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Why We Focus on the Right, the State, and the System

The term "ideology" refers to a set of ideas and principles that various groups consciously adopt (or accept as natural), hold, and seek to propagate, much as people do religious beliefs. Ideologies usually describe power relations, including how power should be allocated, and they provide the rationale for maintaining "social order" through a system.

Oppressive ideologies and systems such as authoritarianism, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, White supremacy, racism, capitalism, and imperialism are embedded in the U.S. criminal justice system. This is because the criminal justice system is a part and product of the State and society we live in, and these ideologies are foundations of that society and State. At the same time, the criminal justice system legitimates and reproduces these ideologies of oppression that in turn help to maintain and expand the power of the Right, the State, and the criminal justice system itself.

While the Political Right did not invent oppressive ideologies, it is important to differentiate between those institutions and groups that reflect and reproduce these ideologies, and those that actively seek to sustain them. The modern Political Right remains the single largest force organized in defense of oppressive ideologies-and it is sophisticated enough to reject blatantly oppressive ideas and policies that are no longer culturally acceptable.

An excellent example of how oppressions are interlinked and how they are maintained by related systems is provided by activist and scholar Suzanne Pharr. She notes that sexism is the system through which the ideology of patriarchy (the "enforced belief in male dominance and control") is maintained, and homophobia, economics, and violence are weapons that sexism uses to maintain itself.8 But as Pharr writes, "we have to look at economics not only as the root cause of sexism but also as the underlying, driving force that keeps all oppressions in place. In the United States, our economic system is shaped like a pyramid, with a few people at the top, primarily white males, being supported by large numbers of unpaid or low-paid workers at the bottom. When we look at this pyramid, we begin to understand the major connection between sexism and racism because those groups at the bottom of the pyramid are women and people of color. We then begin to understand why there is such a fervent effort to keep those oppressive systems (racism and sexism and all the ways they are manifested) in place to maintain the unpaid and low-paid labor."9

The intersectionality of different oppressive ideologies and systems occurs not only because the groups being oppressed by each are connected, such as women and people of color but also because, as Pharr observes, "in order for this top-heavy system of economic inequity to maintain itself, the 90 percent on the bottom must keep supplying cheap labor. A very complex, intricate system of institutionalized oppressions is necessary to maintain the status quo so that the vast majority will not demand its fair share of wealth and resources and bring the system down. Every institution-schools, banks, churches, governments, courts, media, etc-as well as individuals must be enlisted in the campaign to maintain such a system of gross inequity."10 This is true within an individual country as well as between countries, as is reflected in the unequal power relations between economically advanced countries and those in what is called the Third World.

It is important for progressives to understand, as Pharr points out, that "there is no hierarchy of oppressions. Each is terrible and destructive. To eliminate one oppression successfully, a movement has to include work to eliminate them all or else success will always be limited and incomplete. To understand the connection among the oppressions, we must examine their common elements. The first is a defined norm, a standard of rightness and often righteousness wherein all others are judged in relation to it. This norm must be backed up with institutional power, economic power, and both institutional and individual violence. It is the combination of these three elements that makes complete power and control possible. In the United States, that norm is male, white, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able-bodied, youthful, and has access to wealth and resources."11

Institutional power, i.e., the power over, and control of society's institutions, and economic power, which enables control of those institutions, Pharr reasons, "requires the use of violence and the threat of violence. Institutional violence is sanctioned through the criminal justice system and the threat of the military-for quelling individual or group uprisings."12 Most institutions, groups, and individuals in our society reflect, in some way, regardless of intent, tendencies of these ideologies that, unconsciously or not, affirm the State's ultimate power and authority, the "inferiority" of people of color, women and poor people, or the inherent value of strong punishment. Many people support these ideological concepts even when they don't consciously self-identify as supporters or proponents-and, as a result, these extremely powerful ideologies are invisibilized. The system itself reinforces these beliefs, and some observers or participants in the system see "evidence" of their beliefs played out in the streets, the courts, and the prisons. And the ideologies start to intertwine, reinforcing each other, so that it "makes sense" to hold negative beliefs about criminals," whether they be immigrants, people of color, women and/or poor.

