Rachel Nelson

Curator and Program Manager, Institute of the Arts and Sciences, University of California Santa Cruz


"Teaching Race and Mass Incarceration in the U.S. through Contemporary Art:

A Case Study in Visual Pedagogies"

In the United States, teaching aimed at drawing out historical and current connections between structural racism and mass incarceration confronts head-on a seemingly unmovable obstacle: the willful failure of many U.S. residents to see the biases within the criminal justice system. This impediment to justice was made painfully clear in 2015 when, after the police killing of Michael Brown, a teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation into accusations of structural racism within the Ferguson law enforcement. Investigators found racial bias affecting “nearly every aspect of Ferguson police and court operations;” the population of Ferguson is 67% black, yet 85% of vehicle stops, 93% of arrests, and 88% of the uses of force were found to target black people (Andrews, et al). These statistics were quickly linked to the parallel conditions across the country to explain why nationwide, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Yet, despite these blunt statistics, many people across the nation still fail to see this systemic inequity. A Gallop Poll taken after the Justice Department findings were published, in fact, shows that fifty percent of white Americans persist in the belief that black and white people share the opportunity for equal justice under the law. (Booker)

In the face of this overwhelming evidence of blindness, I will discuss teaching strategies for utilizing contemporary art practices to redress this barrier to racial justice in the United States. I will analyze Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun’s photographs, taken over the last thirty years in the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, as a case study for developing visual pedagogies against resistant racist practices. Considering how McCormick and Calhoun’s images construct a history for the current structural racism of the prison industrial complex, I question how the artists connect the contemporary prison industrial complex to the plantation system. The aesthetic implications of how the photographs draw out the contemporary labor politics of mass incarceration will also be questioned. Throughout, I will keep in the foreground of my analysis how the images reveal and resist the mechanisms through which the racialized history and present of the prison industrial complex remains out of the sight of many within U.S. contemporary politics.

Wilson Andrews etal. “Justice Department’s Report on the Ferguson Police Department.” NYTimes. March 4, 2015.

Brakkton Booker. “How Equal is American Opportunity?” NPR, September 21, 2015.