states invert this logic. This hostile perspective does more to exacerbate mental illness than improve it. In an attempt to recalibrate this, the first right elucidated on the website of Mental Health America (2014) is:

                Presumption of Competence: It is a basic principle of American law that all adults are presumed to be “competent” – that is, they are presumed to be capable of making their own decisions about their own lives and their own medical care,  including mental health treatment.

An additional problem with state intervention on the grounds that an individual poses a harm to self is that it reinforces the mind/body schism. The theory and application of parens patriae is the idea that mental illness and physical illness are different. Most notably, mental illness is tethered to a discourse on danger that compels state intervention. People with mental illness are said to be a ‘danger to self’ when they refuse treatment. However, a person who smokes cigarettes and refuses treatment is not said to be a ‘danger to self,’ even though nicotine is clearly a problem for their health. Thus, state intervention is not equally distributed across the population.

By way of conclusion, there are advantages and disadvantages to involuntary outpatient commitment. A benefit of involuntary outpatient commitment is that people with mental illness who otherwise would not consent to treatment are helped while they are – or before they can – become a danger to self or others. However, a disadvantage is that there is little evidence that court-ordered treatment yields better results than community-based approaches. As Wales & Hiday (2006) argue, an alternative to the persuasion, leverage, and coercion exercised by the state is the tender love and care of patient-centered treatment.


References/Further Reading: 

Addington v Texas 441 U.S. 418 (1979)

Ahmedani, Brian et al.,2012. Suicide Thoughts and Attempts and Psychiatric Treatment        Utilization: Informing Prevention Strategies. Psychiatric Services, 63 (186): 124-129

Allen, Michael & Vicki Smith. 2001. Opening Pandora’s Box: The Practical and Legal   Dangers of Involuntary Outpatient Commitment. Psychiatric Services, 52 (3): 342- 346

Appelbaum, Paul. 1994. Almost a Revolution: Mental Health Law and the Limits of Change,   Journal of Psychiatry 129: 18-22

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Summary of Statutes on Involuntary Outpatient             Commitment (1999). Available at

Burns, Tom. Jorun Rugkasa et. al. 2013. Community Treatment Orders for Patients with        Psychosis. The Lancet, 381 (9878) 1627-1733

Cornwell, John & Raymond Deeney, Exposing the Myths Surrounding Outpatient        Commitment for Individuals with Chronic Mental Illness, Psychology and Public   Policy 209: 135-179

Flashman, Laura et al. 2000. Brain Size Associated with Unawareness of Illness in Patients   with Schizophrenia. American Journal of Psychiatry, 157 (7) 1167-1169

Geller, Jeffrey., William Fisher., Albert Grudzinskas., Jonathan Clayfield., Ted Lawlor. 2006. Involuntary Outpatient Treatment as ‘Deinstitutionalized Coercion’: The Net- Widening Concerns. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 29:551-562

Grob, Gerald. 1994. The Mad Among Us: The History of the Care of America’s Mentally Ill.     Free Press: NY

Kress, Ken. 2000. An Argument for Assisted Outpatient Treatment for People with Serious   Mental Illness Illustrated with Reference to a Proposed Statute for Iowa. Iowa Law     Review. 85 1269-1283

Lidz, Charles et al. 1993. The Accuracy of Predictions of Violence to Others, Journal of            American Medical Association, (269) 1007

Link, Bruce et al. 1992. The Violent and Illegal Behavior of Mental Patients Reconsidered.     American Sociological Review, 13: 275-278

Markowitz, Fred. 2011. Mental Illness, Crime and Violence: Risk, Context and Social Control.             Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16: 36-38

McCafferty, Gerry & Jeanne Dooley. 1990. Involuntary Outpatient Commitment. Mental         Health and Physical Disability Law Report, 14 (3):277-287

Mental Health America, 2014. Available at:    treatment

Olfson, Mark. 2000. Predicting Medication Noncompliance After Hospital Discharge Among Patients with Schizophrenia, Psychiatric Services, 52 (264): 216-220

Ridgely, M.S.; Borum, Randy; and Petrila, John. 2001. “The effectiveness of involuntary          outpatient treatment: Empirical evidence and the experience of eight states”. Mental        Health Law & Policy Faculty Publications. Paper 268.

