Thirty-nine years ago, an African American man named Malcolm Alexander (shown above) was arrested. A white woman in Louisiana had been raped at gunpoint, and although she hadn’t been able to clearly see the perpetrator’s face, she chose Alexander from a collection of photos and days later from a police lineup (Innocence Project Staff, Malcolm Alexander). While it should be understood that the incident was horrible and traumatic for the victim, there was no clear evidence linking Alexander to the crime. Furthermore, an important resource that could have tested his blood type against the perpetrator’s was not used (Malcolm Alexander). Alexander is just one of many who has been arrested for a crime he did not commit. Living in prison for years, hearing everyone around him saying he’s a criminal. One can look at this case from a variety of standpoints, therefore coming to a variety of conclusions. By choosing literary analysis, an argument can be made that Alexander’s arrest is the result of our society’s tendency to judge individuals based on the narratives they have been surrounded by throughout their lives. Specifically, the tendency to use race as one of the main reasons for judgement. Racism is the result of flat characterization, and leads to issues like false incarceration. The Innocence Project is one way to challenge that.
It is important to clarify first what is meant by round and flat characters. According to H. Porter Abbott, “E. M. Forster introduced the term flat character to refer to characters who have no hidden complexity,” and they are “limited to a narrow range of predictable behaviors” (133). Meanwhile, “round characters have varying degrees of depth and complexity” (133). Round characters, while not always protagonists, are at the forefront of a story because they “are capable of surprising the reader in a convincing way” (Keen 68). Flat characters typically rest in the background because they “do not change; they possess a fixed set of traits” (Keen 68). However, they are far from forgettable. No, they are “easily recognizable, easily remembered, and likely to be enduring for both of those reasons” (68). An example of a flat character from the novels we have read is Hailey Grant from The Hate U Give. At the beginning of the story, she was one of Starr’s Williamson friends, though she was mainly used to illustrate the differences between Starr’s home life and her school life. She undergoes no changes, has no hidden reasoning behind her beliefs, and we can often expect her to say something racist. The “pretend the ball is some friend chicken” (Thomas 111) comment tipped us off, and by the end of the book she’s insisting that “[Khalil] was a drug dealer and a gangbanger” (341). This isn’t to say that racist individuals necessarily need a reason to be racist, but when you look at the story, Hailey has no arc or development. She’s just the ‘racist friend.’ She’s easily identifiable-we all know a ‘Hailey’-and has a fixed set of traits.
One may ask the point of this discussion. Flat and round characters exist only in fiction, right? Well, maybe not. Being so heavily surrounded by narratives throughout our lives, are we not bound to approach much of what we see in a similar fashion? Everything, “histories, biographies, newspaper reports, legal briefs, documentaries, film biographies all purport to tell us of real people. But are real people characters?” (Abbott 135). I posit that people can become characters simply in the nature by which we view any story. If we look at a news report, for example, it’s not that different from looking at a novel. You see where it took place (setting), the people involved (characters), and what happened (plot). Thus it’s easy to see how “reader/viewer’s construction of a character” leads to the “reader/viewer’s construction of a real person” (134-35). What happens, though, when we are repeatedly exposed to the same stories about the same kinds of people? We will instinctively flatten said people to the roles that have been previously assigned to them. If race is the defining factor in that flattening, in deciding the worth and value of a person, we could call that racism. As such, racism can be said to be the result of flat characterization.
Racism is defined by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic as “any program or practice of discrimination, segregation, persecution, or mistreatment based on membership in a race or ethnic group” (183). Flattening is not in and of itself an example of racism unless it is a person of color being flattened for their status as a person of color. An example may come from pre-Civil War America, when many white people looked at African American slaves as inherently deviant or unintelligent based on the stories they had created about them. This is flattening because those individuals knew on sight what kind of a person they were looking at simply because of that person’s race, and made no attempt to consider them as anyone (or anything) else. Why, though, is this relevant? We live in a time where we have mountains of information about how people of color are no different than white people, and there is no disputing that black people are humans rather than objects. Well, we also live in a time where “the number of young black men in prison or jail is larger than the number attending college” (120). This is confirmed when looking at the findings of Pew Research Center, which show that black, non-hispanic men make up the majority of the prison population (Gramlich). It is interesting, then, to search for the reasons why that may be.
