The War on Thugs — How propaganda fuels our prison problem

https://chronicle.com/article/The-War-on-Thugs/230787/?cid=cr&utm_source=cr&utm_medium=en

One particularly important example, both disturbing and revealing, is “super-predator theory,” introduced by, among others, John Dilulio Jr., a political-science professor at Princeton at the time, in a successful attempt to advocate for adult prison sentences for juvenile offenders. The theory postulated a group of “super-predators” with intrinsically violent natures, who “kill, rape, maim, and steal without remorse,” and for whom reform was not an option. In the mid-1990s, Dilulio predicted a large increase in violent crime in the United States from 1995 to 2000. His prediction was treated as credible, despite the fact that violent crime in the United States began dropping in the early 1990s and continued to fall from 1995 to 2000…

The theory had a large effect on public discourse. In the 1996 election, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole competed over who would be harsher on these “super-predators.” …

Dilulio’s belief that there was going to be an explosion of violent crime proved to be wildly wrong…

Democratic deliberation becomes impossible when figures of authority are allowed to employ incendiary propagandistic rhetoric — not just “super-predator” but also “wilding,” “crack epidemic,” “thug,” and “gang.” These words reduce or eliminate our capacity to think of those to whom they are applied as equals, deserving of empathy. When they are used by authority figures in a democracy, they undermine the very ideals that grant those figures their authority…

Consider “sentencing enhancement zones,” more colloquially known as “school drug zones.” These are laws that increase penalties for offenders caught within a certain distance of schools. The arguments in favor of school drug zones employ valued ideals — the protection of children, for example — and appear to be the hallmark of fair, race-neutral legal policies. But school drug zones are not race-neutral. As the Prison Policy Initiative points out, “[s]entencing enhancement laws … create a two-tiered system of justice: a harsher one for dense urban areas with numerous schools and overlapping zones and a milder one for rural and suburban areas, where schools are relatively few and far between.” Such laws place an extra burden on families that live in urban areas, endangering rather than protecting their children…

Sylvia Wynter, a Stanford scholar of African-American studies, began a 1994 article, “‘No Humans Involved’: An Open Letter to My Colleagues,” with the news that “public officials of the judicial system of Los Angeles regularly used the acronym NHI to refer to any case involving a breach of the rights of young Black males who belong to the jobless category of the inner city ghettoes. NHI means ‘no humans involved.’” …

Dehumanizing propaganda — “thug,” “predator”, “gang member” — is employed to hinder any attempt to explore the root causes of disorder. When blacks protest in response to social injustice, it creates disorder. When crime rates rise, it creates disorder. Propaganda mixed with fear leads to tolerance of injustice. The use of propaganda allows us to overlook gross inequities in the treatment of those to whom the propagandistic vocabulary is applied, inequities that are inconsistent with political equality…

In the past 35 years, the population of U.S. citizens who are incarcerated has increased more than fourfold. The lack of empathy toward those caught in the grip of the prison system is not consistent with the ideals of liberal democracy. There is, for example, no national outcry about the tens of thousands of Americans subject to long-term solitary confinement, despite vivid accounts of its horrors. Prison rape continues to be a topic for comedy routines…

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