Interviewee: Dennis Childs, Associate Professor of English at the University of California, San Diego
Interviewer(s): Deborah E. McDowell; James Perla
Interview date: 2018-10-18
Interview Summary: Childs discusses Jefferson’s contributions to the history of mass incarceration and the view of progress in the nation’s history.
Keywords: Prisons, mass incarceration, colonization movement, 13th Amendment
Transcription: Josh Gravely
JAMES PERLA: Settings… But yeah, so this project is for UVA’s Bicentennial. And so, at the two hundred year anniversary, we’re taking this as an opportunity to try to look a little bit more critically at Jefferson’s history and see if there’s a way to push the narrative that we usually talk about in these parts a little bit further to, you know, to deepen the way we talk about Jefferson.
DEBORAH MCDOWELL: What we don’t want to do… Well, you can imagine, I want to take a very contrarian view. But what we don’t want to do is just simply reiterate. “Well, Jefferson was a hypocrite,” you know, “what’s with all of this “all men are created equal” and then he owned slaves,” you know, we know all of that. So, we want to not necessarily lose sight of that but want to actually see what are these other things about Jefferson that we don’t know or that people refuse to see. When I presented leading historians, Jeffersonian, basic experts, not just generalist, but Jefferson. People whose careers were devoted to Jefferson. When I presented them with the prison drawings to see if they could help me, because we were doing a major symposium, most of them claimed they never had seen the prison drawings, had no comments on the prison drawings. I go, “How can this be? I’m not even a Jefferson scholar and I have done enough research to uncover these drawings.” So, basically we want to widen, deepen the narrative but also introduced aspects of Jefferson that either people don’t know about or refuse to let themselves see.
DENNIS CHILDS: Well, if I can chime in on that and thanks for the opportunity to speak with you all about this, you know, I ran into these aspects of Jefferson’s history in researching my book Slaves of the State: Black Incarceration from the Chain Gang to the Penitentiary and the way that I specifically ran into a part of his kind of legacy that you’re talking about that doesn’t get spoken of much is with respect to the exception clause on the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What many people don’t know is that there were many exception clauses leading up to that one and they were a part of what were called “the black laws” of Northern states and of the Northwest Territory. So, 1787 is the Northwest Ordinance and Jefferson was a part of the lead up of writing that. Much of what became the ordinance was based on his own writings with respect to what would become those new states and an exception clause was actually written into that document. Here’s how it is worded: “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This is nearly the exact language that ended up in the US Constitution and the 1865 Thirteenth Amendment. That exception clause is something that was really key for me in tracing what Angela Davis in her work describes as a transition from what she calls “the prison of slavery to the slavery of prison.” And in my work I try to trace what is now called “mass incarceration” back through its genealogical roots in chattel slavery. And Jefferson is obviously a really key figure in that, you know, he was a slave owner, but also one of the leaders in the U.S. in terms of the philosophical discourse of the Enlightenment. This connection between him at one and the same time being a leader in that liberal modality of thought and philosophy and also a leader in the project of human commodification is something that really was important to me from the very beginning.
The Northwest Ordinance and the afterlives of slavery
JP: And so, just a clarifying question, if you can maybe circle back just slightly to slow down a bit in terms of that Northwest Ordinance you’re describing that this came about through essentially through one of the clauses that were essential to the Civil War?
DC: Well, that this later when it became the Civil War, yes.
JP: And so, I wonder if you can just maybe even, yeah, in, maybe, in other words maybe circle back to what that means?
DC: Well, I mean what that meant was is that I know that in terms of looking back at his legacy, one of the prime ways he’s understood is as a reformer. Someone who was, even though he was a slave master, had real philosophical problems with the institution. I like to think of Jefferson’s white supremacist ideology not as exceptional to his role as reformer or Enlightenment thinker but it actually part and parcel. Instead of seeing those two things as polar opposites, seeing them… the Enlightenment or liberal discourse and the original mass incarceration or chattel slavery as mutually constitutive and that cuts against the grain of a lot of treatments of this subject matter. Either Jefferson was an arch racist or he was this grand liberal Enlightenment thinker. I’d rather see more muddiness there and see the two things as working in interplay. That allows us also to see slavery as rather than a kind of peculiar institution that was exceptional to the narrative of progress in the U.S. as actually fundamental and then we can track what’s Sadiya Hartman then calls “the afterlives of slavery” through something like imprisonment. The drawings the Dr. McDowell mentioned are incredible number one to see his hand actually forming the architecture, designing the architecture of the original Virginia Penitentiary. When you see him actually doing a kind of design along the lines of a segregationist philosophy with black prisoners being held, black men and black women, being separated from white men and white women. This is something that he knew full well how to do. I mean we have to acknowledge that if he… if we want to talk about him and what’s now called the carceral state, he knew full well what he