Review of Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy, and Margaret Pfeil, The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 219 pp.



[1] The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration presents a rare, unflinching, and provocative confrontation of White Catholic complicity in the contemporary U.S. scourge of mass incarceration. Catholic theologians Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy, and Margaret Pfeil (after an incisive foreword written by Sister Helen Prejean of Dead Man Walking fame) offer with this text an invitation to White Christians to mount a concrete, spirit-based response to their participation (wittingly or unwittingly) in U.S. hyper-incarceration. In the introduction, written by Cassidy and Mikulich, the authors argue that hyper-incarceration is a systemic reality, which must elicit more concern with the question of who is in prison, and less concern with the particular moral character of the racialized individuals who are being disproportionately incarcerated. As a systemic phenomenon, hyper-incarceration is a contemporary reality, which has powerful continuities tightly woven into webs of U.S. history which routinely render peoples of color disadvantaged in the service of White supremacy, privilege, and advantage. This means, on the authors’ view, that hyper-incarceration (as a deleterious reality within the nation’s wider prison industrial complex) is not simply restricted to the nation’s prisons and jails; it is a phenomenon that leaves little untouched by its influence. White people too, as invisible as it may seem to them, are intensely caught up in (and benefit from) the historical, political, economic, cultural, moral, and religio-theological realities that are currently expressed via hyper-incarceration. On the authors’ view, any White person failing to privilege a systemic reading of White complicity in hyper-incarceration ignores the omnipresent forms of White privilege and entitlement, which are paradoxically and constantly on display and undergirded by narratives of White innocence and its associated amnesia.

Scandal of White Complicity

[2] The Scandal of White Complicity is indeed rare insofar as we have here three White Catholics involved in an unflinching, provocative, and unapologetic focus on the Catholic Church’s normative and unnamed White complicity in “evil we do not intend.” The text is also rare in its foundational challenge to the implicit assumption of Catholic moral theology and teaching that today’s White Catholics—absent their participation in the Ku Klux Klan or self-identification as “White supremacists”—are innocent and that evil is “out there.” Although the authors’ stated wish is not to indict anyone, there is a necessary tone of invitational indictment that challenges White folk to see their own collective enslavement to the structural (i.e., racist) entanglements of Whiteness. Indeed we have here a relentless and sustained challenge: to turn the White theological and moral gaze inward, to gaze upon and understand the concrete social location and standpoint of White people as complicit with the entanglements of oppression. Complicity is viewed here as an essential habit of White being and performance.

[3] A critical aspect of the text is its considerable drawing upon interdisciplinary methodology, the aim of which is to make the invisible visible by way of a “thick description” of hyper-incarceration and a relevant Catholic theological and moral response. In keeping with the text’s stated method to start with the concrete situation of hyper-incarceration before offering a “non-violent spirituality of White resistance,” the text’s first four chapters (organized in two equal “Parts”) confront representative structural (Part I) and cultural (Part II) dimensions of hyper-incarceration. In chapters 1 and 2, “Hyper-Incarceration of African Americans and Latinos in Historical Context” and “White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration,” Mikulich reflects on the past, present, and future noting, Hyper-incarceration is not simply one issue among others. Hyper-incarceration is the latest reincarnation of the relationship between white domination and subornation of people of color in the United States,” a relationship that has never been fundamentally dismantled. Mikulich finds that hyper-incarceration is expressive of history’s cultural and structural White hypersegregation. To make his case, Mikulich draws on a considerable mix of eclectic historical and contemporary sources: his personal experiences among African Americans; Catholic popes and mystics; U.S. Census statistics; the Pew Charitable Trusts, Sentencing Project and other social justice organizations; social scientists; critical race theorists; slavery, lynching and Jim Crow history; African American literary, intellectual and civil rights traditions; and moral theology. Much of the work of these initial chapters demonstrates the continuities among highly racialized hyper-incarceration and the racialized spirit of moral constructions, social institutions, and a collective “white soul” soaked in denial, ignorance, illusion/delusion, amnesia/anesthesia, and power/privilege.

