By Dr. Jason Michael Williams
With Michael Vick recently being signed by the New York Jets, I could not help but to scroll through the many hate-filled responses by those on social media, particularly the ones posted on Facebook. Sadly, the admonishment of Vick after he has paid his debt to society in the form of prison time, community service, and monetary restitution is clearly indicative of him being forever labeled an animal abuser and, therefore, locked out of normalcy. Certainly his celebrity complicates the matter, for it makes him an easy and memorable target for what is clearly subconscious and conscious racial condemnation! I made a comment on Facebook stating, “Dogs and other animals are more sacred than Black and Brown bodies dying in the streets of Chicago.” I made this comment because I have yet to see the uproars against the senseless murders happening every day in America’s inner cities, yet when an animal is abused it is everyone to its rescue. As a disclaimer, I do not support the abuse or killing of animals; however, I do see a qualitative difference worth noting and that is the purpose of this article.
Anyhow, the uproar is indicative of society willfully choosing to label Vick as the unredeemable criminal Black man. There have been some arguments suggesting that Vick should be banned from the NFL altogether, albeit that he served and paid his debt to society. One can easily look at the literature on prisoner reentry to make sense of this treatment. For example, research has overwhelmingly established that employment is a key factor in reducing recidivism (Wilson 1996; Travis, 2005; Edwards, 2014;). Given that, the uprising against Vick is completely antithetical to what the research has shown regarding formerly convicted persons and their ability to abstain from future crime. Sadly, research has also shown that it is, in fact, Black men who are most affected by these newly formed mechanisms of social control and exclusion sanctioned by the justice system (Alexander, 2010; Tonry, 2010).
Furthermore, the stigmatization of conviction and incarceration has shown to limit one’s opportunities of finding work (Davies & Tanner, 2003; Uggen, Manza, & Thompsom, 2006; Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2007; Pettit & Lyons, 2007; Useem & Piehl, 2008), and if one compounds this stigma with race (Reisig, Bales, Hay, & Wang, 2007; Wang, Mears, & Bales, 2010; Tonry, 2010) the results are even more devastating for racial minorities. Therefore, the uproar against Vick is not particular to his personal experience; it is his celebrity that highlights this personal situation.
This condemnation of Black men who have paid their debt to society and wish to return as productive citizens is reminiscent of the same racial intolerance and targeting that once existed overtly prior to the Freedom Movement Era. However, it is necessary to note that, dominant ideas of race and social control have always been embedded within the administration of justice, and, therefore, the labeling of Vick is not so new but rather only a new method of labeling and controlling the social-economic well-being of those considered pariahs. So theoretically, Vick, then becomes unredeemable for his criminal actions, however small or big. As a result of conviction, this qualified him into a trap and class of people (mostly minorities) who will face constant punishment regardless of any life changes they might have made. Moreover, this belief is concretized into the hegemonic ideology of the dominant and ruling groups. Thus, the labeling of Vick is functional to the livelihood of the dominant class and the ruling elite.
The abandonment of people like Vick is further legitimated by democracy itself. Such treatment issupported either by law or custom, and, therefore, the majority sees no wrongdoing in the mistreatment of those who have served their time and are now looking to reintegrate back into society. However, the crucial point is the extent to which Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested, incarcerated, and therefore labeled. As a consequence, and by design, there now appears to be systematic engagement in democratic abandonment as a semi-covert strategy of racial exclusion and control by law and custom. Furthermore, the end product of this practice is racial disparities at every level within the justice system. Meanwhile, members of society are ideologically compelled more than ever before to believe that such suffering and labeling is justified. I would argue that this is the result of neoliberalism and the divorce between the self and society.
However, what upsets the dominant and ruling elite about Vick is only the fact that their labeling has not held him back. This could be due to the nature of his employment, which does indeed make him radically different from other Black males without job-skills of any sort. Nevertheless, Vick is divergent and the masses do not like that he is out of “his place.” When one examines the deviant/criminal behavior of Vick to that of Cooper, who in a racist diatribe, violently threatened to beat up niggers, it is clear that the uproar to derail Cooper’s life and career was non-existent. It is through this model that adifferentiation in the treatment between Black and White can be seen, but this can also be seen in differing contexts too. Through this same example, one might even point out the status of the victims (a dog v. Black human-beings with whom the term nigger is negatively associated). This has huge implications regarding the value of Black human life considering that there were no uproars from the terroristic threats Cooper made on Black life.
In addition, the unredeemable Black male criminal has never been in more trouble than he is today. There used to be a time when one’s circumstances were contextual to his/her life-status and the decisions that he/she makes. Nevertheless, today with the ideological advent of hyper self-responsibilitization, the unredeemable Black male criminal does not stand a chance at being heard. In fact, it is often his situational-circumstances that give credence to the way in which others will label and respond to him; even though those same conditions cannot be used to describe him as a victim of circumstance and, therefore, deserving of care over punishment. Because he and his circumstances are so despised, it is inconceivable for society to imagine him as better or even reformed. Elijah Anderson (2011) makes perfect theoretical sense of this neo-labeling by suggesting that Blackness has become synonymous with that of the “iconic ghetto.” This is precisely why Blacks of higher economic status (i.e., Vick) can come into contact with the criminal justice system and never be forgiven because Blackness itself is the identifier. After all Blackness, according to Anderson, is proxy for the ghetto, and, therefore, not a single Black can escape the confines of this label.
The connection between the unredeemable Black male criminal and the ghetto is made via the conditions of the ghetto. In this context, the identifier is social-economic inequality, a condition in which Blacks are disproportionately accounted. In a neoliberal society, those who fall within those confines are punished for their status and deemed disposable, willfully indigent and unforgivable. They are expected to become criminals, prisoners, ex-cons, and their children will follow. What is most egregious is that society watches on as if the process is a drama. Thus, there is more to gain by remaining ideologically loyal to the notion of self-responsibility than to recognize the unnecessary suffering of human bodies? This is partially because the process has become easily predictable, even to the youth. In other words, that which is so common is expected and, therefore, apathy is a normalresponse.
In sum, the unredeemable Black male criminal is the perfect subject to relate to the ongoing criminalization of Vick. After all, he is a Black male who was convicted of a crime. Under normal conditions once a person does his/her time they are supposed to reenter society as reformed and forgivable and yet clearly the uproar over Vick shows that there is selective acceptance between those who paid their debt to society and their ability to reenter. What complicates Vick’s situation more is that he represents Blackness, a condition that has been historically correlated to the lowest of the low (i.e., poverty, the ghetto, the willfully indigent, etc.) and because of that he deserves to be forever punished. Ultimately, one can only conclude that the criminal justice system plays a major role in the ideological aspirations of neoliberalism.
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Anderson, E. (2011). The cosmopolitan canopy : race and civility in everyday life. NY: W.W. Norton & Co.
Davies, S., & Tanner, J. (2003). The long arm of the law: Effects of labeling on employment . Sociological Quarterly 44(3), 385-404.
Edwards, K. L. (2013). Prison Work: Transforming Identity and Reducing Recidivism. In M. S. Crow, & J. O. Smykla, Offender Reentry Rethinking Criminology and Criminal Justice (pp. 51-74). Burlington : Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Holzer, H. J., Raphael, S., & Stoll, M. (2007). The effect of an applicant’s criminal history on employer hiring decisions and screening practices: Evidence from Los Angeles. In S. Bushway, M. Stoll, & D. F. Weiman, Barriers to reentry? The labor market for released prisoners in post-industrial America (pp. 117-150). NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
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