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When Will PA Become the “New Black?”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tia Gaynor
July 1, 2016

Thousands, maybe millions, of television fans have or will soon gear up to binge watch the newest season of “Orange Is the New Black (OITNB).” In addition to wit, comedy and intriguing characters, the show offers blatant social commentary primarily targeted at the U.S. criminal justice system. This season (no spoilers) unapologetically highlights the social inequality related to the denial of rights to transwomen of color in the United States. Actress Laverne Cox, a self-identifying transwoman of color, plays Sophia Burset, a transwoman who is serving a sentence of five years and eight months for boosting stolen credit cards she used to pay for her sex reassignment surgery. The struggles Sophia experiences in fictional Litchfield Penitentiary are not unlike the experiences of women like her in the real world. While the issues in OITNB are presented satirically and within a fictional context, the show demonstrates the pervasiveness of injustice perpetuated against the transgender community in society generally, and the prison industrial complex, specifically.

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The social construction of crime has a historic legacy in the United States. Crimes explicitly associated with people and place have resulted in the development of numerous strategies designed to criminalize individuals and groups that were outside of white, male, affluent and heterosexual norms. People of color, for instance, have long been the target of law enforcement, in part as a result of former President Nixon’s “War on Drugs.” People identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer (LGBTQ) are criminalized for not ascribing to normative conceptions of gender and sexuality through sodomy, solicitation and the most recent “bathroom bills.”

Those at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality fare far worse than their counterparts with fewer marginalizing identities. The term intersectionality acknowledges that examining issues from a single-axis framework is a distortion of people’s multiple identities. Intersectional subjection, therefore, is a framework that recognizes that people who have intersecting identities are likely to be marginalized if they do not fit into prescribed normative expectations. Intersectional subjection is grounded within three primary components: intersecting identities (individual primary characteristics), modes of power (the way in which authority figures are bestowed and exercise power to maintain control), and social control (tactics used to enforce policies that marginalize populations).

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A 2011 Department of Justice investigation report demonstrates the epitome of intersectional subjection within public administration. The report reveals how the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has a long standing history of criminalizing those with intersecting identities – individuals who are of color and identify as LGBTQ. For firsthand accounts of these interactions, visit here and here. The NOPD has disproportionately profiled, harassed and arrested transgender women of color. Using their administrative discretion, NOPD charged these women under the crimes against nature solicitation (CANS) law, a felony offense, instead of the misdemeanor charge of prostitution. A CANS conviction, in the state of Louisiana, requires registration as a sex offender.

The marginalizing effects of incarceration alone often force returning citizens to face substantial obstacles when trying to successfully reintegrate into society. Policies often prohibit returning citizens from living in federally subsidized housing, receiving federal financial aid, gaining certain professional licenses, and in some states, accessing the vote indefinitely.

Registering as a sex offender has additional restrictions making these obstacles even more insurmountable. Dewey and St. Germain argue, “Sex offender registration virtually guaranteed that CANS-convicted African-Americans and transgendered individuals would stay homeless or marginally housed, and engaged in sex work due to the lack of other opportunities available to them for the 15-year mandatory registration period.”

Transwomen of color are increasingly targets of state and interpersonal violence as 21 transwomen of color were murdered in 2015 and 14 were murdered in the first six months of 2016. But it seems as though the field of public administration is choosing to turn a blind eye. Discussions of social justice and social equity, within public administration, are rarely intersectional and often forget large segments of the U.S. population. Ultimately, reproducing systems and processes that continue to marginalize and promote intersectional subjection. Transwomen of color are, arguably, the most invisible of all populations. Should public policy and the administration of justice not also be extended to these women?

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In the fashion industry, the phrase “the new black,” refers to the elevation of a style from trendy and temporary to classic and always on trend (i.e., a little black dress, a navy blue suit, denim). For the field of public administration, “the new black” should be the unilateral and all-encompassing conception of justice and equity. When will equity and justice move from trendy rhetoric to classically practiced, institutionalized and systemic?

Just like the long-standing yet simple fashion styles of denim, a navy suit or a little black dress, when does the simple practice of equity and justice for all become a long-standing practice for the field of public administration? When does public administration become “the new black?”


Author: Tia Sherèe Gaynor is an assistant professor in the department of public and nonprofit administration at Marist College. Dr. Gaynor’s research seeks to examine issues of social justice and equity. Her scholarship can be categorized in three research streams: resident participation and engagement; public and social policy analysis and implementation; and pedagogy, learning and instruction.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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