24 November 2014

Whereas most traditional historical narratives say that Jim Crow was dismantled by the modern day civil rights movement, Michelle Alexander argues otherwise in The New Jim Crow. She posits that the denial of citizenship for African Americas was the plan of the Founding Fathers, and subsequent generations of Americans have found new ways to ensure the survival of that plan. The mass incarceration of black men is the current chosen method by which America continues this practice; indeed, Alexander says it has become the “new racial caste system.”

Alexander, a civil rights attorney, says she came to this conclusion slowly and reluctantly. Like many thinking people, she blamed the problems of the poor on structural issues such as poverty, a lack of education and job skills and lingering racial discrimination. But as she began to study the criminal justice system, she changed her position. The power structure in the post-Reconstruction south used the criminal justice system to ensure the social control of blacks by using Black Codes, vagrancy laws and labor contracts; according to Alexander, the current power structure used America’s fear of black criminals and the War on Drugs to accomplish the same thing.

Ronald Reagan, the Republican presidential candidate in 1980, recognized that the blatant use of racism in politics was no longer smart; he became a master at using colorblind, but racially coded words such as welfare, crime, and drugs to win over white voters, many of whom were convinced that blacks and civil rights were the sources of all their problems. By cracking down on the use and sale of drugs, the federal government could look tough on crime and placate whites.

Moreover, the drug war of the 1980s coincided with the virtual disappearance of well paying factory jobs that had been the mainstay of the black community. Many of the unemployed turned to selling drugs, especially crack cocaine. Crime spiraled in these communities, and crack became Public Enemy Number One. Nineteen eighty six was the apogee of the War on Drugs. The federal government required the military to assist in the War on Drugs and allowed the death penalty for some drug related crimes; the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed and allowed much more draconian sentences for the use and sale of crack cocaine than that of powder cocaine. On the face of it, the law appeared to be race neutral; the chemical structure of crack and powder cocaine are virtually the same. The difference is that crack is more often used by blacks, and powder cocaine is used primarily by whites. This meant that thousands more blacks than whites were arrested on drug related charges.

It is the justice system that labels people as criminals, and because arrest and incarceration rates are disproportionately high in the African American community, it is the black community which is most affected by this label. “As a criminal you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.” Once released from prison, offenders are subjected to another type of prison, that of being labeled a convicted felon. This label means the offender may be barred from joining the military or participating in federally-funded programs, such as student loans or public housing; excluded from jury duty and permanently lose the rights to drive and vote. He will find it virtually impossible to find even the most menial job and housing, both of which are generally requirements for probation. The mass incarceration of black men has also destabilized once thriving black communities and ensured that generations of blacks have been stripped of the most fundamental rights of American citizens.

Alexander, a former Soros Justice Fellow and law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, has written a thoughtful and thought provoking treatise on race, justice, and how so called color blind laws are merely Jim Crow in a different guise.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By Michelle Alexander
The New Press
228 pages, Notes, Index

------------------------ Dr. Marilyn K. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She is an associate professor in the Department of Humanities at Columbus State Community College. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.