Those brought forcibly to America for slavery are now forcibly carried away through imprisonment.
Two weeks ago I talked about how in my journey of sanctification I seem to be really working only on two or so deeply ingrained sins that seem to keep popping up in different ways. Just when I think I have gotten over it I find it sprouting up again: instead of the fruit of the Spirit, these are the weeds of the flesh, and they are hard to pull out.
Similarly is our societal problem of racism: just when we free those imported here from Africa from slavery then up comes Jim Crow laws; and just when that oppressive system is struck down through the Civil Rights Movement comes a new form of “colorblind” racism.
Just what this “colorblind” racism is and how it has come about is the subject of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Her conviction is that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (2).
Today I’m going to look at her compelling narrative (chapter 1) about the three stages or systems of racism in the US: Slavery, Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration.
The reality that demands explanation by citizen of the US is “the stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history” (8).
My brief summary here does not do justice to Alexander’s detailed and persuasive argument (I would let you know if I’m not persuaded).
In colonial America, laborers were needed to farm the land, and while we often think of the idyllic farmer and his wife tending their own plot on the frontier, most often it was indentured servants who worked for wealth landowners, especially in the southern colonies. These landed elite needed cheap labor to make their “New World” venture profitable back home.
The economic need of the elite eventually settled on the solution of slavery of Africans (because Native Americans were too wild (they tried) and the idea of enslaving fellow Europeans was not entertained). Racism (the pseudo-scientific and social belief that Africans were inferior humans) was utilized to justify slavery in light of what seemed to be a contradiction of the American claim of the freedom and equality for all (i.e. freedom and equality did not conflict with slavery because these enslaved people were not really equal and could not actually handle freedom). The social and psychological benefits of racism split the poor white workers from the enslaved black workers, ensuring that both groups would never unite and rebel against the economic elites. Racist ideology therefore did double duty in justifying the institution of slavery and in creating distance between poor white works and enslaved black workers who material lives were almost indistinguishable (classic move to divide and conquer the working class by the economic elites…something that is happening to this day, as we will see).
The economic needs of slavery created the psychological and social reality of “racism”. But the twist of history is that the “fiction” of racism as proved more durable than the “reality” of slavery, which did eventually come to an end in the US.
After the Civil War Reconstruction came the KKK Redemption campaign (historical term for reclaiming the South for whites) that effectively instituted post-slavery racial inferiority for African Americans. Vagrancy laws forced recently freed slaves to work their masters again (basically it was a crime not to have a job every day), and petty crime such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were harshly enforced against African Americans.
During this time, political conservatives, liberals, and radical populists sought out poor white swing votes by pandering to racist fears (again effectively splitting the poor working class so as to keep poor whites and blacks in their place, but now convincing the poor white class to do the dirty work of race policing). As William Julius Wilson notes, “As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them” (34) Again, those who would most benefit their own economic destinies by working together (poor whites/blacks) are split by racism, a perception of racial inferiority created to explain and sustain the economics of slavery.
And so Alexander says, “History seemed to repeat itself. Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion [a multi-racial rebellion against the plantation elites in 1675] by creating the institution of black slavery, another racial caste system was emerging nearly two centuries later, in part due to the efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people” (34).
After the Civil Rights Movement, overtly racist ideology could not be utilized within economic and political discourses to motivate policy. But this does not mean the sentiments disappeared from individuals nor that politicians stopped playing off racist fears for swing votes. Rather, through a linguistic mutation centering around the themes of law and order a new racist discourse developed: this was the “colorblind” emphasis on “crime” and “criminals”.
During the Civil Rights Movement political activists were cast as common criminals violating proper law and order. Segregation was cast as reasonable for sustaining law and order, a system now thrown into chaos.. Those opposed to the Civil Rights Movement attempted to criminalize those advocating for equal rights and equal access.
While the attempt to criminalize Civil Rights activists as a way of saving Jim Crow segregation ultimately failed, the focus only “law and order” by getting “tough on crime” became the blueprint for the next iteration of racial oppression.
In Congress and on the street, those who had previously cast a ballot for segregation (of housing, education, employment) would uniformly vote for strict crime policies that implicitly targeted black and brown populations.
Indeed, as has happened before, the poor white voter was split from the poor black voter under the guise of “getting tough on crime.” While conservative politicians are traditionally aligned with corporate interests and business elites, these conservative politicians could grab poor white votes by playing up racial violence and the need for getting tough on crime. A “colorblind” rhetoric aimed against crime (and those on welfare) was clearly understood to be directed at garnering white votes but impossible to prove as overly racist.
This “getting tough on crime” instituted through the “War on Drugs” (begun in the ‘80’s) is the reason the US incarcerates the highest percentage (by far) of its population of all countries, and why in the last 30 years our prison system has grown by 350%.
Once in place, “The system functioned relatively automatically, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identities, and ideologies already seemed natural. Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black and Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neural terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born” (58).
The actual mechanics of such a system of mass incarceration will be the themes of the next couple of chapters looking at the process of being arrested, the judicial process, and life after release. These will be the themes of later posts.
What do you think?
In my last post I asked these questions:
- Or, why does America have the largest incarceration rate of the “free world?
- Why is that when people of all racial backgrounds use and sell illegals drugs at a similar rate, that people of color are disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes?
- Why does America imprison a larger percentage of its black population the South Africa did at the height of apartheid?
Do you have other answers than the one that Alexander is aiming at?