The New Jim Crow Includes You, Too
Yesterday was a dark day for North Carolina, where I spent the first twenty-two years of my life. My heart is heavy, but despair is the enemy of progress. When the abyss stares you in the face, you have to stare back, and figure out how to cross over.
In her groundbreaking 2010 book, civil rights litigator and legal scholar Michelle Alexander referred to the national mass incarceration of African-Americans as “The New Jim Crow.” It’s a powerful term, and I can’t think of a better one than hers to describe what is happening across the South and in America’s Heartland. Indifference, she argues, is all that’s necessary to support the system of racial exclusion. Hostility and bigotry are not even required. The election of Barack Obama only serves as a critical example of exceptionalism, which allows an entire racist infrastructure to exist as long as there are individuals who defeat all odds.
That was 2010. In 2016, the New Jim Crow isn’t limited to African-Americans. We are witnessing a historic resurgence of hostility and bigotry towards many groups of people perceived to be “the other” by those who are struggling against underemployment and suppressed wages. Demagogues are exploiting economic despair. While black men have suffered for centuries, Muslim citizens too live in fear in their own neighborhoods, and gay people are refused service. The bald-faced suppression of the right to vote through voter ID laws should have been a wake-up call that we are all in jeopardy. Yet some of us are still asleep.
If you’ve ever wondered how you would have behaved during the Civil Rights Movement, or if you had lived in some more consequential time in history, you don’t have to wonder any more. That time has come again. And even your protestations at suburban dinner parties, your personal and private disgust, are just as bad as indifference. It is not the bigots on the stage at the Trump rally who make bad things happen. It is the people in the audience with their cellphones aloft, the casual Internet commenters, and the barely-there disquiet of urban progressives who enable the propagation of oppression.
To those who fail to take Trump supporters seriously, who refuse to support the Democratic nominee regardless of who wins, and who sit at home instead of organizing: you are just as guilty, and the New Jim Crow will come for you, too.
In 2015, Jim Crow was revitalized with the arrival of a new wall. The Trump campaign announcement opened the floodgates to all of those who had previously felt silenced. But though the focus was on wall-building in Mexico, a much larger wall had simultaneously begun to collapse.
Since the social unrest of the 1960s and ’70s, Americans created a wall now derisively called “political correctness.” When race riots became a staple of international television, shame motivated us to change. The wall’s foundation was constructed, brick-by-brick, by civil rights activists. Previously, another wall kept African-Americans and women from accessing economic, social and political opportunity. So activists tore down this wall, and they built a new one to protect their progress. Their efforts became a bulwark against discrimination, and it was built with legislative bricks and judicial bricks.
By the 1990s, conservatives had masterfully redefined this wall of civility as “political correctness.” It is now a pejorative term couched in extreme examples from college campuses. But the new, elevated political discourse was born of the fire and the moral righteousness of the civil rights era. Activists said that racism, misogyny and bigotry no longer had any place in politics. They organized and they protested and they lobbied. There was no Internet to vent their rage, so they had to do it in-person. As a result, the ugliest aspects of American society retreated underground because finally it was no longer polite to talk about them in public.
Political correctness, which I would prefer to call basic human decency, meant that it was no longer okay to call your neighbor a “nigger”, or your brother a “faggot,” or your wife a “bitch.” People were going to shame you and reject you if you did those terrible things. You were the one who was going to be the outcast, not the other way around. This change happened because people were organized, they were dedicated, and they were willing to put their lives and their careers at risk to create social change.
And what are you willing to do? Read this article and go back to looking at cat photos on Facebook?
I’m sorry to say that the revolution is not in the hands of Bernie Sanders. It’s in the small sweaty palms of Donald Trump, and he has taken decades of progress in our political discourse and returned us to the Dark Ages. And most of us have just laughed, because we weren’t Muslim, or we weren’t Mexican.
I was in the post office yesterday, here in Massachusetts. A man had absolutely no shame, no shame, about delivering a pro-Trump diatribe, covering the gamut of groups he saw as ruining America. This individual also identified himself as a Bank of America executive, which in his mind gave him some added authority.
He concluded with, “You know what’s the only thing worse than Big Brother? Big Sister. I just can’t stand the idea of a woman telling me what to do.”
Now, this man has obviously felt this way his whole life. But the difference in 2016 is that he no longer feels shame about announcing such attitudes in front of a group of absolute strangers. He is to be commended, now, for not being “politically correct.”
We live in terrible times, and some of us are still too blind to see.
The New Jim Crow is coming for you, too. If you’re a woman, it’s coming for you. If you’re brown-skinned, it’s coming for you. If you’re Muslim, it’s coming for you. If you’re gay, it’s coming for you.
So what are you going to do about it?
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com.