Friday, July 15, 2016

Thoughts on The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Thoughts on The New Jim Crow: Thoughts on Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, The New Press, NY, NY. 2012

This book puts forth the startling idea that the current system of criminal justice and imprisonment is but the third manifestation of an intentional strategy designed by American elites to maintain over all white supremacy and maintain a ready supply of cheap labor, as well as maintain an on-going hostility between working class whites and African Americans who might otherwise make common cause. There is nothing startling about the idea that slavery, and then segregation, were consciously designed strategies to accomplish these and other economic, social, and political goals, but many people who regard themselves as well-informed would be surprised at the idea that a system akin to slavery and segregation is still operating in the United States and still causing the same kind of misery, suffering, and division as those former, and more blatantly evil, institutions. 

Put oversimply, this author points out the obvious fact that convicted felons, even after release, are discriminated against legally, economically, socially, and politically, just as aspiring black voters were stigmatized in the segregated south, and slaves before them. The chief instrument for this mass disenfranchisement, Michelle Armstrong argues, has been the “War on Drugs”, a systematic network of policies that has resulted in an increase in the U.S. penal population exploding from “around 300,000 to more than 2 million” since the mid-1980’s, so that the “United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates in nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran…[and] the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”
To some, the argument advanced here will lack cogency if it is seen as comparing apples to oranges. It may be argued that segregation and slavery were imposed on Black people, whose only alternatives were to move to places in the north where segregation was less institutionalized, or, in the case of slavery, to buy one’s freedom or run away. The effects of the new Jim Crow, however, can be at least somewhat deflected by choosing to abstain from the use of illegal drugs. Gains in the American civil rights movement occurred when the public could no longer ignore the injustice of police power in the south being used to prevent Black church people from registering to vote. The same empathy is less engaged by young black males convicted of using drugs.   
As Alexander points out, however, “studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates” yet white youth are far less likely to serve time in prison for their drug use. This is true for a host of reasons, none of which involve less strength of character on the part of black youth. Alexander’s thesis is that the architects of the New Jim Crow have hit upon the ideal mechanism for maintaining their new system of de facto white supremacy, trading on the fears of middle class people both white and black, and directing government and other resources away from health care, economic development, and recovery programs used by other countries to address drug abuse. Instead, resources are directed toward the construction of new and larger prisons, and increasingly, subcontracting their operation to for-profit corporations that have every motive for resisting any effort that might reduce the number of customers in the criminal justice pipeline.

I have not yet reached the place in Alexander’s book where she makes specific proposals. I assume she will advocate an end to the “War on Drugs” and a change in mandatory sentencing, the drastic expansion of prisons, and their privatization. But, as Michelle Alexander is quoted by Cornel West in his Foreword, “It is [a] failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of social control and every racial caste system that has existed…”.
Even among those who may take issue with aspects of Michelle Alexander’s analysis, it is hard to see how The New Jim Crow will not result in a shift toward away from na├»ve unexamined assumptions, self-serving rationalizations, and a pervasive “failure to care”.