Academic journal article MELUS

Editor's Introduction: Crime, Punishment, and Redemption

Academic journal article MELUS

Editor's Introduction: Crime, Punishment, and Redemption

Article excerpt

As I write this introduction for the fall 2010 issue of MELUS about crime, punishment, and redemption in ethnic American literature, the bleak binaries that have long dominated the criminal justice system in the United States--binaries in which brown/black/yellow/red or otherwise ethnic bodies are only legible as criminal or criminalized, while white bodies are always innocent victims of violence--have grown even starker. On April 23, 2010, Governor Jan Brewer's signing of a law in Arizona "to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants" makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime and gives the police broad rights to detain anyone suspected of being in the state illegally (Archibold). According to New York Times reporter Randal C. Archibold, "police demands of documents are common on subways, highways and in public places in some countries, including France, [but] Arizona is the first state to demand that immigrants meet federal requirements to carry identity documents legitimizing their presence on American soil." If all provisions of this law go into effect, immigrants, Hispanics, and people of color all potentially become criminalized second-class subjects, forced to carry identification marking them as legal or illegal, citizen or "alien." (1) Not content with this step, on May 11, 2010, Brewer signed House Bill 2281, which bans schools from teaching "classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group, promote resentment or advocate ethnic solidarity over treating pupils as individuals" (Santa Cruz)--in other words, any ethnic studies class.

Earlier this year, before the Arizona immigration bill became a heated topic, as I was editing Irene Mata's essay for this issue which concerns (in part) the waves of femicide that have been ongoing in Juarez since 1994, on March 15 a newswire flashed the story of the grisly murder of two Americans connected with the American consulate in Ciudad Juarez and a third person, the Mexican husband of another US consulate worker, in what appeared to be a coordinated attack targeting Americans in Mexico and their families. The FBI was immediately on the case, sending many agents; travel warnings were instantaneously issued; and the State Department authorized the departure of the dependents of US government personnel from US consulates in Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Monterrey, and Matamoros (Lacey and Thompson). These incidents received national attention, enhancing the image of Mexico as a dangerous, chaotic place that US citizens--especially white ones--should shun.

But why does this violence against Americans speak louder than the four hundred women killed and the thousands who have simply disappeared in the so-called "Maquiladora Murders," or louder even than the thousands of Mexicans lost to drug violence or the more than a million African American and Latino men incarcerated in US jails? William J. Sabol, Heather C. West, and Matthew Cooper's research demonstrates that in 2008 black men were six and a half times more likely to be in prison than white men, and rates of incarceration for Hispanic men were more than two and a half times those for whites. The imprisoned population of black and Hispanic men continues to rise, despite the fact that both property and violent crime have fallen (FBI); it is painfully evident, then, that people of color are grossly overrepresented in the prison population. What hand do US legal policies have in creating the economic and social forces that foment violence at the border and contribute to the high rate of incarceration of black and brown men? Even more specific to this issue, why is it that atrocities against ethnic peoples--whether in the US or outside its borders--rarely receive sustained attention, yet when whites become the victim of violence great indignation is sparked? Finally, why are "alien" or ethnic bodies so often criminal/ criminalized in the mind of the dominant culture, yet aggression and crime against them remain invisible? …

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