was talking about in entering into that domain because he was in fact a kind of prison warden. The reason why black people only represented an infinitesimally small number of those in the southern U.S. who were in prisons, what became prisons in the Walnut Street example or the Auburn system, is that in the South, black people, where most black people were, Africans were, they were already imprisoned on what were called plantations. So, to answer your question in terms of the Northwest Ordinance, his role as reformer is clear. The Northwest Territory would not have slavery. That’s what I just read and neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in these new states that which by the way were colonial spaces, colonized spaces where indigenous people were being dispossessed of their rightful entitlement to their land and goods and their being. But there was a catch. The exception was number one: if you were convicted of a crime, you could be put in put into a situation of in reality de facto slavery. Number two: there was also a fugitive slave clause written into the Northwest Ordinance or the land ordinance as it was called in 1784 and ultimately that was his… what he [Jefferson] penned and then ‘87, what the actual Northwest Ordinance for those territories that would become modern-day Ohio, Indiana, other states. So, the fact that that document can be considered a liberal document… We’re not going to have slavery in those territories, are going to be clean of that stain on our record as in the nation state itself in formation. Oh, but by the way, we’re also going to allow for the re-enslavement of both free and already enslaved black persons through criminalization. This is a legacy that we are living today. And that’s not to say that 1787 and 2018 are exactly the same. But if you look at the Thirteenth Amendment, when it was written and the debates in Congress that happened with people like Charles Sumner saying the Senator from Massachusetts saying look, we can’t repeat what Jefferson and others wrote into that original ordinance now because we’re trying to free four million Africans. What will happen after this is that a new system of imprisonment will just be a facsimile or a new version or what DuBois called “old wine in new bottles.” What the South will do is come up with a new way to enslave this population. He got beaten down in that debate and then he goes back to Congress in 1866 with an advertisement for the sale of black people like Richard Harris and Harriet Purdy on the steps of the Annapolis County Courthouse for crimes like thieving a half bushel of wheat. And the words in the advertisements just like the ones before slavery had been supposedly outlawed were very clear. This person will be sold as a slave by the county sheriff on the courthouse steps at twelve noon. And this is almost two years after abolition. So, when we talk about the legacy and we talk about the liberal legacy, the reformatory one, I think that we have to have a complicated or nuanced understanding from, especially from the perspective of those who were his slaves and their progeny, of what reform really meant. It’s not to say that emancipation meant nothing but it is also to say again that DuBois’ line about “old wine in new bottles” or Dr. McDowell “the changing same” in her work. These things are really important to track. I mean, just if I can, he’s a… Jefferson was a student someone that really studied the works of the Italian criminologist, Cesare Beccaria. Okay, now I saw in some of the materials having to do with the Bicentennial and the Jefferson part of that, the notion, well, Beccaria was a leading prison reformer. Yes, and this is exactly my point. What exactly was his idea of reform? Well, we’re going to move away from a feudal model of punishment to a more modern post-, you know, post-feudal, you know, liberal model or Enlightenment philosophy. Okay, but what were his words? His words in On Crimes and Punishments having to do with this idea: “If it be said that permanent penal servitude is as grievous as death and therefore as cruel, I reply that if we add up all the unhappy moments of slavery, perhaps it is even more so. But the latter are spread out over an entire life, whereas the former exerts its force at a single moment.” What is the… what is the point there? That they wanted to come up with something more grievous than death. That imprisonment, which he equates to state slavery, being to quote the Virginia court case that your listeners probably know of Ruffin vs. Commonwealth in the late 19th century, prisoners were thought of as slaves of the state. This is a very old concept going back to Roman antiquity. So, the reform here the reformatory gesture is one that is actually also a terrorizing gesture when looked at from the perspective of those who were going to be subjected to this regime of penal enslavement.
The possibility of Reimagining prisons
JP: There’s so much there. I feel like we can even just say, All right, that’s it.”
DMcD: Yes! I was just about to say: you see me going [nodding]. James as the recorder… I’m constantly editorializing with my voice and [laughter] since I have to edit out all of this so, please!
JP: This is the colonial project of recording, you know, it’s like no we’re just we don’t exist here. There’s just a voice coming out of this.
DMcD: So, I’m about to jump out of my seat because I really want to be saying things.
JP: No, that was very, very good.
DMcD: Yeah, I know. I’m trying hard not to. But again to press on this idea of reform. I mean I’m wanting to… I’m getting too far ahead of ourselves now, but one of the things I want to mention in my opening remarks this afternoon for the panel, it’s the recent report from the Vera Institute, which is called: “Reimagining Prison,” right? And James said quite interestingly the other day, It’s not abolishing prison but reimagining. So, what are the incongruities in even trying to think about reform in the context of prison or reimagining prison? Is it possible to reimagine or reform prison?
