'The New Jim Crow'
Author contends legal system is most pressing racial issue
We’ve all heard the sad statistics before and wondered about the future of our community; with so many men and women incarcerated. For years, conspiracy theorists have pointed to the same statistics and claimed that people of color are purposefully targeted and how the prison system is akin to the old Jim Crow system.
“For a long time I resisted the comparison,” author Michelle Alexander said. “I thought people who made those kinds of claims were doing more harm than good.
“What a difference a decade makes,” she added. “It’s odd in retrospect that I had been blind to it for so long.”
Alexander once worked in the justice system, serving as a law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the United States Supreme Court. Tuesday night she was introduced at a meeting as a “Comrade in the struggle of civil rights for former prisoners.”
More than 100 people gathered in Phoenix Hall at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee to ask Alexander about her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Once very much a part of the criminal system, Alexander now has stints as director of the Racial Justice Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California on her resume. She also now holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.
“This legal system is operating in a manner analogous to Jim Crow,” she said. “It’s the most pressing racial justice issue of our time.
“If you believe you would have marched with Martin Luther King against Jim Crow, you ought to be marching today.”
There are more African American men under correctional control today (jails, prisons, probation and parole) than were enslaved in 1850. And now the numbers of Black women and girls in the system are on the rise.
“A slave child had a better chance to be raised by both parents than a child born today,” Alexander said. “That’s due in large part to the mass incarceration of Black men.”
In her book, Alexander briefly traces the history of racism in America and how African Americans have been controlled—first through the institution of slavery, then upon its rebirth as Jim Crow laws, and now its revision as the “war on drugs; which is being waged almost exclusively in the ‘hood and by branding our fathers, brothers and sons as felons.”
Consequently, they now live under a permanent second-class status.
The former litigator writes: “Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion—transition—when 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.”
The war on drugs, Alexander contends, was purposefully instituted by the Regan administration to appease racists. In the meantime, it has created unemployment, division, blame and shame in poor communities of color.
During her work with the ACLU, Alexander represented doctors, teachers and veterans who had been stopped by the police and had their cars torn apart in unreasonable searches. Like other community organizations, the ACLU did not put real criminals in front of media cameras, only those viewed as good, respectable citizens done wrong.
Now the author sees that this was not the right tactic.
“It reinforced the notion that it is OK to treat criminals that way, but not these folks,” she said.
“We need to admit our criminality,” Alexander explained. “If you’ve reached adulthood in America, odds are you are a criminal.”
Think about it. Have you ever done illegal drugs or driven over the speed limit? You’ve put lives in danger. Some of the worst mistakes we’ve made in our lives are not really prohibited by law, but have maybe violated trust in relationships, Alexander said. Even our president has admitted past drug use.
“If Barack Obama hadn’t been raised by White grandparents in Hawaii; if he was in the ‘hood, he probably would be cycling in and out of the prison system too,” Alexander said.
“Many of us have been insulated and protected from the system,” she added, noting how we should view ex-offenders. “We have to say there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
According to Alexander, the only ways out of this new Jim Crow existence is to first get rid of the stigma and shame associated with jail time by raising the consciousness of the community. Then, safe places, like churches, community centers and schools must be created to provide ex-offenders the much-needed support they need. Finally, the community must wake up and be empowered and not rely on the criminal justice system to change itself.
“We have to engage in organizing and union-building,” she said. “After Brown vs. the Board of Education, nothing happened for 10 years. It took a mass movement to make change.”
“This system is not going to go down without a major upheaval,” Alexander added. “We need education, not incarceration; jobs, not jails.”
With two weeks left in the national campaign season and the political balance of Congress on the line, voters are going to have to make some gut-wretching, nose-holding choices this November. Including myself. Now that President Obama is out on the campaign trail, and the issues become more clear as the spotlight is put more on him than on partisan commercial ads, we can be literally assured that gridlock will be returning to Washington, if the Republicans takeover the House.
On November 2, California voters will go to the polls to determine, if the nation has shifted from the “yes, we can” rhetoric of the Obama campaign to the “no you cannot” bombast of the Tea Party, according to political analysts.
This election is particularly poignant for African Americans, because it will determine the nation’s direction on job creation and significant health care reform, these analysts say. Blacks have higher unemployment rates and less access to health care than many other groups.
Our Constitution offers us “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but we can’t pursue anything if we are unhealthy.
Yet, health disparities in the United States are a fact of life. African American people have shorter lives than Whites for three reasons. One has to do with income and poverty. Poor people (and 27 percent of African Americans are poor, compared to about 10 percent of Whites) have less money and less access, often having to make a choice between medical treatment and food to eat, prescription drugs and rent.
It’s not difficult to understand why Romney made the comments he made at his fundraiser in Florida.
He most likely got his buzzwords confused. His reference was to those who had been characterized as lazy, shiftless, and always looking for a handout. You don’t have to be a literary genius to figure that one out.
In late September the “nonpartisan” website Real Clear Politics (realclearpolitics.com) reported that President Barack Obama leads Republican nominee Mitt Romney in several battleground states. According to the polls, President Obama leads by 5.2 percent in Ohio, 4.5 percent in Virginia, 4.2 percent in Nevada, 4 percent in Iowa, and 3 percent in Florida.
Do we believe the polls? I’m not so sure. But I surely don’t believe these polls should alter an aggressive effort to re-elect this Democratic president.