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Sunday, 26 February 2012 18:45

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, a review

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The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander


The End of Race … so long as you don’t say the n-word.

The New Jim: Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, details how our government went officially colorblind at the end of the civil rights movement, and how the colorblindness has served to mask a program of punitive laws and unfair enforcement that have imprisoned and outcast a mind-boggling number of African American men. Alexander names this a new system of racial control - the replacement for Jim Crow laws- and claims that it has created a caste of second-class citizens who, once in the system, can never re-enter society in a meaningful way, ever.

This is a well-researched report, and an indictment of a system that most of us have watched grow up in our lifetime without any understanding of its rationale, the enormity of its scale, or its brutal unfairness. We have seen it on TV and in the news as the War On Crime and The War On Drugs, and we have accepted the plausible explanations from government and major media outlets that America is being defended against crime and drugs. Instead, the war on drugs and the severely punitive legal changes that have grown up to support it have done tremendous damage to our social system, hurting us all, regardless of race. The harm has fallen hugely on the poorer African Americans and Latino populations, but we are all losers.

The book describes the three major American periods of racial control, which I will greatly oversimplify here. The first was of course slavery, which grew into full force when landowners needed to drive a wedge between poor whites and blacks, who were initially indentured servants together and got along well enough in the early days. The wedge was needed in order to stop a series of uprisings over the condition of the poor and the large economic divide between rich and poor. By granting small gains to the poor whites and enslaving the blacks, landowners created a hierarchy in which, although the whites were little if any better off, they now had someone whose ambition they would fear. Thus motivated, race hatred fluorished among the poor whites.

The civil war ended slavery, but it took a long while. For decades - even into the 20th century - black men were rounded up on any charge, imprisoned for long terms, and their labor sold to corporations and landowners who legally worked them to death. No longer slaves in the eyes of the state, they were nonetheless forced into slave labor. During this period the system of laws called Jim Crow  - the second major period of racial control - also grew up. It wedged southern blacks into a tiny corner of the economy where they had no ability to vote, use public toilets or transportation, to have paved roads or sewers in their communities, to be served food in restaurants, and were forced into humiliating submissive behaviors under the threat of death by lynching.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended the Jim Crow system and began the long struggle for integration in public education, employment and access to public services. President Lyndon Johnson began the war on poverty and Martin Luther King, Jr. began to redefine the civil rights movement into a poor people’s movement, based on his conviction that the country’s chief problems were rooted in poverty, white and black alike, and that racial justice could not be achieved without attacking poverty across the board.  The goal of the poor people’s movement was to find common cause between poor blacks and poor and working class whites, and work for revolutionary change that would help both groups. The war on poverty and the transition of the civil rights movement into a people’s movement never matured. King was assassinated and Johnson found more pressing issues in Vietnam. Any chance of common ground between poor whites and blacks was lost, because the gains granted blacks from the Civil Rights Act were to be borne only by the poor and working class whites. School desegregation affected only poor and working class whites, not the rich whites who could afford private schools; affirmative action allocated police and fire fighter positions that would have gone to working class whites; and race hatred further intensified. These two groups who had such crucial economic common ground were thus prevented from coming together to work for changes they both need. Whatever else may be the reason, Alexander argues that this failure to find common cause is a major reason both groups are in such worse shape now than they were during the hopeful period of the mid-sixties through early seventies.

The third - and current - major system of racial control involves the mass incarceration of black and latino Americans, with the particular focus on the criminalblackman. This began with racially motivated “wars on crime” and the now thirty years-old war on drugs started by President Reagan. Many of us remember the Willie Horton ad during the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaign. Horton was the prototypical criminalblackman, and the ad was the point of the spear for law-and-order, tough-on-crime political rhetoric that has been the staple of our political campaigns ever since. These “wars” are clearly racially motivated, but according to a string of court rulings, that can’t be proved, because no official with an IQ above 30 would ever utter the N-word. No N-word, no racism. Just that simply, the Civil Rights Act made the government officially colorblind, and brought racism to an end. Well, no, only the official recognition of racism was ended; the fact of state-sponsored racism in the war on drugs is clear for any who want to read the numbers. White people and black people use drugs at the same rate: the government says so in multiple agency studies; white people are equally likely as black people to sell drugs, also according to the government. But white people do not get arrested for doing drugs in the same numbers as black people, because police sweeps occur in ghettos, not on college campuses; because blacks are stopped on freeways and searched instead of white people; because … essentially because the courts have said that police and prosecutors can behave in a racist manner, so long as they are not caught using the N-word, and because catching the criminalblackman in his ghetto is like shooting fish in a barrel, and does not carry the political risk that might be involved in sweeping a college campus or a white middle class neighborhood.

And so, since 1982 our prison population has grown from roughly 350,000 to roughly 2 millions, populated with a massively disproportionate number of black and latino men. Once free of prison, there is no longer the notion of a rehabilitated convict who, having done his time, is now welcomed back into society. Under current laws, the stigma of criminality will follow a convict for life, eliminating virtually all hope of employment, housing, social services, right to vote, a chance to support himself and his family. There are barriers to every need for re-entering society, but the road back to prison is greased: a convict can barely hope for employment, but lack of a job is all the reason the state needs to return him to prison; public housing is denied him, but homelessness is crime enough to return him to jail. So we have on the order of two millions in prison, but another seven million in the control of the criminal justice system ready to return to prison at a moment’s notice, and few escape the cycle.

Alexander offers hopefully that this system of racial control will come to an end (all things must), adding,  

"But if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being—of every class, race, and nationality—within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge—one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of mass incarceration was not predicted by anyone thirty years ago. No task is more urgent for racial justice advocates today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last."

Last modified on Saturday, 03 March 2012 18:57

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