Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Groundbreaking "Crack Baby" Study

One of the most enduring and consequential archetypes of the "war on drugs" of the 1980s and 1990s was the "crack baby." The theory went as follows: Women (predominantly poor and Black) who smoked crack (a drug overwhelmingly associated with poor communities of color) while pregnant effectively condemned their offspring to a lifetime of mental illness and drug addiction. Conventional wisdom claimed these born addicts were lucky to make it to adolescence, let alone adulthood. The crack-head mother, along with the maligned "welfare queen" archetype, helped entrench profoundly nasty stereotypes of poor women of color that, in turn, helped justify policies of austerity and mass incarceration.

Yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer reports on a scientific study that shows what many activists have claimed for years: the "crack baby" is largely a myth. To be sure, consuming cocaine while pregnant is not good for one's child (but, of course, neither is smoking, drinking, or any range of behaviors without an overdetermined relationship to Black women). However, the researchers found that poverty was a far stronger predictor of the problems associated with "crack babies" than gestational exposure to cocaine.

This is an awkward conversation to have. I remember vividly how negatively some of my rhetoric and criminal justice students responded to this issue in a class I taught several years back. It is difficult to look at an image like the one above and make the claim that the "crack baby" hysteria of the 1980s and 1990s was, by and large, founded on broader myths about Black femininity and not sound science. Still, it is an important argument to make.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hip-Hop Response to Trayvon Martin Verdict

Obviously, there have been a wide range of responses to last weeks' not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. As I write, protesters in Washington, DC and other cities have come out yet again to register their discontent and plan the next steps toward addressing the complexities of race and criminal justice in the U.S.

Here is a new video from politically active rappers Yasiin Bay/Mos Def (who also recently subjected him self to force feeding to illustrate the plight of hunger striking prisoners at Guantanamo Bay), M-1 and Stic Man of dead prez, and Mikeflo. For my money, it's some very powerful and provocative stuff.

Folks interested in the intersection of hip-hop and criminal justice activism should also check out Craig Engstrom and Derrick Williams's contribution to the new PCARE book Working for Justice: A Handbook of Prison Communication and Activism.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"Working for Justice" Makes News in Louisiana


LSU professor featured in volume on prison issues about criminal justice system

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its adult population than any other nation. Presently, more than one in 100 Americans over the age of 18 are imprisoned. In Louisiana, the figure is one in 86.

“That’s more than any other state, which makes Louisiana the world’s leading jailer,” explained Bryan McCann, the newest addition to LSU’s Department of Communication Studies.

A scholar, teacher and community organizer, McCann is a member of the Prison Communication, Activism, Research, and Education, or PCARE, collective. A national working group of communication scholars, several of PCARE’s members are included in the new University of Illinois Press book “Working for Justice: A Handbook of Prison Education and Activism.”

Edited by Stephen John Hartnett, Eleanor Novek and Jennifer K. Wood, the book showcases efforts “to put democracy into practice by merging prison education and activism.”

“We represent a group of individuals who believe in the ability of communication to change the world,” McCann explains, “and we also share a strong commitment to reversing our nation’s tide of mass incarceration.”

McCann went on to explain that today’s high incarceration rates are the product of a political climate that took off in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Politicians from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton began winning elections by promising to be tough on crime,” said McCann, “In the process, they taught us to fear each other and embrace incredibly harsh sentencing policies.”

However, McCann claims, there is little evidence that imprisoning more people to longer sentences makes us safer. He adds that the poor and ethnic minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than their fellow citizens.

For his contribution to the volume, McCann draws on his experiences as an anti-death penalty organizer while working on his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. He specifically asks whether individuals who want to abolish the death penalty should embrace life without parole as an alternative sentence.

“Capital punishment is obviously a very divisive issue in America,” said McCann, “but it may surprise people to learn that there is actually a good deal of debate within the movement to end it.”

For his part, McCann worries that turning to prisons as an alternative to capital punishment prevents activists from asking challenging questions about the criminal justice system as a whole.

“It’s a death sentence in slow motion,” McCann argued. “And while I understand that it’s tempting and sometimes necessary for folks to embrace life without parole as a sort of middle-ground, I worry it prevents us from criticizing the entire system.”

Other chapters in “Working for Justice” include studies on the experiences of families with incarcerated loved ones, prison theater programs and the role of hip-hop in prison activism.

“We’re very proud of this volume and grateful for the editors’ hard work,” McCann said. “Now our goal is to spread the word and use the book to encourage more dialogue and activism surrounding the prison system.” His hope is that this book will encourage dialogue and reform in America’s criminal justice system.

In addition to his chapter in this book, McCann has published numerous articles on the death penalty, prison activism and mass media and the criminal justice system. He is currently finishing a book on “gangsta rap” and the law and order politics of the 1980s and 1990s.

“I’m very excited to be joining the faculty at LSU,” says McCann, “I look forward to working with top-notch faculty and students, and working with members of the community to address incarceration and other important issues facing Louisiana.”

For more information about McCann and his research, visit http://uiswcmsweb.prod.lsu.edu/hss/cmst/People/Faculty/item62081.html [1].

To learn more about LSU Communication Studies, visit http://uiswcmsweb.prod.lsu.edu/hss/cmst/index.html [2].