I have been watching Vlogbrothers videos on YouTube for years. Yesterday their channel uploaded a video about mass incarceration in the United States. Since my degree is in Criminal Justice and my professional field is prisoner re-entry I was pretty pumped to watch it, but it ultimately disappointed me. Why? Because it doesn't mention race.
After watching this video I left a comment stating "As a criminologist I am very happy that you chose to devote a video to this issue. So thank you for that. Although, I have to say, a video about mass incarceration that doesn't mention the extreme racial inequalities inherent in this system seems to me to be woefully incomplete." I was not the only person who felt this way either, there were dozens of similar comments and many people who upvoted my response. We weren't the majority, but we were a big enough group that it would be hard to miss us.
In response to the feedback, the author of the video (Hank Green) left this post on his tumblr this morning:
So I spent three months working with a bunch of really great people on a video about incarceration in America. Of course the work was off and on, but videos like that are very difficult to get right because those situations are unsurprisingly complex.
People who know about the full complexity will talk your ear off for about four days straight and at the end you'll come away thinking "well, this is screwed up, but I'm not really sure how or why and obviously there's nothing to be done about it." But a point of pride for me is the ability to take complicated situations and distill them down for broader understanding.
Of course, it also means that I don't talk about everything. A lot of people in the comments of that video are criticizing me for not discussing race, which is indeed an important factor and the justice system does appear to be racially biased.
I argue that taking on that issue would have blurred the over-arching theme I wanted to have with that video, which is that the justice system (even if it wasn't racist) is broken. Which it is.
They argue that I could have mentioned race in passing and that would have been better than nothing. I completely disagree…I think mentioning it in passing would have been a huge disservice to the complexity of the issue. There is clearly racial bias in the criminal justice system but where and why exactly it occurs is extremely complicated. I've seen a lot of really alarming stats, but when I tried to find their sources I was unable to.
You can't boil it down to a sentence…that's the point of these videos…that the sound byte mentality of the news media is almost as broken as the policy of mass incarceration. I could of plopped some misleading statistic in the middle of the video, but that's the opposite of my goal.
Talking to experts on incarceration made it clear that there was no one-sentence (or even one minute) summary that could in any way do that conversation justice.
There's a part of me that's annoyed…I do my best to sometimes make videos about complicated issues that would otherwise never be discussed on a medium like YouTube. Videos like this are terrifying to make for this exact reason. John and I were terrified of posting "Human Sexuality is Complicated" because we knew we'd catch flak for not telling the whole story (which we did.) And I was scared to post that video yesterday for the same reasons.
By far the easiest way to avoid these criticisms would be to not make videos about complicated topics. And so that little voice in my head is like "JESUS STOP GIVING ME SUCH A HARD TIME! AT LEAST I'M TRYING!"
But instead of being annoyed, I'm going to be thankful. Thankful to have intelligent people pushing me to create content that is more complete and more accurate than what a lot of major news networks can cobble together. Thankful for the opportunity to do that. Thankful for the ability to talk to experts and get free animation work provided in exchange for mentioning Visual.ly in my video. Thankfu [the post is then cut off due to apparent user error]
Even though I am grateful that he took the time to address these concerns, this response really didn't satisfy me. Mass incarceration in the United States is not incidentally racist, it is racist by design. Mass Incarceration is not blind, it doesn't randomly sample, the policies that have lead to the incarceration boom in the United States have often been specifically targeted at poor minorities (such as the crack/cocaine disparity). Racism is not a footnote in my criminal justice education, it is the whole damn book. Therefore, in my opinion, having a meaningful understanding of this issue requires that the racial components be addressed. However, I also understand the limits of the medium and I want to be sympathetic to the creator's concerns.
Frankly I am just really frustrated by the whole ordeal and am not really sure how I feel at the moment. I would really like to hear your thoughts on this.
ETA: This might be a coincidence, but I looked up the Prison Policy Initiative he consulted, aside from a work-study, there is not a single person of color on their staff page...