A group of us at Open Door are moving through a Circle focused on the black-white race divide in the East Bay.
One of the resources offered to provoke thought and conversation is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. As I read through it, I’ll be posting some of the thoughts, quotes, and questions I encounter.
First, some foundational terminology:
Jim Crow: Historically, the series of laws and policies allegedly implemented to maintain social and economic order (“separate but equal”) in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction
Undercaste: “a lower caste of individuals who are permanently barred by law and custom from mainstream society” (13)
Racial caste system: “a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom” (12)
Mass incarceration: – Broader than our physical prison system, Alexander talks about mass incarceration as encompassing the “larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison” (13).
And some quotes from the Introduction and Chapter 1:
“The plight of African Americans is that a huge percentage of them are not free to move up at all. It is not just that they lack opportunity, attend poor schools, or are plagued by poverty. They are barred by law from doing so.” (13)
“The War on Drugs, cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism.” (53)
“Once again, in response to a major disruption in the prevailing racial order – this time the civil rights gains of the 1960s – a new system of racialized social control was created by exploiting the vulnerabilities and racial resentments of poor and working-class whites. More than 2 million people found themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-first century…banished to a political and social space not unlike jim Crow… The mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate.” (56-57)
A few thoughts:
Though Alexander harshly criticizes Republican policies (driven to extremities by the rhetoric and posturing of campaign politics), she also labels Clinton as “more than any other president” responsible for creating “the current racial undercaste” (56).
This book is not playing the game of partisan politics/ideology so much as critiquing the entire enterprise of empire as it’s played out throughout American history. It’s a pretty scathing assessment and I’m unsure (and eager to see) how Alexander proposes solutions and steps forward in the midst of a system that is seemingly being described as irreparably broken.
Thoughts? Questions? Oversights? Objections?