The folks behind the documentary Tulia, Texas were nice enough to send a copy of the movie my way. I can’t recommend it highly enough. The movie is visually gorgeous and refreshingly nuanced. It does a wonderful job of exploring the forces that led up to the arrest of 46 people — 39 of them black — in Tulia in 1999, and it also manages to capture interviews with some of the folks who might be expected to be most camera shy — people like the now-disgraced undercover cop whose investigation started the whole mess, as well as his former supervisor.

I kept thinking, as I watched this film, about Prof. Doris Provine’s discussion of “aversive racism” — i.e. the racial attitudes that are less overt than traditional, name-calling “racism” but which nevertheless shape behavior and shape policies. It’s a force that is woven very deeply into the American criminal justice system, particularly in our policies around drugs.  Sometimes it’s only a really extreme example of disproportionate outcomes, like that seen in Tulia, that makes us sit up and say “hmm, we have the best intentions in the world, but somehow it seems that we’re producing unfair results.”

The remarkable reality that this film captures is the way the existence of “drug crime” allows us to shift responsibility for these skewed outcomes away from our actions as individuals and onto the abstract mechanisms of “the law.”  They allow us to conclude, even in the face of very dramatic evidence of dishonest and selective policing, that certain folks are fundamentally criminal and probably deserve to be locked up for something or other anyway. Making this cognitive shift doesn’t feel dishonest or immoral; in fact, it seems to feel principled and “right” to many of the people interviewed in the film. As a result, the viewer gets a sense of just how difficult it is to say “in fact, the law is wrong, the policy is wrong. What we have called justice was not just at all.”