Monument to Racism

The United States government has officially sanctioned itself as in the business of human trafficking. Like the international sex trade, the federal and state governments attach monetary value to bodies: they sell lives and futures for profit. Unlike the sex industry and the adoption hierarchy, however, this form of human trafficking privileges the bodies of Black, Brown and poor youth. The business is the prison-industrial complex: an entire economy and industry based upon “putting people in cages.”


Books Not Bars is a documentary that is a digital media advocacy project that documents the activist responses to California’s Proposition 21, in which the state would have built a “superjail,” a structure that was to be the largest per capita juvenile detention center in the country. This superjail, Van Jones, National Director of the Books Not Bars Campaign, calls a “monument to racism.” But I would extend this brilliant phrase even further: we have merely replaced slavery, an institution of racism, with its contemporary form—prisons—which are simply another institution and economy of racism.


And like the photographs of lynchings discussed by Smith, the criminalization of youth of color terrorizes both Whites and communities of color—further reifying the hegemonic social order. As the lynching photographs did at the turn of the twentieth century and as current images of murdered and tortured Iraqis do, the prison-industrial complex and the media’s visual construction of it, say more about whiteness than they do about those being warehoused, disposed of, erased and silenced. Importantly, the media also plays a “doubleness” in the case of the prison-industrial complex, where it both constructs this issue at the same time as it provides a format for introducing to the public at large information that the mainstream either warps or silences while also serving as a successful medium for resistance; as is the case with Books Not Bars. Regardless: race is visible.


Costing over 10 times as much to keep a young person in a juvenile justice facility then it does to educate them, the prison-industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline are current tentacles in a long history of America’s war on youth, and they offer a way to traffic and warehouse poor, youth of color. This documentary critically contributes to this conversation. As James Bell, Staff Attorney at the Youth Law Center remarks in Books Not Bars, the U.S.:

“is a society that does not like teenagers and likes to keep them at arms length. And when you add coloredness to it, it leads to fear.”

Public knowledge is, inherently, the sum of what the public knows. And what the public knows is a direct result of what the media tells it. Given that the majority of the U.S. receives its information through major media outlets—which are structurally and systemically raced, classed and gendered—the public is grossly, “profoundly, exponentially misinformed” by the media about the accurate account of youth crime, and therefore the “public has little context to judge” this issue other than what the media, or news, constructs and disseminates. Media is involved in the business of “the production of unreality.” For example, only 15% of all violent crimes are committed by youth, and yet the public thinks that 60% of violent crime is committed by youth. Yet this misimpression is also racialized: with African American adolescents being arrested at rate 48 times their White counterparts. The message is clear: we are not only pervading our war on youth, but as Vincent Schiraldi, President of Justice Policy Institute reminds us:

“Black kids matter less than white kids.”

Books Not Bars also delicately challenges society’s fear, distrust and dislike of youth, where they are the problem, by offering a perspective of youth as the solution. (For a discussion of the historical roots of the racialized construction of youth delinquency, see “Tracing the Historical Origins of Youth Delinquency & Violence: Myths & Realities About Black,” by Dr. William Cross). The message of activism in Books Not Bars is also achieved through its macro stance, locating the problem in systems, and not on individual bodies. It asks not about what youth behaviors are, but instead about what the structural arrangements are facilitate the proliferation of the prison-industrial complex.


Despite the prison-industrial complex and the criminalization of youth being an issue that invades the social, political, economic, historical, and human rights fabric of our society (or as James Bell says, “the civil rights, human rights issue of the 21st Century), Books Not Bars does not steer us into believing we are in imminent social doom. Effective for its use of a variety of visual and audio imagery, Books Not Bars weaves together a fine balance of information and history with a variety of successful, current activist campaigns and, most importantly, with a persistent theme of the way that the audience can get involved in fighting this issue; this documentary creates—as the finest of digital media advocacy does—“a space for action.”


It is worth mentioning, that as a result of the Books Not Bars Campaign and the Youth Force Coalition’s work, they were able to force a withdrawal of the $2.3 million dollars the state had earmarked to build the superjail.

~ Jessica Ruglis, PhD Candidate
CUNY-Graduate Center