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For this paper, I intend to focus on Michelle Alexander’s award-winning book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which centers itself on the object of mass incarceration. Alexander’s stunning account of the American mass incarceration system pulls to the forefront the disproportionate amount of black men in the United States that are incarcerated compared to the number of white men behind bars, and moreover, the number of black men total in the United States. Throughout her research, Alexander utilizes both quantitative and qualitative analysis to draw up new evidence regarding mass incarceration and contemporary demographics, using historical context to curate an accurate image of the current state of incarceration in America and predictions on what the future will look like, given the contemporary reality that the evidence depicts. One item that should be mentioned on the title alone of this piece: Alexander’s book was published in 2010, during the first Obama administration and shortly after the election of America’s first black president. The idea of sociopolitical colorblindness suggested by the title has changed significantly in the wake of the 2016 election of President Trump and the racially charged campaign that led to his presidency. While tensions in race relations have become more apparent in very recent years, Alexander’s mention of colorblindness in 2010 should be interpreted as being quite prophetic.
Alexander opens The New Jim Crow by characterizing the then-new political landscape in 2010 as dangerously misleading in how the political ethos is championed for its supposed colorblindness. She describes leaving an election night party in 2008 after the historic election of President Obama, immediately struck upon her departure by the image of a black man “on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several police officers stood around him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence” (2). This image is one which reappears in haunting fashion throughout Alexander’s work, both in visual images, like this moment, and ones engrained in history and otherwise abstract statistics. They are brought to life through Alexander’s readings of what numbers mean as bodies, lives, and the communities who care for and are attached to those bodies and lives––living and dead, free and behind bars. In an age of colorblindness, Alexander suggests, discrimination rears its head in an even uglier fashion: if race is no longer a problem, then certainly no authority could be punishing individuals, even individuals of the same race, repeatedly, unfairly, because of their race… right?
The answer to this question, obviously, is a resounding no. However, the commonality of this argument is all too familiar to people belonging to racial minorities in the United States regarding punishment under the law. The New Jim Crow sets out to uncover the legacy of racialized punishment over generations, resulting in the same sociopolitical effects as written discriminatory code enacted prior to the civil rights legal accomplishments of the 1960s. Alexander describes these mutations over time as not having terminated the racial caste system in the United States, but rather, as having served to extend it in politically correct terminology so as to obfuscate the continued racial oppression of blacks and other minorities. Alexander identifies a major shift in the way blacks have been caste out of their social and political rights and participations that is not by way of Jim Crow, but by way of mass incarceration. An attorney herself, Alexander unwinds all the legal ways American society is legally permitted to discriminate against felons. “Once [felons] are released, they are often denied the right to vote, [and are] excluded from juries,” she notes, continuing to highlight that felons are additionally “legally denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African Americans were once forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era” (4). Alexander powerfully accounts this phenomenon as having recreated a racial caste in the United States which oppresses not only blacks, but other minorities as well.
Compared to other industrialized countries, even exceeding ones with repressive governments, Alexander states, the United States’ rate of incarceration has burst to an incredible 750 incarcerated per 100,000 people, a statistic that erupted alongside America’s War on Crime. “In less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase,” Alexander states (6). And while the surveys referenced by Alexander have shown that people of all races use drugs and sell them at similar rates, whites use and sell more so than people of any race in America. The incarcerated picture, however, looks a lot different than the base statistics. “In some states, black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men,” Alexander states, painting a portrait of an extreme racial disproportionality that not only incorrectly reflects the reality of the drug crisis in the United States, but visually and statistically skews it so that the general public is reinforced to believe that black men commit the majority of drug use and trafficking crime (7). Alexander hints to a pattern of Foucaultian biopolitics at play in the work of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs in the United States. The language of declared war on a substance, and not a people, was lost on its consequences in active policy and policing the general public. This language, combined with critical timing of declarative drug crises only served “to fuel conspiracy theories and general speculation in poor black communities that the War on Drugs was part of a genocidal plan by the government to destroy black people in the United States,” Alexander writes (5).