Steadman, Henry., Kostas Gounis., Deborah Dennis., Kim Hopper., Brenda Roche., Marvin      Swartz., Pamela Robbins. 2001. Assessing the New York City Involuntary Outpatient    Commitment Pilot Program. Psychiatric Services, 52 (3) 330-336

Stuart, Heather & Julio E. Arboleda-Flórez.2001. A Public Health Perspective on Violent         Offenses Among Persons with Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services, 52 (5): 654-659

Swartz, Martin., Jeffrey Swanson., Virginia Hiday., H. Ryan Wagner., Barbara Burns., Randy Borum. 2001. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Outpatient Commitment in North     Carolina. Psychiatric Services. 52, (3):325-329

Swartz, Marvin et al. 2009. New York State Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program Evaluation. available at

Teplin, Linda et al. 2005. Crime Victimization in Adults with Severe Mental Illness:     Comparison with the National Crime Victimization Survey, Archives of General      Psychiatry, 62 (8): 911-922

Torrey, E. Fuller. 1994. Violent Behavior by Individuals with Serious Mental Illness. Insight and Psychosis. 45 (7): 653-662

Torrey, E. Fuller & Mary Zdanowicz. 2001. Outpatient Commitment: What, Why and for        Whom? Psychiatric Services. 52 (3): 337-341

Wales, Heatcote & Virginia Hiday. 2006. PLC or TLC: Is Outpatient Commitment the/an         Answer? International Journal of Law and Psychiatry. 29: 451-468

Blacks in the Military: In Exchange For “Freedom”

After being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump began working to strengthen America’s military. A recent draft of an executive order shows that Trump is willing to spend $90 billion a year to expand all branches of defense. This increase in funding will likely be followed by a rise in recruitment. Uncle Sam’s promise of solidarity, purpose, and benefits are attractive to young men and women – especially those from oppressed groups. For example, the Pew Research Center found that women in the military are disproportionately black. This post will address the historical relationship between blackness and the United States military – and the ‘benefits’ of joining the armed forces.

Blackness, Military Strategy & History

In 1775, this country was planning a revolution against its British colonizer. When George Washington – General of the Continental Army – decreed orders for those eligible to battle, he declared that “neither Negroes, boys unable to bear arms, nor old men” could enlist. The main reason black folks were banned from the military was the fear of uprisings. Arming slaves ran the risk of enabling insurrections against their masters. But after being confronted with major shortages in manpower, Northern states recruited slaves and encouraged them to fight … in exchange for ‘freedom’. By the end of the Revolution, between 5,000 and 8,000 blacks fought in the Continental Army.

Black people also fought on the side of the British. As a military strategy, Lord Dunmore issued a proclamation stating that slaves can fight for the King … in exchange for ‘freedom’. Historians estimate that 20,000 blacks escaped and fought on the side of the British – between 2.5-4 times that which fought for America.

During the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson sought the presence of enslaved blacks in the military. Slaves were encouraged to enlist at the Battle of New Orleans … in exchange for ‘freedom’. The following day, Jackson confiscated all the weapons from black soldiers and revoked his promises.

Black folks also served during the American Civil War. Like Lord Dunmore, President Lincoln issued a “necessary war time measure” via the Emancipation Proclamation – which freed the slaves of rebel states and invited them to join the Army. This was important because the North was suffering from a personnel shortage. This strengthened the reservoir of able-bodied soldiers to fight against the South – eventually leading to its loss. In total, roughly 200,000 blacks fought for the Union. However, blacks were largely restricted to subservient positions within the Army, served in segregated units, and had much higher casualty rates.

Throughout World War I and World War II, the armed forces were segregated (i.e. Tuskegee Airmen). Black soldiers were largely confined to manual labor and unable to fight in combat. However, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces by executive order in 1948. This did not occur out of the kindness of Truman’s heart. After all, he dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. So why did he do it? For the same reasons Lord Dunmore and President Lincoln did it: strategy. From the ashes of the Second World War emerged two global superpowers: the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. These nations sought to expand their axes of influence over the Asian and African countries fighting for independence (from Europe), but each had a qualitatively different worldview. Specifically, the United States practiced capitalism and the Soviets were communist by declaration. An ideological battle erupted, known as the Cold War, when the United States espoused the Truman Doctrine in 1947: a policy of containing foreign and domestic communist influence.

In Silent Covenants, Derrick Bell (2005) argues that the Brown v Board school desegregation decision in 1954 was a Cold War strategy to make America (and by extension, capitalism) appear to be a post-racial utopia on the global stage. That stated, it is reasonable to state that desegregating the military six years earlier was also a Cold War strategy. Integrating the armed forces served at least two functions: 1). it bolstered the racial image of America before the entire black/brown world, which was freeing itself from the yolk of European colonialism and deciding between capitalism and communism, and 2). it decreased the odds of internal sympathies with communism in this country.

