Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” makes many credible claims that all revolve around the general idea that although the traditional laws put in place after Reconstruction to proverbially keep down the African American community have no in no way disappeared–instead, they have changed form. Alexander cites the flaws in the Criminal Justice system that is now purposely orchestrating this “new Jim Crow”.
Alexander’s purpose in the book is very apparent, and perhaps overtly radical. She directly states:
“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race” (Alexander, 13).
Although Alexander makes a solid case for the intentional detainment of African Americans–and in many ways is spot on in her analysis–there lies a very thin line between what can be considered a “tightly networked system” compared to individual prejudices that can at times collectively work against a certain demographic–while she does cross this line, she unknowingly highlights places where the law and racism can unfortunately cross paths as a problem created by the system, rather than operating in a coherent or mechanized fashion, and in addition makes a relevant argument regarding economics and racial stigma.
In Chapter One, Alexander speaks about American nobility, as well as the caste system that is not even supposed to exist. In fact, it is relatively established that social mobility, though possible, is not always attainable in reality. This is where the author truly hit the nail on the proverbial head. Alexander, in a show of brilliance, cleverly states:
“…ardent proponents of racial hierarchy have consistently succeeded in implementing new racial caste systems by triggering a collapse of resistance across the political spectrum. This feat has been achieved largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites…” (Alexander, 22)
This statement is multi-faceted, and involves many components–it alludes to social stigma, which is a very important part of this.
It is ironic that the political party run by the wealthiest men in the political spectrum has a large support in some of the poorest demographics of the social spectrum. The Bible Belt, Deep South, and Midwest–consisting of more rural areas, and poverty that extends way beyond urban areas–are traditionally the States that support Republican candidates. This truly is, as Alexander alluded to, brainwashing on the merit of inherent racism. These clean-cut rich white men are presented as candidates to the impoverished white voter, and they see men they strive to be like. They do not see themselves as Barack Obama–simply because he is black.
As long as the Republican far right exists, and should it flourish–like before the housing bubble burst, and deregulation was rampant–there will always be a caste system in America. It is hard to use that phrase, because it generally refers to an institution where social mobility is virtually illegal. Of course this is not the case in America–even Alexander cites “the standard reply” of “…look at Barack Obama…look at Oprah Winfrey” (Alexander, 21). Afterwards, she goes on to say that this is not abnormal–success stories always come out, and there have been successful, free blacks in America since before the Revolutionary War. Alexander’s point is that this is not the norm–and plenty of studies have shown that social mobility is a great idea, but nothing more than an idea. She is mostly correct with this assessment–however her logic is flawed in the same way it is in broad terms.
Her claim about a caste system in American has already been affirmed, but a caste system based solely on racial incarceration is hard to make a case for on the whole. A lack of social mobility and a caste system with a large poverty is level both exist in America, however her assessment that, “Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration” (Alexander, 12) is perhaps not untrue, but more too specific. In impoverished areas there will naturally be crime. This means to make Alexander’s correlations valid, there would literally need to be a very large conspiracy theory, with a chain of custody the size of the equator.
The things that Alexander uses to support her theory are certainly far from bulletproof–for instance, she clearly states:
“The South was solidly Democratic, embittered by the war, firmly committed to the maintenance of a racial caste system, and extremely hostile to federal intervention on behalf of African-Americans” (Alexander, 43).
Her claims are wildly and overtly radical, with a tad bit of truth added for good measure. This is truly why her book is so convincing–she takes facts, and mixes them with her opinions. The South was in fact Democratic (obviously not today’s Democratic Party), and were indeed concerned with maintaining their way of life with regards to Federal intervention. What Alexander neglects to say is that Federal troops were stationed in the South well after the Civil War to maintain a martial law, not to protect blacks. In fact, many blacks moved north to the cities, and the rest went back to farm work.
Alexander herself admits that “blacks, the poorest of the poor, benefitted disproportionately” (Alexander, 46) from Roosevelt’s New Deal aimed at recovering the American economy from The Great Depression. Fast-forwarding, Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned, and the Civil Rights Movement did a lot, in conjunction with President and Attorney General’s John and Bobby Kennedy, for race relations in America. To say racism is dead is America is ignorant, but to blame the penal system for a caste system that has many contributing factors is just as ignorant.
On page 50, Alexander speaks about how inner-city ghettos were created by a lack of jobs, and an increase in drugs in the black community. She states:
“One study indicates that as late as 1970, more than 70% of all blacks working in metropolitan areas held blue collar jobs. Yet by 1987, when the drug war hit high gear, the industrial employment of black men had plummeted to 28%” (Alexander, 50).
Again not to argue against the existence of a caste system, but these statistics are heavily weighted and can easily be scrutinized. Many of the “blue-collar” workers she is speaking about lost their jobs as a result of deindustrialization, not because crack was introduced. Crack was just a means to an end–selling drugs was nothing new.
The gangs that took control of the drug trafficking and subsequently the ghettos were nothing more than the remnants of Black Panther-like organizations who saw an opportunity to make money when there was none, and took advantage of it. Alexander states, “The decline in legitimate employment opportunities among inner-city residents increased incentives to sell drugs–most notably crack cocaine,” (Alexander, 50) Crack was just a cheaper form of cocaine–a drug that by the late 1980’s was almost socially acceptable. It is not like blacks were the only ones pushing drugs to make money–and subsequently doing time for it. The Italian and Irish Mafia’s had been dealing with primarily heroin, but cocaine as well since Prohibition had ended.
With her book, Alexander would have a reader truly believe there is some kind of conspiracy to keep African Americans from succeeding. Because the caste system exists for everyone, there will always be temptation to do unethical things. Unfortunately because of our racial history many black Americans live close to, or below the poverty line.
Of course anyone in that situation would be more predisposed to see jail time. Has Ms. Alexander ever visited South Boston?