Friday, September 7, 2012

Assigning "The Wire" for Criminology: An Experiment

I'm sure that I'm far from alone among sociologists and criminologists in desperately wanting to teach a course around "The Wire."  Some people have been lucky enough to do it, including, not surprisingly, William Julius Wilson who, along with Anmol Chadha, discusses his reasons for teaching "The Wire" in this short piece from a couple of years ago:

One day, maybe I'll get the chance.  For now, what I decided to do is to assign my criminology students this semester to watch one episode of the first season every week and to write memos on each episode connecting themes from the show to course themes.  I am really excited about this.  If students give me the permission, I am hoping to post some of their best insights on this blog.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Deandre McCullough

Before "the Wire," there was "the Corner."

"The Corner" was a six-part HBO mini-series, written by David Simon and Ed Burns, about life and death at the corner of West Fayette Street and North Monroe Street in Baltimore.  Lacking the occasional comic relief of "the Wire," no show, in my estimation, has ever brought home the despair of urban destitution like "the Corner" did.  If the series doesn't touch you, it's hard for me to imagine what could.

One of the central characters in the series (and in the book it was based on) was Deandre McCullough, who was just 15 years old when Simon met him dealing drugs on the streets of Baltimore.  Last month, McCullough died at the age of 35 of a drug overdose.  

Simon tells the story of McCullough's life and death in his blog "The Audacity of Despair": 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Michelle Alexander has quickly become one of the most prominent and impassioned voices speaking out against mass incarceration in America today.  She will be speaking  on a panel with several others, including Angela Davis and Cornel West, at Harlem's Riverside Church on September 14th.

Analytically, I think the analogy to Jim Crow has real problems which are examined in this excellent piece by James Forman:  Forman, the son of the American civil rights leader of the same name, counts himself as an ardent opponent of the policies of mass incarceration.  However, Forman skillfully points to some very obvious, but often overlooked, differences between the old Jim Crow regime and the contemporary American criminal justice system.

Perhaps, though, notwithstanding flaws in the analogy, "The New Jim Crow" might ultimately function as an effective frame for building a mass movement against the injustices, unfairness, and destructive tendencies of the American criminal justice system.  I attended a talk by Alexander at Riverside Church a little over a year ago, and judging from the size and excitement of the crowd in attendance, the New Jim Crow frame certainly seems like it has the potential to mobilize people who are already inclined to view the American criminal justice system as not merely unjust and unfair, but racist at its very core.  Over time, however, the more difficult problem will be persuading those who are not already given over to such an assessment--and this is a goal that Alexander very much wants to accomplish.  I think there is some cause to doubt that the New Jim Crow frame will accomplish this far more ambitious aim.

Another problem with the New Jim Crow argument that Forman does not touch on is that, while it offers an extremely radical diagnosis of the problem, Alexander and other proponents of the view have little to say on the ever-important question of "what is to be done?"  My sense, too, is that what little there is in the way of suggestions about what to do or what to even aim for, they tend not to be terribly radical.  Radical diagnosis, in other words, has not yet been matched with a radical vision.  Yet I should think that, if mass incarceration (or even just the drug war) really is tantamount to a New Jim Crow regime, the only acceptable solution would be to end it outright.

But what precisely would that mean?  I would think that, at a minimum, the decriminalization or legalization of drugs would be on the table, but I have serious doubts about whether many proponents of the New Jim Crow frame would go along with that. What then? 

Yet another question that has long weighed on my mind is how a critical criminologist (or any other kind of critical scholar) ought to respond to an argument like Alexander's.  How important is to get things right?  Are there times when critical scholars ought to overlook flaws in arguments for political or moral reasons?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

NYTimes: "Deportation Nation"

This is a very effective piece by Daniel Kanstroom and it includes a reference to David Brotherton and Luis Barrios' recently published book on the plight of Dominican deportees: