February 25, 2016

GRANT | American Superiority Complex, Enslaved to Identity

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As Cornellians we are called to highest level of intellectual introspection and reflection. One step towards understanding ourselves is realizing that the American society pushes us to establish our identity through “othering”: the act of labeling people as “others” different from ourselves. Our ontology is formed using an “us” versus “them” system. “We” are “us” because “they” are “them.” Through residential segregation we distanced ourselves. Our suburbs emerged through the creation of ghettos. Our peace is defined in relation to the violence that surrounds another place. Our modernity is based on the primitiveness of other’s societies. Our society creates phrases such as, “hashtag first world problems.” Our vision is based upon the other’s blindness. When we scroll down our newsfeeds or turn on the news we tell ourselves, “My situation is bad, but other people have it worse. At least I’m not a *insert racial minority*.” Our equality is based upon the system of inequality that exist abroad.  Our selectivity is based on looking at the rejection of others. Our quality of life is based less so on our happiness to the health disparities of other patient populations. Our blessings are based on the degree to which other people’s disadvantage. One example is the way we socialize children with phrases like, “You know you are so blessed to have food! Don’t waste what you have. Not everyone is as privileged as you. Don’t you know there are hungry children in *insert continent*?” Our freedom is based on the subjugation of another.  Our problem today is that we establish our security based upon the imprisonment of our convicts. Our innocence is based upon the guilt of others.

So what then is the solution?

We must understand the invisible social contracts we sign into our work everyday of our lives. One step toward this understanding is admitting that the new institution of slavery still continues underneath our very noses. In the present day, slavery has taken on a new face: the criminal. According to the 13th Amendment of our Constitution, if a person is convicted as a criminal in a court of law, that person would go back to being considered a slave. The exact wording of our Constitution reads the following, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

In other words, according to the clause within the 13th Amendment, being convicted of a crime can subjugate you to indentured servitude and even slavery. Put simply, we must frame the issue of imprisonment as slavery. Because how we frame the problem will help us work towards solutions. We can paint a picture with our words about unspeakable injustices against racial groups however, unless we have the right picture frame, that vividly painted picture will remain on the floor. Based on the 13th Amendment, as long as a citizen exhibits good behavior, follows all societal laws, does not make a mistake and does not get convicted of a crime, they are free. However, I find it interesting that in the American news when a member of a racial minority group makes a mistake or commits a minor offense, the first reaction is to demand judgment or justify imprisonment. Although we must demand justice, we must also admit that the problem with the previous statement is the following:

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

Cornell is currently being confronted on one mistake — investing in the private prison industrial complex. However, there is still time to change. There is time for Cornell to learn about its mistakes and for us to re-educate ourselves. There is still time to teach empathy, a lesson that seems to be lacking in our classrooms. On other words, what we need is a higher education than we have right now. We need an education that equips us to go out in the world and be global shapers, change makers, policy makers, doctors, engineers, critical thinkers and thought leaders. We need an educational curriculum for our global leaders that will enable them to be able to understand social justice and what their role can be in solving the challenges of tomorrow, today. We need the vocabulary to talk about the tensions, the hurt and the suffering we experience within our various communities. We need a diversity requirement for students before they leave Cornell.

The reason for this is evident in the ways in which the American media has us think about our lives in relation to others. Despite this,  re-education should not be the responsibility of any one racial minority group or organization on Cornell’s campus. It should be the responsibility of the entire university and all of its students. And if change does not come in time, then we must educate ourselves.

No one at birth possesses the culturally sensitive lexicon and all the vernacular to talk about the complex issues of our day. It is for this reason we must not be quick to brandish or label people as haters, bigots and racists. Yes, it is true that haters, bigots and racists do exist in our society. However, I also believe that there are also good-hearted people who lack the vocabulary to express their true intentions. Great people who cannot help to repeat the words they have heard over the course of their lives. We must not be too quick to demonize them misspeaking or not having knowledge of a world outside of their own socialization and realm of reality. It is correct that our community must hold them to the highest level of introspection. However, we must also learn to be patient with them while they learn and re-educate themselves as well.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

On Dec. 19, 1958 Rabbi Harold Saperstein remarked, “It comes down to this: All mankind are bound together. We are like the limbs of a single body.” In order for us to move forward, each of us who makes up this body must be free. Our idle gaze, our passivity, our spectatorship does nothing to help the victims of discrimination and injustice. Social justice requires more than just for us to sit on the sidelines. If anything it requires our voices, our actions and our words. It requires us to protest at the rallies, champion for freedom, protest the unjust imprisonment of racial minorities, witness from the pulpit and serve as allies. We must testify and write about the injustices around us.

Because in the end, what affects “them” affects “us.”

Jeremiah Grant is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeremiah can be reached at jg856@cornell.edu. Gates & Ladders appears alternate Fridays this semester.

  • Man with the Axe

    When minority group members commit murders, assaults, rapes, arsons, robberies, drive-by shootings, and the like against innocent people, usually other members of the same minority, what is your recommendation of what to do with the culprits? How do you recommend keeping the number of such crimes in minority communities, notoriously the most crime-ridden, down to acceptable levels? Do you have any ideas for what would replace imprisonment?

