The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle

Michelle Brown
New York University Press (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




It is impossible to come in contact with commercial media and not be exposed to the specter of criminal justice as entertainment. Turn on the news and you can see car chases. Turn on afternoon fare and it is syndicated reality shows featuring people being chased down by police. Primetime offers serialized prison action-adventures, courtroom procedural dramas and yet more reality shows of sassy judges, valorous cops and children wheedling their way through the juvenile justice system. Crime, punishment, but not the root causes, are today part of the lexicon of distractions, and a book argues society is far worse for it.

In Ohio University instructor Michelle Brown’s book, The Culture of Punishment: Prison, Society and Spectacle, the treatment of criminal justice as spectacle — as well as more insidious methods, such as making surveillance a televised affair — contributes to its devaluing, especially for classes of people least impacted by it.

Brown’s scan of these matters is fresh and important for people to grasp. Race and class distinctly define how people experience the criminal justice apparatus. In her view, those most removed from the jarring realities of law enforcement, trial and incarceration — white, middle-class Americans who do not endure the experiences of economically disadvantaged people of color — become passive supporters of the abuses heaped on these communities. The treatment of criminal justice as a television drama or a video-game title further desensitizes the population from precisely how brutal and unjust some practices are for other people. Thus, prison, corrupt police and unfair trials to whites may seem like the stuff of fantasy or, even worse, basis for street cred, but for Blacks and Latinos, such issues are real and can (and do) result in broken families, death and years in confinement.

Yet more appallingly, are the ways race and class shape the experience, both affect how society judges perpetrators, crime and punishment. To upper-class whites, who may lack the experience or clarity to understand convicting someone’s son, brother, father or husband to 20 years in prison is, in fact, two decades of life, believing in the sanctity of the law has a different gravity than for those who have historically faced discrimination, mistreatment of family and friends by the system and may not believe the philosophical foundations of equality and fairness never apply to them. Amid pundits and politicians demanding tough-on-crime jockeying, the full application of that intolerance is on display. What the callousness means in a few generations, especially if historical divides continue, is yet to be understood.

Brown’s way of telling these stories packs a real punch. While many researchers have plumbed for reasons why race and class so divergently distinguish life in the United States, The Culture of Punishment puts forward new information boldly and in a way everyone can understand.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution

Michael O. West, William G. Martin and Fanon Che Wilkins (Eds.)University of North Carolina Press (2009)
Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton perhaps explained Black revolutionary nationalism best when he drew lines against what he called reactionary nationalism. Revolutionary nationalism is a force that sees capital and the ruling order in a fundamentally different way; rather than grouse over what piece of the power structure can be reformed or what privileges can be maintained, the revolutionary nationalist sees the challenge is in upending the dynamics as a whole.

Though in some sense, the struggle of Newton’s day is gone, the spirit of what he envisioned has not disappeared from communities or consciousness. Be it noncooperation with police (a symptom of generations-old antagonism of the Black community by law enforcement) or local mobilizing for justice, resistance is alive as it ever was. However, with so many former radicals and intelligentsia invested in existing power via academia, grant cycles and so forth, a look at the grassroots social movements from which emerged Black internationalism is as exciting as it is instructive.

From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution relays the story of Black anti-imperialism, a tradition explored exquisitely by Gerald Home among others, but rarely elsewhere in a method that frames the intellectual current as married to the upheavals of many periods. Edited by professors Michael West, William Martin and Fanon Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac transverses the histories of many important Black internationalist movements. The editors deliver a superlative recounting of history that organizers today should learn about and from.

