The New Jim Crow
I had to read a book from one of my classes. To be honest, it was a bad book. They only tell you 1/2 the info. It would be like me saying, “I don’t chase mice.” In reality I was chasing a rat the other day. Do yourself a favor and save the $14, there are much better books out there. Enjoy, because I sure didn’t.
Critique of the New Jim Crow: Introduction
Racism, in one form or another, in America has always been an unfortunate part of American history. In the book The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness, Michael Alexander argues that the cycle of slavery is still all going. Alexander suggests American history from its birth to current times has had some sort of slavery whether it is political, social economic or generalized. The major problems associated with racism, institutional and the structures that it supports will hold back the American people till they can be acknowledge and solved as a cohesive American society.
Michael Alexander suggests that the government justice system has been set up to perpetuate mass incarceration of the African Americans since 1675. Alexander’s book can be divided into four main sections with several subsections. Throughout the book, the author reinforces the concept of the social caste system. She describes in her first chapter how the elite landowners created a wedge between their black slaves and white indentured servants. These groups were separated only by color. Soon the groups began to find commonality in their problems. The landowners used a “racial bribe”, or divide and conquer, to protect their interests. Slowly the elite landowners began to expand rights to the poor whites by granting access to Native American lands, allowed to join slave patrols and militias.
The next few chapters are devoted to pointing out the problems with the various stages of the criminal justice system and reinforcing the social caste system. This deliberate form of secondary citizenship was designed to push back the political advances of the Civil Rights Movement. Alexander uses the same pattern throughout her book: laws that brought this system into place, laws that brought it down and the laws that brought it back as a way of further reinforcing the notion that the system is a cycle.
“As described in the pages that follow, there is a certain pattern to this cycle. Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion — transition — in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined.” (Alexander, p.21)
There are four major themes that Michelle Alexander has centered her book around: fear, power, security and prejudice. The rich land owners, for example, of today, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), maintain private prisons across the US. The systems put into place uses the public fears and biases to further allow the cycle of control to continue. For example, drug laws become stricter and more people are penalized, the more free labor companies like the CCA have access to.
“Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000” (Alexander, p. 60).
While fear may be lurking on the unconscious level of the public’s mind, prejudice is overtly on the surface. The levels of bigotry and racism are prevalent because black males are the target. Furthermore, they represent the majority of the population in the prison system. According to Alexander, a system has been developed to create a secondary citizen. The courts, police and penal system is a deliberate attempt to push back the gains of the Civil Rights movement.
“No one visiting the website (NAACP) would learn that the mass incarceration of African Americans had already eviscerated many of the hard-earned gains it urged its members to protect” (Alexander, p. 11).
Alexander even downplays the successes of Obama, Tyra Banks and Oprah suggests their success in life is a façade. The real system is perpetuating a system of systemic slavery and the drug laws are destroying families, keeping African-Americans in poverty and keep them uneducated. Prejudice begins with keeping the population ignorant, in jail longer with stricter laws, compared to those in white communities, and working in a penal system as unpaid labor.
“Damon Hininger, the president and chief operations officer of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private-prison operator in the United States, is thoroughly optimistic. His company boosted net income by 14 percent in 2008, and he fully expects the growth to continue” (Alexander, p. 231–232).
Over 2.3 million people in the criminal justice system, the Federal Government have used its authority to create an underclass to maintain its power. This fact is difficult to argue against. The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which was ratified in 1865, abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. African-American males represent 40 percent of the prison population, but are only 14 percent of the general population. Drug convictions make up less than 25 percent of the total prison population, and violent crimes receive little mention in her book.
“Even if every single one of these drug offenders were released tomorrow, the US would still have the world’s largest prison system,” (Schuessler, 2012).
Personal Response — Keep it real!
Many of the points brought up by Alexander are valid when looking at it from a legal and morally standpoint. The author brings a myopic view when describing the war on drugs. Alexander brings up that crack cocaine laws were stronger than that cocaine laws, she fails to mention that these laws were championed by black legislators and African-American community leaders during the Reagan years. Many of these communities went to an extreme in order to combat the rising drug usage in their communities. This was a similar reaction during the Nixon administration in the 1970’s.
“Reverend George McMurray was lead pastor at the Mother A.M.E. Zion Church in Harlem in the 1970s when the city faced a major heroin epidemic. He wanted convicted drug dealers to spend the rest of their lives behind bars” (Venugopal, 2013).
Support for many of these laws was brought to the attention of then President Richard Nixon by the Congressional Black Caucus members. The drug epidemic was especially bad in New York City, Chicago, Detroit and other African-American dominated neighborhoods. Alexander suggests that the drug war was only launched to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. Michael Javen Fortner, a political scientist, and historian from Rutgers University suggests that many of the drug laws failed to predict the outcome of the strict laws and the role it would play in the community. Many of the black leaders were encouraged by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement used the momentum to push forth laws to better protect their communities and neighborhoods (Fortner, 2013).
The rise of the crack epidemic in the 1980’s people started to notice that these tough laws were having little to no effect. Rep. Charles Rangel, of Harlem, continued to push for tough sentencing standards while other officials started to look at pushing back and reforming the laws to better protect the community (Venugopal, 2013).
