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Essay: Michelle Alexander – The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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  • Published: 21 September 2019*
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Author Michelle Alexander is a civil rights attorney and legal scholar; her work has included being Professor of law at Stanford, and a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 2010, her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness was published by The New Press. In 262 pages Alexander does an incredible job of laying out the similarities and differences between the era of Jim Crow legal and social restrictions impose upon African Americans, and the modern laws and practices that have led to the incarceration of more than 2 million Americans–the overwhelming majority of which are African American. Alexander boldly indicts an economic and political system that needs an underclass in order to exist. Through in-depth historical and contemporary research, combined with an intimate knowledge of the legal system, she explains a method of racial oppression that is so insidious that even members of the African American community are susceptible to its psychological influence.
In her introduction, forwarded by activist and scholar Dr. Cornel West, Alexander outlines her thesis. She states that the mass incarceration of black men in the United States beginning in the 1980s, has created not just an underclass, but a population within the United States that are outcasts from mainstream life. She exposes the ways in which felony convictions act to exclude citizens from many basic rights and benefits of American citizens, including the right of suffrage in many states. She says that this loss of suffrage is a new method whereby the aim of Jim Crow segregation laws and poll taxes are reinvented by keeping at least 30% of all black men ineligible to vote. Alexander argues that “something akin to a racial caste system currently exists in the United States.” (Alexander, 2).To back up this startling claim, she points to President Nixon’s use of racial scare tactics to win the white vote, and examines the Reagan era neo-conservatism that led to a re-racialization of the problems facing the U.S. job and labor market. This racializing of the national narrative diverted attention from the problems most voters felt were facing the nation: job loss, rising oil prices, stagnant wages, and instead turned the focus onto people of color by scapegoating them for a problem—that of drug use and crime– which according to Alexander’s research was at an historic low. Reagan declared a War on Drugs in 1982, at least two years before crack cocaine became a problem in the inner cities. Alexander exposes the admissions by the CIA of the very real role that they played in the drug trade of the eighties; and then links these policies to the explosion of the prison population in the U.S., a prison population that is now the largest in the world. Alexander gives data to prove declining crime rates but rising incarceration rates during this era. In her thorough historical research she is able to state that in the 1970’s criminologists were asking for the elimination of most prisons and all juvenile facilities simply because they were proven not to work.

Alexander’s introduction is an incredibly clear outline of her case. Alexander calls out the lack of civil rights leadership or attention given to the issue of criminal justice, saying that modern civil rights work centers on issues of affirmative action in schools and jobs, which follows the time honored and time worn issue of respectability politics, or the need for African Americans to fit in to white society and to distance themselves from any aspect of pathology within their community. This has the unfortunate effect of diverting attention from the very serious reality that mass incarceration has metaphorically become the new Jim Crow; having become the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the civil rights movement. She states unequivocally that mass incarceration should be seen as a gateway into permanent social immobility, she writes extensively about the fact that conviction bars people from access to mobility and a place at the economic table. She admits that her book only touches upon some important aspects, and admits her focus is on black men. She says there is just not enough space in her book to explore all the details of the issue.
In Chapter one “The Rebirth of Caste”, Alexander focuses on the historical timeline of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement, discussing how each incarnation of racial control has been created as a response to changing times in order to preserve white control, power, and privilege. Step by step she gives the reasons and rationale for each era on the timeline, and shows how each system of control metamorphosed from one manifestation to the next, ending with the link between the ostensible demise of Jim Crow rule through the efforts of civil rights leaders. She posits that the rise of activism and civil disobedience, which often was marked by violence, allowed those in power to reinforce the historic fear of “criminalblackmen” a term she borrows from legal scholar Kathryn Russell. The rhetoric defined civil disobedience as a threat to society and scapegoated black activists and leaders. It became part of the national narrative to insist that African Americans were disruptive and a threat to security. Thus the groundwork was laid for mass incarceration to protect the values of the nation, as well as the societal acceptance of victim blaming for most occurrences of police brutality. In the words of Senator Robert Byrd “If they act right they won’t have to worry about it.” (Alexander, 42).