Blackness, Gender, and (In)Voluntary Service

The Korean War (1950-53) was the first time blacks fought in an integrated military. However, racial diversity was an issue for the armed forces during the Vietnam War (1955-73). According to Amy Lutz: “the military allowed college students to defer service, a practice that largely allowed the white middle class to avoid the draft.” (2008:172). This meant that poor people and blacks constituted a large portion of the troops in Vietnam – prompting activists such as Stokely Carmichael to say the draft was “nothing more than black urban removal”.

With the end of the Vietnam War also came the end of military conscription. Concerns were raised that having an all-volunteer force would raise the likelihood of poor, black people enlisting at disproportionate rates. Indeed, during the Gulf War (1990-91), 20% of the troops were black men and women – a significantly higher rate than the national population. As of 2000, blacks were over-represented in the military: although blacks were just 13% of the general population, they were 19.8% of the armed forces (Lutz, 2008).

The most alarming statistic is as follows: in 2010, 16% of all active-duty men were black, while a whopping 31% of all active-duty women were black. In other words: close to one-third of all women in the military are black – a rate that is twice that of their national population. This is a trend that began in the early 1980s (Melin, 2016). We have to ask ourselves: why have black women been enlisting in the military at disproportionately high rates? Once again: it is a strategy … in exchange for ‘freedom’.

As outlined by Julia Melin (2016), there are at least two contributing factors. It is worth noting that 42% of women who served after 9/11 admit they enlisted to gain access to educational/job trainings or benefits, compared to just 25% of men. First, there is a wealth gap that is both gendered and racialized. Consequently, black women receive and inherit less wealth than white women. Moreover, black women are least likely to be married (least likely to be deemed marriage material), which relates to the proliferation of female-headed households in the black community. Black women in the military are more than twice as likely as white women to be single parents – partially explaining their dependency on the armed forces for employment.

Second, under neoliberalism, social safety nets have been under assault. For the past 40+ years, the State has been slashing funding for schools, health insurance programs, etc., and re-apportioning it for punitive apparatuses like prisons, policing, and the military. In 1996, welfare was completely overhauled from an entitlement program to a block-grant with lifetime caps and work as a condition of benefits. The State boasted about ‘training’ citizens for jobs …  but these positions were typically in the low-wage sector. Once individuals gained this ’employment’, their benefits were either terminated or slashed dramatically. As Khalid Muhammad stated, the State went “from welfare to farewell”. Since black women receive significantly lower wages than whites, these matters are only exacerbated.

In addition, many black residences are multi-generational. Out of the families that are led by grandmothers, over 50% of them are black and live in poverty. For decades now, Social Security has been on the chopping block – which is tantamount to an assault on black women and black children.

To this list, we can also add (as I do here) that black women are the fastest rising prison denomination. The criminal justice system has been disproportionately targeting black women for lengthy sentences. Against these backdrops, it is easy to understand Melin’s claim that black women’s “inability to achieve self-sufficiency or educational training through welfare and the low-wage market” propels their decision to enlist (2016: 8). Thus, the State divests from the inner cities, creating a vacuum, and then uses these vulnerable populations to either fill prisons or be soldiers in the military. As Michel Foucault pointed out: the State “does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outside … it saves everything, including what it punishes” (1976:301).

Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death

One of the phrases that galvanized the American Revolution was “give me liberty or give me death”. We need to examine this a bit closer. Embedded within this declaration – as evidenced by the conjunction or – is the assumption that liberty and death are opposites. While this line of thinking appears to be common sense, it reflects a white privilege. For the past 240+ years, black people have not been confronted by “liberty or death”, but liberty and death. Signing up to die in the military was ‘liberty’ from the slower death of slavery. Today, signing up to die in the military is ‘liberty’ from the slower deaths of poverty and incarceration. The ‘liberty’ we receive comes only after being positioned in a state of social death; and then, we are brainwashed into thinking that bringing that same death to others is a form of ‘liberty’ (i.e. the American idea that democracy can be exported to the Middle East with bombs).

We need to build a society where receiving a free education does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where receiving job training does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where receiving health benefits for one’s family does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas. We need to build a society where gaining a sense of pride and belonging does not require the prospect of being killed and/or killing people overseas.