[4] Following Mikulich’s powerfully voiced “structural” telling on the White self, the text, in chapters 3 and 4, turns toward a “Culture” telling written by Cassidy. In chapters titled, respectively, “The Myth of the Dangerous Black Man” and “Hip Hop and the Seditious Reinvention of the Dangerous Black Man,” Cassidy makes the case that understanding the cultural construction of “the dangerous black man” (in the “figment of white imagination”) is critical to understanding hyper-incarceration in America, and that such a myth finds destructive and ironic form in much of today’s hip hop as some Black hip hop artists, themselves, reinscribe White supremacy through the cultural art form. Cassidy rightly notes that the development of the dangerous Black man (a cultural production of evil) is essential to the functioning and maintenance of hyper-incarceration and is expressive of a cultural myth continuously recycled since the inception of American slavery. Drawing on scholarship, cultural commentary, media sources and accounts including Michelle Alexander, Franz Fanon, Emilie Townes, D. W. Griffith, Law and Order/Lockdown/Oz, the late Mayor Koch of New York City, D. Marvin Jones, slave narratives, Charles Carroll, Cornel West, Trayvon Martin, Ralph Ellison, Walter Wink, and Johann Baptist Metz, Cassidy’s aim (consistent with the entire text) is to shake loose White Christian amnesia and mythologies of innocence, and to embrace anamnesis (i.e., a truer lived-out remembrance of Christ).

[5] Cassidy goes on to voice a widely debated irony that much of today’s hip hop culture (unlike that of the “old school” hip hop she encountered during her Irish American adolescence/young adulthood) reinforces, reifies, and feeds White myths of the dangerous (hence, again, culturally evil) Black man. Drawing heavily on the works of Tricia Rose and Michael Eric Dyson (among others), Cassidy documents “the prophetic vision and performance of early hip hop” and argues that “in its origins hip-hop is a profound form of musical, cultural, and social creativity that enables black youth [now quoting Dyson] ‘to reclaim their history, reactivate forms of black radicalism, and contest the powers of despair and economic depression.’” In this summoning of the prophetic voice of hip hop, the radical Antebellum justice vision of Nat Turner is invoked as Cassidy aims to lift up hip hop culture against the seditious currents that now flow within it, in the service of profit-oriented commodification of Black danger. Indeed, Cassidy is concerned with the contemporary collusion of some Black hip hop artists with White fantasies, fears, and (ironic) economic embrace of the hypercriminal Black male and the hypersexual Black women who are their conquests. To the extent that Black rappers voluntarily participate in reifying the myth of the morally pathological (and all ‘round dangerous) Black man, whiteness enjoys the deleterious privilege of invisibility. Countering the privilege of such invisibility, Cassidy wants to compel Catholic social ethicists to take up the mantel against devastating market images of Black men and women—controlled by the structural and systematic racism of White people. Although Cassidy does hyperfocus on representative structural and cultural aspects of White complicity in U.S. hyper-incarceration, the hip hop chapter ventures to dig into Black complicity with the cultural production of dark-hued evilness, with its attendant hyper-incarceration. There is little doubt that, for some readers, this “Black complicity” dimension of Cassidy’s commentary constitutes dangerous racial ground for a White woman to be treading, even with tremendous support from the various African American theologians, social commentators, and public intellectuals she draws upon for credibility and, perhaps, cover. After all, the subject position of any privileged messenger in relation to the telling of any contestable truth will be shaky ground. This reviewer will simply leave this an open question and point the reader to Cassidy’s own apologetic concerning, “how a middle-aged white woman can write about hip-hop, and moreover critique its present enactments” (133fn.3).