Of special note are the writings on transnational organizing among Blacks between the United States, Haiti and a constellation of African nations spanning centuries. Whether is was the impact of the Haitian Revolution on North American activism or exactly how profoundly figures like W. E. B. DuBois would shape political philosophy on global African liberation, the editors ensure they deliver a serviceable presentation of stories that have been, in some instances, told exhaustively. Elsewhere, the real treasures in this book are the details that convey to new students of Black internationalism how deeply embedded the struggle’s aspirations were to people most incorrectly do not associate with political activism. The spread of Pan Africanism in the early 1900s, in one passage, is traced back to sailors and international ship travel; those seeds would reach apartheid South Africa and eventually lend energy to the toppling of white rule across the country. Mahatma Gandhi’s association with Black struggles in the United States and elsewhere are sketched out as well.

The editors do a solid job presenting Black internationalism in the United States as well. The influence of Black communists, particularly people like Harry Haywood and Claude McKay, on modern ideas of self-determination and racial diversity in white-dominated movements are weighty, and offered here. The Comintern’s involvement in drawing support for the Scottsboro campaign as well as agitating against the invasion of Ethiopia by fascist Italy are significant activist insurgencies highlighted with richness.

From Toussaint to Tupac wanders into shakier territory when it comes to the spin on hip-hop. Utilizing an oft-repeated premise — that hip-hop traces roots to a mix of influences, from griots to Malcolm X — the book tries to close with a telling of the international (though less internationalist) reach and organizing potential of the music and culture. Fair enough, but following writings about the Black Panther Party and West Indian revolutionary fervor, the conclusion feels unsatisfying. However, in all, From Toussaint to Tupac is a good introduction to an overlooked history.

Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools

By Luis Urrieta
(University of Arizona Press, 2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




A peculiar tension has always existed between activist educators working in public and higher education. Maybe it is the contradiction of cultivating consciousness of youth while being on the payroll of institutions (and certainly the state) that seldom believe in such politically minded pursuits. Or perhaps, as Luis Urrieta asserts in Working From Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools, it is the self-awareness of being essentially a tool for a system that wants to (and, in many cases, will) assimilate students into white-dominant mainstream America. What this means for Chicana/o teachers in the Southwestern United States, and the movements from which those teachers hail, is at issue for a subculture of educators.

The tantalizing philosophical quandary Urrieta presents indirectly then is this: how much will students’ fates actually change through progressive educators on the tab of a system that, at best, wants to generally educate youth of color for ‘the future’ and, at worst, actively and systematically teaches versions of history that may swim against community self-interest?

The challenges of navigating identity, alienation, politics and agency are tackled head on by Working From Within, a book that asserts a positive history to progressive Chicana and Chicano educators seeking to impart to young people a clear understanding of their roles in society as well as their history. Such relationships, particularly in academia, are fraught with compromises and negotiation. The book shares efforts to organize Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) chapters, youth leadership development, cultural studies and other tactics. Just as vigorous to the storytelling is a backdrop of educators conflicted about the positions they occupy and their efforts to maintain their idealism in a system that generally does not see the world as they do.

Most telling about the involvement of progressive educators in academia is the ways definitions changed. Activism, in their lens, took on a postmodern feel, from community organizing and street actions to one in which they saw their employment as activism with a different scope, but lending to a social change few believed they would see in their lifetimes. Although one might say such a view could be a byproduct of Chicanisma/o and the complicated relationships it has had with white society for generations, it is doubtful such pretensions are isolated to Chicana/o instructors.

Other writings have criticized the tendency of those working in the academic and not-for-profit world to perpetuate themselves and their careers at the cost of serving the community, most visibly The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. Implicit to the critique is that, by buying off good organizers with jobs and lifestyles oriented in some way around their views, the struggle becomes not one of community building but ensuring those views have a home (and thus acculturated by some part) in the institution itself. By creating that space, one may win a victory in putting views forward, but ultimately it is argued that mainstream education wins because its own notions of academic freedom and discussion are reinforced.

In Urrieta’s view, such changes are emblematic of how movements grow and change over time. Unexplored is how militant Chicana/o activism has mostly vanished amid the rise of mainstream social action and nonprofits. It is debatable how good or bad the developments such movements have seen ultimately will be, but Urrieta’s research certainly ads more to an ongoing conversation.