First came slavery. When it ended there was a brief period in the sun called Reconstruction, followed by the long dark night of the Jim Crow Laws and legalized segregation in which we were forced into second class status, and now comes the New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which is also the title of Michelle Alexander’s excellent new book.
Yes, we have a Black president. Yes, we have Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry leading the pack in Hollywood. Yes, we have Herman Cain ahead in the race for the Republican nomination. Yes, we have a host of first Black this and first Black that. Nonetheless, we have yet to move beyond race. In fact, under the cover of a set of supposedly race neutral laws and procedures, the police are rounding up Black men in droves, going over them with a fine tooth comb, and for the slightest infraction pulling them into the criminal justice system. Many of them, fearing long prison terms, quickly make a plea deal without benefit of counsel and are thereby branded felons (whether they are given jail time or not), and their ability to get a decent job forever disappears.
There are more African Americans under the supervision of the criminal justice system today than were slaves in 1860. Even during slavery there were free Blacks, many of whom accomplished great things, but they all ran the constant risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Likewise, after the Civil War and Reconstruction free Black men and women could be arrested for vagrancy, that is not having a job, and those working as sharecroppers could be sent to prison for “not paying their debts” to the white men whose land they tilled.
Today, in New York, a city with eight million people, each year nearly 10% of the populace is stopped and frisked by the police without any probable cause. More than 80% of that 10% are young Black and Latino men, which works out to virtually every one of them.
Meanwhile, the courts have turned a blind eye to these shenanigans. All the protections against unlawful search and seizure, the very things that led the Americans to rebel against their British overlords, are being ignored. Why? The excuse given is that we are in a permanent War On Drugs. However, whites produce, distribute and consume more illegal drugs than Blacks, but they are largely given a pass. But, many are quick to point out, the Black community itself wants to stamp out the drug plague. Yes, but the methods being used are designed to not only perpetuate the drug scourge, but actually destroy the Black community itself.
We see endless negative images emerging from elements of the hip hop culture. And we can decry them if we want, but they are, in fact, the defiant affirmations of the culture foisted upon many our young. Just as the Gay community, took their stigma and turned it into “Gay Pride,” and we took the branding of race in the sixties and proclaimed “Black is Beautiful,” likewise many of our youth today, their own parents victims of the Drug War, embrace the role of gangster that society has laid out for them.
Yes, being a gangster is not like being Black or being Gay. Glorifying crime is certainly not the way to go. However, when brutal police tactics and methods are unleashed upon one community and not another, when the courts punish one race far more harshly than the other and millions of young lives are systematically shattered, we have to realize that this New Jim Crow, that is, mass incarceration in the age of supposed colorblindness, that is anything but, must be stopped. The New Jim Crow fosters and promotes the very dysfunction it purports to eradicate. This sad state of affairs must somehow be brought to an end. We are in a fight for our very existence, but few of us seem to realize it. Here is the author speaking about her book.
(by Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Read Like Your Life Depends On It, www.readlikeyourlifedependsonit.com )