In regards to poverty, the Alexander suggests that poverty was due to Jim Crow Laws and was fueled by the penal system. This system creates a caste system designed to keep the African-American male on the lower tiers of the system. This underclass is locked into this permanent cycle. To reinforce the idea of the underclass, the author also blames the poverty on the mass incarceration of blacks over whites. This is only a portion of the overall problem that has contributed the continuation of the underclass. According to the Brookings Institute, there are three ways to get out of the cycle of poverty (Brooks, 2003):
1. Finish high school
2. Get a job
3. Don’t get pregnant before marriage
The system and cycle of poverty have shown that in the 1960’s that black women were more likely to graduate high school and less likely to become pregnant compared to 2000’s. The number of unwed black mothers in the 1960’s was 20 percent and now has risen to over 70 percent (Sawhill & Haskins, 2003). With the strict racial laws in the 1960’s compared to the laws today, what has happened? The concept that the author fails to address is how exactly strict sentencing can be the sole cause of the continuation of poverty. While harsh sentencing could be the main contributing factor for people who are already in the system, it doesn’t answer the question on what do with the people who are not in jail, to begin with.
Like Jim Crow, mass incarceration marginalizes large segments of the African-American community, segregates them physically (in prisons, jails, and ghettos), and then authorizes discrimination against them in voting, employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service (Alexander, p17).
The subject of housing particular stands out. This is important to note that the path to freedom and home ownership resides in a form of freedom, but at a cost. The typical myth perpetuated by banks and lending institutions is that your success is defined by your job, family and owning a home. The government not only subsidized homes but also made it illegal based on race. While, on the surface, this was a great idea, but it ended up leading to the housing bubble and the crisis of sub-prime lending. Many of the jobs and industry associated with housing market contributed to the market crash.
The CRA, Community Reinvestment Act, forced banks to make loans in poor communities, loans that banks may otherwise reject as financially unsound. Under the CRA, banks must convince a set of bureaucracies that they are not engaging in discrimination, a charge that the act encourages any CRA-recognized community group to bring forward. Otherwise, any merger or expansion the bank’s attempt will likely be denied (Brook, 2003).
These high-risk subprime loans were coupled with lower risk loans. Soon the number of subprime loans outnumbered the safer loans (Demanyank, 2009). Once the bubble burst and the market collapsed, the government stepped in and saved the banks with billion-dollar bailouts. It was government intervention, not racism, which feed into the poverty cycle in the black communities.
Implications for professionals
There are numerous implications for the American public by creating and maintaining such a large prison population. The reasons are varied but not exclusive to racism as the only cause. It can be also argued that society has a need to create scapegoat problems on a particular class or race. The Romans used a goat, Aztecs projected their sins upon a human sacrifice, Germans used it in against the Jews in 1930’s, and the majority of drug crimes in the US blamed poor blacks in urban communities. Randall Kennedy suggests, that stereotypes and institutional racism because society needs a group to project its faults upon (Kennedy, 2003).
“The process in which the mechanisms of projection or displacement is utilized in forcing feelings of aggression, hostility, frustration, etc., upon another individual or group; the amount of the blame being unwarranted” (Mondofactor, 2012).
It is important for educators, professionals, and groups that use Alexander’s book, need to understand the historical context and mindset of the people and communities that enacted the laws and policies. The measuring stick of morality that is used in 2017 is not the same set of ideas that was used by people in the 1950’s or 1800’s. Alexander applies current morality to justify the reasoning of the strict laws in the past. Professionals also should know the suggestions presented can’t be applied to all racial or ethnic groups.
For example, on how Alexander’s concepts can’t be applied equally to all social groups is the belief of the social caste system in America. The Potato Famine of 1948 caused a massive wave of Irish immigrants to America. Upon arrival, the Irish were treated badly by the local and government. It wasn’t until the Irish started to move up and out of the lower tiers of the social caste; eventually, they were able to elevate their society as a whole. This has not been the case of the African-Americans in the United States. In the case of other minority groups, particular the ones that immigrated to the US the cycle typically went: initial immigration as an underclass, education of the few, and the educated returned to their communities and elevated the rest of their fellow community members. This pattern repeated with the Jewish, Irish, Italian and Chinese communities. The black communities were not so lucky with this successful pattern. As people became educated and segregation was ending many of the educated failed to return and create positive examples of role models for their communities (Arnesen, 2003).
By ignoring what has worked with other minority communities and only concentrating on what is wrong with the Justice system, the author limits the discussion to a few carefully controlled talking points. She blames the US government for all the problems. Furthermore, she lays all the faults of mass incarceration at the heels of racist lawmakers. The author fails to makes a case for the accomplishments that helped bring awareness to the institutional racism that individuals or groups responsible for this accomplishment. Alexander gives one explanation for the source of racism in America, pinning the problems on the social caste and government. The psychological, social and economic causes of individual racism are only briefly touched on.
Finally, this book is not applicable to various racial and minority groups that immigrated to America willingly because the African-Americans were forced into a system of slavery and bondage. Alexander’s book is not inclusive of all the problems faced by the African-American community. Although, it represents a starting point to begin discussion of what can be done on the local and state government level. There are numerous lawmakers that have used Alexander’s talking points presented as a focal point to ease back the harsh drug laws in the districts they represent (Schuessler, 2012).
Alexander uses the past to explain how the system of slavery only has changed in name, she doesn’t even mention the concept of double consciousnesses that is also associated with racism in its evolutionary form. W.E.B. Dubois described this concept as being a person that’s a both brilliant artist and uncultured beast.
“One feels his two-ness, An American, a Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder.” W.E.B Dubois.
It can be argued that the self imposed discrimination Dubois described could be an idea that the individual, in order to maintain their own identity would have to separate who they are and from what the public sees. This concept should be often challenged. Alexander suggests in this chapter, the Cruel Hand, which one must stand up to these institutions. What Alexander fails to elaborate on is, looking inward as Dubois did without self reflection, the oppressed will continued to be lost in the system.
References available on request
Dr. C. Cat (the one and only) is the first economic conservative cat blogger, and sometimes fiction writer. If you wish to donate to me, please send me all the tuna you have in the house. I would be sure to send back an empty can so it can recycled.