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Black History Month, day 15

Michelle Alexander’s recent book, The New Jim Crow, picks up the tale told by Slavery By Another Name. As she writes in her eloquent opening paragraph:

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises—the freedom to vote for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life. Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

She goes on to write, “An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout most of American history.” Today’s disenfranchisement of African American men has come about through a system that is formally color-blind: the criminal justice system.

In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind [with Jim Crow]. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.

And the new criminals–almost ten times as many as there were before the “war on drugs” was declared–are disproportionately black. Here are some things I thought before I heard Alexander speak last November, and what I now believe to be the truth.

What I thought before: black people use and sell drugs at a rate disproportionate to their numbers in the population. Sure, there’s racism in the criminal justice system, but one reason the prison population is disproportionately black is that African-Americans commit a large percentage of crime.

What I think now: black and white people use and sell drugs at about the same rate.  The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports of its studies of secondary-school students: “Contrary to popular assumption, at
all three grade levels African-American students have substantially lower rates of use of most licit and illicit drugs than do Whites. These include any illicit drug use, most of the specific illicit drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.” (Monitoring the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings, 2006) “Contrary to popular assumption” has to be the biggest understatement of the year. Why was this report not the top story of every newspaper in the country?

What I thought before: the “war on drugs” was declared because drug use was on the rise. It’s misconceived, but we had to do something about all that crack.

What I think now: drug-related crimes were falling when Reagan declared the war on drugs in 1982. The word “crack” was barely known–it certainly was not a media buzzword, or an epidemic of black neighborhoods.

What I thought before: the penal population has gone up somewhat over my lifetime.

What I think now: In the past thirty years, the population in the penal system has not risen gradually or modestly, but rocketed from 300,000 to over 2,000,000.

What I thought before: the United States’s  high rate of imprisonment is due at least in part to its having a higher crime rate than other countries.

What I think now: “Between 1960 and 1990 . . . official crime rates in Finland, Germany, and the United States were close to identical. Yet the U.S. incarceration rate quadrupled, the Finnish rate fell by 60 percent, and the German rate was stable in that period” (7). We don’t have a higher crime rate–we just deal with crime via much higher rates of incarceration.

What I thought before: Racism is present in the criminal justice system, the way it is present everywhere. It’s a problem that concerns me, but calling it the equivalent of Jim Crow is nothing more than a rhetorical flourish.

What I think now: The criminal justice system has been pressed into the service of an agenda that has changed form over the years but has not diminished: the social control of racial minorities, especially African-Americans. The means was once Jim Crow; now it is mass incarceration, which is truly, not just rhetorically, the new Jim Crow.

I’m devouring this book, even though every bite burns going down. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you get a chance to see Michelle Alexander in person, don’t miss it; her presentation was riveting.

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