Central to the maintenance of the criminal justice system and, in fact, the modern State itself is the idea that the State alone has the legitimate power to maintain law and order within society, and to regulate, detain, and punish those who threaten that law and order. However, while the State might be a neutral player in theory, in reality it is controlled by those with power and privilege. And those who control the State make the laws.

The current criminal justice system is characterized by the desire to maintain total physical, emotional and psychological control over the people under the system's control. A major ideology that supports this approach to criminal justice is generally known as authoritarianism; and looking at authoritarianism in the context of the criminal justice system enables us to see how an abstract theory plays out in reality. Authoritarianism is an oppressive system that uses force, violence, or the threat of violence, so that those in power are able to maintain social order and control. An authoritarian approach believes that through violence and repression an individual can be forced to conform to a set of behaviors-or face punishment. This is evident in the way our society punishes those who deviate from what the State and society deem as appropriate or moral. The criminalization of homosexuality through codified laws or the climate of hostility engendered through moral codes is a clear example of how those who deviate from what is deemed normal are subject to punishment or violence.

Authoritarianism plays out it many ways in the current criminal justice system but it is most apparent inside prison walls. The physical conditions that prisoners face are brutal and inhumane. The act of restricting human beings to small cages is only the most obvious form of control. Even the most intimate daily human functions are monitored and controlled in prison. Strip searches, controlled movement, regulated visitors, lock-downs, regulated supplies such as toilet paper and showers all add to an environment of total physical and psychological control. In addition, the explosive growth of the prisoner population has resulted in the practice of double and even triple bunking prisoners in cells too small for even one person. The most extreme form of control occurs in the "supermax" prison, where prisoners spend almost all of their waking and sleeping hours locked in small windowless cells sealed with solid steel doors. In some supermax facilities, because of technological "innovations," prisoners might go days or weeks without any human contact.

The criminal justice system reproduces and legitimizes various forms of violence and the threat of violence to control both imprisoned and free people. Police forces, F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents, Immigration and Border Patrol personnel, and correctional officers enjoy and actively exercise the State's legal authority over the use of force. The use of physical violence is rampant, normalized, and rarely questioned. Only the most egregious acts of violence and police brutality-such as the 1991 videotaped beating in Los Angeles of Rodney King, who sped away from police in defiance of a signal to stop, and was beaten 56 times with police batons and sustained 11 skull fractures and brain and kidney damage; the 1997 beating of Abner Louima, an innocent Haitian immigrant in New York City, followed by another beating in the police station in which he was sodomized with a plunger handle; or the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, a Senegalese immigrant who was shot with 41 bullets when he reached in his pocket at his apartment for what turned out to be his wallet-surface briefly in media coverage. Sexual abuse is also rampant in prisons, jails, and detention facilities, and rape or the threat of rape is condoned as a way of punishing or controlling prisoners.

The threat of prison and/or violence serves as a way of policing not only behaviors but enforcing the State's ideology as well. Those who disagree with or challenge the State are met with swift and severe punishment, and in many cases, social or physical death. For example, during the 1950s, communists were persecuted, and, in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, executed by the government. In the 1960s, the FBI used COINTELPRO with the aim of sabotaging and destroying the Civil Rights, Black Power and American Indian movements. Even today, despite the U.S. government's claims to the contrary, more than 200 political prisoners remain behind bars.13

As Angela Davis observes, "We thus think about imprisonment as a fate reserved for others, a fate reserved for the 'evildoers,' to use a term recently popularized by George W. Bush. Because of the persistent power of racism, 'criminals' and 'evildoers' are, in the collective imagination, fantasized as people of color. The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs-it relieves us of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism, and, increasingly, global capitalism."14



Defending Justice is a publication of Political Research Associates (PRA), an independent nonprofit research center that exposes the Right and larger oppressive movements and institutions. PRA produces research and analytic tools to inform and support progressive activism.

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