Early in her courageous and important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), Michelle Alexander offers a poignant reflection from the evening of November 4, 2008:
“As an African American woman, with three young children who will never know a world in which a black man could not be president of the United States, I was beyond thrilled on election night. Yet when I walked out of the election night party, full of hope and enthusiasm, I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New Jim Crow. A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several polices officers stood around talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence. People poured out of the building: many stared for a moment at the black man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze. What did the election of Barack Obama means for him?”
Good question. Consider the following cold facts from the officially “colorblind” United States, self-proclaimed homeland and headquarters of global “freedom”:
* The U.S. has by far and away the world’s highest incarceration rate (750 per 100,000, compared to 93 per 100,000 in, for example, Germany), “dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country” and “surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran” (Michelle Alexander).
The people incarcerated and marked by prison histories and criminal records in the world’s leading penal state (the U.S.) are very disproportionately black and male:
* 1 in every 14 black U.S. black men was imprisoned in 2001, compared with 1 in 106 white men.
* 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars in 2006 and a much larger percentage was under parole, probation or some other form of penal control.
* The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than did South Africa at the pinnacle of apartheid.
* In Washington D.C., home now to the nation’s first black president, 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prisons. In the city’s poorest neighborhoods and across the many highly segregated black urban ghettoes that persist across (not-so) “post-racial” America, similar incarceration rates and expectations prevail and time behind bars has become “normative” for young black males in other predominantly black communities across the country.
* On any given day, nearly a third (30 percent) of black males ages 20 to 29 is under some form of correctional supervision.
* Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall U.S. population but account for more than 45 percent of the nation’s prisoners.
* One in three black U.S. adult males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record.
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander is not content merely to add the nation’s prison and the broader criminal justice system to the register of things that racial justice advocates need to talk about and act against. The problem goes deeper. “Mass incarceration – not attacks on affirmative action or lax civil rights enforcement – is,” she writes, “the single most damaging manifestation” of racial oppression in the U.S. today. It is no small or collateral problem. Seen as not merely imprisonment but as “the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminal both in and out of prison,” the “New Jim Crow” is “a new system of racialized social control” that “purports to be colorblind” even as it “creates and maintains racial hierarchy much as earlier systems of control did,” working to “ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”
“‘New Jim Crow’ – is she serious? Didn’t we just elect a black man to the presidency?” I can almost hear and see my conservative relatives and no small number of my liberal campus-town neighbors asking these questions with incredulous looks on their faces. Can a nation that just put a black family in the White House really have a powerful new anti-black racial caste system?” Yes, it can, Alexander answers, arguing that we have no ended racial caste in the U.S.: we have redesigned it. To be sure, in the current era, it is no longer permissible to discriminate, exclude, and condemn people explicitly on the basis of race. Still, it is perfectly legal, common, and customary to discriminate against people with criminal records in nearly all the same ways that it once considered appropriate and lawful to discriminate against blacks. “Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge,” Alexander notes, “that racism is highly adaptable.” Racial cast has been killed and then reborn again in new forms throughout that history, she shows. In the current, officially (and deceptively) “colorblind” era (whose illusory post-racial gloss is naturally fed potently by the election of Obama), much of the core substance of the old discrimination – objectively racist bias in the job market, housing, finance, public welfare, voting rights and more – is born again and rendered legal and “normal” once millions of blacks are labeled as felons.
Alexander’s argument is deftly developed over six highly readable and richly informed chapters that: review the historical record of racialized social control in North American history from the colonial era through the present (Chapter 1); describe the fundamentally racist structure and operation of the officially “colorblind” contemporary U.S. drug war and mass imprisonment system (Chapters 2 and 3); detail how the new caste system operates on its black victims once they are released (on all too temporary a bases in many cases) from prison (Chapter 4); draw direct historical parallels between the old and the “new” Jim Crow (Chapter 5); and show how and why only a major new social movement (one that among other things “talks [candidly] about race” and “resists the temptation of colorblind advocacy”) can under the new caste order (Chapter 6).
Much to her credit, Ms. Alexander (herself a very successful black law professor and political commentator) understands the very big and real difference between the meaning of the Obama ascendancy (a symbolically powerful color-change in the nation’s and indeed the world’s top elective office) and what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for again and again in the last years of his life: “the radical reconstruction of society itself” through a mass democratic social movement that transcended the quadrennial big money candidate- centered electoral extravaganzas that pass for the only politics that matter among many Americans today.
I have already gone past my 1000-word limit for this introduction. This is a shame for I could praise and reflect on this book practically at book length myself. I’ll save some further thoughts and questions for what I’m sure will be a lively and informative discussion.
Paul Street and the author of many articles and books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (forthcoming this summer); Racial Oppression in the Global Metriopolis: A Living Black Chicago History and Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics . Street is a regular contributor to ZNet, Z Magazine and Black Agenda Report.