The New Jim Crow, Chapter 5

Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow.  We’re rotating between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us.  Check out our posts on chapters one, two, three, and four.  This is my final contribution; Richard will wrap things up with his thoughts on chapter six.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessBorrowing the book’s title, chapter five provides a helpful overview of Michelle Alexander’s central argument – that mass incarceration today functions in a similar manner to the Jim Crow laws of a hundred years ago – while acknowledging the differences between the two systems.  In the author’s view, both systems are “structured to lock [those caught in the system] into a subordinate position.”  And it is African American men who, like their grandfathers, are disproportionately affected by Jim Crow’s latest iteration.

Alexander divides this insidious system into three parts: the roundup, formal control, and invisible punishment.  The roundup refers to the strange combination of laws that, as we’ve already seen, allows for massive racial profiling and disparity in the War on Drugs.  Formal conviction is the time drug offenders spend in prison which is more “than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.” Once released, ex-offenders face a series of laws that make reentering society incredibly difficult thus inflicting a secondary and invisible punishment.

Alexander chose my city, Chicago, to demonstrate how the system works.  Consider the following:

  • Despite roughly equal drug use among whites and blacks, “about 90% of those sentenced to prison for drug use in Illinois are African American.”
  • The total population of African American men with a felony conviction “is equivalent to 55% of the black adult male population and an astonishing 80% of the adult black male workforce in the Chicago area.”
  • In regional Chicago, those sent to prison for drug crimes annually “increased almost 2,000%” between 1985 and 2005.
  • Of 98 occupations that require a license in Illinois, “57 placed stipulations and/or restrictions on applicants with a criminal record.”
  • As in many other cities, in Chicago “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.”

“Whiteness mitigates crime, whereas blackness defines the criminal.”

While these statistics may seem as dramatic as they are disheartening, Alexander proves  there is nothing new under the sun by showing the parallels with mass incarceration and  other forms of the “racial caste system.”  To take but one example, mass incarceration, like its predecessors, defines “the meaning and significance of race in America.”  Under slavery being black meant to be a slavery while Jim Crow defined blackness as the mark of second-class citizenship.  And what does it mean to be black (especially a black man) in America today?  Tune into the local news most any night and the answer becomes clear: to be black is to be a criminal.

The tragic case of Trayvon Martin’s recent death is but the latest example of how this plays out in real time.  For those who experience this story as an anomaly witness the response by some of the graduate and undergraduate students at Howard University in their video, Am I Suspicious? Here is a group of intelligent and ambitious young men who are very aware of the deficient and debilitating stereotypes they will face regardless of their degrees and accomplishments.

Michelle Alexander has convinced me.  Undoubtedly there is more to be said and nuances that will be made by other students of our racialized society.  But until someone can demonstrate a credible alternative to the massive racial disparities in the mass incarceration system I’m not sure we’re left with another option.  How do we respond?  How do people of my Christian conviction respond?  How do those of us who are, seemingly, unaffected by the system respond?

The New Jim Crow, Chapter 3

Richard Johnson and I are blogging our way through The New Jim Crow.  We’re rotating between chapters, posting reflections and the questions this important book is raising for us.  Check out our posts on chapters one and two.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessSo far we’ve seen how Michelle Alexander examines America’s historic racial caste system and the way the War on Drugs has led to its current form: mass incarceration.  In the third chapter she turns her attention to our criminal justice system and shows how, despite what we may hope, justice is not (color) blind.

The chapter begins with a barrage of statistics: in 2000, African Americans make up 80-90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison in seven states; the level of African Americans imprisoned since the War on Drugs began in the 1980’s has increased twenty-six times in contrast to eight times for whites; three-fourths of people imprisoned for drug offenses are either black or Latino.

Why?  What is behind these statistics?  Alexander points out that there is “an official explanation for all of this: crime rates.”  This explanation is reinforced by a media narrative which portrays criminal activity – especially drug crime – as being dominated by non-white men.  Yet studies consistently show that it is white people who are more likely to use and deal drugs even while being far less likely to be arrested or convicted.

Here’s something else worth considering: many of us assume that incarceration rates are simply a result of tougher prosecution of violent crimes while, in fact, incarceration rates have risen irregardless of the rates of violent crime.  Drugs, not violence, is the primary reason for the dramatic increase of imprisoned men.  So, again, why are most of these men black (with an increasing percentage of Latinos)?

“It is difficult to imagine a system better designed to ensure that racial biases and stereotypes are given free rein- while at the same time appearing on the surface to be colorblind- than the one devised by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two more pieces must be in place before an answer becomes clear.  First, as the author points out, “Drug-law enforcement is unlike most other types of crimes.”  That is, while most crimes rely on someone calling for the police after a crime occurs, most drug crime, because of its consensual nature, requires a “far more proactive approach by law enforcement.”  The second piece is acknowledging the overwhelming perception among most Americans that the typical drug user is black.  Fed by media stereotypes, this perception is at odds with a reality where whites are often more likely to use drugs than blacks.

Put all of these pieces together and it becomes uncomfortably clear why the rates of incarceration are so skewed.  Alexander spends the rest of the chapter showing why these law enforcement tactics are almost impossible to challenge in court.  Examining case after case she shows how the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that racism must be explicit – for example, a written law enforcement policy – for it to have any bearing in a case.  Given what we’ve seen above, this will almost never be the case.  “The problem,” writes Alexander, “is that although race is rarely the sole reason for a stop and search, it is frequently a determinative reason.”  A reason, in other words, that is impossible to prove in court.

Seeing how complicit our legal system is with the current rates of incarceration is a hard pill to swallow.  As someone from the dominant culture I’ve known our courts are imperfect but have wanted to believe equal justice is available regardless of one’s race.  I no longer believe this to be true.

In his post about chapter two Richard helpfully pointed out the difference between the role of individuals and the role of systems when it comes to mass incarceration.  But acknowledging systemic racial injustice also makes this issue all the more overwhelming.  We’ll continue moving through this book in the coming weeks and I hope you’ll stick with us.  What is standing out to you?  I doubt the author is going to give us a lot of easy answers along the way; this is complicated and deeply rooted stuff.  Our first step is simply taking the time to understand the complexities and depth of a system that has ruined too many lives.

Will you read “The New Jim Crow” with us?

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a book that has rapidly become mandatory reading for anyone interested in issues of justice in America.  I’m just a chapter in and am already impressed by Michelle Alexander’s ability to paint a complicated picture with gripping clarity.

Pastor Rich Johnson of Sanctuary Columbus Church in Ohio is a friend and partner in multi-ethnic ministry.  Beginning in March he and I will begin blogging through this book and we’re inviting our readers to join us.  Would you consider borrowing our buying the book and participating in the conversation next month?

Whether or not you’ve even considered the topic of incarceration, I strongly believe you’ll appreciate this book and it’s many implications.  In the foreword, Dr. Cornel West writes,

Martin Luther King Jr. called for us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and vulnerable. The social movement fanned and fueled by this historic book is a democratic awakening that says we do care, that the racial caste system must be dismantled, that we need a revolution in our warped priorities, a transfer of power from oligarchs to the people—and that we are willing to live and die to make it so!

I hope you’ll pick up the book and join the discussion next month.