The March on Washington in 1963 was a highpoint in the never ending quest for justice and dignity. It represented centuries of struggle and continues to this day as countless groups continue to have the republic live up to its ideals. The attainment of substantive equality of opportunity and respect for ethically informed differences are still very much works in progress in twenty-first century America.
There are halting attempts to move the criminal justice system from being a system of vengeance to one where there is more focus on rehabilitation. The record is mixed as alongside regressive moves like harsh sentencing and extended solitary confinement we see the advent of alternatives to incarceration and in New York state mandatory educational services for incarcerated persons. Such a shift still holds the individual responsible for his behavior but acknowledges that he might need substantive support to function as a law abiding citizen.
Crucial to this work is a re-examination of the accounts of freedom. Too many of our citizens are finding it unduly costly to exercise basic rights. Energies that should be invested in creativity and caring are instead diverted to vigilance and resistance against government entities that still treats too many citizens on a continuum of indifference to suspicion.
For many the courts are a gauntlet where the process is the punishment. For many poor people but especially those of color, the criminal justice system continues to target Black males, incarcerating them at disproportionately high rates relative to their White peers who commit the same crimes. In doing community policing the NYPD has continued the age old practice of assuming all Black males are potential criminals unless proven otherwise. The pursuit of security, while well-meaning has come at the costs of basic freedoms. This has led to an erosion of individual rights as we seem to be in a permanent state of heightened vigilance that is then used to justify the violation of basic rights.
In too many school cultures are an exercise in un-thoughtful disciplinary regimes, irrelevant curricula and de-skilling. The market place is equally daunting given the tendency of too many corporations to monetize every aspect of their interactions with their customers and to avoid their responsibilities to the maintenance of a vibrant civic space. There are no shortage of models of how to balance freedom, responsibility and security. Such models are politically costly and they are challenging to operationalize and sustain. Nevertheless their implementation and sustenance are vital for the nurturance of disciplined, caring and creative citizens and the healthy spaces that they inhabit.
We need to drastically curb the cult of exceptionalism that has stained our history. This would require a marked reduction in the unfair and often un-earned benefits given to the one percent that appears to make them exempt from the rule of law and that grants them far too many exemptions in terms of sacrifice and from the hassles of the ordinary. Such exceptionalism among elites who influence the rules of opportunity and justice inclines them to not identify with the average and instead to simply promulgate conditionalities that are in the service of protecting their own interests. This is seriously damaging to the body politic. We continue to wage a war on low level drug use and have only now begun to provide the quality treatment services needed. The focus on high economic crimes is still in its infancy.
Equally troubling is the negative exceptionalism that is visited on far too many Americans. They are viewed as being of questionable character and as undeserving of basic rights and services. For those so demeaned the desire is not for favors but for substantive equality of opportunity. They wish to be ordinary in the sense of being treated as just another citizen with rights that are enforced, with basic resources that are provided and therefore with a chance to compete fairly for their own ethically informed goals. Such ordinariness strengthens the body politic as it curbs inappropriate ideologies of exceptionalism, provides support and encourages individual responsibility.
Finally we must encourage healthy risk-taking. The problems we face are daunting, but then that has always been the case, hence the need for creative individuals and facilitative processes.
There is however a growing risk of increased surveillance that will curb spontaneity and increase self-censorship. We need to think carefully about how we balance the tension between genuine safety concerns that do require some degree of surveillance and constraints, and the need for a space where spontaneity, risk taking and low stakes failures are possible. The March on Washington was about increasing the creation of safe spaces within which we can be ordinary, enframed by laws we respect, appropriately nurtured and protected by a state that cares and we are therefore able to work thoughtfully and love fully.
C. Jama Adams is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice: City University of New York.