Minority communities were not altogether wrong in believing their own suspicions of the government. The subjectivity of mass incarceration is multifaceted in its punitive nature. “So long as large numbers of African Americans continue to be arrest and labeled drug criminals, they will continue to be relegated to a permanent second-class status upon their release,” Alexander states, noting the slippery temporality of having been once incarcerated, in that the current system never truly frees its prisoners (14). Alexander notes that observers of American history will see that racism is malleable over spatial and temporal periods. This ability, to evolve and adapt based on the political ethos of the time, is what another legal scholar, Reva Siegel calls “‘preservation through transformation,’ [or] the process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change” (21). The evolution of the structures which delineate the underclass, or secondary class citizenship relegated to blacks and other minorities through time, is exactly what makes them so impervious to social confrontation.
Alexander notes that the social structure of racial caste is maintained “largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of people who are understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy,” unknowingly participating in something of a racial bribe, fostered by the white elite (22). If lower class whites cannot band together with black Americans against the white property-owning elite, then the chances of political overthrow greatly diminish. The existence of this phenomenon is evidenced by the aftermath of the March 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in shortly before his assassination. “Shortly before his assassination, [King] envisioned bringing to Washington, D.C., thousands of the nation’s disadvantaged in an interracial alliance that embraced rural and ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans to demand jobs and income—the right to live,” Alexander asserts (39). This was to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, focusing on the inalienable intersections of civil and labor rights. It should not go unnoticed that King’s death came extremely close following his increased attention to the rights of laborers. During 1675, in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, white plantation owners saw the potential strength of poor white and black laborers converging against unfair laboring conditions. “Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them,” Alexander states, noting that, as a consequence, “the language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words slave or Negro were never used), but the document was built upon a compromise regarding the prevailing caste system” (25-26).
The legacy of such ambiguous language, built into the foundations of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, all of whom were white men, and many of whom owned slaves themselves, trickles into the continued reality of mass incarceration as the chief architect of continued racial subjugation today. “Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people,” Alexander says, getting to the point of the Jim Crow laws (34-35). Again, we see three converging factors duplicate over time through mutation: the object of the white elite, the multiracial poor, and the system devised between them to separate them in three parts by race, class, and therefore, caste. After the disbandment of Jim Crow, a newly transformed “race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments,” in which white conservatives “found they could install a new racial caste system without violating the law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever’” (40). It is this discursive tactic of language that makes it yet nearly impossible to challenge the issue of mass incarceration in the United States as an institution of racial oppression, without being labeled a social extremist or a political dissident seeking to arbitrarily villainize law enforcement.
The War on Drugs proved to exact a powerful effect on America’s white constituency moving into the 1970s and beyond. Pulling from the quantitative analyses of researchers Mark Peffley et. al, Frank Furstenberg, Stephen Earl Bennett and Alfred Turchfarber, Alexander delivers a powerful summary of white racial resentment in this moment of time:
Beginning in the 1970s, researchers found that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an important determinant of white support for ‘get tough on crime’ and anti-welfare measures. Among whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also tend to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are more punitive than blacks, despite the fact that blacks are far more likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are often the most punitive, even though they are least likely to be crime victims. (54)
These statistics are quite arresting when cross examined against the notion of white privilege that is somehow deserved. The idea of whites as belonging to a superior race, one that is more or less impervious to committing the majority of crime, especially violent crime and crime related to drug use and sale, is an utter fallacy. White privilege is extremely fragile when these beliefs are set against the stark contrast of reality. It is this fragility, held by whites, that demands the constant evolution of the terms and conditions by which blacks and other minorities are socio-politically and economically suppressed over multiple generations.
After the election of President H.W. Bush and the push again by white America for an even fiercer War on Drugs, and more broadly, crime, law enforcement budgets began to see drastic increases in funding. As they expanded, so did the numbers of black and minority prison populations. “In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of people behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in world history, and that one fourth of African American men were now under the control of the criminal justice system,” Alexander states (56). While this statistic reported something devastating to the subject of the civil rights in America, both Democrats and Republicans alike skirted around the issue with language of drugs and crime. Once again, the use of race-neutral verbiage eliminated any strong political confrontation of mass incarceration leading back to the longstanding issue of black oppression by a small political white elite, supported by an extremely defensive white electorate. “More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century, and millions more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society… where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and where they could be denied the right to vote,” Alexander assesses, briefing us once more on the continued temporal punishment of imprisonment long after an individual has been released from behind bars (58).
