Swans Commentary » swans.com June 6, 2011  



Blinded By Jim Crow


by Michael Barker





(Swans - June 6, 2011)   In the present era of corporate democracy we shouldn't be too surprised to discover that Jim Crow is born again, this time disguising its brutal face beneath a discursive veil of justice. As George Orwell might have put it, war is peace, and freedom is prison; thus the incarceration bonanza of poor black folk that masquerades in public as "The Drug War" in reality stands for institutionalized racism by another name. This subject is the focus of Michelle Alexander's important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), a study that concludes that far from erasing the legitimacy of racial caste in America, political elites have merely redesigned it. Overt racism is no longer considered polite in many circles, and so it has been replaced by "covert" racism, bolstered by a powerful legal system of social control. As Alexander observes, "Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind." In fact, she argues, the "widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial." (1)

With deep-seated racism now driven far into the abyss of the purportedly colorblind criminal justice system the author herself -- who prior to her political awakening "spent most of [her] waking hours fighting for justice" -- acknowledges that she had failed to notice "that a new racial caste system was operating" in the United States. Alexander actually notes that some ten years previously, while she served as the director of the Racial Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Northern California, she had dismissed the idea that "The Drug War Is The New Jim Crow" as radical and crazy. Yet by the time she left the ACLU, she had "come to suspect" that she might have been wrong, and soon realized "that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." (2)

Of course, "people who have been incarcerated rarely have difficulty identifying the parallels between these systems of social control." On the other hand, many of those...

...who have viewed that world from a comfortable distance -- yet sympathize with the plight of the so-called underclass -- tend to interpret the experience of those caught up in the criminal justice system primarily through the lens of popularized social science, attributing the staggering increase in incarceration rates in communities of color to the predictable, though unfortunate, consequences of poverty, racial segregation, unequal educational opportunities, and the presumed realities of the drug market, including the mistaken belief that most drug dealers are black or brown. (pp.4-5)

Again it makes sense that those people who don't have to live and breathe the nightmare that is the drug war have little understanding of it, especially given the central role that the media fulfills in "educating" such comfortable others about the targets of this war. Thus it is a common, albeit false, belief that many people "assume the War on Drugs was launched in response to the crisis caused by crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods." What remains unsaid is that this drug war was actually launched by President Ronald Reagan in 1982; that is, "before crack became an issue in the media or a crisis in poor black neighborhoods." A few years later crack use did however surge, and in 1985 the government "hired staff to publicize the emergence of crack cocaine in 1985 as part of a strategic effort to build public and legislative support for the war." The media then manufactured consent for these warmongering policymakers, and the escalation of the war against people of color proceeded apace. (3)

Considering there was no major drug problem when the drug war was launched, the Reagan administration initially encountered "resistance within law enforcement" bodies -- resistance that was quickly overcome through bribery (i.e., making "[h]uge cash grants" available "to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority"). But to implement such a viscous "law and order" campaign, the war still needed to resonate with some elements of the white populous. Therefore, as "a disproportionate share of the costs of integration and racial equality had been borne by lower- and lower-middle-class whites," the corporate media helped harness this discontent to a conservative backlash that targeted the publicly visible "affluent white liberals who were pressing the legal claims of blacks and other minorities." (4)

Less than thirty years after the launch of this race war, the results (as intended) are devastating, and "the U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase."

The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation's capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America. (pp.6-7)

As this racist attack on freedom is primarily due to "harsh sentencing," not rising crime rates, reducing the length of prison sentences might seem to be an obvious solution. "That view, however, is mistaken," argues Alexander, as this new racial caste system "depends on the prison label, not prison time."

Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the moment you are branded a felon. Most people branded felons, in fact, are not sentenced to prison. As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million people under "community correctional supervision" -- i.e., on probation or parole. Merely reducing prison terms does not have a major impact on the majority of people in the system. It is the badge of inferiority the felony record -- that relegates people for their entire lives, to second class status. (5)

One might add that during the overt violence of the Jim Crow years, blacks could at least obtain solidarity and support within their communities, but tragically the New Jim Crow caste system of incarceration promotes "severe isolation, distrust, and alienation." "Remarkably," Alexander adds, "even in communities devastated by mass incarceration, many people struggling to cope with the stigma of imprisonment have no idea that their neighbors are struggling with the same grief, shame, and isolation." Such disempowerment is hardly conducive to developing the strong grassroots movements that will be necessary to overthrow this system of injustice. This makes it all the more critical to recognize both the similarities and differences between the New Jim Crow and its predecessors. As if "we fail to appreciate the differences, we will be hindered in our ability to meet the challenges created by the current moment." (6)

