Rather than benevolent protector, the state enables and often perpetuates violence against marginalized communities, criminalizing them.
“Criminalization developed as a tool for white supremacist social organization.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Martha D. Escobar. Escobar is Associate Professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University, Northridge. Her book is Captivity Beyond Prisons: Criminalization Experiences of Latina (Im)migrants.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Martha Escobar: I wrote Captivity Beyond Prisons to understand why and how Latina (im)migrants are criminalized, and part of that process necessitated developing deeper knowledge of the history that led to the current political and social climate. While the book marks several historical moments as significant, due to constraints in space, I place specific attention on chattel slavery. Chapter 1, “Understanding the Roots of Latina (Im)migrants’ Captivity,” provides a socio-historical analysis that connects the experiences of Latina (im)migrants to Black women’s experiences, beginning with slavery. Captivity Beyond Prisons connects the experiences of enslaved Blacks and Latina/o (im)migrants through the labor relations established during slavery, where non-white, non-citizen bodies were introduced to carry out labor for the benefit of white life. The book also notes the significance of gender in this process. Chattel slavery commodified the bodies of Black people, which resulted in significant violence against Black enslaved women who were vulnerable to sexual violence because their reproduction translated into wealth for their masters. In this way, the relationships established during slavery made Black women’s lives and bodies vulnerable to individual and state intervention. The book notes that while white society desired Black women’s reproduction, for Latina (im)migrants, their labor is wanted but their presumed racial and cultural inferiority constructs their reproduction as a threat. Slavery cemented a relationship between women of color and the nation where the state and others could easily intervene into the most intimate parts of the lives of women of color. For Latina (im)migrants, some of the violent interventions they undergo are related to restraining their reproduction.
“The relationships established during slavery made Black women’s lives and bodies vulnerable to individual and state intervention.”
The “end” of slavery is also a significant moment to understand carcerality today. The prison abolition movement, which this book is deeply informed by, maintains that society upheld white supremacist relations of power after the “end” of slavery by criminalizing Black life conditions and forcing Blacks to labor in circumstances some have termed worse than slavery. Incarceration became a “fix” to ensure the welfare of whites through the subjugation of Black communities. The abolition movement returns us to this moment when Blacks were supposed to be incorporated into society and argues that criminalization developed as a tool for white supremacist social organization, which affects Latina/o (im)migrants today through criminalization, jailing, incarceration, detention, and deportation.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
There are several things that I would like folks to take away from this book, but here I will focus on three. One, political imagining needs to be central in our efforts; two, our work needs to be coalitional; and three, it needs to be intersectional.
One of the critiques the book makes is that we are often so caught up with bringing about immediate change that we tend to compromise for the sake of practicality, and these compromises regularly result in additional violence to our communities. The abolitionist movement demands that we imagine the unimaginable, “what would a world without prisons look like?” And after engaging this imaginative labor, ask ourselves, “how do we create such a world?” Our vision needs to guide our actions.
Also important is coalitional work. A major objective of the book is to provide a relational understanding of the criminalization of Latina (im)migrants and Black women specifically, and Latina/o and Black communities in general. For example, the book demonstrates how the construction of Black mothers as dependent and prone to criminality that developed during the 1960s and 1970s was later re-mapped onto and used against Latina (im)migrants and their communities. The experiences of Black women directly affected Latina (im)migrants. Accordingly, to struggle against oppressive systems of power, we need to account for how our experiences relate to each other and to engage in coalitional work.
“The abolitionist movement demands that we imagine the unimaginable, ‘what would a world without prisons look like?’”
Finally, how we understand the world is important to creating transformative change. We must employ intersectional analyses to grasp the overlapping systems of power that shape our lives individually and collectively. For Latina/o (im)migrant communities, the ideological labor necessary to enact the violence they are experiencing developed in relationship to the bodies of Latina (im)migrants. Constructions of them as racially foreign, entering the U.S. to take from the public, and having children that engage in criminality greatly contributed to targeting (im)migrant communities in general. Thus, interdependent systems, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality, intersected in the lives of Latina (im)migrants but had ramifications for (im)migrants in general.