DC: Well, that’s a… that’s a really important question. I mean I reminds me of [Angela] Davis’s book, Are Prisons Obsolete? We have got to the point in the last thirty to forty years where the civil imagination cannot conceive of a world without prisons. But if you look at the leader in the country in imprisonment of human beings, which is California, over about a hundred and thirty year, 130 year period, between the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, California only built about nine prisons. Okay? Then from 1980 to 2000, 30-plus. So, in order to imagine a world without prisons, we don’t actually have to work too hard. I mean it… relatively speaking. You have a 500% increase in the number of incarcerated people from the time Reagan took office until 2000 and we don’t want to leave Bill Clinton out of that picture. 1994 he’s passed the Crime Bill, the strikers that we’re going to talk about later. Don’t leave him off, you know, don’t let him off the hook at all because the “truth in sentencing” laws, the criminalizing of youth as adults, all of these things were a part of his regime which incarcerated more than any other previous regime ahead of him. So, it’s a real problematic ideologically for people who have been conditioned to think that a society based on incarcerating those who were living basically the predictable outcomes of a society based on gross inequities in terms of access to education, jobs, healthcare. You were speaking earlier with, you know, with post-docs and pre-docs from the Woodson Institute the way in which people with mental illness are criminalized for living again those predictable consequences. You know, the one thing that I like to do in a classroom context but also in my written work is turn that on its head and say, “Well, we would be offended were we to hear of a debate on whether reform of the slave plantation was something that could be done or not.” That we would be that would be shocking to the ear, you know, looking back at like Monticello and the slave plantations of old, but I think that hopefully I’ll say in years hence, we would be able to look back at the prison industrial complex in the same way. What the prison strikers and this instance and the ones in 2016 and the prison strikers, the hunger strikers, the 30,000 people that had the biggest hunger strike in history, or at least U.S. history in 2013 in California make clear is that the conditions are abominable but also the conditions that lead to folks being captured and taken to these places are also abominable. You have a situation where as you said earlier the prison amounts to a kind of form of human warehousing. But through social conditioning, all the infinite number of cop shows and things that are on TV, we can take a situation like the super maximum-security prison for instance. They have these things that are called control units or control units prisons and people are held in indefinite solitary confinement for over thirty plus years. Now, you can tell the average person that on the street and they may be horrified by that factoid. But the fact of the matter is that there is a kind of social acceptance of such horrific structures in society. Now, going back to Jefferson, his idea with the original Virginia prison going off the Walnut model was solitary confinement cells. But the difference was, was that the subject that he had as his ideal subject was not just black people but also white subjects who were unruly or needed to be conditioned into being proper workers or what have you. There was an ideal of reform especially vis-à-vis the white subject. But what happened when the prisons in the North started to become more and more populated by black people can also be traced to Jefferson’s Enlightenment and I would also say white supremacist philosophy. So, Notes on the State of Virginia, really important document that talks about the laws of Virginia but also around that time, and the document basically ponders whether black people are human beings of the same species, compares black people to orangutans. He also compares Roman slavery with slavery in the U.S. and he talks about a signal difference. And he says that difference between what would happen to emancipated slaves in the U.S. were to occur and what happened in Roman antiquity is this: Blackness. And so, he says among the Roman’s, emancipation required but one effort: the slave when made free might mix with without staining the blood of his master, but with us a second is necessary unknown to history when freed he must be removed beyond the reach of mixture. This notion of “negro removal” or African removal and how that even that reformatory ideal of the solitary confinement cell would be transmuted into something more horrifying than even it was. Charles Dickens talked about it being horrible when it originally happened, but when the subject was thought to be an unreformable subject. So, going from a corrective reformatory model, all these places are euphemistically called, you know, “houses of corrections.” By the 1970s, all of that euphemism, the clothes were taken off of it. It was made very bold face, even though the names may have stuck the idea was we’re punishing those beyond the possibility of reform. So, you get a situation where people like the Angola Three held at a slave plantation, modern one in Louisiana, the State Penitentiary, held for over thirty and, in case of Harmon Wallace Owen and Albert Woodfox, forty years in solitary confinement. And there is no notion of a kind of reform of this subject because the idea is that these are expendable persons whose labor is no longer necessary. So, it’s not exactly the same as it was in the late 18th century, but we have again the legacy of this strain of thought which is to say that there is an entity among us, if it’s the capital “U,” who if when their labor is no longer needed, as Jefferson says, needs to be removed beyond the reach of reach of mixture. Now, the colonization schemes didn’t work. But we have an internal colonization scheme that is called the prison industrial complex.
evil is in your house, evil is in your bed
JP: And just quickly, the colonization scheme? What do you mean by that?
DC: Well, the Colonization Society of the United States the idea was that once emancipation did occur, the country of Liberia was actually founded upon this principle. Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson, and others were very open to the idea of basically the mass removal of the formerly enslaved population because of this notion that this, for them, a kind of horrifying notion of racial mixing. And here in Charlottesville, up to the very, you know, recent moment with the white supremacist rally and the violence in the streets here. And there was just a, I looked at the newspaper yesterday a piece on racial profiling by the police department here, all of these things find they’re find their genealogical roots in early philosophical systems that cannot be exceptionalized to openly crazy groups such as the KKK. We can actually look at Enlightenment thinkers and the fathers of liberal thought, Locke and Hobbes and Jefferson, to find the ideological roots for some of these dynamics that we’re living out today.
DMcD: Indeed. And many people, I should say, some people in the wake of August 11th and 12th in 2017 kept trying to make that point. When certain people, including faculty members, said: “Evil has come to our house,” some of us said: “Evil is in your house, evil is in your bed.” Where do you think Kessler and Spencer came from? What made them think that they could do? They are products of this university. So, the idea that somehow this is some innocent liberal bastion and that what has just happened is some aberration is willful misthinking. You’re absolutely right.
DC: And the liberal bastion, you know, in this conversation, the liberal bastion is actually inseparable from the white supremacist activity or the violence that the United States as a beacon of liberalism, political liberalism, economic liberalism, is inseparable from the project of colonial genocide, against its indigenous inhabitants. And what I would argue is also a genocidal campaign against Africans through slavery and its aftermath.
DMcD: Absolutely. This university seems really practiced at taking concepts like liberalism, taking concepts, even before you probably heard about the… what turned out to be a journalistic hoax, a young woman… There was a story in Rolling Stone [Magazine] about a young woman allegedly gang-raped in a fraternity and it was discovered to be a hoax. But, you know, there was much hand-wringing in the aftermath of that. And so, one of our university officials who shall go unnamed said, “Well, we this is… This kind of violent behavior…. We have to get at… We have to return to our founding principles of ‘honor’.” I go: “Honor!? Honor will take you right back to violence. That the genealogy of ‘honor’ is in violence! Honor is not going to save you.”