Alexander suggests that some of the apparent differences between yesteryear and today are clear red herrings. For example, although Jim Crow was considered to be "explicitly race-based, whereas mass incarceration is not," she points out that Jim Crow also incorporated a number of "key policies [that] were officially colorblind"; while "[l]aws that said nothing about race operated to discriminate because those charged with enforcement were granted tremendous discretion, and they exercised that discretion in a highly discriminatory manner." The same selective implementation of race-neutral laws prohibiting the use and sale of drugs likewise serves to reinforce the new racial caste system. (7) As Alexander explains:

Race plays a major role -- indeed, a defining role -- in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility -- a feature it actually shares with its predecessors. (p.198)

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which is the hostile nature of the mainstream media to progressive causes -- civil rights groups have failed to incorporate such knowledge into their organizing strategies. Instead there remains a tendency to highlight extreme cases of explicit racism that ring true with the shocking acts associated with the Jim Crow era. Reinforcing such stereotypical images of racist violence, of course, "make[s] it easy to forget that [in the past] many wonderful, goodhearted white people who were generous to others, respectful of their neighbors, and even kind to their black maids, gardeners, or shoe shiners -- and wished them well -- nevertheless went to the polls and voted for racial segregation." This problematic promotion of organizing helps explain why the corporate media was quite happy to rally behind the Jena 6 supporters, as with the nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree this was a clear-cut case of Jim Crow justice. "Ironically," Alexander argues, "it was precisely this framing that ensured that the events in Jena would not actually launch a 'new civil rights movement.'" (8) So while one might "forgive -- if not excuse" the general public for not addressing the ongoing existence of the New Jim Crow, Alexander suggests that:

The awkward silence of the civil rights community, however, is more problematic. If something akin to a racial caste system truly exists, why has the civil rights community been so slow to acknowledge it? Indeed, how could civil rights organizations, some of which are larger and better funded than at any point in American history, have allowed this human rights nightmare to occur on their watch? (p.211)

She acknowledges, of course, that far from being indifferent to the advent of the New Jim Crow era, "civil rights advocates have launched important reform efforts" to combat racism, but says "what is most striking about the civil rights community's response to the mass incarceration of people of color is the relative quiet." Here Alexander counsels that it is counterproductive to blame civil rights groups for this tragic shortcoming, and instead notes that we should seek to understand "why the response to mass incarceration has been so constrained." (9) Part of this problem, she suggests, has resulted from the shift away from grassroots organizing being a primary focus of civil rights campaigns, a development that owes much to what she refers to as the mythology of "the centrality of litigation to racial justice struggles." This is an important point that she expands upon in some depth, as:

The success of the brilliant legal crusade that led to Brown v. Board of Education has created a widespread perception that civil rights lawyers are the most important players in racial justice advocacy. This image was enhanced following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965, when civil rights lawyers became embroiled in highly visible and controversial efforts to end hiring discrimination, create affirmative action plans, and enforce school desegregation orders. As public attention shifted from the streets to the courtroom, the extraordinary grassroots movement that made civil rights legislation possible faded from public view. The lawyers took over. (p.213)

Much like other social movements that came to fruition in the 1960s, most notably the environmental movement, "With all deliberate speed, civil rights organizations became 'professionalized' and increasingly disconnected from the communities they claimed to represent." The development of this problem, however, was not without its critics and Alexander cites an important article published in 1976 by former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Derrick Bell in the Yale Law Journal. (10) Thus in many ways Alexander's book restates an age-old problem, and she writes:

Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and as civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve -- i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. (p.214)

In addition to overcoming this debilitating fixation on litigation, Alexander points out that if civil rights campaigners are to provide a robust challenge to mass incarceration they must turn over a new leaf and begin to defend all criminals, not just those on death row. Undertaking such defense cases certainly does not play out well in the media and so "outside of the death penalty arena, civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to leap to the defense of accused criminals." (11)

Advocates have found they are most successful when they draw attention to certain types of black people (those who are easily understood by mainstream whites as "good" and "respectable") and tell certain types of stories about them. Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. (pp.214-5)

Telling such cleansed stories for white audiences will not, however, provide the basis for challenging the New Jim Crow. Indeed, the current system of mass incarceration already possesses massive political and economic momentum, and this caste system "will not be overthrown by isolated victories in legislatures or courtrooms." For example, even if we wanted to return to the rate of incarceration of the 1970s, "we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today." The solution that Alexander proposes is vigorous grassroots activism, as opposed to the filing of lawsuits, and I couldn't agree more. This was exactly the strategy that Martin Luther King proposed in 1965, because he recognized that "it was a flawed public consensus -- not merely flawed policy -- that was at the root of racial oppression." (12)