Furthermore, Alexander asserts: “Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaption to the needs and demands of the current political system” (58). She reminds us that two thirds of the increase in the federal inmate population are for drug offenses, and that “approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980—an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began” (60). Most of these arrests and those incarcerated are belonging to a racial minority. Additionally, most of these arrests are not serious offenses, and are not arrests of people at the heads of drug circulation in the United States. Instead of rehabbing these people, America chooses to arrest and imprison them. While President Trump recently declared illegal opioid use in the U.S. a health crisis, the same has not been said for the residents of communities addicted to crack cocaine. It is not so far of a jump in rationale to assume that, for American politicians and their white constituents, that the difference between a public health crisis and a crime problem is contingent on race.
In the 1970s, the period of time surrounding President Nixon’s declaration of America’s War on Drugs, “illegal drug use and abuse was not a pressing concern in most communities,” Alexander writes, noting an interesting push back from law enforcement agencies on the politically declared drug war (72). Because law enforcement agencies initially felt that the political focus on drug crimes served as a distraction of attention and resources from more serious cases “such as murder, rape, grand theft, and violent assault” the Reagan administration responded in 1988 by funneling “millions of dollars in federal aid” to those “state and local law enforcement agencies willing to wage the war” (73). After decades of shifting resources in the direction of law enforcement, officers gradually became more than willing to make arrests on behalf of the federal government’s consistent requests. “According to the Cato Institute, in 1997 alone, the Pentagon handed over more than 1.2 million pieces of military equipment to local police departments,” Alexander states, noting that the National Journal had published a report which showed “that between January 1997 and October 1999, the agency handled 3.4 million orders of Pentagon equipment from over eleven thousand domestic police agencies in all fifty states” (74). The use of SWAT teams and forced entries since the establishment of these funding trends to law enforcement recreated a culture of extreme threat and dominance within law enforcement agencies that reminds us of past injustices to black America. Now armed with military equipment and encouraged to use military tactics in SWAT drug raids, law enforcement became newly emboldened to use the same repressive and degrading tactics of law enforcement in Birmingham, Alabama during the 1963 civil rights protests.
Alexander reminds us that once a person has been imprisoned with a felony, even for a minor drug offense, they are excommunicated from any sense of normalcy regarding life in the United States. Barred from voting and jury duty, unable to collect any form of welfare to restart their lives again as free citizens, and forced to reveal their status as a felon to prospective employers, the formerly incarcerated becomes politically disempowered and socioeconomically disenfranchised. Because of this cyclical imprisonment in the context of broader society, she suggests, there should be no confusion as to why former prisoners often find themselves back behind bars time and time again after their initial arrest. “According to a Bureau of Justice Statistic study, about 30 percent of released prisoners in its sample were rearrested within six months of release. Within three years, nearly 68 percent were rearrested at least once for a new offense. Only a small minority are rearrested for violent crimes; the vast majority are rearrested for property offense, drug offenses, and offenses against the public order,” Alexander states (94). This cyclical phenomenon relegates drug offenders, especially black and minority offenders, to a second-class status that is undeniably imprisoning beyond the limitations of the physical imprisonment they completed as penance for their crime. While rural whites buy, use and sell drugs at a higher rate than any other racial group, law enforcement has been encouraged to target minority neighborhoods and the justice department to deliver stricter punishment on blacks and Latinos than whites by an extremely large margin. “Nevertheless, black men have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men,” Alexander reports, reminding her readers that the “gross racial disparities” seen through statistic like this “simply cannot be explained by rates of illegal drug activity among African Americans” and other minority groups regarding drug crimes (100).