    • Bee

      Your comment pretty much proved the article true, you wouldn’t have to even ask a question like that if you knew that high crime is ridden in POOR areas across the board (this includes white people *shocker*), but it so happens many minorities in this country are also poor. You would also know that minorities are more likely to get arrested than whites for the same crime, and are convicted and incarcerated for the same crimes more than whites. For example, white people and black people smoke marijuana at similar rates, yet black people are 3.7 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. So your questions are uneducated at best, and if you knew anything about prisons you would know that many don’t serve as rehabilitation for convicts and when many are released they can’t get a job because of their record, they are released back into their poor area which has poor education and lack of jobs, and just lack of overall support from the government. Much of which can/should be taught in a required diversity class (a good foundation would be Social Inequality 2208 taught right here at Cornell).

      • Man with the Axe

        Blacks may be arrested for marijuana more often than whites, but they also commit murder at about 5 times the rate that whites do. Is that a function of biased policing? Are you willing to tolerate that rate of murder, or even higher if imprisonment is diminished?

        My main point was that since blacks are themselves the victims of the vast majority of the crimes committed by blacks, diminishing imprisonment for serious criminals is likely to increase the rate of such crime, further victimizing the innocent black community, which is already reeling from intolerable levels of criminality. I ask the question: What does the author intend as the substitute for imprisonment? Surely, the answer isn’t for people like me to take diversity courses to learn to ask better questions.

        You assume that I don’t know that prison is not very good at rehabilitation. As it happens I’ve written on the subject. In fact, almost nothing is good at rehabilitation, which may not even be possible. But it is removal and deterrence, not rehabilitation, where prison is most effective. The goal is the same: get the convict not to commit more crime. At the very least, the criminal doesn’t commit more crime while he’s incarcerated. It is no coincidence that we currently have historically lower crime rates while also having a historically high prison population. And perhaps the criminal will be fearful of returning to prison, and that could reduce his incentive to commit crime. Having more police, increasing the probability of getting caught, can also work to reduce crime.

        You complain that these criminals can’t get jobs because of their criminal records. Maybe they should have thought about that before committing the crimes that created the record. That’s what the rest of us do. We refuse to commit crimes for fear of having a record that could wreck our lives.

        Criminals destroy much of the economic vitality of the community, and then complain that there aren’t any jobs for them when they get out of prison. That’s actually pretty funny. It’s like the guy who murdered his parents begging the judge for mercy because he’s an orphan.

        • Reading Comprehension is Key

          Axe man, you seem to have either missed the point, created your own point, or both. The author of this piece specifically referred to “mistakes” and “minor offenses.” Nothing about murders, assaults, rapes, arsons, robberies, and drive-by shootings, which are all violent crimes, and not minor offenses. You mentioned those things..not the author. Second, he said nothing about getting rid of imprisonment. There’s nothing wrong with being a critical thinker and engaging with systems that create and propogate today’s society. The point is not that we should get rid of imprisonment altogether, but it is okay to question aspects of it…and everything should be questioned, always, because nothing is perfect, especially our justice system. Questioning something doesn’t mean you are against it. It means you are conscious and intelligent enough to engage with the world around you.

          What purpose could you possibly have in objecting to the further education of people? We can’t solve a problem unless we understand it. That’s the point..we should be provided with the background and context and education to understand the dynamics of issues such as mass incarceration, and then maybe rather than imprisoning everyone after they have committed the crime, people will realize that they need to fix the education system and health care system and get poor people on their feet before they resort to a life of crime to begin with. This is why we ask questions. It’s not a bad thing.

          • Man with the Axe

            The author posits that imprisonment for crime is slavery. I can only assume that this is not meant as praise. Slavery, whether for crimes small or large, is not what the author favors. It is simply not true that any significant number of these people is in prison for marijuana possession. Most of those who are in prison for only drug-related crimes were guilty of much more, but pled down to the drug charge. Everyone in law enforcement knows this.

            I’m simply asking, for the third time, what does he (do you) recommend instead of prison?

            There is no “mass incarceration.’ These people in prison were put there one at a time after a trial or guilty plea. Every single one made choices that landed him in jail. Jail itself is the result, not the cause, of their personal problems.

            The education system is terrible, but it does not lead to crime. If it did, then the number of criminals coming out of poor schools would be much higher than it is.

            Most poor people of all races, with poor educations and lousy health care, do not resort to crime, because they are decent people with a moral sense. Decent people would rather be poor than commit crimes. For decent people poverty is a spur to work, not crime. Most of these criminals are not as poor as the average person was 100 years ago. They have better food, housing, health care, entertainment, clothing, than the average working man did a century ago.

            Just so you don’t misunderstand me: One more time: What do you recommend to take the place of prison for black criminals? How will you protect the law-abiding black community from them?

          • Sheila E

            Very interesting points. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  • George

    This sort of drivel is very discouraging. And to think that Bernie Sanders actually wants to spend taxpayer money to fund this BS.

  • Isaiah

    I’m not even sure where to start. “Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.” That’s it? That’s the cause of the problem, our failure to realize that “everyone makes mistakes sometimes”? While I have no doubt that Mr. Grant has the best of intentions and a good heart, like many other students in academia who have been brainwashed into the “victim” school of thought, his ideas have no basis in reality. Many of the people who make these ‘mistakes’ have been making them for their whole life, and at an increasing rate and severity. To characterize these criminals as unfortunate victims of split-second bad decision making is naive at best, and dishonest at worst. If you really want to be honest about the issue, let’s look at the breakdown of the family, and the ever-increasing fatherless household ( http://educationnext.org/was-moynihan-right/ ). Solve the family problem, and many of these issues evaporate. The idea, as this article suggests, that the prison problem is primarily caused by racial biases is absurd. We have a prison problem, because we have a character problem, because we have a family problem. On a side note, I find it more than a little coincidental that the author uses the phrase “re-education”. It’s truly frightening to see the views coming out of our colleges these days.