DC: No, and right here on this university campus, just like campuses like LSU and many others. Georgetown, which we found out famously, recently, those slavery bones in the closet will reveal themselves. You can’t have one without the other and then again instead of thinking of them as opposites, thinking of liberalism and white supremacy as obverse as two sides of the same coin. And, you know, I think it’s really important to think in complicated ways. It’s not simply about Jefferson was a racist. No, it’s to really take seriously his thought. But also to look at okay, he’s an Enlightenment thinker, thinks of himself as a scientist. If you look at the section that I just read from earlier in Notes on the State of Virginia. I mean, he says,”Shouldn’t we think of the reality that even the color the way in which white people blush as a marker of this difference fixed in nature? No African has ever produced what can be called poetry?” I mean, this is passing itself off as a kind of anthropological gaze, which it was. Anthropology being grounded in as we’ve been saying a kind of form of white supremacist ideology and finally saying we may be different species. This is the same person who I guess was trying to do, if you will, “field work” on this very subject matter with his own slaves like Sally Hemings. So again, the real point here is not to exceptionalize these moments in Jefferson, not to exceptionalize what happened in 2017 in Charlottesville, and also not to exceptionalize the South and places south of the Mason-Dixon line. These were debates that were happening in the halls of Congress as I said earlier. And the project of U.S empire as it unfolded under Jefferson and afterwards has always had white supremacist ideology. Again, not the form that we’re familiar with then that makes people feel comfortable. The one that actually implicates the progress narrative, the forms of Enlightenment discourse we’ve been talking about, the very foundations of the liberal capitalist nation state are again tethered from the beginning to now to what can be called genocidal practices against people of color, specifically indigenous, and also black people you think about the early 20th century and what was literally a genocidal campaign against the people of the Philippines and that colonial project. You take it all away to the Vietnam War, the killing of it’s estimated four million people in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. By what entity? The liberal democratic kind of spearhead of the globe and you take it to now with Iraq and Afghanistan and everything that the United States has in terms of culpability for what can be rightfully called crimes against humanity. What are the groundings for these practices? Is the question and I think Jefferson helps us to illuminate that.
White supremacy as structural rather than incidental
DMcD: He absolutely does. And I simply want to pull out from… among the items in your series about not exceptionalizing Jefferson, August 2017. I have met with a lot of resistance from colleagues when I say, “You all are acting as if this is the end of the world.” That when the grand history is written of white supremacy, and it’s violent manifestations, August 11th and 12th, may figure somewhere in there in eight font type in a footnote. I gave a talk back in June where I’ve tried to make this point I said, “Let’s just take the 20th century alone.” Where, I mean, any loss of life in any act of or expression of violent white supremacy should be decried. But we have to look at people literally massacred in the streets. Whole towns of people lying in the street.
DC: I’m from one of those towns, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
DMcD: Tulsa figured in! And so, I just gave a litany and at one point I said, “And I’m only up to 1942. I could spend the rest of my time simply listing these places.” So, we need to get real here.
DC: That’s right.
DMcD: And then we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we then exceptionalizing this moment? What work is that doing for us?”
DC: Yes, and I think that feeds right into the conversation we’re going to have later today about the context of the prison strike in the seventeen states that had occurred in because I think that there is real work, not only in terms of erasers of history or herstory, but also continuing on the project of U.S. empire. So, for the population to accede to, not only this spectacular forms of violence that we saw on the streets of Charlottesville or back in ‘21 on the streets of Tulsa, but also the more grinding everyday processes where specifically black people, but you can talk about other people of color and now migrant folks now experiencing this, experiencing this on a daily day-to-day basis, the way in which stop-and-frisk for instance works. The way in which again, like I said earlier, lack of access to jobs, to a living wage is something that feeds what is called criminal activity. George Jackson, the really important thinker who happened to be the field marshall of the Black Panthers in the late 60s, 1970s, early 1970s and also a prisoner, a political prisoner in places like San Quentin talked about that most of the prisoners that he was encaged with were inside for some form of food-getting. Literally the lack of access to a job that could pay the bills was one of the things that was feeding the prisons. Literally feeding bodies to these facilities that were doing this horrific damage to whole communities. So, I think that that’s a really important point that you can’t, you know, I tire of the response to moments like in Charlottesville and others that we’ve been talking about where you get someone saying, “And this is happening in 2017. I can’t believe in 2018.” And I was hearing that back in 1994, in the ‘90s with Rodney, King every incident as if it’s incidental, but it’s not it’s structural.
DMcD: It is not incidental.
Challenging the progress narrative
DMcD: And I want to then, we can talk forever… I want to really tie that question the living wage. Some of us on the faculty have worked for the entirety of our time here in various ways to confront the absence of a living wage for people who work in our midst. UVA will give a standard response that many institutions give. “Well, we contract out. So, Aramark… We can’t control. What Aramark…” What do you mean you can’t control? You contract out to Aramark. Your hands are not clean here. And so, there is a refusal to acknowledge this very thing here. The outgoing president once said, “Well, what you’re asking for we already give. If you add up the benefits, one of which is a two thousand dollar tuition credit.” So, we said, “Can you take a two thousand dollar tuition credit to the landlord? Can you take Kroger?” Can you… Exactly to the grocery store? That this is insane. Further, I think the hyper-investment on the part of liberal professors or neoliberal professors at this institution, that the investment in Confederate monuments, not that that’s not important, the investment in the university’s roots in slavery, really eclipses a focus on what the attention that could be granted phenomena like this. It’s not that it’s not but these issues are not centrally a part of the conversation. We could not get faculty in the English Department, for example, to even sign a petition a few years ago for a living wage. Could not get them to do it. But it’s very easy to focus on the roots of this institution in slavery. Even when you want to ask them, “Why don’t we begin to talk about the university’s investments in private prisons?” We can’t see that and thus we don’t want to see that.
