The Seduction of Piety

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Posted in: Criminal Law

In my last column, I took aim at some of the pious stories we frequently hear in discussions of the criminal justice system. As I mentioned, these are the conventional criticisms that all correct-thinking, liberal-minded people are supposed to know and repeat in polite conversation. The three most prominent pieties are the Origin Story, or How We Became So Punitive; the Drug Story, or How We Created Mass Incarceration; and the Addiction Story, or How Racism Lets Us Separate Worthy from Unworthy Addicts. Despite their enormous popularity, these three stories range from egregiously incorrect to dangerously incomplete, and all of them distort reality in a way that makes genuine reform more difficult. In my column, I resolved that I would no longer hide behind what I called “the veil of piety.”

Of course, anybody can be a critic. Every school child learns how to level a critique, and it has always been a relatively simple matter to point out policy failures. After all, they have a way of standing out. The greater, and far more important, challenge is to explain why well-intended policy-makers would not only adopt the pious stories but cling to them even after their errors become known and their inadequacy becomes evident. And even more difficult, and therefore also more important, is to come up with alternatives. If the pious stories have led us astray, where should we go instead? In keeping with the title of my last column—Less Piety, More Complexity—I have decided to take a stab at these more serious challenges. Today, I try to answer why the media and policy-makers remain so enamored of patently mistaken pieties.

The explanations for these pious stories differ in the particulars, but they all share at least three things in common. First, they reduce complex social processes into politically appealing, grossly over-simplified parables about heroes and villains. Second, they bear the stamp of racial colonialism familiar to well-intended liberalism. And third, they were developed, and are now repeated, by people who are deeply committed to criminal justice reform. Those who trade in these parables do not, in other words, do so in order to stymie reform. On the contrary, they believe these stories are a step toward making the criminal justice system better, which for them means less punitive and less racially imbalanced—goals I share. They mean well, which is a point we must always bear in mind as we consider their motives.

1. The Appeal of the Origin Story (Or, Gosh, Conservative White People Sure Are Bad)

As I wrote previously, the Origin Story pins the punitive turn in criminal justice on a deliberate plan by conservative white politicians and public intellectuals to replace a collapsing Jim Crow with a newly constructed architecture of social control. Criminal justice emerges as merely a new means of racial social control. While there is great truth in the Origin Story, it is shamefully incomplete. It erases people of color from the narrative entirely, except inasmuch as they are victims, acted upon but without the power to act. The Origin Story refuses to countenance the thought that crime could have actually been a matter of concern to people of color, or that they could have responded to this concern by demanding, among other things, a more robust, and indeed more punitive, criminal justice system.

Its attraction, therefore, is to eliminate all complexity in favor of a simple, essentialized red/blue, Left/Right, white/black narrative about bad, conservative whites victimizing docile, voiceless blacks. For several reasons, narratives of this sort have always been appealing, to both liberals and conservatives. To begin with, they channel reform energy into a single, electoral solution: If red/Right conservatives got us here, the solution is to elect blue/Left liberals. Nearly all discussion of policy failure in this country, in criminal justice and elsewhere, is couched in these grossly misleading and unproductive terms. In addition, by funneling reform energy into elections, the Origin Story silences the call for structural reform. The only “reform” needed is to throw the other guys out in November. Finally, and most dangerously, the Origin Story reinforces the perennial liberal white fantasy that liberals can “fix” people of color without actually having to listen to them. And though I focus my ire on white liberals, I should stress that anyone who refuses to acknowledge the complex history of support for punitive criminal justice policies in the 70s and 80s is guilty of the same whitewash.

2. The Appeal of the Drug Story (Or, the Irresistible Allure of Painless Solutions)

As I described in my last column, the Drug Story places the blame for mass incarceration on the War on Drugs, and especially on the arrest, conviction, and imprisonment of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. No single author has been more responsible for this story than Michelle Alexander, whose enormously influential book, The New Jim Crow, makes precisely this argument. It is, however, grossly mistaken, as others have made abundantly clear. Neither the states nor the federal government has ever imprisoned a significant number of low-level, non-violent drug offenders. Some studies estimate only about 1% of the prisoners in the United States fit this profile.