Through meticulous historical research, Alexander charts the strategy used by the Nixon administration to deliberately court voters through veiled racism, until the mainstream ideology became that crime was the result of poverty, which in turn was the result of basic flaws in character or culture, or the result of overly generous public aid programs. This racist ideology fueled a public appeal to lower class whites. It had the effect of refocusing their rage from dissatisfaction about government and corporate greed and a widening income gap, to an anger that allowed politicians and poor whites to scapegoat people of color at home and abroad for the ills of the nation. Those who had lost their jobs to globalization could blame brown people abroad and black people at home for the dwindling industrial jobs. The real of higher costs of living but stagnant wages could also be laid at “their” feet. The oil embargo was imposed by brown people of a different religion; and the loss of the war in Vietnam against Communism (brown people strike again) all contributed to a growing sense of unease and uncertainty among white Americans. The race riots in major cities was the tipping point for many Americans, who viewed African Americans as ungrateful and impatient. Alexander says the rhetoric worked and culminated in the election of Reagan, conservative poster boy who would fix everything for white people like a benevolent grandfather. He made the discussions about economic stagnation, welfare and crime be transformed into a conversation about race.  Ironically, the effects of globalization were actually felt the hardest in inner city black enclaves. The manufacturing jobs left the city, which left blacks stranded in inner city slum conditions, the new industrial plants then opened in the suburbs or rural areas, away from blacks who lacked transportation to commute to the suburbs. Enter crack cocaine in the inner cities in 1985, years after Reagan’s War had been declared.  The increase in drug use at that point was substantial, however unlike many other nations the U.S. approached the crisis through criminalization, and decreased funding for substance abuse programs or mental health initiatives.
In Chapter 2: “The Lockdown”, Alexander enumerates case after case in which the Supreme Court has undermined search and seizure laws despite the concerns of legal scholars regarding the inviolability of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. which many believe to be actively gutted by appellate court rulings. The Supreme Court has ruled time and again that it is the discretion of law enforcement to stop and frisk or to stop and search, ruling that whatever law enforcement deems suspicious becomes  suspicious.

Further, Alexander asserts that there is no legal recourse for those who experience illegal searches or police harassment and brutality. There are no independent agencies established to handle complaints against police, and unless the person is a model citizen no lawyer wants to touch their case. She destroys the notion that stop and frisk is an effective strategy of crime reduction, stating that 95% of all traffic stops do not result in the discovery of illegal drugs. She writes that the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) has authorized criteria for suspicious behavior that effectively allows them to stop anyone they choose (Alexander, 70-71). She then outlines the militarization of police forces throughout the nation, through grants of money and equipment that is designated to be used to wage the war on drugs, escalating until the tools used are literally weapons of war. The use of SWAT teams has resulted in numerous deaths and injuries to people unrelated to any crime including children and the elderly. Beyond the financial incentive of grants for equipment and training, federal law now allows police agencies to keep any cash or property they seize in drug arrests whether or not the suspect was convicted of any crime. In fact, if someone is innocent, they have no right to a public attorney necessary to challenge the seizure of their property.

In Chapter3 “The Color of Justice” Alexander indicts the judicial system as she discusses in depth the rise of the prison population in the U.S. She asserts that the rise in prison population or parolees in America is not due to violent crime, since violent crime is at historically low levels.  The rise is strictly due to drug charges, a generally victimless crime.  Alexander states that studies that show that whites are more likely to use hard drugs than blacks, and as likely to use marijuana. Studies also show that whites are more likely to sell drugs and more likely to have life threatening drug overdoses than blacks, despite these figures in many states the risk of going to prison on drug charges is 20-57 times more likely for blacks than for whites (Alexander, 98)). Alexander points out that black neighborhoods are disproportionately patrolled leading to disproportionate arrests. Her view is that although it cannot be denied that some white men are rounded up in the war on drugs, these arrests are almost sacrificial in nature so that the system is not revealed to be actually biased. One interesting point Alexander makes is that drugs lack the element of danger implied by the authorities or the media; that in fact more deaths occur from drunk driving than from all drug related deaths of the same time period. However, drunk driving–most often committed by white men–is only a misdemeanor charge, while drugs crimes are felonies.