DC: I think that’s exactly it. It’s the way in which… That this is why in my work I try, again, that DuBois phrase keeps coming up of “old wine in new bottles,” challenging the progress narrative. There’s a comfort… There’s a comforting myth when we can say that there is a historical borderline where slavery ended and everything. The United States wiped its hands. There’s another one that is really kind of periodizing move. Well, 1965 and the Civil Rights Act, that’s when everything got okay and equal. These moves, these gestures, these grandiose gestures as you talked about, the grand Narrative of emancipation, what they do is they short-circuit the ability to see the connection between then and now. And something like the lack of an ability to purchase a home, to have land after a lot of it had been stolen. Let’s just say very clear, those that were able to acquire land after slavery, a lot of that was stolen through legal maneuvers. There was also the promise of land that was never kept. We can go on and on into all of those things, meanwhile, white subjects in the United States were able to lay claim through… To indigenous peoples lands through things like the Homestead Act. You have the Federal Housing Administration loans that people got after World War II, the creation of what is called the middle class, and white flight, this story recedes from view even under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the way in which there was a Jim Crow legal framework in terms of the way in which the GI Bill and access to those low interest home loans were divvied out. These stories are really important. But if you can say, “Oh, that stuff.” That when we’re studying slavery, we’re only studying something that’s fossilized in history, then you can remove or try to remove the culpability of the structure itself for the afterlives of chattel slavery, of Jim Crow apartheid, live through the experience of something like not being able to find a job. I know you read a piece that I just completed on Derrick Bell, one of the most important people in what’s called Critical Race Theory, a hugely important legal scholar who passed away relatively recently. He and a lot of other thinkers that I’m discussing in my work right now talk about how at one point or another and even James Baldwin writes about this in The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street that after the migrations of black people from the South and the demographic shift that happened between World War I and 1970, and you had automation and the plants and the north, you had industrialization and the movement of equipment in the southern farms and other places. You also had importation of labor from other parts of the world. There was this notion that the labor of black people was no longer needed. The creation of what Baldwin and William Patterson and Derrick Bell and Barbara Randsby called and James Boggs, Grace Lee Boggs is really important partner in rebellion and radical thought a population of human expendables. But again, if you can treat of these… The predictable outcomes of asymmetries and wealth access, access to healthcare, access to health and education. If you can treat of these things as… That the behaviors that are the outcomes of these problems as individual acts, of pathological behavior, then you remove the ability to understand the culpability of the nation-state itself, of the legal structure, of the economic structure. And I think that what we have in the legacy of Jefferson is a way of getting underneath the myths of progress, getting underneath the myths of liberalism and the idea that each individual just has, you know, the self same individual has rights and entitlements. When you look in a complicated way at a figure like him, I think that it can be very instructive for us, those of us who are trying to again forward the momentum of something like a living wage. I mean, we know that in the last forty or some odd years adjusted for inflation that the minimum wage in the United States of America has gone down by approximately 40%. Four zero. And that’s unconscionable.
DMcD: It is. And meanwhile, it is being touted that well there’s a strong likelihood that Trump could be reelected because of the state of the economy. You cannot get people to talk in nuanced, complex ways about the economy. What do you mean the economy? The economy for whom? All right? When you really and frankly I happen to know because most of my family members are wage workers. So, I happen to know something concrete about the working conditions of people who are wage workers and the precarity of their jobs. Actually the illegal… I’m sure if some of the things that go on in workplaces in contemporary America are probably actionable but people are fearful. My brother worked at Walmart until two years ago. The mere mention the mere innuendo or intimation of any concerns with labor organizing you could get… you could lose your job and it and so.
DC: And what is the language? Right to work?
DMcD: Exactly. Virginia is a right to work state. Yeah.
DC: And that that legacy of de-unionization and especially the aspect of it that has to do with the rank and file is really something really really hugely significant and a state like California. I mean, I work at a university system where none of those that are cleaning up after the students and the faculty and the staff people have union representation. They’re all contracted out and this is really really significant. But then there’s also those who never will see a job at all and what you see in the statistics around the economy doing so well and the rate of jobs versus, you know, now versus last year or the year before what there’s a really an important missing element there. Becky Petted in her work talks about this which is if you counted the number of people who are incarcerated in terms of jobs and people employed and unemployment that you see that the statistics are very skewed. In other words, those folks that and those that have been permanently removed from the labor market inclusive of prisoners then we would see that the precarity in a more clear lens than that you were speaking of.
The shortcomings of the democracy project
DMcD: Absolutely. I want to ask you about… You can see how easily I get exercised about these things. I want you to talk a little bit about a project here. We didn’t mention this in advance, but the university just got tons of money from the Mellon Foundation for a project on democracy. And it’s really very proud as punch of itself for having gotten all this money for the Democracy Project. And in all manner of things, initiatives, lecture series, etc. are being planned in the name of the Democracy Project. I want you to talk to our listeners about Jefferson and democracy shining a critical lens as you have been throughout this interview on the concept of democracy.
