Doula customs_1060In a post in March, I discussed a report by the Pew Center on the States documenting the dramatic increase in the number of citizens incarcerated in the United States over the past three decades, making this country’s incarceration rate the highest in the world (Creative Commons License photo credit: hoyasmeg). The vast majority of those incarcerated (91.4%) are being held in state prisons and local jails for nonviolent offenses, and young black men and women are disproportionately represented among the prison and jail populations. This week the Pew Hispanic Center released a new report, “A Rising Share: Hispanics and Federal Crime,” showing that the racial and ethnic composition of the federal prison population has significantly changed since 1991, with Latinos now making up the majority of sentenced federal offenders and about one-third (31%) of the federal prison population.

According to the Pew report, 40% of sentenced federal offenders in 2007 were Latino, even though they make up only 13% of the U.S. adult population. Their representation among adults sentenced in federal courts nearly doubled since 1991 when they were 24% of offenders sentenced in federal courts, making them the single largest racial/ethnic group among sentenced federal offenders in 2007. The increase in Latino federal offenders accounted for more than half (54%) of the overall increase in federal offenders from 1991 to 2007.

Who are these people and what crimes have they committed? Data in the Pew report show that more than 72% of Latinos sentenced in federal courts in 2007 were not U.S. citizens. The percentage of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens rose from 61% in 1991 to 72% in 2007. The majority of Latino federal offenders in 2007 were convicted of immigration offenses (48%), and of these, about 75% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. But of Latino federal offenders who were not U.S. citizens, 61% were convicted of immigration offenses, and of these, 81% were convicted of entering the United States illegally or residing in the U.S. without legal authorization. Indeed, the Pew report concludes that an increase in undocumented immigration coupled with an intensified focus on strict enforcement of immigration laws has “changed the citizenship profile of federal offenders,” (p. 1), leading truthdig.com to label the period 1991-2007 the “age of crimmigration.”

The Pew analysis shows that Latinos sentenced in federal courts were more likely than non-Latino offenders to be sentenced to prison (96% and 82%, respectively), and Latinos who were not U.S. citizens were more likely than Latinos who were citizens to be sentenced to prison (98% and 90%, respectively). But Latinos receive significantly shorter sentences than non-Latinos, on average 46 months compared with 62 months for whites and 91 months for blacks. And Latinos who are not U.S. citizens receive on average shorter prison sentences than Latinos who are citizens (40 months and 61 months, respectively). These shorter sentences are indicative of the non-serious nature of immigration offenses, which raises the questions of whether the criminalization of undocumented immigration is the best strategy for addressing the problem and the best use of federal criminal justice resources. At this point, it remains uncertain how long the “age of crimmigration” will continue.

The Elite White Media & Race

The elite white media, including elite white bloggers, fail to get it when it comes to talking about race and racism (photo of News Corp Building, from here).    So, how is the elite white media handling race and racism in the wake of the Obama election?   The short answer is: not very well.  One of the longer, and better, answers out there is from Janine Jackson of FAIR.   Jackson has a really excellent piece (to me via Alternet) exploring some of the elite white media’s response to Obama:

Journalists were sometimes embarrassingly frank about how they interpreted Obama’s blackness and what they hoped his success might mean. “No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery,” declared NBC’s Chris Matthews (1/21/07). “All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.” “For many white Americans, it’s a twofer,” opined the New Republic (2/5/07). “Elect Obama, and you not only dethrone George W. Bush, you dethrone [Al] Sharpton, too.” (See Extra!, 3–4/07.)

Looking to find parallels for the “stuff” they did like, journalists turned to fiction, as when Jonathan Alter (Newsweek, 10/27/08) alleged that voters “decided they liked Obama when he reminded them more of Will Smith than Jesse Jackson,” or when CNN (6/22/08) told viewers that Michelle Obama “wants to appear to be Claire Huxtable and not Angela Davis.”

The fondest hope seemed to be that an Obama victory (if not his strong candidacy alone) would absolve us of any need to talk about racism any more. Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (5/14/08) wrote that, in announcing his run for office, Obama was making a statement: that his candidacy would be the exclamation point at the end of our four-century-long argument over the role of African-Americans in our society. By electing a mixed-race man of evident brilliance, moderate mien and welcoming smile, we would finally cease seeing each other through color-coded eyes.

Remember, these are the supposedly liberal media.  Note that part of what is so appealing about the Obamas, both Barack and Michelle, is that they are perceived as non-threatening to this elite white media.  They embrace real and fictive African Americans that they find attractive and appealing, such as “Will Smith” and “Claire Huxtable,” and eschew those they find threatening or too “angry,” such as “Sharpton” and “Angela Davis.”

And, of course, one of the chief characteristics of elite white racism is the neurotic need to never, ever talk about race.   You can see this deep desire not to talk about race is characteristic of growing up white, and glimpses of it emerge in the book and the film about the DeWolf family inheriting the slave trade.  As one family member recalls their “No Talk Rule”:

“You don’t talk about unpleasant things. There’s a line in one of our family books that one of our ancestors said, that we should never talk about sex …. religion … politics ….and the Negroes.”

The elite white media is largely drawn from this WASP-y cultural milieu and you can often see them squirm as they try and figure out how to wrap their heads around talking about “the unpleasantness” that is race in their minds.   But the reason that this is “unpleasant” to talk about for white liberals it that the silence covers up deeply held beliefs about black inferiority and white superiority, as well as fears about the “threat” that black people pose to unearned white privilege.  This elite white “No Talk Rule” when it comes to race extends beyond the old media to include the new media world of blogging.

There’s been a good deal about the liberal bloggers in the mainstream news recently, including this piece in The New York Times, which reports on the coalition of labor unions and MoveOn.org to push the Democratic Party to the left.   Yet, nowhere in this article does it mention race or racism as a salient issue for the left.  Nor do the academics examining this issue ever discuss the whiteness of the Netroots Lefties, a large part of why race never gets addressed in this eddy of the blogosphere.

As for the elite white media response from conservatives, we need look no further than the recent actions of various Murdoch News outlets, such as FoxNews and The New York Post, which I’ve written about here and here.  Of course, as far back as 1993, FAIR was reporting that the paper was a “militant white daily” and that pattern of media racism continues through to today.

Whether it’s the more aggressive form of media racism practiced by those on the right, or the WASP-y form of denial and cringe-worthy patronizing racism practiced by those on the left, the elite white media continues fall short in addressing race and racism in the Obama era.