Drug use as being contrary to law and order switched in the 1970s from being publically seen as a health crisis, and to a war on the people who used and therefore bought drugs, but increased its hold on the political ethos significantly during the mid-1980s. Alexander references findings in studies of television network news between 1990 and 1991 “which found that a predictable ‘us against them’ frame was used in the news stories, with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” caught in the debase cycle of drug use (105). This false narrative has permeated the white American consciousness so much so that even if a black perpetrator of drug crimes never exists in the retelling of a drug arrest story, white viewers and listeners will fill in the schematic imaginary gap to include the race of the perpetrator as being black. In the study Alexander references which suggests this, “60 percent of [television] viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American” (106). This evidence of fierce cognitive bias in white minds suggests that the media’s role in reinforcing falsehoods and stereotypes of black Americans and drugs is nearly undisputable in its relevance. Even if whites are consciously free from racial bias, implicit bias tests have proven multiple times over several generations that subconscious bias in white Americans often holds negative sentiments toward blacks and other minorities, drawing them closer to ideas of violence, drug crimes, and general hostility. In turn, these subconscious biases result in whites being overtly defensive and hostile to these racial groups. Combined with politically correct language obfuscating honest conversations about race, violence, and the object of mass incarceration, white resistance to critical reflections of privilege continue to stymy race relations in the United States.
Alexander suggests that “racially biased police discretion is key to understanding how the overwhelming majority of people who get swept into the criminal justice system in the War on Drugs turn out to be black or brown, even though the police adamantly deny that they engage in racial profiling” (123). They do so while actively targeting poor black urban communities over wealthy white suburban ones, because the police know their resources would be lost over a drug bust of a rich white suburban business owner’s son’s lawyer in court. Meanwhile, a poor young black man with no resources in the urban ghetto is likely only able to rely on his public defender, and will be counted as a legitimate arrest in the eyes of the law. Alexander calls on legal scholar David Cole’s observations of the court system to describe the challenging and unrewarding experience of black and minority defendants who challenge the court on its racial discrimination. “The barriers are so high that few lawsuits are even filed, notwithstanding shocking and indefensible racial disparities. Procedural hurdles, such as the ‘standing requirement,’ have made it virtually impossible to seek reform to law enforcement agencies through the judicial process, even when the policies or practices at issue are illegal or plainly discriminatory,” Alexander explains (128). She notes that there exist examples of court rulings that have rendered it almost impossible to challenge the court for being racially discriminatory, such as the ruling of Adolph Lyons v. the City of Los Angeles, in which after being put into a police chokehold, Lyons decided to sue the city for violating his constitutional rights, seeking to ban the chokehold. “The Court’s ruling in Lyons [made] it extremely difficult to challenge systemic race discrimination in law enforcement and obtain meaningful policy reform. For example, African Americans in Seattle who hope to end the Seattle police department’s discriminatory tactics through litigation would be required to prove that they plan to violate drugs laws,” and would therefore be expecting to come into contact with law enforcement again in their life, Alexander reports (129). The decisions of courts in cities across the United States have a profound impact on one another and can reinforce or weaken cases in other municipalities.
If the system of mass incarceration is so unbound to our current discussion of civil rights, and the court system is so firmly entrenched in previous rulings, how can we move forward in addressing these issues? Alexander suggests that our future as a country free of racial caste is bound in the fabric of colorblindness and our willingness, or unwillingness, to shatter stereotypes with truth. “Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind,” Alexander states (244). And if we are really serious about dismantling the systemic racial control of mass incarceration, then we must be serious about funding public defenders at the same level as prosecutors, legalizing marijuana, rescinding mandatory drug sentencing laws, adopting meaningful re-entry programs for felons, and retraining of these former prisoners so that they may “realistically reach for high-paying jobs and viable, rewarding career paths,” Alexander states (233). Our seriousness in solving the problems of institutionalized racism in the form of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs will manifest itself in the tangible action we take as individual members and collective groups. These reforms slowly chip away at the foundations of these racist systems through policy reassessment and active change. Gradually, as these reforms build in number and in scope, racial caste will change, not only because new policies have been enacted, but due in large part to the research and education it will require of legislators, reformers, and the general public to get to this place of racial equity under the law. If there is one thing Alexander believes, it is that continuing to have conservations under the colorblind language that currently dominates our political and social experience, will not get us there. We must be willing to strip away the veneer of a colorblind society and accept the damages of our past in order to move forward. The system is repairable, and as Alexander reminds us, “as King insisted forty years ago, ‘a radical restructuring of our society,’ then perhaps we can also agree that a radical structuring of our approach to racial justice advocacy is in order as well” (260).
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