Monday, October 22, 2007

Sometimes the Pen is Mightier than the Sword: How a Culture of Punishment is Destroying the Futures of Our Youth

By Daniel W. Newhart, Research Associate, and Vincent Willis, Graduate Research Associate

In the coverage following the Jena 6 incident, some have argued that black men’s embracing of violent culture contributed to the events. Despite the prevalence of such interpretations, there is a more pervasive problem than the “dysfunctional culture” of African Americans. The problem is rather the dysfunctional nature of our justice system, coupled with American’s “trigger finger” culture of punishment. This culture has led us down a path where youths are becoming increasingly criminalized, and overt racism is no longer understood as being connected to events that manifest deeply held beliefs about superiority and inferiority.

America has an addiction, one which is coupled with a strong hand that can end lives with the “stroke of a pen.” It is an addiction to punish, one that requires constant nourishment, through media, increased militarization and “protection”. Our addiction causes us to, as Victor Rios puts it, “hypercriminalize” Black and Latino males—so much so, that statistics like 33 percent of African American males have some experience with the criminal justice system before age thirty play repeatedly, rather than the fact that there are still 66 percent of those males that do not have an experience with the justice system. This is not an oversight that should be taken lightly. People’s lives and futures depend on us seeing that they are capable of positive outcomes. By allowing our individual and national consciousnesses to be usurped by these destructive thoughts, possibilities for hope and opportunity are foreclosed.

Events like the current one in Jena suggest that it is our culture, rather than a specific group, that is dysfunctional. In a world with increasing uncertainty, citizens are fearful, and the way we process our fear is to lash out harshly against people. This fear, however, is rarely acknowledged, but rather hidden by intensified punishment. Some symptoms arise, however; tennis shoes become deadly weapons, but there is no law barring the noose, a symbol that was historically a scourge on this country. We see victims and perpetrators, but avoid addressing what is causing the conflict initially. The most frightening part is our lack of ability to see the events in Jena as connected to larger issues, intertwined through a history of racism, hate, and fear. As much as we might not want to admit it, this root not only affects African Americans, but all Americans.

As Americans, we are responsible for creating this culture of fear and maintaining it. We vote positively on getting more police in schools, while shifting care of our children from teachers and administrators to those who can give them criminal records. In regard to discipline, education is becoming less about rehabilitation and learning and more about punishment. Terms like “lockdown” and “probation” are being used in our schools today. These terms were once bound to the criminal justice system. When discipline in schools becomes fused with police reports, white students are just as much targets of this punishment as black students. Most of the time white students are punished less harshly, but punished, rather than educated–in a place of education, no less!

There is hope, however. For example, through parent involvement, we can work with the police to create a new environment in the schools and provide a different type of discipline to our children which is more rehabilitative in nature. That which we created, we can also transform into something new. At the end of the day, we are all on trial. Some of us have just not been tried quite yet. In a society with such pervasive dysfunction, we are all just a “penstroke away” from having our lives ended, as Mr. Walters told the students, both white and black, of Jena during the much-discussed school assembly. Our fates are tied up with those of others, whether we would like to admit it or not.

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