Monday, March 22, 2010

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander has written an interesting and powerful book, The New Jim Crow. It is an examination and analysis of the disproportionate representation of African-Americans in what has become our country's industrial incarceration complex.

Ms. Alexander is a civil rights advocate and litigator who holds a joint appointment with Ohio State's Moritz College of Law and Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. She was formerly director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California and director of the Civil Rights Clinic and a faculty member at her alma mater, Stanford Law School. She also clerked for Supreme Court Justice Blackmun.

Her exceptional work chronicles the emergence of the 'tough on crime' stance of the Republican Party, which resulted in tougher prison sentences for possessions of crack cocaine than powdered cocaine. The 'marketing campaign of the Reagan Administration which targeted African-Americans as 'the problem', when, in fact, crime was declining - all in an effort to draw poor and anxious white voters from the Democratic Party during in the aftermath of the passage of Civil Rights legislation.

Ms. Alexander doesn't spare the Democratic Party, though. She cites their complicity through their strategies to retain white voters by showing themselves equally tough on crime, by enacting policies which stripped formerly incarcerated non-violent drug offenders of citizenship rights, resulting in a new form of Jim Crow, relegating blacks, Hispanics and even poor whites to a caste system of second class citizenship.

Consider the following:

"*There are more African Americans under correctional control today -- in prison or jail, on probation or parole -- than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste -- not class, caste -- permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era."

"The uncomfortable truth, however, is that crime rates do not explain the sudden and dramatic mass incarceration of African Americans during the past 30 years. Crime rates have fluctuated over the last few decades -- they are currently at historical lows -- but imprisonment rates have consistently soared. Quintupled, in fact. And the vast majority of that increase is due to the War on Drugs. Drug offenses alone account for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population, and more than half of the increase in the state prison population."

"The drug war has been brutal -- complete with SWAT teams, tanks, bazookas, grenade launchers, and sweeps of entire neighborhoods -- but those who live in white communities have little clue to the devastation wrought. This war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies indicate that white youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug dealing than black youth. Any notion that drug use among African Americans is more severe or dangerous is belied by the data. White youth, for example, have about three times the number of drug-related visits to the emergency room as their African American counterparts."

"That is not what you would guess, though, when entering our nation’s prisons and jails, overflowing as they are with black and brown drug offenders. In some states, African Americans comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison."

"This is the point at which I am typically interrupted and reminded that black men have higher rates of violent crime. That’s why the drug war is waged in poor communities of color and not middle-class suburbs. Drug warriors are trying to get rid of those drug kingpins and violent offenders who make ghetto communities a living hell. It has nothing to do with race; it’s all about violent crime."

"Again, not so. President Ronald Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, when drug crime was declining, not rising. From the outset, the war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s White House Chief of Staff: “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”"

"Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove that they could be even tougher on the dark-skinned pariahs. In President Bill Clinton’s boastful words, “I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.” The facts bear him out. Clinton’s “tough on crime” policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the “New Democrats” championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps, for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, economic, and social life is now perfectly legal, if you’ve been labeled a felon."

I don't know anyone who denies that drugs are one of the many problems in the black community, or that drug related crime is a problem. But I also know that the overwhelming loss of human capital due to the disproportionate cripples our nation, and those who suggest that this over representation of black men in our nation's criminal justice system is evidence of a predisposition toward crime make an illogical argument that just doesn't bear up to either facts or logic.

My work with the wrongfully convicted also shows, that just because you're in prison, doesn't mean that you're guilty.

Michelle Alexander's book deserves attention - and the issue she covers in her book, The New Jim Crow, calls for corrective action.


Anonymous said...

"A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers."

Are you saying they were married prior to prison? Seems to me that there is a cultural problem here. I have heard that many of the issues you mentioned were brought about as a result of LBJ's " Great Society" and the massive expansion of the welfare state.

Gerald Britt said...

No, you don't have a cultural problem. It is not only ridiculous, its insulting as well as bigoted to suggest that a people are predisposed to criminal behavior. We're that the case, the sheer number of whites compared to any other people in this country would have to be considered more violent and lawless than any other people by virtue of the fact that they were a majority for so long.

The 'Great Society' theory falls on its face with any kind of objective reading of history. LBJ's failure at social change was brought about by trying to fund the Viet Nam war AND the Great Society initiatives at the same time.