Disentangling Desire in 1950s Houston: On Assemblages and Racial Disparity in American Criminal Justice
Ponton, David III
Honorable Mention winner of the Friends of Fondren Library Graduate Research Awards, 2014.
The criminalization of black males has been documented and theorized by historians and sociologists alike. While scholars have often analyzed their data with a critical eye to gender and race when black men meet the United States' criminal justice system, they have thought of the social positions “black” and “male” as an important intersection, but have not thoroughly theorized it as a co-constituted, historically contingent state of being made of both semiotic and material components. Employing Deleuzian assemblages as a theoretical frame and analytical tool, I argue that the out of the symbolic and embodied component parts of the American criminal justice system, there is an emergent organism—a justice-complex. This organism is a “desiring-machine” that has co-evolved with white-male hegemony. However, in contradistinction to conflict theorists' narratives, I maintain that the justice-complex and whitemale hegemony do not necessarily merge to form a whole defined by its relations of interiority. Thus, while inequalities produced by this organism are racist and sexist, analyzing it as essentially such elides historical contingency and constrains the terms of both scholarly and public policy conversations. I explore these ideas as I present the story of Johnny Elwood Gordon, a black man accused of rape in Houston in 1954, demonstrating the analytical importance of disentangling the desires of co-evolved assemblages for understanding how nonracist, non-sexist machines have historically perpetuated racial and gender disparities in the context of the American criminal justice system.