Bell, Derrick. 2005. Silent Covenants

Foucault, Michel. 1976. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Supporting the Police: Oppression With a Smile

In the aftermath of most police shootings, the typical chorus of liberals chime in to condemn anti-blackness, while simultaneously declaring support for law enforcement. Such reasoning is made possible by a failure to appreciate the history or structural function of policing in the first place. This post will serve as a corrective to the false and contradictory idea that we can be both anti-racist and pro-policing at the same time.

The History and Function of Policing in the West

Civilization in the Western world was founded on colonization and enslavement. These systems of oppression were codified in law and required enforcement to establish proper order. But where there is injustice, there is resistance. When the first black slaves were brought to Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti/Dominican Republic) in 1503, they taught disobedience to the indigenous people. Revolts swept the region throughout the 1520s and 30s – endangering white desires for profit and domination. But a firm sense of stability was restored when the Spanish “established a special police [force] for chasing fugitive slaves” (Zinn, 1980: p.31).

The British in North America deployed a similar tactic. Slave patrols were implemented in the American South during the 1700s. The groups were composed of free white men, and sometimes women, who confined and controlled the movements of blacks (Turner, Giacopassi & Vandiver, 2006). More specifically, they were tasked with inspecting documents, catching runaway slaves, and guarding against revolts (Barlow & Barlow, 1999). Hmm … these duties and the population they targeted sound vaguely familiar, now don’t they?! That is because the modern-day police department traces its genealogical roots to the slave patrols. In fact, the first departments funded by the State were slave patrols (Walker, 1980).

That stated, the police came into existence as front-line soldiers and guardians of structural racism and class exploitation. Their job description consisted of making oppression more productive for the oppressors. White supremacy/anti-blackness were the laws they enforced on the oppressed. Profit extraction was the law they enforced on the oppressed.

Slavery Still Exists in the United States

It is worth noting that my discussion has used the past tense to discuss the function of policing. I will now switch to the present tense. Most people are willing to admit that the police have a dark history that needs to be recognized. Yet, acknowledging prior wrongdoings is often connected to a denial of current injustices. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) recently apologized “for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color”. Before we give a standing ovation, we should be suspicious of the author’s reliance on the past tense. The IACP posits that “in the past, laws adopted by our society have required police officers to perform many unpalatable tasks”, but then declares that “this is no longer the case”.

What magical moment enables people to speak of slavery in the past tense?  

From history class to the box office, we are taught that the 13th Amendment of the Constitution ended slavery. This narrative is embarrassingly naive and demonstrably false with a brief glance at the law itself. The text of the 13th Amendment reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”.

The keyword here is except – meaning that slavery is permitted as long as the person is convicted of a crime. The 13th Amendment does not abolish slavery at all, it simply re-codifies slaves as ‘criminals’. Immediately following the ratification of the Amendment, massive numbers of black people were found guilty under new laws known as Black Codes – which made minor, everyday behaviors, such as standing on the street without a job, illegal (Davis, 2000). This enabled former slave masters to retain control over their slaves under the guise of ‘crime’.

It is no surprise, then, that prisons are disproportionately packed with black people. There is a prison-industrial complex whereby inmates are forced to work for corporations with no labor protections (Davis, 2000). Some prisons are warehouses of cheap labor for companies seeking to circumvent demands for a minimum wage and health insurance. Instead of outsourcing to Mexico, companies can extract enormous profit margins right here on American soil. A black woman who is ‘free’ must be paid $7.25 per hour; but if she is incarcerated because of a ‘crime’, she’ll be forced to work for next to nothing.

This process could not exist without the police, as they are the first line of contact for the criminal justice system. Policing is the maintenance of slavery.

Irreconcilable Differences

Any serious analysis of policing involves a systematic assessment of power. There are only two classes of people, which have diametrically opposing demands: the slaves who want freedom, and their masters who want to maintain that oppression. These positions and demands are irreconcilable – meaning their differences can only be resolved by eliminating one of the groups. We cannot be against slavery and for the slave patrols. It is either one or the other. Showing support for law enforcement is, then, tantamount to an endorsement of white supremacy/anti-blackness, heteropatriarchy, and class oppression – all of which are upheld by the police. If we are truly against systems of injustice, we cannot support the groups (the police locally or the military globally) that maintain it!