[6] With Part III of the text Pfeil introduces two final chapters focused on a nonviolent spirituality of resistance to, and contemplative action against, hyper-incarceration. Chapter 5, “Contemplative Action: Toward White Nonviolent Resistance to Hyper-Incarceration,” charges White people with acquiescence to the normativity of White privilege and the racism concomitant with such privilege. In particular, this White racial privilege has been expressed from the time of their comprehensive social collusions with Antebellum slavery right up until today’s unacknowledged White participation in the “neo-slavery” of society’s hyper-incarcerative archipelago. It is critical to note that Pfeil’s charge is ultimately aimed at demonstrating the vision and possibility of White resistance to this profound and unfortunate racial truth. Invoking a concrete human narrative as a model of such difficult resistence, Pfeil draws heavily upon the lived nonviolent witness of the eighteenth century Quaker preacher, journalist, and businessman John Woolman. Weaving together Woolman’s redemption from his initial cooperation with the machinations of slavery and Gandhi’s cultivation of an ongoing spiritual practice grounded in everyday readings of the Sermon on the Mount, Pfeil envisions the Beatitudes (in particular) as “a framework for a nonviolent spirituality of White resistance.” Pfeil refers to this Scripture-based focus as a “spiritual wellspring for the ascetical practice of nonviolence as a way of life.” Such spirituality is presented by Pfeil as a profound challenge to unacknowledged and routine White “Christian belief in creation of humans Imago Dei through the institutions of slavery and hyper-incarceration…” As Pfeil takes the reader through an exegesis of the familiar salient passages of the Beatitudes, she wonderfully and seamlessly stiches in the narrative witnesses of numerous luminaries and everyday people committed to nonviolent spirituality and redemption for the cause of a total subversive transformation of White habitus. In addition to Woolman and Gandhi, Pfeil lifts up as exemplars of “a nonviolent spirituality of resistance that emerges so clearly in the Beatitudes,” Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, young Birmingham marchers, and Gandhi’s grandson, Arun.

[7] With the envisioning of strong spiritual roots planted in chapter 5, Pfeil, in the final chapter entitled, “Contemplative Action: Toward White Nonviolent Resistence to Hyper-Incarceration,” names the concrete requirements of the responsive aim and challenge of the entire text. Chapter 6 begins with an arresting quote from James Baldwin’s ominously incisive 1965 essay in Ebony magazine, “White Man’s Guilt.” The chapter goes on to construct a (Crossroads Ministry-inspired) three-fold scaffolding that will embody contemplative action meant to contest White complicity in U.S. hyper-incarceration in particular, and give concrete direction for the development of White antiracism. Pfeil suggests that, “First, white people must work to make whiteness visible. Second, white people need to be accountable to people of color in the work of antiracism. Finally, white people need to work as antiracist allies of people of color in imagining and enacting systemic change.” She proceeds to articulate the difficult work each of these interrelated contemplative actions must perform with the aid of the Carmelite concept of “dark night of impasse” providing a spiritual and theological dimension to a gradual process of White “dying to oneself.” Such a death, on Pfeil’s account, involves “becoming more and more interiorly detached from the possessive claims of material goods and of the ego.” She continues by suggesting that, “This process can be nurtured through specific, communal practices of resistance, including witness, memory, and lament, as [the African American Catholic theologian] Shawn Copeland has suggested.” Indeed, Pfeil suggests that when it comes to the spiritual necessity of a willingness to sacrifice as a part of dying to self in the service of “resistance born of the dark night,” people of color like Thich Nhat Hanh, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nancy Pineda-Madrid, and many others (named and unnamed in the text) provide embodied witness, testimony, and documentary observance.

[8] Pfeil rightly recognizes that since she and her co-authors are indeed “white Catholic theologians fully immersed in and socialized by white habitus,” they can never take for granted the moral innocence of the theological air they breathe. Given such a blood-soaked truth, these authors call on, “our colleagues in the theological guild, and in particular our white colleagues,” to know the same.

[9] There can be no doubt that this text will both galvanize unusually courageous White Christians and (perhaps) anger those wishing to bury racial truths about themselves beneath layers of spiritual innocence, amnesia and theological obscurity like, “But aren’t we all sinners?” The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration is both a bone-deep challenge and profound faith-inspired invitation to arrest White complicity in U.S. hyper-incarceration, and face up to the deeply mephitic currents of racial history that have surrounded and produced it. Indeed, with the text’s final call for a “beatitudinal askesis of nonviolence as a way of being in the world as Jesus’ disciples,” White Christians may yet be rescued from the anonymity of their routine complicity in White supremacy and privilege within an allegedly “post-racial” society.

James Logan is Associate Professor of Religion and Associate Professor and Director of African and African American Studies at Earlham College in Richmond, IN. He is the author of Good Punishment? Christian Moral Practice and U.S. Imprisonment (Eerdmans, 2008).


© July/August 2013

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 13, Issue 4