DC: Well, you know, it’s interesting because we live in a republic. We don’t live in a democracy and that’s… and Jefferson would have told everyone that’s listening as much and did. There is, there was a real fear on the part of the so-called founding fathers or founding slave masters of democracy because what that would mean is, you know, if we could take it down to simple pithy language, one person one vote. They were not interested in that. I think that, you know, that makes me think of the Electoral College when we think of the lack of a one person one vote dynamic and that’s something that came up when Trump lost the popular election. Just like George Bush did at least the first time and we could talk about other shenanigans that were going on in probably the second time too. But if you look at the origins of the Electoral College as one example of the kind of what we were talking about earlier the way in which subtending the mythos of democracy is the practice of democracy. If we can allow that the United States presents itself as a democratic regime, even though it’s not, it’s a republic. That it’s a representative democracy at best. If we take it at its word that it’s a democracy, what is the product of its democratic role in both domestically and globally? As you said, we could take any date on the almanac starting before its actual inception with the U.S. revolution as a colonial property of the UK all the way to the present and see the way in which, again, there is no way of sliding a piece of paper between the grandiose rhetoric of democracy, inclusion, or to use the French version, fraternite, egalite, liberte. There is no way to slide a piece of paper between that rhetoric and the lived reality of those upon whose labor was the basis for the production of the U.S. as an empire and whose genocide again was the condition of possibility for it and still is. The genocide of indigenous people for me and indigenous radical thinkers and not even radical thinkers, people living in the open air prisons that are called reservations. Democracy for these folks means genocide and that is not political hyperbole. It is actually, you know, kind of very clearly thrown into relief by the facts of their living conditions and what has happened over the process of American empire building. That is not to say that there aren’t great institutions like the University of Virginia built upon that scaffolding, but you can’t have that tower without that scaffolding [laughter].
the pervasiveness of racism in higher education
DMcD: You cannot. You cannot lop off… You can’t remove the scaffolding it is there. It is absolutely there. This brings me to a question about higher education more generally because we see the ways in which so much of what you have discussed also plays out in these very universities, the demographics of these universities, the structures on which they operate, their investments et cetera. So, finding any point of access of your choosing into that question.
DC: Well, my point of access actually goes to the University of California, another bastion of the U.S. project of democracy and specifically the campus at UCSD in San Diego, we’re situated at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, but you would never know it walking around the campus looking at the demographics of the students. We had, as of 2010, a 1.3 African-American population. 1.3 percent which equated to roughly just over 200 students out of a population of over 30,000. Okay? And this is the reality that led to one of the most heinous performances of white supremacist cultural festivities in California history, which was called “the Compton Cookout” at my university in 2010, which was one of the things that was the basis for the movie [T.V. show] Dear White People. The director talked about the UCSD incident being a part of that and what the students and that example said those among the two hundred or so black students who were my students at the time period was that… because the university tried to do in a microcosm way what we’ve been talking about this whole conversation, which is to exceptionalize, just to be clear, a group of white students from a fraternity through a theme party that involved them performing their fantasy of blackness in the form of the most derogatory, stereotypical imagery of black people that they had come up with in their minds which was most horrendous in its attack on black women and I won’t… I will spare your listeners the language that came out in this invitation but you can Google it under Compton Cookout. Now, what the… what the… and I know we’ve seen it everywhere in the United States. This is not an uncommon ritual. Even Saturday Night Live you spoke of that show that has gone kind of gone down in it’s quality lately. They did skits on this years ago of these kind of racist theme parties, but the idea in California is all that’s something that happens at Auburn or other universities in the South. When this happened, the university then tried to re-exceptionalize it by saying well those students were just bad apples. But what my students did, our students did was to implicate the university structure itself. They had all taken part as specifically students who were in the Black Student Union in study after study and paper after paper about the climate on campus, about the lack of access specifically to black students, but also brown, poor students in general, people of color for year after year after year after year. That 1.3 percent number they had highlighted in their activism and also their conversations with the university. Look, if this is what the university is presenting itself as this space of diverse-thinking, this does not match it. And what they did is say you cannot exceptionalize what happened to those students. The university system itself but also the entire public education system in the United States is culpable. You have like in Chicago when one year under Rahm Emanuel how many schools were shut down in one…? Over 50 schools public schools shut down in one year. You have defunding of public education, privatization of education. You have the charter school movement, which is a part of that dynamic of finishing off what’s left of that element of the social safety net. And so, I think that along with what we were talking about earlier in terms of political economy, the political economy of education in the United States and the ideological work that is done to make it seem as if this is okay, that students can have a lack of access to education or lack of access to jobs and then turn around and get blamed for trying to make a… and this is not to absolve people of responsibility, but it is to put it into proper non-comic book context. And so, it’s really difficult for me as a university professor to live with myself under these circumstances. That’s why I joined with you in trying to hold the university’s feet to the fire. But also going into the community myself and having myself be seen and taking responsibility myself for my privilege because I think those of us who are black professors need to step from behind our desks and come out if you will and make it clear that these conditions are unacceptable.
DMcD: Absolutely, absolutely. We need to do that.
enslavement: the norm not the exception
JP: We’ve taken lots of your time but this is a fantastic conversation. And so, I’m saying the free-flowing nature of this that it’s the project’s not really about Jefferson, but we touch on we touch on it and use that as an excuse to talk about a lot of different things.
DC: I think I caught on.
JP: Yeah, no doubt. Yeah, definitely and the prison is such a good place. I mean, I mean because I think you’re touching on so many of these different topics in which the role of incarceration in people’s lives that’s kind of the central node in which all these tentacles kind of extend. And so, it’s not, yeah, please.