“But All Police Officers Aren’t Bad…”

People routinely engage in a discourse about the difference between good cops and bad cops. From this perspective, there are a few rogue officers who tarnish the otherwise peaceful function of policing. Here, a structural analysis of the police is derailed by focusing on specific individuals. People begin to regurgitate the police-as-hero propaganda they learned on Career Day in elementary school. Conversation then becomes bogged down in declarations about how one’s mother, brother, or lover is a decorated police officer who rejects oppression wholeheartedly. All of that is nice, but it is completely irrelevant. The police are an oppression machineso focusing on the interchangeable driver behind the wheel as opposed to what they are driving is both dangerous and naive.

If there were no oppression, there would be no need for the police as they are presently constituted. Taking an anti-police stance is not a personal attack – it is an indictment of a system of oppression that requires policing in the first place.

That stated, we must rid our vocabularies of the phrase ‘good cop’ – as it is an oxymoron. It does not matter that individual officers are ‘good’ if they exist in an overall bad system. Oppression with a smile is still oppression.

We should also use the phrase ‘police brutality’ more sparingly – as it is redundant and misleading. The two words here are synonymous: policing is brutal, and brutality is in line with policing. However, by adding the modifier brutality to the term police, we are saying that policing, in and of itself, is not brutal. This phrase makes the mistake of framing the most visible and visceral manifestations of policing as a deviation from the system – when they are embedded in the system. Brutality is standard operating procedure for the police. The problem is not simply police brutality – it is the police.

Anger Management: Body Cams, Sensitivity Training & Community Policing

In the aftermath of many police shootings, protesters take to the streets and speak of revolution. What they get instead is another batch of reforms. At bottom, reform is the master’s way of convincing the slave to stay oppressed under slightly different terms and conditions that give an illusion of freedom. Reform is the slave’s way of postponing the inevitable revolution for freedom (Farley, 2008). Criminal justice reforms are strategies of anger management (Wilderson, 2015): throwing a bone to the oppressed so they feel included just enough to not fight back.

Implementations like body cameras, sensitivity training, and community policing are lame attempts to sanitize the police. Filming police encounters does not challenge the structure of oppression, it legitimizes it. Consider the fact that we have seen several black people beaten and/or murdered by the police on film (i.e. Rodney King, Eric Garner, Keith Lamont Scott, etc) – but the officers were still exonerated. And the fact that the police need to be “trained” not to shoot a man 41 times (Diallo) or sodomize a prisoner with a plunger handle (Louima) proves they are beyond redemption, anyway.

The idea of ‘community policing’ – as described by Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine – erroneously assumes that the community and the police are groups that can exist in harmony. They have not, and they cannot. The police exist to patrol and control communities. We cannot simply merge the groups and hold hands. Either you have a sustainable community without policing (egalitarianism), or you have more policing of the community (various totalitarian regimes). It is one or the other, not both. Random residents working closely with the police does not change the function they serve – it simply entrenches their logic in the actions of regular citizens. Neighborhood Crime Watch, which further deputizes ordinary members of the community, is a prime example.

That aside, the purpose of community policing is to ‘bridge the gap’ and ‘build trust’ between the community and the police. But we are talking about structural oppression here, not getting a boyfriend and girlfriend back together after an argument. This is not simply about trust, this is about power. And what community policing fails to do is re-distribute power. We cannot work ‘with’ the police; we need to abolish the conditions that brought them into existence.

Towards a New Idea of Safety

By way of conclusion, we need to start imagining a society that does not need the police. We need to start imagining a society that does not need prisons. We need to dismantle the baseless association between the police/prison and safety. We must dispense with the Western logic of militarization and toxic masculinity in the name of ‘safety’. Law enforcement officials often argue that incarceration serves a purpose of deterrence: it dissuades other would-be offenders from committing crimes. Assuming that is true, we would expect that the states with the highest rates of incarceration would have the highest drops in crime, right? But this is not the case. The states that decreased their prison populations saw higher drops in their violent and property crime rates than the rest of the nation. Put simply: policing and incarceration are not synonymous with safety.

The only effective path to safety is building a society that provides for the basic needs (i.e. housing, food, employment, health care, etc) of all human beings and recognizes them as people. Anything short of that is domination.


Barlow, David & Melissa Hickman Barlow. 1999. A Political Economy of Community Policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 22: 646–674.

Davis, Angela. 2000. Are Prisons Obsolete?

Farley, Anthony. 2008. “Perfecting Slavery” Loyola University Chicago Law Review.

Turner, K.B., David Giacopassi & Margaret Vandiver. 2006. “Ignoring the Past: Coverage of Slavery and Slave Patrols in Criminal Justice Texts.” Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17 (1): 181-195

Walker, Samuel. 1980. Popular Justice. Oxford University Press.

