Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Jarvius Cotton cannot vote.  Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy . . . Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave.  His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote.  His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation.  His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests.  Today, Jarvius Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

So starts Michelle Alexanders condemning book about how our criminal justice system inherits the racism started with slavery, continuing through Jim Crow, persisting through desegregation, and rebirthed as the War on Drugs.

Alexander's narrative runs like this: following the success of the civil rights movement and desegregation, public intellectuals committed to a discourse of colorblindness.  This effectively killed overt racism.  Racism, however, did not end; it became covert.  Thus, for example, Kevin Phillips, Republican strategist, noted the following lessons from Nixon's successful presidential bid:
Nixon's successful presidential election campaign could point the way toward long-term political realignment and the building of a new Republican majority, if Republicans continued to campaign primarily on the basis of racial issues, using coded antiblack rhetoric.  He argued that Southern white Democrats had become so angered and alienated by the Democratic Party's support for civil rights reforms, such as desegregation and busing, that those voters could be easily persuaded to switch parties if those racial resentments could be maintained.
Enter the War on Drugs.  Reagan took advantage of pre-existing fears of black, urban, drug-crazed youths by promising a crackdown (pun intended) on crime.  The Republicans, thus, were able to take advantage of hidden racial tensions.  To keep this racial tension alive, the federal government poured funds into the War on Drugs, and its ugly brother, Mass Incarceration. Unsurprisingly, this disproportionately affects African-Americans.  See also Crack-Cocaine Disparity.

Alexander also explains how civil rights activists were complicit in this shift.  As Republicans embraced a colorblind, anti-crime rhetoric, liberals focused on social policies like affirmative action and equal employment opportunities.  Activists were not willing (or able, arguably) to fight for "criminals" while they were focusing on more deserving individuals (e.g., hard-working and upward socially mobile minority members).

Think the War on Drugs is not racist?  Non-minority Americans use drugs as often as black Americans, Alexander counters.  Yet, she continues, law enforcement targets neighborhoods full of minorities.  Stop-and-frisk does not occur on college campuses (despite that they are warrens of illegal alcohol and drug consumption).  (Try the experiment I tried with myself: ask yourself how many of your non-minority friends have broken the law; now ask yourself how many of them have been stop-and-frisked.)

Nor is the problem of mass incarceration limited to minorities actually in prison.  The collateral consequences of a felony conviction has created a caste system.  For example: there are 2.3 million people in prison in the U.S; another 5.1 million are under some form of "community supervision" (i.e., parole or probation).  And felons cannot vote.  This a community of people who, by law, have fewer rights than everyone else.  One might reply, "But they did something to deserve this."  Perhaps. I find such rationalization difficult to accept in light of radical, disparate impact the criminal justice system has on minorities.

But this book is not merely a history.  In fact, it is a two-pronged call to action:  (1) we need to acknowledge the racial origins of today's prison industrial complex and (2) we need to reform the system.

There are quite a few barriers to reform.  Of course, the population involved is itself a barrier--voters do not love convicted felons.  They love recidivist felons even less.  Another barrier is the vested economic interests: "Rich and powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons.  They are deeply interested in expanding the market--increasing the supply of prisoners--not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit."

I'm only starting to dip my toes into the universe of criminal justice reading (see, e.g.Don't Shoot), but this book strikes me as essential reading.  Even if you want to disagree with Alexander's points, the book synthesizes a great deal of the academic literature and presents important challenges to how we currently operate our criminal justice system.  So: essential reading for anyone interested in criminology; good reading for anyone generally interested in crime, racism, or history of slavery/civil rights movement.

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