When the system of mass incarceration collapses …

            The is the final post in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month, drawn from Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

“When the system of mass incarceration collapses (and if history is any guide, it will), historians will undoubtedly look back and marvel that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system of racialized social control existed in the United States. How fascinating, they will likely say, that a drug war was waged almost exclusively against poor people of color—people already trapped in ghettos that lacked jobs and decent schools. They were rounded up by the millions, packed away in prison, and when released, they were stigmatized for life, denied the right to vote, and ushered into a world of discrimination.

            “Legally barred from employment, housing, and welfare benefits—and saddled with thousands of dollars of debt—these people were shamed and condemned for failing to hold together their families. They were chastised for succumbing to depression and anger, and blamed for landing back in prison. Historians will likely wonder how we could describe the new caste system as a system of crime control, when it is difficult to imagine a system better designed to create—rather than prevent—crime.” – Michelle Alexander  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

People who have been convicted of felonies are hard pressed to re-enter society. What is to become of the thousands of young black men in the country who “are given as little as $10 gate money” after leaving prison? Criminal records will follow them for life. Ex-offenders are banned from employment in many jobs and professional fields by licensing rules.

Funding for education is on the wane. Alexander suggests that this is due to expanding prison budgets and says that what she calls the “new caste system” has created a situation in the U.S. where “young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college.”

She says that while Jim Crow exploited African Americans, the War on Drugs and its attendant mass incarceration of black men marginalizes that segment of our population. Marginalization means that people are no longer of use to society so caging them and making money off prisons is one way to deal with them.

“In the era of colorblindness, it is not longer permissible to hate blacks,” she says. “But we can hate criminals.”

“Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what is means to be black.”

            “…the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.”   –W.E.B. DuBois                          

So what is to be done about this racial caste system, particularly since the collective perception in the U.S. does not allow for the thought that there is racism at work? Alexander says that solutions are beyond the scope of her book, but posits that there are ways to begin.

The first is dealing with “our collective denial” which creates “a major stumbling block to public understanding of the role of race in our society, and it sharply limits the opportunities for truly transformative collective action.”

While she does not disparage the efforts of civil rights advocates in striving for reforms in felon disenfranchisement laws, crack sentencing penalties and racial profiling by law enforcement, not enough strides have been made.

Era-of_Colorblindness            “If we become serious about dismantling the system of mass incarceration, we must end the War on Drugs,” she says. “There is no way around it…there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war.”

As important, she believes, is that there must be a change within the culture of law enforcement. “Black and brown people in ghetto communities must no longer be viewed as the designated enemy, and ghetto communities must no longer be treated like occupied zones.”

Her list further includes:

  • Rescinding mandatory drug sentencing laws
  • Legalizing marijuana
  • Adopting meaningful re-entry programs
  • Retraining prison workers
  • Investing in drug treatment on demand
  • Reversing laws that cause discrimination against drug offenders for the rest of their lives

“There is a tremendous amount of work to be done,” cautions Alexander, warning that, “All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus.”

She quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. when, in 1965 he described why it was more important to spearhead mass mobilization rather than lawsuits. He said, “We are trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases.”

Image courtesy of Friends of Justice
Image courtesy of Friends of Justice

Alexander says that, “The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others.”

And, once again, we must listen to Dr. King’s words. He is still enlightening us: “It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.”


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