Wilderson, Frank. 2015. Interview with Jared Ball on iMixWhatILike

Zinn, Howard, 1980. A People’s History.

Why Do Americans Hate Welfare?

Welfare is a highly politicized topic in the United States. Each election year, voters are inundated with statistics testifying to the inefficiency and waste of welfare spending. These campaigns are often tethered to overt and covert discourses that galvanize opposition to this program. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy by Martin Gilens (1999) examines the complex reasons for such strong feelings of antipathy towards welfare. The theoretical interventions of this text highlight the centrality of race and racial attitudes in shaping public opinion.

Welfare VS. The Welfare State

The American welfare state encompasses a litany of programs designed to benefit citizens of all social standing. Education, social insurance, and means-tested programs are all examples of the government’s investment in the welfare state. Since the welfare state is often associated with the poor, one would expect the public to hold these programs in low esteem. Contrary to popular assumption, most Americans view these programs favorably and believe the government should increase funding therein. However, an eerie fact is that public support wanes when asked their opinions about the means-tested food stamps program. A helpful analytic here is Gilens’ differentiation between welfare and the welfare state. Welfare refers to “means-tested cash benefit programs [food stamps] available to able-bodied, working age adults” (p. 13), as opposed to the welfare state which can assist all citizens. A paradox thus arises: Americans believe the government has a responsibility to provide social benefits, but feel that welfare is an exception. The disjunction between welfare and other social programs of the welfare state is the point of departure for Gilens.

A Word on Method

Why Americans Hate Welfare relies on different methods to make its arguments about opposition to welfare. The first method used was survey data. Survey data was extrapolated from the 1991 National Race and Politics Study. This randomized digit-dialing survey was completed on a large scale (N=996). Gilens measured for the six following demographic indicators: age, sex, region, education, marital status, and family income. Liberal/conservative ideology, perception of blacks as lazy, and perception of welfare recipients as undeserving were also measured as predictors. Gilens amends this survey with the 1986 General Social Survey to understand the finer variations between demographic categories. The National Election Study (NES) survey was also utilized by Gilens to assess the impact of racial attitudes on welfare views in America. This survey included 10 questions, and was completed only be whites (total amount = 357). While the exclusion of blacks is logical considering the scope of Gilens’ project, it is still a limitation insofar as it reduces race relations to a myopic black/white binary.

Four Possible Explanations for Welfare Opposition

One of the strengths and contributions of the text is the review of four possible explanations to welfare opposition. According to Gilens, the following beliefs potentially account for the rejection of welfare: individualism, economic self-interest, racial attitudes, and the belief that welfare recipients are undeserving. Throughout the text, each of these arguments are examined to test if they withstand the strictures of scrutiny.

Although the political, economic, and social apparatus of America is entrenched in the logic of individualism, Gilens concludes that this ideology is not strong enough to account for opposition to welfare. Evidence for this claim resides in the fact that Americans strongly favor the social programs of the welfare state.

The economic self-interest thesis is based on the idea that middle-class taxpayers will oppose means-tested programs that benefit only the poor. Gilens rejects this idea considering survey data which shows that when Americans are given a choice between aiding the middle-class and the poor, they opt for the latter. Thus, economic self-interest is incapable of explaining opposition to welfare.

Using data from national surveys, Gilens shows that the two factors influencing opposition to welfare are racial attitudes and the belief that welfare recipients are undeserving. Whites who believe that blacks are lazy are more likely to believe that welfare recipients are undeserving. Thus, there was a generalized belief that blacks lacked a strong work ethic and did not demonstrate a genuine need. America’s hatred of welfare is driven by racial attitudes and ideas about the undeserving poor. For Gilens, Americans do not oppose welfare, they oppose the people they think are receiving benefits.

Negative Depictions of Blacks in the Media

Gilens also analyzed the coverage of welfare-related topics in sources such as Newsweek, U.S. News, and World Report. The period that Gilens reviewed was between 1950 and 1990. Gilens also scrutinized television broadcasts from three networks.Through content analysis, Gilens explores the ways recipients of welfare were portrayed at certain epochs in American history. Between 1950 and 1964, whites were the main population depicted as impoverished in the media. However, against the backdrop of increased migration from the South, higher rates of welfare enrollment, and the fight for civil rights, blacks became the new ‘face’ of poverty. Blacks were over-represented in media depictions of poverty between 1967 and 1992 at a rate twice the group’s national proportion. Moreover, blacks were portrayed in 70% of stories discussing poverty and 75% of those addressing welfare between 1972-73. Perhaps more important is the tenor of these representations. The general tendency was to frame whites as the ‘deserving poor’ while blacks were depicted as the ‘undeserving poor.’ The implication here is that the media strongly influences public opinion with regards to welfare, which ultimately impacts policy.