What accounts for the enduring popularity of the Drug Story? Surely part of the answer must be that we are drawn to problems that seem to admit of simple solutions. Or perhaps more precisely, we are grateful when apparently intractable social problems can be framed in such a way as to permit prompt, painless resolution. If we produced mass incarceration by sending harmless addicts to prison, by all means let’s stop. Problem solved. And if, along the way, we can help correct the problem of systemic racism in the criminal justice system, so much the better.

Responses like these relieve us of the distinctly unwelcome burden of hard work. They are the policy equivalent of a diet that tolerates unlimited pizza and ice cream. Besides, what did Voltaire say about the perfect being the enemy of the good? At least we can do some good, which is certainly preferable to doing more bad. And so we content ourselves with baby steps that are marginally better than standing still, but certainly do nothing to change the essential nature of things. We do not, for instance, take serious aim at the institutions and practices that most engorge and sustain the carceral state. Likewise, we do not confront the apparently endless appetite to demonize those who are convicted of violent crimes, and once again, to essentialize them as irredeemably and permanently evil. At times like this, we should recall a different quote from Voltaire: “A witty saying proves nothing.”

3. The Appeal of the Addict Story (Or, the Seduction of Simplified Race-Speak)

The third pious story is that white addicts get treatment, but black and brown addicts get prison. As with the Origin Story, there is much truth to this parable, and the difference between the social response to the (white) opioid addict and the (black or brown) crack addict is both proof of the story and demonstration of its moral bankruptcy. But once again, the story is incomplete. It merrily skips over the (white) methamphetamine addict, who was treated with the same punitive savagery as the minority crack addict. Combine this with Bruce Western’s important finding in Punishment and Inequality in America that, while prison has become practically part of the life cycle for an appalling fraction of low-income blacks, it is far less common for middle-class and wealthy blacks. Taken together, this suggests that the pious story about inconsistent responses to addiction may be a story about class as well as race. Class, however, plays almost no part in the parable. Nor is there room in the story for different responses to some black and brown addicts but not others.

Why is this story so popular? Here, I think the explanation lies with the disinclination to entertain class as an independent explanation for social phenomenon. We are conditioned in this country to resist class-based explanations since they are so threatening to existing economic relations and institutions. Yet there is a great receptivity, at least among liberals, to embrace some race-based explanations, even if they are incomplete. So the Addict Story, by directing attention to race and away from class, slots into familiar narratives about people of color as victims without also entertaining more radical ideas of structural reform of the American economy. In addition, as with the Origin Story, the Addict Story reduces people of color into an essentialized mass, all of whom are poor, and all of whom are affected by an oppressive criminal justice system in the same way.

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In sum, those who swathe themselves in their favorite pious stories do so for the best of reasons. I take them at their word when they say they want to reform the criminal justice system. But until they give up their essentialized notions about people of color, until they embrace race and class as contributing explanations, and until they take a much more radical approach, they will have to be content with piety rather than change.

  • Thomas Amoroso

    So, I buy your thesis (it’s more complicated than the stories have room for). What’s the solution? (Or am I waiting for the next column for that?). Because it’s usually more complicated, but few people who can actually move the influence needle have an appetite for complexity. Not to mention the apparent disinterest on the part of the voting public (regardless of race) in any sort of complexity. (And the voting public has to be part of any discussion, since any change brought about internally by the penal system is susceptible to the whims of the next administration, who will undo even positive change in the face of one outcome which might scare some voters. Don’t ask me how I know this…)

    Your points about the absence of class and the lack of black agency in all discussions of this topic, I admit, are well placed, and I’ve been guilty of them myself, I’m afraid. Thanks for pointing them out.