I’ve just read the best book on racism in the U.S. in decades. It is The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. Alexander is a former attorney. She has a gift for amassing crucial detail, weaving into a brisk narrative, but not cutting corners. She used to be a litigator. From her book, I’ve deduced that one of her techniques in court must have been to let the evidence speak for itself when it is overwhelming.
I hope I don’t mangle her thesis too much as I paraphrase it. It is foregrounded by a sketch of American history, which includes (of course) slavery, followed briefly by Reconstruction, followed immediately by the era of Redeemers, white folks who wanted to “redeem” society. We all know about the KKK and white terrorism and Jim Crow, as well as de facto Jim Crow in the North, which affected housing and schools, etc. Two keys to Jim Crow were disenfranchisement and using the law to retain de facto slavery. That is, on a massive scale, white folks would have Black men, especially, arrested on any pretext, sent to prison, but then “hired” out as workers, with no pay. Alexander documents this beautifully.
Fast-forward to 1980 and the Rise of Reagan. She documents how Reagan and his regime invented a war on drugs out of whole cloth. They deployed a massive PR program, even, to scare (white) people and link the “war” to Nixon’s “law and order” schtick. In the PR program, drugs were linked almost exclusively to Black people. Enforcement was federalized and militarized. Do you remember a time when most cities and towns didn’t have a SWAT team? Me, too. Now everybody has a SWAT team, and through various means such teams and other local law-enforcement are linked to the FEDs. The same thing has happened with the “war on terror,” of course. Reagan’s Feds leaned heavily on state and local officials to join “the war on drugs”–or else.
Results: About half of all Black men in the U.S. are either in prison or declared felons or both. That’s right. About half. And guess what? Black folks are no more likely to use or sell drugs than White folks. Alexander has the data. A vast percentage of the people in prison are in there for possessing drugs–and not for sale. And often just weed. Add the extreme sentencing-guidelines, including the 3-strikes law, and the picture gets worse. Alexander also demonstrates, again with data, that the U.S. imprisons more ethnic minorities than either Russia or China.
Basically, Jim Crow went underground–or hid in plain sight: at least as White folks are concerned. White folks have been conditioned to associate drug-use with Black and Brown folks, to be indifferent to Draconian drug-laws and drug-sentences, and to be indifferent to the erosion of the 4th and 8th amendments. Alexander demonstrates that illegal search and seizure is a thing of the past–especially for Black and Brown folks. Police routinely stop people and ask if they may search them. Few people have the confidence or wherewithal to say, as they should, “No.” Of course, add in the Patriot Act, and the 4th amendment is moot.
Alexander further argues that the election of Barack Obama is more of an irony than a milestone, and that Black “exceptionalism” has always been a tool of White bigotry and indifference. “See–he made something of himself, and we voted for him! How can you say racism persists?”
Of course, none of this is news to most Black folks. They live under these conditions. Of course, a majority of White folks will resist the arguments because they need the myth of a nation that has gotten better and better, that has made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a hero with his own Washington monument (in white, ironically).
Interestingly, Alexander argues that indifference, not bigotry, is the main issue. If the police harassed White folks and broke into their homes under the weakest of pretenses proportionally to the way they do with Black and Brown folks, all these issues would converge into an emergency. I’ve never been stopped for driving while White. I’ve never–never–met an adult Black man who hasn’t been stopped for driving while Black.
If you react fiercely against these arguments, that’s fine. In fact, this means there is no argument, in the sense that Alexander or I or anyone else is unlikely to change your minds. So it goes.
If you respond skeptically, all the better. That is, in fact, where Alexander began. She was skeptical of the pattern that seemed to be emerging as she studied the problem.
If you’re comfortable with the prison population jumping from 300,000 (1970) to over 2 million (today); if you’re comfortable with prisons being filled mostly with Black and Brown folk; if you’re comfortable with half of Black men being felons and thus disenfranchised, excluded from housing and employment programs, and essentially doomed; if you think the U.S. has made “a lot of progress” in race; if you think we live in a color-blind society–well, you’re among a large majority.
If you think these conditions are scandalous, alarming, and wrong, please read the book. Or if you don’t want to or can’t afford to buy the book just yet, google Michelle Alexander on Youtube, and catch a summary of her argument.