We know leaders will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
A commonsense understanding that I hope we unlearn is that Latina/o (im)migrants are in competition with Black workers. The narrative presented by mainstream society is that Latina/o (im)migrants enter the U.S. to take jobs and displace Black workers in the process. Captivity Beyond Prisons provides a relational analysis that shows that Blacks were increasingly constructed as excess in the labor market, in part because their efforts during the 1950s and 1960s to secure their civil rights made them less exploitable, and therefore, less desirable. There were also important neoliberal developments in terms of deindustrialization and outsourcing of labor that displaced Black workers. Thus, shifts in social relations and the economy coupled with the proximity of Mexico to the U.S. made Mexican undocumented workers desirable.
“When immigrants and their advocates maintain that they are not criminals or dependents, they unintentionally create distance between themselves and Black communities.”
Another thing that I hope we move away from is the politics of human valuing. In social justice efforts, in order to make the case that someone or a community is worthy of inclusion and dignity, we often attempt to distance them from negative social meaning. However, the valuing of some results in the devaluing of others. The book demonstrates how the (im)migrant rights movement attempts to bring about justice for (im)migrants by making claims such as “immigrants are not criminals, immigrants are hard workers.” This functions to distance (im)migrants from criminality and dependency, but it simultaneously devalues others marked as criminal and dependent. Drawing from others’ work, Captivity Beyond Prisons traces the historical development of these ideas and demonstrates how they formed in relationship to Black bodies. Thus, when (im)migrants and their advocates maintain that they are not criminals or dependents, they unintentionally create distance between themselves and Black communities. Therefore, one of the things that I hope we unlearn is the tendency to engage in politics of human valuing and instead, put our efforts into working against the systems that oppress our communities and building the institutions necessary for them to thrive.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
I was a student activist when I got serious about research. In 2000 I, along with other students, joined the Schools Not Jails campaign and organized against Proposition 21, which targeted young people of color as gang members. That experience generated a desire to understand the purpose of criminalization and incarceration. Also, growing up I always had an antagonistic relationship to the state, mainly because of the impact immigration enforcement had on my family and friends. As a result, I was personally invested in challenging state practices of criminalization. When Dylan Rodriguez joined the Department of Ethnic Studies in the fall of 2001 and began teaching on issues of incarceration, state violence, and white supremacy, he provided an important intellectual foundation for my activist and academic work. His scholarship continues to challenge and inspire my thinking.
Other abolitionist scholars that have contributed greatly to my personal and intellectual development include Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore. Beth Richie, Andrea Ritchie, and Luana Ross. What I find most significant about them is their never-ending commitment to use their voices to challenge all systems of oppression that impact our communities. Their activist and scholarly work is intersectional, coalitional, political, and deeply personal. They know that real change is going to take a long time and they are in the struggle for the long-haul.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
Captivity Beyond Prisons is a project profoundly committed to imagining new worlds where all life is valued and supported to thrive. By working against the politics of deservingness and human (de)valuing, it refuses to give up on people socially marked as disposable, and specifically people labeled as “criminal.” Rather than concentrating on individuals’ actions and merit, the book places attention on the structures that make life unlivable for so many. For example, it regards practices of criminalization as important statecrafting tools in U.S. nation-state building projects. A crime is whatever the state says that it is. For that reason, rather than focus on individuals’ “crimes,” the book places attention on how the state defines crime and the purpose this serves. In doing so, we are able to understand that the reason why people of color make up the majority of people in prison and why the number of women in carceral spaces is growing at a faster rate than men is not because they are more prone to crime, but rather, because the state targets their bodies, actions, and life conditions for particular purposes. One of the arguments the book makes is that rather than benevolent protector, the state enables and often perpetuates violence against marginalized communities. This perspective forces us to imagine a world where, rather than turning to the state for protection, we create systems and institutions that will bring about real safety, especially for those most vulnerable.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
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