Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Big Ups Indeed

I was tooling around the new blog Black Prof (you'll note it's now on my blogroll) and I stumbled across a very neat article by one of the contributors, GW Law Professor Paul Butler: Much Respect: Toward a Hip-Hop Theory of Punishment, 56 STAN. L. REV. 983 (2004). Don't let the name fool you--it's a serious and readable article that has some tremendous insights on how we ought to think about the criminal justice system. However, I knew it would be fun to read when I saw the introductory footnote:
Professor of Law, The George Washington University Law School. This Article was presented as a work-in-progress at Washington University School of Law and at a Stanford Law Review Symposium. I thank the participants in those events. Special shout out to Daniel Solove. Mad props to Christopher Bracey, Kimberly Jade Norwood, and Dorothy Roberts. Big up to my research assistants Jeremy Medovoy, Michael Robinett, and Eduardo Rodriguez.

When's the last time you've seen that in the Stanford Law Review (or, for that matter, the first epigraph being from Nas)?

I do have "much respect," though, for the thesis of the article. It argues that:
Every society has seen the need to punish. The hip-hop nation is no different. Three core principles inform its ideas about punishment. First, people who harm others should be harmed in return. Second, criminals are human beings who deserve respect and love. Third, communities can be destroyed by both crime and punishment. (at 999)

Butler notes that the hip-hop community does not claim that wrongdoers should not be punished--there are plenty of verses promising retribution for harming the community. What is present, and missing from current discourse, is the concept of "respect"--that criminals too are human beings and should not be seen as mere statistics or indicators of how we've gotten "tough on crime." Especially when a massive proportion of blacks in prison are there for non-violent drug crimes (and come from regions where drug dealing is one of the few economic options open), this is a concept that needs to be taken seriously. The final prong of the analysis--impact on the community--also is critical. When a criminal justice scheme is constructed so that virtually all young black men are locked away in jail, we have to start wondering if the societal benefits of the system are not outweighed by the harms. To put it another way, while it certainly is true that drug addiction is a serious problem in poor black communities and one that is a significant barrier to overcoming poverty, that problem pales in comparison to the barrier posed when the entire black male population of the town is in prison on crack possession charges.

Overall, an insightful and relevant piece of literature. Of course, here at The Debate Link we've known for a long time that rap's contributions to political theory are greatly undervalued.

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