Thursday, April 26, 2012

A cruel hand laid upon American citizens (Books - The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander)

According to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the "War on Drugs," was not waged in an effort to dispense justice to dangerous criminals, but rather to control black men by putting them behind bars and relegating them to permanent second class status upon their release.  Her book is damning accusation that the execution of the drug laws has effectively continued the marginalization of black men that began with slavery, proceeded to the Jim Crow laws.  The difference today is that, since many presume we have reached the colorblind nirvana dreamed of by Dr. King, this is carried out through procedures masquerading as law and race is never mentioned.  Alexander's book reads less like a typical account of current affairs than a passionate case argument, a form that will come as no surprise considering her career as a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar.

Since passage of mandatory sentencing, the prison population of the US has ballooned from 300,000 to more than 2 million people, primarily due to drug crimes.  The US has the largest percentage of prisoners relative to our population of any country in the world and
The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid...These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime.  Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates.  If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.
The majority of the imprisoned are not dealers, they have no history of violence, and the drug that accounted for 80 percent of the growth in arrests throughout the 1990s was arguably the least dangerous available: marijuana.

It alarmed me to learn how military force and equipment supplied by the Pentagon is used by police in American cities to carry out raids in people's homes based on presumption of drug possession.  This was facilitated by President Reagan's passage of the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act which relied on his declaring drugs a threat to national security.  Financial incentives were given to local law enforcement for the purpose of drug arrests.  In the decade from 1986 - 1996 in one city, paramilitary raids increased twenty-fold.  Hundreds of these raids have resulted in the maiming and killing of innocent people.

Alexander's legal scholarship was put to effective use in chapters tracing the Supreme Court's gradual erosion of protections against unreasonable searches and seizures once afforded us by the Fourth Amendment.  Their upholding of, in some cases, the most extreme instances of mandatory sentencing.   The lowered burden of proof demanded of government prosecutors in seizing private property.  These efforts have compromised the re-integration of offenders into society by labeling them felons.  This is true even in plea deals which are often advised by court-appointed attorneys.  The accused avoids going to trial and hopes to be able to return to their life's obligations. Unfortunately, most of the alleged criminals who plead guilty are not aware that they will carry the brand of felon for life, barring them from serving on a jury, and in many cases, voting and employment.  And while they are prohibited employment they have simultaneously forfeited any possibility of support through food stamps or public housing.
The "whites only" signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up - notices placed in job applications, rental agreements, loan applications, forms for welfare benefits, school applications, and petitions for licenses, informing the general public that "felons" are not wanted here.  A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind.
This amounts to a continuation of Jim Crow because the label of felon is applied to men of color with disproportionate frequency and severity through the application of the drugs laws.  At the same time the Supreme Court has rejected claims of Fourth Amendment violations, they have also made it impossible to challenge the execution of these laws under the Fourteenth Amendement, which guarantees equal treatment under the law, by setting a demand not only for overt racial bias, but for race as the sole determinant.  This is circumvented by most law enforcement readily enough by claiming another reason. 
 The clock has been turned back on racial progress in America, though scarcely anyone seems to notice.  All eyes are fixed on people like Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, how have defied the odds and risen to power, fame, and fortune. 
Alexander's outrage is matched by a corrective pessimism that was the most difficult part of the book to read.  I remember the wave of optimism experienced by many in our country following the election of Barack Obama.  Her message is that such symbolic advances are blinding the populace to the institutionalization of legalized racism.  The wish to consider these advances evidence of widespread colorblindness results in denial.  Her book provides overwhelming evidence that the executors of our laws are not acting blindly with regard to color.  While the mechanisms her book enumerates are primarily legal, Alexander sees solutions arising less from individual court battles than from a sweeping, societal, morally-fueled movement.  This may seem a paradoxical conclusion, but her point seems less that the changes must remain in this realm than start there.  Ultimately it seems clear that to right these injustices the laws too must change.

Alexander's powerful book suffered from some minor flaws.  More skillful editing might have eliminated repetition, which would have benefited the flow of her narrative.  Alexander offered many well-sourced statistics that lent credence to her case, consequently her more speculative claims, for example, "a lengthy prison term may increase the odds that re-entry will be extremely difficult, leading to relapse, and re-imprisonment," stuck out.  However, she was careful not to misrepresent anecdote as evidence - a rigor I appreciated.  Alexander's points might gain more listeners with fewer absolute turns of phrase such as "the truth is...," but she may be more concerned with driving home her point than making pals of every reader.

I found the most strikingly damning affronts of the many laid out in this book, the degree to which prisons have been allowed to become businesses - a product of the privatization mania of the last several decades.  This gives shareholders and employees incentive to increase profit through the expansion of their market: that is, they will want to find more reasons to call human beings criminals so that they may imprison them.  To motivate the stripping away of human liberty by profit seems antithetical to the principles upon which our country was founded.  When one considers Alexander's narrative a story of how acquisition of private wealth results from putting black men behind bars, the parallels with slavery are not a stretch. 

Alexander also made effective use of quotes from Frederick Douglass, striking for their appropriateness more than 150 years after they were first spoken.  I will leave you with this one, addressed to the delegates to the National Colored Convention in Rochester, New York in 1853:
A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us.  As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood.  Our white countrymen do not know us.  They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people.  The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation's scorn and contempt.


Ryan said...

I gotta stop coming here. Every time you put up a new book, I'm adding one to my list.

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

I'm glad to see I wasn't the only book blogger who read and reviewed this book. Thanks!

Ted said...

Joy - Yes, the is an important opinion to have heard. I don't know if this is your first visit, but welcome and I enjoyed meeting your blog too.