Prisons and jails are the result of our society’s decision to detain individuals who break the law. The people who uphold that law are police officers, who decide which people to arrest, which to let go with a ticket or warning, and most upsettingly, which to kill. If there are a disproportionate amount of black men in prison, that would mean that the police are more likely to arrest them. Why? An easy answer is racism. We have already determined that racism is the result of flattening. How does that relate to the police? Look to the reasonable racist: “one who treats members of another group in racist fashion because he or she believes that, statistically, the other group is prone to crime or similar behavior” (Delgado & Stefancic 183). These people have been exposed to that single story of the black “criminal” or “drug dealer” repeatedly, enough so that they’re sure a person of color is deviant before even getting to know them. They are flattening these people on sight. Those people can just as easily find themselves searching for a career among the police.
Some might argue that, by this line of reasoning, racism is simply an individual problem, that the institution of the police force itself is not the issue. Why, then, is racial profiling still in place? Racial profiling is a practice “in which the police stop minority-looking motorists to search for drugs of other contraband” (Delgado & Stefancic 121). Even if a person is not one of those so-called reasonable racists, they are still pushed to look more critically at people of color. More than that, they are looking for predictable behavior and a fixed set of traits. They are looking to flatten people of color, especially African American men, as criminals. An example comes from earlier in this year (2019), when 24 year-old Shaquille Dukes was arrested outside a hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia (Hutchinson). A security guard called the police, who then insisted that Dukes was attempting to steal the IV bag he was attached to (Hutchinson). As he was still on hospital property, wearing a gown and among friends, the only outwardly ‘suspicious’ aspect about him was his race (Hutchinson). The officers, upon seeing him, assumed he was a thief. They flattened him on sight. Author Janine Utell stated that to “reduce difference to sameness is a kind of violence” (146). That is nowhere more apparent than among the police, and all those who take actual violent actions as a result of that violent conversion to sameness.
Another way to see racism in false incarcerations is through the Innocence Project. It was founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck (Innocence Project Staff, About). The project’s mission is to “free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment” (About). One of the main ways they do this is through the investigation and presentation of DNA evidence. As a result, many of their cases center around rape and murder. On their website, they do only show 377 cases, leading one to think that their sample size may not be as vast as it could be. However, even in that small group, the majority of the cases are for African American men. The chart below was compiled by examining the cases on their site. A filter can be used to see the breakdown of the cases by race, and that filter shows that 230 of those 377 cases are for black men (Innocence Project Staff, The Cases). This shows us that whenever false incarceration is examined, one is likely to see a large amount of black men. This suggests racism, which in turn suggests flattening.
Looking back to Malcolm Alexander’s case, it was an unrelated incident that prompted the police to place him in a lineup of suspects (Innocence Project Staff, Malcolm Alexander). He had been transformed from a person into a criminal so quickly; in other words, flattened. I would argue, based on everything I’ve gathered, that this was less because of the incident and more to do with his race. Now, admittedly, many of their cases are older, because neither DNA testing nor and the project itself have been around for too long. This might prompt some to ask if flattening-if it is the case at all-was only an issue earlier years (70s, 80s, 90s). However, the simple fact that flattening happened years ago does not inherently suggest that it is not happening now, and we have seen it happen now. Perhaps it does not paint as bold a picture of the current situation as the Pew Research Center, but it’s still a staggering number. Furthermore, if the discussion is to expand into dealing with this flattening, we may very well have at our disposal the key to ending it. Or, at the very least, challenging it.
There are various ways that the Innocence Project could be used to not only clearly identify flattening based on race but also put a stop to it. The main path is growing into a larger organization so as to assist more individuals. Admittedly, the organization is a non-profit, meaning its mobility is limited based on how much in funds they are able to raise (Greenwood). Even with the accumulation of donors, the donors themselves may “strictly limit the number of years they will provide support” and how much they can or will give (Foster & Fine). To expand beyond what they have at present might be difficult, though not impossible. They are already quite widespread, having a network which connects over 60 organizations across the U.S. and even in other countries such as Brazil, Italy, and New Zealand (Innocence Network Staff). Their success in only seventeen years doesn’t make it difficult to imagine more organizations in the U.S.-maybe even multiple per state. With more organizations, they could help end that unequal prison population and exonerate people who were convicted for their race.