The image of blacks as criminals is so pervasive that in survey after survey it has been demonstrated that 95% of respondents—regardless of race– picture blacks when asked to picture drug users. The majority of survey respondents also have a stronger shooter bias towards blacks, meaning that in simulations of crime they are more likely to shoot an African American subject than a white one. Research has shown that dark skinned blacks are more likely to receive harsher sentences than blacks who are lighter skinned. Alexander gives a convincing breakdown of the numbers regarding conviction rates, prison populations and the rise in the number of incarcerated. All of which are disproportionately skewed towards blacks as criminals. Then she highlights the nonviolent nature of the vast majority of drug cases, yet the steep penalties meted out to perpetrators.  In thirty states felons are barred from jury duty for life, meaning that 30% of black men cannot participate in the jury system which consequently can make it difficult or impossible for black men to obtain a jury of their peers. At the sentencing level, the government has established higher sentencing requirements for crack cocaine which is considered a black drug than for powder cocaine which is traditionally viewed as being consumed by white users. At the time of publication the sentencing differential was 100 to 1. (Alexander, 112-113). Even with the obvious racial disparities in arrests, charging and sentencing, the courts have made it impossible to sue for discrimination in the justice system unless there is clear cut proof of racism.

Alexander uses Chapter 4: The Cruel Hand” to list the ways in which felons are impacted socially and financially by drug convictions– often for the rest of their lives. Alexander describes the overtaxed judicial system, in which defendants with little or no resources to hire an attorney must rely on public defenders who may have hundreds of cases. Defendants are charged with as many offenses as possible in the hopes that fear of long sentences leads to plea bargains, or if the case does go to trial, at least some of the charges are likely to garner a conviction. Often not understanding that they will be unable to get housing, food stamps, or student loans for life, and afraid of long sentences, these poorly represented defendants take the pleas. This decision leaves many of them outside of mainstream life, and under scrutiny of the law for the remainder of their lives.  Alexander states, they are most assuredly unaware of the effects of a lifelong stigma that is attached to being a felon. Felons face job discrimination, which only compounds the discrimination already experienced by non-felon blacks in the job market. If they do find work they are faced with high probation fees and criminal fines, and failure to pay them can lead to re-incarceration. Often felons seek work in the informal sector and/or illegal markets where their wages are unreported in order to survive. Alexander compares these fines to the Jim Crow Era use of the poll taxes, because until they are paid in full, felons cannot exercise their right to vote. Many feel that without suffrage there can be no citizenship. Further,in a manner eerily similar in spirit to the chain gangs of the Jim Crow era many prisons use prisoners as labor, renting them out for $3.00 an hour at most to industries and with no worker’s protections in place. Most insidious is that corporations can profit from the incarcerated and take more jobs out of a locality by exploiting prison labor, creating further resentment about who is taking the jobs. After time has been served and fines paid and parole is completed they still remain felons; which in America means a lifetime of exclusion a stigmatization. The sentences never end.

In what I consider her strongest chapter, Chapter 5 The New Jim Crow, Alexander refers to the respectability politics employed by prominent blacks, many of whom decry the absence of black fathers as the root of criminality in the ghetto. Many pundits accuse black men of irresponsibility, rather than acknowledge the fact that many black fathers are “are unable to be good fathers not because of a lack of desire or commitment but because they are warehoused in prisons, locked in cages” (Alexander, 180). Alexander again looks to history as she gives the shocking fact that more black men are incarcerated today than were enslaved in 1850, meaning that during slavery children were more likely than today to be raised by both parents. She theorizes that as a nation our idea of what racism looks like, and how it manifests comes from disturbing images depicting lynchings or the 1960s use of police dogs and brutality against peaceful protesters, and so our collective “understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of individual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent) when it is embedded in the structure of a social system” (Alexander, 184).

With regards to the cycle of poverty faced by blacks in America Alexander says that “Most people are willing to acknowledge the existence of the cage, but insist that a door has been left open” (Alexander, 185). Alexander describes how mass incarceration, which moves urban blacks to rural areas where the majority of prisons are situated, reinforces residential segregation. So that once again–or still– whites are insulated from the suffering of blacks which leads to “a form of apartheid unlike the world has ever seen.” (Alexander, 195). She posits that another important aspect of mass incarceration is in the “symbolic production of race” (Alexander, 197), a system that defines what it means to be black: to be black means to be a criminal. She restates the fact that whites are at least as likely–and in the case of white professionals– more likely to commit drug offenses than blacks, but far less likely to ever be tried or convicted of a drug related felony. “In the era of colorblindness it is no longer permissible to hate blacks, but we can hate criminals” (Alexander 2010).

