According to the Oxford Dictionary, cognitive dissonance is the “state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes, especially related to behavioral decisions and attitude change.” It occurs on a number of levels, both individually and societally. Social worker and clinical psychologist Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary says that one example of this phenomenon in the United States is how society has attempted to reconcile its ideals of equality and justice with its harsh, dehumanizing treatment of people of color.
Watching Eugene Jarecki’s honest and personal documentary The House I Live In, a 2012 film that chronicles the U.S.’s “War on Drugs,” brought to mind this concept. In the movie, historian and professor Richard Lawrence Miller ties the history of drug laws to racist attempts by White elites to reduce the number of people of color represented in different regional workforces because of a perceived threat to White job security. Given this information, why hasn’t the U.S. government reevaluated its entire criminal justice system? Racially based discrimination is imbedded in drug laws. Anti-opium, anti-marijuana and anti-cocaine laws were all targeted at punishing and excluding people of Chinese, Mexican and African descent, respectively. This history should warrant a wholesale restructuring of U.S. institutions and a deliberate effort to undue entrenched racism.
The House I Live In begins with the director’s life story. Jarecki is a first-generation son of Jewish parents who successfully evaded Hitler and instilled in their children a sense of solidarity with all oppressed people. Jarecki juxtaposes his family’s history with that of his childhood caretaker, Nannie Jeter, an elderly Black woman whose own children were his playmates. Yet, their lives diverged in very distinct ways. Jarecki’s family progressed up the socio-economic ladder, and he went on to private school, college and became a critically acclaimed director. The Jeters remained low-income, and the family has been ravaged by the effects of drugs in the Black community. As the film continues, the audience is introduced to many others who have found themselves pushed into the drug economy through social marginalization and stagnant opportunities.
The movie also depicts the Reagan Administration’s intensifying “War on Drugs,” which occurred prior to the widespread emergence of crack cocaine in U.S. cities. While conspiracy theories abound, the fact remains that the drug war became very profitable for well-connected businesses–particularly those involved in weapon sales, prison development, private medical care and the many corporations that use cheap prison labor in the production of their goods.
Jarecki’s film, which is available on Netflix instant, is a must-see for anyone ready to end the unrelenting cycle of crippling poverty, drug abuse, imprisonment and police brutality that have devastated our communities. Join the fight against mass incarceration. Sign up for a newsletter, sign a petition, attend a rally or lecture and support the many organizations dedicated to halting America’s punitive state.
by Shannon J. Shird, M.A. Candidate, International Affairs, Milano School of International Affairs, Urban Policy & Management, The New School, 2014