America has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of the world’s inmates. They are fathers, brothers, sons, mothers, sisters, wives. They are people, not statistics. They are members of our community.
So much for the land of the free.
How has a country that prides itself in valuing Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness come to this point? The problems society faces today did not suddenly appear from thin air.
Michelle Alexander’s detailed exploration into mass incarceration in contemporary society goes back to the founding of our constitution and argues that, where it counts, nothing about our ideology surrounding race has changed.
When our country was just starting to crawl along as an English territory, not all Blacks were slaves. Many came to the US on “equal” grounds with poor whites and together they served as the bottom rung of the social ladder as indentured servants – cheap labor for the elite.
As tensions rose between classes and Black and White workers alike began to strike back, powerful planters began importing slaves from Africa. These people, unfamiliar with English language and culture were less likely to align with poor white workers. Additionally, the planter class “deliberately and strategically…extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves” (Alexander).
“The concept of race is a relatively recent development…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”
-Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
White supremacy justified enslaving Africans and targeting non-whites as more English immigrants flooded the shores of America.
Our country’s Founders built systemic racism into America’s social structure. Black men were counted as 3/5 of a white man, and the only reason any worth was assigned was to give slaveholders more voting power.
No human dignity for all here, sorry.
Even once slavery was abolished, a new system was developed to maintain a racialized caste in America. Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws, and now Mass Incarceration resulting from the War on Drugs have all been different iterations of the same racist ideology that keeps the elite in power and divides the middle and lower class to prevent any actions that might take away from the extreme wealth of the 1%.
For those who remain skeptical, I understand the hesitation. The claims I am backing here challenge deep-seated beliefs about America and what our country represents. And it is hard to hear, let alone actually engage with and consider claims that shake the core of our beliefs. (For some poignant and impactful comedy, take a look at this comic about what happens when our core beliefs are confronted).
Before this semester, I would have willingly agreed with anyone who told me that America had made substantial progress in creating policies to promote equal opportunities for every American to pursue a worthwhile life.
Reading The New Jim Crow and watching the powerful documentary 13th have radically altered my perspective.
A large part of me still wants to believe that we are a land of equal opportunity (but what is equal anyway?). The optimistic side of me wants to believe that we can become a land that truly values all human lives, where a person does not have to struggle to establish their worth. But to do this, we need to stop addressing the surface level issues and look into the root of the problem.
Surface level –
The War on Drugs has led to mass incarceration of millions of (many innocent) Americans. Young black men have been targetted in disproportionate numbers.
We blame a failing economy and industrialization for pushing more and more young urban dwellers to turn to drugs as a means of income. And for many, this is a reality. In 1960 it was a reality for Allan Jones who watched drugs sweep into his neighborhood, saw violence and crime spike and found his way into dealing cocaine before getting out of the city (The Rat that Got Away). For a band of kids in the Bronx and Harlem who ran a drug ring selling cocaine, drugs were a part of everyday life (The Cocaine Kids). For Jihad, drugs meant a way to fund a college education, at least until he went to prison (Street Life).
How do we respond? If you’re a white victim, you may go to jail, then wind up in rehab, or police seem to ignore the drug use almost entirely. If you’re a minority, American culture often blames your race for the rise of drug abuse, asks why you as an individual weren’t more responsible, and lays the full force of the penal system on you, sometimes locking you away for life for non-violent crimes.
Digging Deeper –
How we got here –
Both Michelle Alexander and 13th argue that the “War on Drugs” began as a rhetorical strategy to increase spending on drug policies. Although the public emphasis was on cracking down on dealers and users, under Jerome Jaffee there was an increase of public health response programs including maintenance dosing to help those struggling with addiction.
Public perception of a drug problem is influenced by media portrayals, which in turn is influenced by police action (Omori, Moral Panics and Morality Policy). Between 1980 and 2007, the number of people housed in our jails went from 300,000 to over 7 million; that is 1 in every 31 adults who are in prison, on probation, or parole (Alexander).
“Convictions for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States…Nothing has contributed more to the mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.”
Under Reagan, the War on Drugs turned from rhetoric to a guised attack on minority communities in the US. The documentary 13th shows policy advisors to Reagan admitting to crafting policies in a way that allowed for systematic discrimination and imprisonment of minorities, young black men in particular. Up until President Obama, each presidency became an attempt for political parties to prove that they would be ‘tough on drugs’ leading to increasing crackdowns, and punitive legislation including mandatory minimums and 3-strikes clauses which eliminate a judge’s ability to exercise any discretion in a case; ironic considering there are few to no checks on police discretion – (Alexander).
Nothing significant has been done to change the system. Some remain optimistic that legalization of marijuana can cut down on rates of incarceration since arrests for weed have accounted for almost 80% of the increase in arrest rates in the 1990’s. But this does nothing to acknowledge the issue is in a country that calls itself colorblind, and yet is structured in a way that creates a racial caste. To date, we have done little to dismantle this caste, only reshaped it when public outcries of injustice ring loud enough — or corporate interests get involved.
After all, with new technology that improves probation surveillance, the private prison industry stands to make a buck from shifting the focus of business from housing people to monitoring them. If this shift actualizes, at we can feel good about letting more people out of jail on “good behavior”…
Jenn Michelle Pedini of VirginiaNORML noted that one of her goals in lobbying for marijuana legalization is to ensure that the new laws are not written in a way to benefit a select few. It is easy for those in power to make laws that they see as beneficial and forget the needs of those lacking representation. Because convicted felons loose the right to vote, they lose the opportunity to have any meaningful say in shaping future policies. Not only are they invisible while in prison, they are muted once they get out, cast aside and rejected by society.
“A new social consensus must be forged about race and the role of race in defining the basic structure of our society if we hope ever to abolish the New Jim Crow. This new consensus must begin with dialogue, a conversation that fosters critical consciousness, a key prerequisite to effective social action”
-Alexander, The New Jim Crow
The conversation needs to take place between people within the community. Dr. David Starks points out that we need to do away with the notion of colorblindness. We need ‘Messengers’ – like Jihad – those who have lived the experience and can connect with those in and out of the community to build understanding, sympathy, humanize those who we lump into categories and view as statistics.
And that is only a fraction of the work to be done if any change is to come. And so, I leave off my journal with one final thought from Michelle Alexander:
“Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy. Fully commiting to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of ‘all of us’ will require a major reconsideration of priorities, staffing, stragegies, and messages. Egos, competing agendas, career goals, and inertia may get in the way…If civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed ot the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation wiill be led by those who know best the brutality of th enew caste system–a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old gaurd can muster.”