In more recent years, which have admittedly brought a few much-needed reforms to the criminal justice system, Alexander states that while it is tempting to say that we should challenge mass incarceration "on purely race-neutral grounds," this deadly bait should not be taken. "To begin with," she points out, "it is extremely unlikely that a strategy based purely on costs, crime rates, and the wisdom of drug treatment will get us back even to the troubling incarceration rates of the 1970s." And while it may sound nice in principle, colorblindness is more likely the problem rather than the solution, as callous colorblindness "has proved catastrophic for African Americans." In opposition to such faux solutions there needs to be a "commitment to color consciousness, [which] by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences." (13)

Yet colorblindness is not the only affliction constraining the launch of a meaningful civil rights movement in the United States. This is because much like the law enforcement agencies that were bribed by the government to play along with their drug war, Alexander suggests that racial justice advocates need to consider "whether affirmative action -- as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice." This is not to say that she does not recognize the benefits gained by affirmative action programs, but just that these programs were likely gained "in exchange for the abandonment of a more radical movement that promised to alter the nation's economic and social structure." (14) Furthermore, affirmative action has not only diverted much needed resources from other more challenging activism, but Alexander demonstrates that a "more sinister consequence" has arose as well, as...

...the carefully engineered appearance of great racial progress strengthens the "colorblind" public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life. In other words, affirmative action helps to make the emergence of a new racial caste system seem implausible. (pp.234-5)

Yet the adoption of legislative tactics that embody such harmful colorblind affirmative action policies are still popular today (especially in the liberal funding community) precisely because they defuse potential threats to the capitalist injustice. Thus contrary to the abundant evidence that contradicts the success of such tactics, "the existing hierarchy [within the civil rights movement] disciplines newcomers [who are more 'easily co-opted'], requiring them to exercise power in the same old ways and play by the same old rules in order to survive." It is precisely in this way that racial inequality has become institutionalized into a racial caste system -- with the "old guard" of civil rights advocates apparently firmly "trapped... in an outdated paradigm." (15) However, while I agree with Alexander that the commitment of this old guard of activists to social justice is commendable (if often naïve and regularly misinformed), they, much like the police enforcement agencies, have nevertheless secured a deadly pact with capitalism -- but this time with Capital's liberal enforcers/philanthropists.

Rather than blame individual activist organizations for their shortcomings, it is far more fruitful to underline the co-optive role that liberal foundations have played in facilitating the collapse of Jim Crow and the institutionalization of the New Jim Crow. Yet, given the fact that Alexander wrote her book with the aid of a Justice Fellowship from George Soros's Open Society Institute, this issue is not something on which I would necessarily expect her to explicitly focus. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that in the past, immensely powerful philanthropic bodies like the Ford Foundation have played a key role in co-opting the Civil Rights Movement, while at the same time having the foresight to finance critical scholarship -- like Derrick Bell's groundbreaking (though oft-ignored) study that problematized the professionalization of civil rights advocacy (see footnote #10). (16)

First and foremost, it is important to remember that liberal foundations are primarily concerned with maintaining the capitalist status quo, not with challenging deep-seated racial inequities that might threaten the accumulation of capital. During the late stages of the Civil Rights Movement, when the litigation boom occurred, capitalism's interests were certainly in safe hands, as the president of the Ford Foundation was McGeorge Bundy (1966-79). I say this because, as former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader James Foreman recalled in his autobiography:

After the call for Black Power had become popular in the United States and other countries, McGeorge Bundy, former National Security Advisor under the late President John F. Kennedy, called a meeting at the Ford Foundation in New York City of twenty or more Black leaders. At that time McGeorge Bundy was the President of the Ford Foundation. Bundy announced to the assembled Black leaders that a decision had been made to destroy the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and to save the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This decision was based on an assessment that it was possible to wean CORE away from the concept of Black Power through massive infusion of money for its operation. In the case of the SNCC, however, the assessment was that it was too late to save it; it had to be destroyed. (17)

One should note that little appears to have changed to this day, and the current vice chairman of the Ford Foundation's board of trustees serves on the board of directors of the leading light of the prison-industrial complex, Corrections Corporation of America. This person is none other than Thurgood Marshall, Jr. -- the son of US Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. (18) Although Alexander fails to write about this important connection between liberal philanthropists and the prison-industrial complex, she does draw attention to other powerful individuals who have a keen interest in the profitability of mass incarceration, like for example, former vice president Dick Cheney. Indeed, in 2008, Cheney was indicted on state charges for "engaging in an organized criminal activity related to the vice president's investment in the Vanguard Group, which holds financial interests in the private prison companies running the federal detention centers." (19) It is important to note that Amy Gutmann, a long serving trustee of the Carnegie Corporation of New York -- another key funder of civil rights activism -- has acted as a board member of the Vanguard Group since 2006, a significant fact that was overlooked by Alexander.