Why Interracial Marriage Discourse is Problematic

Growth in interracial marriage rates is viewed as a barometer of social distance. Several scholars argue that the proliferation of such relationships is a testimony to the erosion of political, economic, and social barriers between races (Alba, 2009; Fu & Heaton, 2008; Lee & Bean, 2010; Rosenfeld, 2008; Fu, 2007; Qian & Lichter, 2007). While this line of reasoning is logical, it is important to question the wisdom of these claims. Although it is true that interracial marriage rates have increased exponentially since the 1970s, the same can be said of rates of poverty and incarceration. Hence, interracial marriage can be framed as an indicator of social distance only if structural violence is disavowed. This post briefly reviews sociological work on interracial marriage to disabuse scholars of their naive optimism regarding these relationships.

History of Interracial Marriage

Assimilation and intermarriage have a long history in America. At least two examples of this phenomena are readily apparent. First, Native Americans and Mexicans intermarried with whites in the early to mid-1800s. In an attempt to keep riches within its borders and encourage the permanent settlement of whites, the Mexican government developed a naturalization program incentivizing intermarriage with Mexican women (Moran, 2004). Moreover, white settlers saw it in their political and economic interests to develop cordial alliances with indigenous micro-nations; occasionally utilizing intermarriage to accomplish this goal (Sandefur & Trudy, 1986). For these oppressed groups, intermarriage was used to bring a degree of safety and path to American citizenship (Moran, 2004).

Second, the wave of European immigrants around the turn of the 20th century assimilated and intermarried into the dominant group. Stephen Steinberg (1981) argues that these migrants came to American shores with a vast array of linguistic, cultural, and economic differences. Migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe suffered episodes of discrimination. These groups were stigmatized by their ethnic identities (i.e. Irish, Italian, Jewish, etc.). However, “after a generation or two, ethnic boundaries weakened, interethnic marriage became commonplace as group differences in education and labor market opportunities narrowed, and language and residential barriers were reduced or eliminated” (Qian & Lichter, 2007: 1067). European ethnics were not only incorporated into mainstream society, but into the fold of whiteness.

The institution of marriage in America is grounded in over three centuries of anti-miscegenation legislature. As early as the colonial era, many states passed laws banning intermarriage between whites, Native Americans and blacks. While some states with anti-miscegenation laws banned Native-white marriage, all states with anti-miscegenation laws banned black-white marriage (Epstein & Walker, 2010). Hence, blacks were the targets of prohibition. As whites expanded westward and recruited labor from Asia, anti-miscegenation laws were passed barring Asian-white marriages (Shohoni, 2007). Anti-miscegenation statutes were enforced in 16 states until being abolished by the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Loving v Virginia (1967).

Discourse on Intermarriage Tends to Ignore Ontology

Before launching into a direct critique, it is important to (re)set the stage regarding the origins and structure of racial relations. Seven centuries of enslavement by Arab Muslims linked dark-skinned Africans with inferiority. By the dawn of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1441, Western Europe was already familiar with the systematic enslavement of Africans. It is notable that prior to the 15th century, a solidified ‘human’ identity was non-existent. The human, as an ontological category, crystallized in Western Europe around commonalities of Christianity, centralized government, and individual rights – a certain “oneness” (Sweet, 2003: 4). These characteristics became the foundation of a white identity when coming into contact with non-Europeans; especially blacks. When the human was solidified in the late 14th century, the debasement of blacks prohibited such membership. As ontological positions, humanity and blackness are opposites (Wilderson, 2008). To borrow from Marx & Engels (1973 [1848]), the racial antagonisms between these two positions are irreconcilable. Put simply, the being of the human is constituted by anti-blackness; and the being of blackness is constituted by that which is not recognized as human.

The argument that interracial marriage is an indicator of social distance is made possible only ignoring the ontological fault lines undergirding the racial system. Scholars assume a common denominator of humanity to measure so-called social distances. In doing so, the authors erase racial antagonisms. This move is inappropriate because none of the researchers have bothered to engage the question: when and how did blacks become a part of the human family? These scholars engage interracial marriage contracts without tending to the Western world’s anti-black racial contract (Mills, 1999).