She explains that one of the most profound differences between the previous oppression of Jim Crow and the issue of mass incarceration today, is the lack of solidarity within the black community to combat the issue. The debate between the goal of respectability or the goal of achieving rights that has existed since Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois is ongoing today. Middle class blacks often feel that when black folks learn to act in socially acceptable ways, whites will accept them. It is also a continuation of the historic divide between middle class blacks and their disdain for working class, or poor blacks. She writes of the desire of middle class African Americans to separate themselves from the stigma of criminality, a desire which creates fractures within the community. Alexander believes the absence of clear cut overt racial hostility makes the need for solidarity less obvious and therefore more challenging to achieve. While blacks of the past had KKK to fear, many today have the police as their boogie man, which can be a difficult concept for many white Americans to comprehend.

To conclude her book Chapter 6: The Fire This Time, she reiterates the question “where are the voices of the civil rights leaders today?” Alexander believes that the answer lies in the character of the contemporary civil rights movement. Where previously civil rights had been actively and ardently pursued as a grassroots cause, it has moved from the homes to court rooms, so that people on the streets feel disconnected from any sort of power, and those in the court rooms have very little direct knowledge of life for most of those living in slums, or prisons. She puts forth some actions by which activists and lawmakers can reinvent the system of mass, racially motivated incarceration. She finds promise in the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana around the country and says that this may be an opportunity to have a public dialogue about the racialized system of imprisonment. Alexander advocates that this racialized component of incarceration be called out directly, rather than adhering to an ideology of colorblindness. Adhering to the idea that we are a post-racial society does not address the problem of racism and mass incarceration as a nation. Alexander warns of the idea of trickle down equality, the idea that achievement for some blacks will eventually lead to opportunity for all blacks; that the meteoric achievements of a few blacks like Oprah and Obama can lead to the false idea that anyone can get to the top if only they try hard enough.

It is a brilliant work, but inexplicably Alexander fails to give a thorough examination of the economic/industrial complex that profits from this system only giving a portion of the last chapter to the issue.  Unfortunately, she rushes through the facts and figures associated with the entrenched economic system that is the prison industrial complex, which is fundamentally where the true evil of this situation lies. The amount of money being made from this “industry” is astronomical and insurmountable. The economies of entire rural (mostly white) communities are based on prisons, and even the voting districts are being remade based on the U.S. Census data that puts the prison population counts in these communities. These numbers inflate the representation in government, eerily mirroring the three fifths clause in the Constitution–counting blacks in order to gain power, but barring blacks from the ability to vote in these same communities—or any community for that matter. Private stockholders need the number of prisoners to rise in order to continue to grow their profits. Private businesses need the cheap labor they get from prisoners to increase their profit margins. An entire book could be written about this system alone, yet Alexander devotes less than a chapter. Alexander also fails to give real, attainable solutions to this problem. This is absolutely understandable, but her efforts at solutions feels trite and contrived, lacking any chance for substantive systematic changes, leaving the reader to feel as though those pages would have been better spent elsewhere.

These crucial issues aside, The New Jim Crow is an important work. It should be read by anyone who feels enraged or sorrowful when confronted by the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown or Eric Garner. It should be read by anyone who doubts the rhetorical narrative that creates and condones the systemic use of police brutality against African Americans. African Americans lose their lives at the hands of police at astronomically high numbers, who because of the pervasive cultural fear of the “criminalblackman” that they shoot unarmed boys and men. Police brutality and the public debate concerning whether or not these citizens should be blamed for their own deaths is just a continuation of this system of oppression. The New Jim Crow should be read by anyone who is tired of the criminalization of blackness. It should be read by those heartbroken over a system which allows entire communities to be isolated, marginalized and forgotten by the nation, until us vs. them becomes the underlying truth in our post racial, colorblind society. And it should be read in hopes that we can attain a fundamental societal change that leaves no room for dead men or boys, or the ruination of their lives.

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