Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population (see ACLU infographic at the bottom of this bl0g).

Several weeks ago, the Jackson County Public Library hosted a screening of Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot for the 50 year anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Those who marched were demanding their right to vote. Those who marched were demanding that their fellow Americans had rights equal to theirs. It was when I watched this documentary produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center that I realized much of my understanding of America’s civil rights era was static–stuck in the 1960s. That didn’t last long. Selma:The Bridge to the Ballot began to bear striking similarities to the current social climate in which we all live now. I had become part of a truly frightening thing–history forgotten on the old dusty textbook pages–then that very same history is once again repeating itself–right under my nose. When history is treated like a cyclical, dynamic, and multidimensional entity, current events can be seen through a lens that is not only more holistic in understanding but also vital to our understanding of justice, freedom, and equality. Justice, freedom, and equality granted to all citizens of the United States…not just a few. So, I ask myself, are all citizens of the United States equal? They should be. But not even on paper are we all equal.

Consider the police shootings of black men, a nation that is arguably as divided now as in the times of the Civil War, and the sobering reminder that racism is still alive, well, and thriving in the land of the free. Michelle Alexander aims her eagle focus on the incarceration situation in the United States. She directly links mass incarceration and our prison booms to inherent, insidious racism that pervades various institutions that were set in place to protect its citizens.

Leading up to the march from Selma to Montgomery, several oppressive institutions specifically in the south, were stifled, reformulated, and renamed in order to keep current with federal legislation such as Emancipation, Desegregation, Civil Rights, etc. In her book titled The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander takes the reader on a journey through the lives of Africans brought as slaves and indentured servants to the Americas, their fight for dignity, human and civil rights, their triumphs, their tragedies. She focuses her keen eye on the issue of mass incarceration of specifically black men (although she does acknowledge that the issue of mass incarceration is facing men and women, black and brown in this country).

Alexander starts her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by explaining social caste, the concept of race and how it began, white supremacy and how it justified and propelled the European slaughter and brutalization of American Indians and Africans (and later freed African American citizens). In the quote below, Alexander explains how both caste and class are understood and negotiated in the mind of America:

“We avoid talking about caste in our society because we are ashamed of our racial history. We also avoid talking about race. we even avoid talking about class. Conversations about class are resisted in part because there is a tendency to imagine that one’s class reflects upon one’s character. What is key to America’s understanding of class is the persistent belief–despite all evidence to the contrary–that anyone, with proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole” (13).

In the quote above, Michelle Alexander gets down to the root of upward mobility in society and how it is possible for some and extremely difficult and unlikely for others. She explains that this misconception informs many people’s understanding of certain classes not as locked in and static, but somehow able to overcome the restrictions of class and caste. Below, she breaks down race in the United States much like she does class and caste:

“The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery–as well as the extermination of American Indians–with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

“In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and black struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as ‘the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.’ Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land” (23).

So now she explains why race is so important in our society–our country. Race is something that shaped our country for good or ill, and that’s why Alexander urges that we simply cannot live under the false understanding that we are, in fact, in a colorblind society. Simply by understanding that most black people are here because they were brought in chains as servants and slaves, many of them and their ancestors and their descendants (still) perishing under awful circumstances, one cannot assume that we all have equal opportunities in this society. Below, Alexander explains the dehumanization phenomenon that occurs when already slave-powered imperialism and demand upon land and labor meets indigenous populations:

“The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European ‘progress,’ and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologist Kelly Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating ‘savages’ is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race–uncivilized savages–thus providing justification for the extermination of native peoples” (23).

She then explains the trajectory that imperialism, slavery, and racism takes on–ultimately leading to the ideology of white supremacy:

“The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America is born” (25).

Emancipation was soon passed. The plantation economy was in shambles in the South. Poor whites began to see themselves better than their newly “freed” black neighbors, because, the few rights poor whites possessed were still much more. After the Emancipation, the economy was in shambles. Alexander explains: “Even among poor whites, the collapse of slavery was a bitter pill. In the antebellum South, the lowliest white person at least possessed his or her own skin–a badge of superiority over even the most skilled slave or prosperous free African American” (27).

But once Emancipation was enacted, the same story plays over again, just by a different name. Vague laws were created and vehemently enforced, creating an inmate population that led to “convict leasing,” a program that put convicted blacks on a bidding block for private bidders looking for labor:

“Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as ‘mischief’ and ‘insulting gestures’ as crimes were enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release” (31).

Through convict leasing programs, slavery was reborn–just under a different name. There were high death rates for the prisoners as well as no means to pay off debts. The private bidders who “bought” the laborers were even less invested in the laborers than slave owners were about their slaves, according to Alexander.

She goes on to explain that the harsh punishments for insignificant “crimes” resulted in the first of many prison booms in the U.S. The boom was mostly made up of young black males, resulting in what Alexander calls a new caste. An undercaste.