DC: Just before I forget. You brought up the centrality of incarceration again, just like slavery for historians of a certain ilk. Slavery’s the exception. They would like to do the same thing now with the carceral state. Oh, that’s just an exception. Otherwise the U.S. is this brilliantly functioning democracy. I’ll give you one example right now from San Diego, from California. We have in California what is called “the gang database” and as it’s been found that as many as twenty percent of black men in Los Angeles are considered official gang members in Los Angeles right now. And this information has been coming out more and more because in San Diego, the District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis a few years back did a roundup of black people, specifically black men who were who were in this database. And they were charging according to what was called penal code I believe it’s 189.5. It’s one of the penal codes that was attached to what was called Proposition 21 which criminalizes youths as adult. As young as fourteen could be put into adult prisons. A part of this penal code and I think I got the number wrong, but your listeners can still look this up, they were able to try and convict people for crimes that they knew full well that the individual did not commit. How did they do this? Guilt by association. If you were in this database and if the area you lived in was under what’s called a gang injunction, you could be charged with any crime that somebody in your alleged gang committed. So, there were thirty plus men that were rounded up at once and two of them fought this in court and won. The others, the other thirty-one took plea deals and are sitting in prisons right now, but as a result of the organizing that the young men that they led after in the aftermath of this and their families led including Brandon Duncan is one of them what came out of this was an audit run by one of the representatives from San Diego a black representative named Dr. Shirley Weber. And in this audit, it was found that there in this database that’s statewide, there are over a hundred babies listed as gang members of less than one year of age. And so, they have these criterion where they decide that you’re a gang member including if Dr. McDowell is my family member and I’m standing in front of her house and her house happens to be in an area that’s considered a part of this gang’s activity and I’m a youth in that and in her family, I can be considered a gang member just for literally standing there. One of the other criterion was… and they don’t have to tell any of the individuals when they’re put into this database. This is democracy in action, okay? The real democracy in action. So the babies, the over one hundred babies that were listed officially in this database as gang members were said to have been listed for the criterion which was saying to law enforcement that they are admitting to law enforcement that they were a member of the gang [laughter].
The school to prison pipeline
DC: Yes. Yes. And so, this for me is a symbol of the situation of black, brown, and poor youth in the United States as a whole and migrant youth as well whereby not only are these processes going on with tax money, you know. We know that as a conservative estimate, seventy billion dollars a year is spent on imprisoning people in supposedly the most free and democratic nation on the planet. That these things are going on. But also there is this kind of groupthink or “good German” syndrome that has taken over the population through the various ideological formations of the media. Through being bombarded with imagery in the news and in movies and such into accepting something like this happening. And then when they hear these, you know, the gangster baby story there, “Oh, that’s horrible.” But the fact of the matter is is that story is not again exceptional. It is actually the process whereby many youth and communities in California and throughout the country, Louisiana, Virginia, feel that they have more of a chance to end up in a prison cell then they do to end up in Dr. McDowell or my classroom. And that’s something that should be unconscionable but somehow it is business as usual.
DMcD: The participation of the schools in this, in a variety of ways, you enter schools even in this sleepy town no longer really sleepy of Charlottesville, but many of the schools you enter as physical entities are proto-carceral. There are metal detectors…
DC: And police!
DMcD: I was going to say, police called “resource officers.”
DC: The police department that is just responsible for the youth of New York City is bigger than most major metropolitan police departments in the country. When I was working there, I saw the effects of this on a daily basis in the streets. And so, yes. Proto-carceral and actually just carceral.
DMcD: Yes. Just carceral. Absolutely. Well, we probably should be winding down but a couple of general questions to… About… I hesitate to say, “Where do we go from here?” But… because it’s one of these overly simplistic questions.
president obama and the idea of a post-racial society
JP: Well, maybe a part of that. Hopefully we’re still shaving about the episode might look like but a few years ago, we conducted a symposium on mass incarceration in which Angela Davis was here and it’s an interesting tidbit because I was listening back to some of those recordings from that event. And this is 2009 and there was almost a really this… a feeling of optimism of sorts after Obama was first elected president and in Angela Davis his opening remarks, she was also citing Jefferson, citing these this moment of reform, as you point out, the double-edged nature of that reform, but almost a call to action to say, in so many words, you know, we’re facing the same problem today. How do you change systems if corporal punishment then at that time seemed like and, you know, something that was at odds with the democratic ideals of our nation, you know, in quotation marks, you know, people or corporal punishment, right?
DC: Capital punishment.
JP: Yeah, capital punishment. You know, that they made strides to change that. And so, it was almost this call to, again, with that footnote of this was at a moment of optimism in our even recent history, you know, what does it mean for, you know, again reimagining prisons? Abolishing prisons? At this moment where things are not… it’s hard to remember like that type of optimism. I wonder if you have thoughts.
DC: Yeah. I didn’t join in optimism personally around Obama’s campaign. I know I’m, you know, some of the listeners may be outraged, especially in the context of the Trump presidency if we can call it that. I remember we had Ruth Wilson Gilmore the author of Golden Gulag, a similar kind of Symposium at UCSD around the same time, and I remember she said, you know…
DMcD: She was here too for that symposium [in 2009].