 Marriage Is Not a Race-Neutral Institution

The reviewed literature overburdens interracial marriage with meaning and transformative power. An assumption of the aforementioned arguments is that marriage can alleviate the ills of systemic racism (Qian & Lichter, 2007). Such an intellectual endeavor gains coherence by theorizing marriage itself as a race-neutral institution. Lost in the midst of this naive optimism is the power imbalances and racial underpinnings of institutional marriage. Both Marxists and radical feminists are clear that marriage is a tool of social control regulating property, sexuality, and family formation (Dworkin, 1987; Engels, 1978 [1884]). Moreover, marriage has been an instrument of anti-black racism and colonialism for centuries (Spade & Wilse, 2013). For example, slave relations were not acknowledged by the state prior to Emancipation. But in the wake of Emancipation, marriages amongst blacks were promoted to surveillance the sexuality and family structures of ex-slaves (Nopper, 2012). Similarly, Native Americans were demonized for their communal ways of life; and needed ‘civilization’ via conformance to white models of kinship (Spade & Wilse, 2013). It is important to remember that marriage licenses are registered with and recognized by a white supremacist and anti-black State. Therefore, interracial marriage is not apart from white supremacy and anti-blackness, but a part of them.

The Interest-Convergence of Loving v Virginia

The reviewed scholars also fail to interrogate the legal foundations and implications of Loving v Virginia. While blacks have been subordinated for centuries in America, the group has still received legal protections from discrimination. To explain this apparent contradiction, critical race theorist Derrick Bell espouses the notion of interest-convergence. He says “[t]he interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when that interest converges with the interest of whites in policy-making decisions. This convergence is far more important for gaining relief than the degree of harm suffered by blacks or the proof offered to prove that harm” (Bell, 2004: 69). Law is controlled by whites and is inherently self-referential. The positive impact for blacks is not the intention of the law; blacks are simply “fortuitous beneficiaries” (p. 70). Bell makes the argument that Brown v Board of Education (1954) is a prime example of interest-convergence. The desegregation decision was a Cold War effort to portray the United States in a positive light before Communist-leaning Third World countries (Bell, 2004). In Loving, the appellants argued that Brown should control the Court’s logic (Epstein & Walker, 2010).

Four facts are important with regard to the relationship between Brown and Loving: 1). these cases address a similar issue, 2). they were decided just 13 years apart, 3). the Cold War was in effect during both cases, and 4). the Civil Rights Movement was at its apex when Loving was decided. Although Bell does not cast Loving as an example of interest-convergence, it is reasonable to conclude that it fits the description. Loving had more to do with the recuperation of whiteness than the incorporation of blackness. Any claim of a relationship in this legal framework, then, must be problematized.

Intermarriage Does Not Equalize Distributions of Power

Qian & Lichter (2007) declare “marriages between people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds mean that barriers to social interaction and intimacy have broken down and that marital partners—by definition—accept each other as social equals” (emphasis added, p. 68). At work in this passage is a sanitized view of interracial marriage that casts involved partners as transcending distortions of power altogether. Interracial couples are depicted as trailblazers possessing the courage to suspend age-old racial taboos. Interracial marriage ‘breaks down barriers to social interaction and intimacy’ in a revolution of love. The impulse of this argument is aligned with colorblind racism insofar as racial inequality is ignored. Like the claim that ‘I have one black friend’ (Bonilla-Silva, 2014), interracial marriage can provide a defense against charges of racism with ‘I am married to a [insert non-white race/sex here]’.Relatedly, the authors fail to interrogate the existence of exoticism within the realms of interracial marriages. The Pew Research Center (2015) states:

“As America becomes more racially diverse and social taboos against interracial        marriage fade . . . majorities of multiracial adults are proud of their mixed-race   background and feel their racial heritage has made them more open to other  cultures (emphasis added, p. 1).”

The researchers speak of ‘other cultures’ as if they are rare food at a buffet. Exoticism is not limited to the single-raced; multiracial individuals can exoticize and be exoticized within marriage. It is important to consider the ways myths of hyper-sexuality and bestiality are still attached to racial groups (Fanon, 1967 [1952]).

By way of conclusion, discussions of interracial marriage falsely assume that there is a relationship at the ontological level (Sexton, 2008). Before focusing on the interracial marriage contract, we must tend to the anti-black racial contract.




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