The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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Michelle Alexander

“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.” If James Baldwin were around today he’d probably take a look at the prison system and conclude that white people thought black people were criminals.

I think I always knew the War on Drugs was a failure, but Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow showed me why and just how much. From profiling, to arrests, to trial, to lock up, to release, the drug war has since it’s inception been waged on racist terms and ruined the lives of millions of black people. In fact the entire system of mass incarceration is so racially skewed that “African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population…[and] are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.” Yet they make up less than 1/6 of the population.

The evidence Alexander puts forth about mass incarceration and the drug war as a new system of racial control is overwhelming, but perhaps the most convincing and bewildering statistic is “More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” This heartbreaking fact makes “liberty and justice for all” look like a joke. But how can this be? Why is it that although more white people use illegal drugs than black people there are more people of color locked up for drug offenses than white people? “Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system.” But it obviously does. People of color aren’t more likely to commit crimes than white people, yet they are arrested far more frequently.  Just because this system does not use racially explicit language does not mean that it is not a racist system. What else could explain it?

When people are charged with felonies they are punished for life, even if they don’t spend that time behind bars. The felon label prevents Americans from voting and participating in the democratic process, from finding steady and well paying work, from receiving publicly funded assistance when they can’t find that work, and increases rates of crime from recidivism. We punish people for being poor or for being black, prevent them for getting jobs, and then expect them to magically land on their feet and support their families. “Criminals, it turns out, are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In ‘colorblind’ America, criminals are the new whipping boys. They are entitled to no respect and little moral concern…When we say someone was ‘treated like a criminal,’ what we mean to say is that he or she was treated as less than human, like a shameful creature. Hundreds of years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages.” The criminal justice system’s felon label has created an under class of millions of Americans who are mostly people of color. They have diminished rights and do not have access to the same quality of life as other (read white) Americans. How is this not a racist system of control?

The question this book asks me is “Here’s the evidence, will you care?” All signs point towards a broken criminal justice system that marginalizes people of color and perpetuates a racist culture. But will white people care? Alexander believes that it is racial indifference, not racial hostility, that fuels mass incarceration. “Race plays a major role – indeed, a defining role – in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility – a feature it actually shares with its predecessors. All racial caste systems, not just mass incarceration, have been supported by racial indifference. As noted earlier, many whites during the Jim Crow era sincerely believed that African Americans were intellectually and morally inferior. They meant blacks no harm but believed segregation was a sensible system for managing a society comprised of fundamentally different and unequal people. The sincerity of many people’s racial beliefs is what led Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, ‘Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.’ The notion that racial caste systems are necessarily predicated on a desire to harm other racial groups, and that racial hostility is the essence of racism, is fundamentally misguided. Even slavery does not conform to this limited understanding of racism and racial caste. Most plantation owners supported the institution of black slavery not because of a sadistic desire to harm blacks but instead because they wanted to get rich, and black slavery was the most efficient means to that end. By and large, plantation owners were indifferent to the suffering caused by slavery they were motivated by greed. Preoccupation with the role of racial hostility in earlier caste systems can blind us to the ways in which every caste system, including mass incarceration, has been supported by racial indifference – a lack of caring and compassion for people of other races.”

I have been guilty of racial indifference. I am still guilty of that. And I know the vast majority of white Americans are too. The problem of mass incarceration is an ugly one, one that we’d rather not stare in the face. But we must if we are going to create a country and world with equal opportunity for all human beings. The question remains, “Do we care?” I’ll finish with a quote from W. E. B. DuBois: “But what of the darker world that watches? Most men belong to this world. With Negro and Negroid, East Indian, Chinese, and Japanese they form two-thirds of the population of the world. A belief in humanity is a belief in colored men. If the uplift of mankind must be done by men, then the destinies of this world will rest ultimately in the hands of darker nations.”

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