Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tangential Remarks on The Ragged Edge

In class we talked a lot about the important impact The Disability Rag had at the time it was being printed as well as the resonance it still has with many of us today. We also discussed how relevant many of the arguments and debates within the text remain today. In this post, I want to about something I didn’t get a chance to bring up in class, which is one essay in The Ragged Edge that I wasn’t so enthused by, which advocates a still relevant position that is unfortunately, in my mind, still widely viewed as progressive. In Barbara Faye Waxman’s (1992) “Hate,” she argues that disabled people need recourse to hate crime laws, just like members of other minority groups who were, at the time, increasingly gaining legal recourse for crimes motivated by bigotry against marginalized social and cultural groups through anti-minority hate crime laws. Waxman raises the point that, although violence against disabled people is well-documented, all too often people with disabilities are blamed for the crimes committed against them, the presumption being that they must have provoked the crimes with their behavior (not unlike the victim-blaming discourse around rape). 

I fully agree with Waxman’s point that “anti-disability violence is produced by a whole series of ideological structures that legitimatize oppressive behavior” (p. 68). I also agree that ableism obscures the recognition of such crimes as rooted in bigotry against an oppressed social group and, moreover, that work needs to be done to elucidate the structural roots of such crimes. My issue with this essay is connected to critiques of what has been deemed “carceral feminism.” Carceral feminism, broadly, refers to advocacy by self-proclaimed feminists arguing for stricter laws around and retribution for sex/gender-based violence. This form of feminism has been critiqued by feminists for appealing to (and therefore legitimizing and reinforcing) state power (and state violence) in an effort to curb gendered and sexual violence. 

This is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, it’s widely known that both race and class have a huge influence on who actually gets policed and sentenced to prison, as well as the duration of their prison sentences. People of color are obviously grossly overrepresented in prisons, which has led many to argue that the prison system is inherently racist. I think it could also be argued that the prison system is inherently ableist. Advocating carceral politics to combat ableism, in my mind, represents a twisted logic. Arguing for stronger hate crime legislation legitimizes and reinforces a system that we know disproportionately incarcerates people with disabilities. People labeled with intellectual and cognitive disabilities are vastly more likely to be incarcerated than those not labeled with such disabilities. Moreover, prisons can be read as themselves creating impairment (particularly psychological) consequent of harsh prison conditions as well as the realities of poverty and disenfranchisement upon release from prison. 

While I fully agree that hate crimes against people with disabilities need to be recognized precisely for their roots in hate, and the ideological structures that legitimize such behaviors need to be illuminated and dismantled, I think arguing for legal reforms that legitimize the prison system is a misguided approach for addressing such violence. Legislation such as the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act, which recognizes disabled people as a minority targeted by hate crimes, is not the answer. The issues with this approach are rendered even more apparent when you take into account the relationship between race and class and incarceration rates. Given the disproportionate rates at which people with cognitive and intellectual disabilities are incarcerated, I think prison abolition is a more righteous aim for a radical disability rights movement.

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