The next logical step to that, though, could make things tricky: making a more public statement about the racial breakdown of their cases. They are trying to help all individuals who are wrongfully convicted, many cases coming from previous years. Suddenly switching focus to mainly black men could affect their public opinion. It could also rub the donors the wrong way, making them want to pull back their support. I’m not saying that white men or other persons of color shouldn’t also receive focus and justice. However, for all those persons who are so concerned with facts regarding racism, seeing an organization present clear evidence of false incarceration based on race might challenge that narrative. Those reasonable racists who are going to keep saying that ‘statistically’ more black men are in prison and therefore all black men should be distrusted would suddenly have less ground. Instead of constant news reports regarding criminals of color, maybe we could start to see more and more regarding persons of color wrongfully convicted. It would be much harder to flatten them, then, knowing the truth of the matter.
There are some who would say that the Innocence Project is not a feasible solution to flattening based on race because of their focus on DNA evidence. As of 2019, 1 in 5 people are arrested for drug-related crimes, something that has little to do with DNA (Sawyer & Wagner). And “the law enforcement’s focus on urban areas, lower income communities and communities of color” means that we do see a large amount of black men in prison for said drug crimes (Drug Policy Alliance Staff). Looking at the situation honestly, a person is in possession of illegal drugs is breaking the law and therefore guilty. It’s much harder to claim there was no reason beyond race for a person to be in prison when they were convicted for something more tangible; something that can quickly be proven. However, despite popular opinion that the current majority of prison inmates are there for drug offenses, “at the state and local levels, far more people are locked up for violent and property offenses than for drug offenses alone” (Sawyer & Wagner). As those are crimes where it’s easier to find DNA, this could mean that it could be easier to find issues regarding the racial breakdown of prisons. This isn’t to say that all those offenders were wrongfully convicted, that there aren’t people of color who commit such crimes, but it gives organizations like the Innocence Project more room to work with.
The Innocence Project also does more than just present DNA evidence. They have a strategic litigation department that works to improve case law, a policy department that focuses on laws and policies which can prevent wrongful imprisonment, and they provide support for exonerees as they progress through their new life (Innocence Project). At the moment, they may be focused on helping individuals after the fact, but by changing systems, they have the ability to prevent the problems from happening at all.
Malcolm Alexander was exonerated in 2018, thirty-eight years after being arrested for the sexual assault crime he did not commit (Innocence Project Staff, Malcolm Alexander). It took a while, but finally he was able to return to his life and family. He was flattened to a criminal in a lineup, just as many others have been. He may have been arrested some time ago, but things haven’t changed. The prison population is still disproportionately lead by men of color, with African American men taking the lead. But there’s a reason for that: flattening based on race. Racism. Yes, black men do commit legitimate crimes, and I’m not suggesting someone’s race should free them from consequence. But there’s little other reason beyond flattening why we have more black men in prison than we do in the general population. To say that black men make up such a high majority of inmates because black men are deviant by nature is not much different from slave masters’ interpretations of African Americans. We should know by now that race does not determine one’s abilities or tendencies. It does not indicate criminal behavior. Until we combat the narratives shown to us constantly, though, people are going to keep using that ‘logic’. The Innocence Project can play a role in that by presenting facts, in expanding people’s knowledge. They can play a role in changing institutions and systems that are controlled by stock stories and flattening. But if that takes too long, well, the facts are not hard to find. Other organizations, too, as well as the Black Lives Matter Movement, can make sure the facts are known. Can fight for reformation. Instead of falling victim to believing the same story, with little depth or complexity, we need to make sure that we are questioning those stories. We need to push ourselves to see the roundness of people. Otherwise, things will stagnate at best and keep deteriorating at worst. Flattening already “puts us in a box and denies us our freedom” (Abbott 137). We shouldn’t allow that box to be literal any longer.
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