In the 1880s and 1890s, the Populist party gained momentum when they began to try and unite people among class lines rather than racial ones. After the populist party gained much speed and support by insisting that poor whites and blacks unite and demand social justice together, conservatives and liberals alike were alarmed. Conservatives saw this boom for the populist party as a reason to drive a wedge between poor whites and blacks again:

“Segregation laws were proposed as part of a deliberate effort to drive a wedge between poor whites and African Americans. These discriminatory barriers were designed to encourage lower class whites to retain a sense of superiority over blacks, making it far less likely that they would sustain interracial political alliances aimed at toppling the white elite. The laws were, in effect, another racial bribe. As William Julius Wilson has noted, ‘as long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them’’’ (37).

“The general public generally traces the death of Jim Crow (era) to Brown v. Board of Education, although the institution was showing signs of weakness years before. By 1945, a growing number of whites in the North had concluded that the Jim Crow system would have to be modified, if not entirely overthrown. The consensus was due to a number of factors including the increased political power of the blacks due to migration to the North, and the growing membership and influence of the NAACP, particularly its highly successful legal campaign challenging Jim Crow laws in federal courts.

“Far more important in the view of many scholars, however, is the influence of WWII. The blatant contradiction between the country’s opposition to the crimes of the Third Reich against European Jews and the continued existence of a racial caste system in the United States was proving embarrassing, severely damaged the nation’s credibility as leader of the ‘free world.’ There was also increased concern that, without greater equality for African Americans, blacks would become susceptible to communist influence, given Russia’s commitment to both racial and economic equality. In Gunmar Myrdal’s highly influential book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, Myrdal made a passionate plea for integration based on the theory that the inherent contradiction between the ‘American Creed’ of freedom and equality and the treatment of African Americans was not only immoral and profoundly unjust, but was also against the economic and foreign interests of the U.S.” (38).

After the Civil Rights Movement garnered support and success with the help of JFK and LBJ, Alexander explains that this moment of triumph was short lived. Just like in the past, slavery by a new name was emerging: “With the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the launching of the Poor People’s Movement, it was apparent to all that a major disruption in the nation’s racial equilibrium had occurred. Yet as we shall see below, Negroes stood only a ‘brief moment in the sun.’ Conservative whites began, once again, to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time. This process took place with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it would have to be formally race-neutral–it could not involve explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination. A similar phenomenon had followed slavery and Reconstruction, as white elites struggled to define a new racial order with the understanding that whatever the new order would be, it could not include slavery. Jim Crow eventually replaced slavery, but now it too had died, and it was unclear what might take its place. Barred by law from invoking race explicitly, those committed to racial hierarchy were forced to search for new means of achieving their goals according to the new rules of American democracy” (40).

It is here that Alexander explains what she means by “new Jim Crow.”

“For more than a decade–from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s–conservatives systematically and strategically linked opposition to civil rights legislation to calls for law and order, arguing that Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy of civil disobedience was a leading cause of crime. Civil rights protests were frequently depicted as criminal rather than political in nature, and federal courts were accused of excessive ‘lenience’ toward lawlessness, thereby contributing to the spread of crime. In the words of then–vice president Richard Nixon, the increasing crime rate ‘can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them.’ Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime, citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary.

“Some segregationists went further, insisting that integration causes crime citing lower crime rates in Southern states as evidence that segregation was necessary. Unfortunately, at the same time civil rights were being identified as a threat to law and order, the FBI was reporting fairly dramatic increases in the national crime rate. Beginning in the 1960s, crime rates rose in the United States for a period of about ten years. Reported street crime quadrupled and homicide rates nearly doubled. Despite significant controversy over the accuracy of crime statistics during this period (the FBI’s method of tracking crime was changing), sociologists and criminologists agree that crime did rise, in some categories quite sharply. The reasons for the crime wave are complex but can be explained in large part by the rise of the ‘baby boom’ generation–the spike in the number of young men in the fifteen-to-twenty-four age group, which historically has been responsible for most crimes. The surge of young men in the population was occurring at precisely the same time that unemployment rates for black men were rising sharply, but the economic and demographic factors contributing to rising crime were not explored in the media. Instead, crime reports were sensationalized and offered as further evidence of the breakdown in lawfulness, morality, and social stability in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement”  (40-41).

Throughout this book, as you can see, there are worlds of knowledge regarding our current social state. Below is an infographic by the ACLU explaining the mass incarceration age in America. Alexander explains how laws like “three strikes you’re out” and mandatory sentencing, racial profiling, and more has led to the new Jim Crow era. Black men experience much harsher sentencing for minor drug crimes compared to white men. This is not a political issue that divides us among party lines. This is a humanitarian issue that must be treated like any other Human Rights issue across the globe. massincarceration_20110617_0

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