DC: Yeah, we have one black man in the White House and nearly a million in the big house, you know, and, you know, that was her way of saying wait a minute. And what was Obama’s language all the way up, you know, until his second term? And the Trayvon Martin case put, you know, movement politics from the street, forced him to finally say something about some of these problems, these problematics that we’ve been talking about. And then all of a sudden Eric Holder’s talking about felony disenfranchisement but this was on the way out the door. What did he say when he came in the door? About the very subjects that we’ve been talking about? I mentioned Brandon Duncan and Aaron Harvey earlier who fought the gang injunctions and are still fighting that in San Diego. What was he saying about subjects like them or Shailene Graves? She’s a black woman that fairly recently was found hanging in her cell in C.I.W., a facility in Corona, California. Or Erica Roca, a Latina that was found hanging in her cell in the same prison that now has one of the highest suicide rates of any prison in the country. This is in democratic, golden, California. What was he saying? Well, what he was saying was in terms of the black population. “Stop blaming everybody else for what’s going on in your life and take an individual responsibility and basically get over it.” And that individual kind of liberal notion of individual willful rising through a kind of meritocratic mythos was something that he kept talking about any chance he got the opportunity to. This is while he was overseeing the militarization of police departments, giving funding and actually warfare machinery to local police departments. This is while he was overseeing, in terms of the international scene, horrific processes in Afghanistan and Iraq, never pulling out of Iraq as he promised. Also a proxy war against the Palestinians and all of these things going on around the time that everybody is feeling so hopeful and that’s not to mention the economic situation that we were talking about earlier. Where was the project for economic development within communities of color that have been dispossessed in the wake of the shift to the neoliberal regime? And the move away from the kind of projects that we saw bubbling through civil rights mobilizations in the 1960s and the movements notion of ending poverty? Where has that been from the Democratic party? And the answer is it has not been a part of their narrative. And so, the only, to use his campaign phraseology, “Hope,” as it always has, only lies with mass mobilizations from below. And I think that, you know, I’m in my capacity as a professor at UCSD I’m a faculty advisor for student organization called Students Against Mass Incarceration. They are now in their sixth or seventh year of existence and have passed a prison divestment bill. You spoke of private prison corporations and universities having their funds investing in some of these corporations, but we have to be clear, the prison industrial complex is not only about private prisons. Yeah, and then if you look at the California State University system where I’m from, all of the furniture that we would be sitting on right now would have been made by prison labor. Then there’s the other element of it that has nothing to do with labor that goes, that sees its products go outside the prison. The actual functioning of the prison as a kind of neo-plantation. From the bookkeeping, the delivering of the drugs to all the people that have mental illness and others inside the facilities, washing clothes, cooking. Everything that makes the plant or plantation go. But when we talk about movements from below the prison strike recently in seventeen States, the one in 2016, the hunger strike that I mentioned earlier about 30,000 prisoners, what these movements from the below the below are doing is making us be accountable for our relative freedom, if you will, out here on the streets as scholars, as thinkers, as workers, not only to a process of increasing the minimum wage but of realizing that the political system as it exists now is part and parcel of the problems that we’ve been talking about today. The so-called two-party system in my estimation has been one kind of millionaires and billionaires party for a very long time and you don’t have to look any further than the aftermath of one of the biggest economic meltdowns since the Great Depression starting in 1929. What was the aftermath in 2007? Who was appointed to Obama’s cabinet? There is a kind of way in which the economic elite in the country have grabbed ahold of those who are supposedly the representatives of us in Congress. And in the highest offices in the country and the Supreme Court. And the only way that anything is going to change, in that regard in terms of like where do we go from here, is if we understand we have number one a proper analysis of what is happening and number two organized among ourselves. Follow the prisoners examples and actually take responsibility in the way they’ve asked us to which is to say: our tax money is supporting this project of what they’re calling prison slavery. What do you going to do about? And so, that’s not a hopeful response. But it’s one that I think can be a catalyst for real action. Movement building has never been, I mean, Fannie Lou Hammer said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Now, she didn’t do that kind of work with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party with an illusion of easiness or that sick and tired feeling ever going away. She did it because it was the right thing to do and needed to be done. And the victories, small and big, that those folks achieved are real, but we also have to, in being proper stewards of their legacy, recognize that our work and their work has yet to be done.
DMcD: Freedom is a constant struggle.
DC: That’s right. And freedom ain’t free.
DMcD: And freedom ain’t free.
DMcD: And this over-investment in what Glenn Ford calls this duopoly because that really is… I have absolutely no hope. As people begin to mention Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, I just hang my head.
DC: Well, look at Cory Booker’s record. Look at Cory Booker’s record.
DMcD: Especially around education.
DC: And healthcare. I mean, the day that I forget what was going on on Capitol Hill, but he and other members of the Congress rightfully complained that they were forced to speak, black members, were forced to speak at the end of a meeting and they felt like they were being put in the back of the bus. This was their language. On that same day, he voted against the measure that would allow U.S. consumers access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals from Canada. Now, this is something that’s not that may not be too sexy to people’s ears, but this is the real kind of bread and butter issues for people. Obama, the same person that was for basically single-payer healthcare or real universal health care, when he was I guess he described himself as an organizer in Chicago, his own medical doctor for his family is one of the biggest proponents of healthcare for everyone that, you know, most industrial nations already have. Where did that language go after he ran for president? Well, it went into the toilet because he was funded by those who are the main players in the pharmaceutical and health industry lobby. And that’s why he gave, in other words, a kind of political softball to the Republican Party by passing a version of healthcare reform, we started by talking about reform that actually can be problematic, that actually confused people and then took a lot of their money. Now, if he would have come out with a program that took the high level of tax dollars that are available, if we could shift that focus from warfare to healthcare, then there would be plenty of money to cover such a program. But he could not speak those words because he was playing political according to what you talked about in a duopoly system.
DMcD: We gotta stop. We just have to stop. I’m now thinking that we just need to bring you back and have you on tape.
JP: A personal recordist.
DMcD: Yeah, put you on speed dial. Just say, “Dennis, give me your thoughts on…”
DC: I wish we could do this for a longer. Maybe, maybe later over a wine.
DMcD: Well, you know what? I’m thinking maybe we should get this maybe James… Well, we can’t have recording at dinner. It would never work. But.