There is no doubt that the old guard of civil rights advocates has failed to challenge the New Jim Crow era, and are unlikely to do so anytime soon of their own accord. Considering this dire state of affairs, Alexander concludes that the new generation of race-conscious activists should respect their elders' achievements and then "march right past them, emboldened, as King once said, by the fierce urgency of now."

Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us; it may remind us of riots, uprisings, and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it, or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay, and disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth. (pp.247-8)


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1.  Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), p.2, p.178. She writes: "I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration." (p.12)  (back)

2.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.3, p.4. Not long after Alexander's dismissal of the radical claim that "The Drug War Is The New Jim Crow," the founder and director of the ACLU Drug Policy Litigation Project published an article with just this title. See Graham Boyd, "The drug war is the new Jim Crow," NACLA Report on the Americas, July/August 2001.  (back)

3.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.5. Alexander writes, "conspiracy theorists surely must be forgiven for their bold accusation of genocide, in light of the devastation wrought by crack cocaine and the drug war, and the odd coincidence that an illegal drug crisis suddenly appeared in the black community after -- not before -- a drug war had been declared. In fact, the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline." (p.6)  (back)

4.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.72, p.45. For further details Alexander refers to an "insightful book" that discusses this issue; Thomas Edsall and Mary Edsall's Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (Norton, 1991). Later in her concluding chapter, Alexander writes: "Given that poor and working-class whites (not white elites) were the ones who had their world rocked by desegregation, it does not take a great leap of empathy to see why affirmative action could be experienced as salt in a wound." (p.244)  (back)

5.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.92. "Barred from public housing by law, discriminated against by private landlords, ineligible for food stamps, forced to 'check the box' indicating a felony conviction on employment applications for nearly every job, and denied licenses for a wide range of professions, people whose only crime is drug addiction or possession of a small amount of drugs for recreational use find themselves locked out of the mainstream society and economy -- permanently." (p.92)

The twisted logic of this racial caste system means that: "About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. Of all parole violators returned to prison in 2000, only one-third were returned for a new conviction; two-thirds were returned for a technical violation such as missing appointments with a parole officer, failing to maintain employment, or failing a drug test. In this system of control, failing to cope well with one's exile status is treated like a crime." (p93)  (back)

6.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.160, p.161, p.195. Donald Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America (University of Michigan Press, 2004).  (back)

7.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.197.  (back)

8.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.178, p.211. "A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time." (p.211)  (back)

9.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.212.  (back)

10.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.213. Bell is well aware of the historical implications of the co-option of social movements and writes: "The rise and decline of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) provides a stark reminder of the fate of civil rights organizations relying on white support while espousing black self-reliance." Derrick Bell, "Serving two masters: integration ideals and client interests in school desegregation litigation," Yale Law Journal, 85, 1976, p.490; other individuals whose criticisms of the professionalization of the Civil Rights Movement were incorporated into Bell's article included Professor Gary Bellow and Professor Leyroy Clark (who authored the 1971 journal article "The lawyer in the civil rights movement -- catalytic agent or counterrevolutionary."  (back)

11.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.214.  (back)

12.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.222.  (back)

13.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.226, p.228, p.230. "The seemingly innocent phrase, 'I don't care if he's black...' perfectly captures the perversion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream that we may, one day, be able to see beyond race to connect spiritually across racial lines." (p.228)  (back)

14.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.231, p.232, p.234. She argues that "racial justice advocates should reconsider the traditional approach to affirmative action because (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a 'trickle down theory of racial justice'; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that pave rise to mass incarceration: and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations." (pp.233-4) By way of a contrast to such laywer-driven tactics, Alexander highlights one grassroots group in particular, All of Us or None (which is based in Oakland, California), and was set up by formerly incarcerated men and women. (p.242)  (back)

15.  Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.237, p.247. Alexander draws upon Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier's "similar critique of affirmative action," The Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2002).  (back)

16.  For a detailed examination of the role of liberal foundations in the co-option of the civil rights movement, see "Elite Philanthropy, SNCC, And The Civil Rights Movement."  (back)

17.  James Forman, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Open Hand Publishing, 1985 [1972]), p.xvi.  (back)

18.  Thurgood Marshall Jr. also sits on the board of directors of the liberal National Women's Law Center, where he serves alongside the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Anthony Romero -- an individual who prior to joining ACLU had led the Ford Foundation's Human Rights and International Cooperation Program.  (back)

19.  Alexander refers to the following article, Christopher Sherman, "Cheney, Gonzales indicted over prisons," Washington Times, November 19, 2008. She adds that corporations like the Vanguard Group (where Cheney invested millions of dollars) and the Corrections Corporation of America "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." Alexander, The New Jim Crow, p.218.  (back)


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Published June 6, 2011