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Review: The New Jim Crow

In her book The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michelle Alexander asserts that in an age of color blindness the racialization and oppression of African-Americans continues uninhibited by the actions of civil rights advocates. She builds her case by recounting how plantation owners created social control over slaves. She says they began by using a combination of slaves and indentured servants, but later shifted toward African black slaves who did not understand English to help increase control over them. In addition she contends that former white servants were shifted into becoming employees overseeing black slaves. Ultimately her contention is that this practice created division among African slaves and poor whites.

Plantation owners secured their power and influence after the collapse of slavery in southern states by enacting laws to control freed slaves i.e. vagrancy, convict laws, and segregation. This, Michelle contends, enabled plantation owners to secure slaves through new means. Eventually states jumped in and began forming convict labor work groups to work on behalf of the state. When states began labor groups, the prison population increased, and convicts became younger and blacker. Michelle surmises that a populist move to unite people based on improving their economic conditions was derailed by a political strategy that created division between African-Americans and poor white people. The move was effective in winning votes and securing Nixon’s presidency in a predominately Democrat region. That move, writes Michelle, paved the way for returning to a Jim Crow culture.

The implication is that politicians have replaced the plantation owners of the slave day era. She accuses politicians in their grasp for power of preying on the fears of white people and making them willing participants in the oppression of African-Americans. Their fears called for the building of a justice system to inflict undue injustice on African-Americans. Politicians did not stop there. They employed methods to divide the African-American population as well. African-Americans, responding out of fear for their own safety, voiced support for massive and extensive incarceration of African-American males. The community was torn between keeping their communities safe or keeping their youth incarcerated. The laws ensured their support by enacting punitive action toward the parents and grandparents of law breakers. The punishments were harsh and the incarcerations were unduly long. Michelle builds her case for charging our color blind society with the new and improved Jim Crow. 

The mass incarceration of African-Americans has taken place in the public eye. That it has taken place in such a public way and that we need a book to call our attention to this matter points to our own unhealthy moral condition. It reveals a moral flaw in our societal norms. We can too easily rationalize that it is their sin and not our deeply held beliefs about African-Americans that have landed them in prison en masse. The truth is that if we used the punishment of crimes committed by African-Americans as a yard stick for retributive justice, the punishment dealt out to white criminals would fall short. In the case of African-Americans justice has not been color blind—it has been wrathfully and fiercely inflicted by a society that has not embraced them. The hard part of reading Michelle’s book is that the charges at first appear bizarre, like another conspiracy theory. However, as I read it I began to understand how a complicated system was put in place without rigorous and contentious dialogue. Operating out of fear, people put laws in place to protect them from the fears they envisioned. In the end those fears became self-fulfilling prophesies that only served to strengthen and increase new fears. The fear of African-Americans and now the fear of immigrants lead us down the path of protecting our own interests by punishing those we fear.  

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Hawk]

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