Jim Crow Redux

Is mass incarceration the ‘new racial caste system’?

Micah Uetricht March 16, 2010

Locked inside a ‘redesigned’ racial caste system?(Photo by:© Oneword | Dreamstime.com )

A specter is haunt­ing post-racial Amer­i­ca. As pun­dits trip over them­selves to declare that racism is dead in the era of a black pres­i­dent, ever-increas­ing num­bers of African Amer­i­cans are impris­oned and con­demned to sec­ond-class citizenship.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incar­cer­a­tion in the Age of Col­or­blind­ness (New Press), legal schol­ar and for­mer ACLU attor­ney Michelle Alexan­der exam­ines the Amer­i­can crim­i­nal-jus­tice sys­tem and its propen­si­ty for dec­i­mat­ing black lives and com­mu­ni­ties. She argues that pris­ons – and the con­se­quent stig­ma­tiz­ing of a per­ma­nent crim­i­nal” pop­u­la­tion – have cre­at­ed a new racial caste sys­tem” whose effects are stun­ning­ly sim­i­lar to those of the Jim Crow era.

Many crit­ics have cast doubt on the procla­ma­tions of racis­m’s era­sure in the Oba­ma era, but few have pre­sent­ed a case as pow­er­ful as Alexan­der’s. From racial pro­fil­ing in polic­ing to impris­on­ment rates to post-incar­cer­a­tion dis­crim­i­na­tion, crim­i­nal jus­tice is per­haps the most strik­ing exam­ple of racial inequal­i­ty in the Unites States. Near­ly half of young black men are impris­oned or on parole/​probation, and in some states, black incar­cer­a­tion rates for drugs are 20 to 50 times those of whites, despite near-par­i­ty of drug use across racial lines. As a result, mil­lions of African Amer­i­cans can­not find hous­ing, receive social ser­vices or obtain employ­ment. They are denied even the most basic right in a demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety – the right to vote.

Alexan­der argues that the dev­as­ta­tion in black com­mu­ni­ties is no coin­ci­dence. It is a redesigned racial caste sys­tem” that dupli­cates the oppres­sion of past racial eras with­out rely­ing on the explic­it racism of those eras.

This is a bold claim. Alexan­der defends it per­sua­sive­ly, though she stretch­es a bit too far at times. Trac­ing the sys­tem’s emer­gence to the law and order” rhetoric first advanced by Pres­i­dent Nixon, she argues that right-wing politi­cians began appeal­ing to white resent­ment of black gains by insist­ing, in race-neu­tral rhetoric, that order had bro­ken down. This need to reestab­lish order by being tough on crime” was Rea­gan’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the War on Drugs. In a cul­tur­al cli­mate still volatile with anti-black ani­mus, the racial-minor­i­ty prison pop­u­la­tion quick­ly sky­rock­et­ed – along with law enforce­men­t’s fed­er­al incen­tives for overzeal­ous policing.

All of this hap­pened under the col­or­blind pre­tense of mak­ing the streets safer. And who could argue with the goal of rid­ding the streets of nar­cotics? Indeed, few have. Mean­time, young men of col­or with scant oppor­tu­ni­ties are plucked from their com­mu­ni­ties and casu­al­ly tossed behind bars. They return home brand­ed with the indeli­ble label of crim­i­nal,” crush­ing any hope of long-term sta­bil­i­ty in their lives.

Media cov­er­age of crim­i­nal-jus­tice dis­par­i­ties is rare, and the lit­tle that does exist usu­al­ly focus­es on unequal rates of impris­on­ment or sen­tenc­ing. But Alexan­der argues that an ex-con’s exit from prison is often more trau­mat­ic than the incar­cer­a­tion itself. But unlike the Jim Crow era, overt racism can­not be blamed; the forms of oppres­sion are more sub­tle but no less sin­is­ter. This cre­ates dif­fi­cul­ties that have not yet been over­come – and that are not even on the radar of most reformers.

Alexan­der argues that today’s civ­il rights orga­ni­za­tions have become pro­fes­sion­al­ized,” which means that they are inclined to focus on issues like affir­ma­tive action while remain­ing silent on the explod­ing black prison pop­u­la­tion. Her chal­lenge to the left is to move beyond the caus­es it has become com­fort­able with and begin address­ing a cri­sis that is hid­den in plain sight.

On the 2008 cam­paign trail, Barack Oba­ma gave a stern speech to black fathers in which he assailed their alleged absen­teeism. The assump­tion, echoed by many com­men­ta­tors, was that these men shirked their respon­si­bil­i­ties because of moral short­com­ings devel­oped in a cul­ture rife with social pathol­o­gy. Nowhere in these self-right­eous accu­sa­tions was there a dis­cus­sion of the fathers who did not aban­don their chil­dren but were instead snatched away from them. By ignor­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion, politi­cians and pun­dits con­ve­nient­ly shift the blame away from racist polic­ing, bru­tal­ly harsh sen­tenc­ing and debil­i­tat­ing post-prison stig­ma, plac­ing it instead on out-of-con­trol black families.

To be sure, mass impris­on­ment is not the same as legal­ized seg­re­ga­tion, and Alexan­der admits as much. Elect­ing a black man to the White House would not be pos­si­ble if African Amer­i­cans’ free­doms were as con­strained as they were under offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned apartheid. But The New Jim Crow’s title is more than mere provo­ca­tion. It describes the pro­found sense of déjà vu” one expe­ri­ences when pon­der­ing the racial dis­par­i­ties wrought by Amer­i­ca’s racist – and deeply destruc­tive – crim­i­nal-jus­tice system.

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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