Taking on the new Jim Crow

By: Liliana Segura

Michelle Alexander

In the introduction to her book, The New Jim Crow, author and attorney Michelle Alexander recalls her reaction when she was first confronted with the notion that the US system of mass incarceration was a modern-day version of racist Jim Crow laws imposed after slavery. It was the 1990s and she had a new job heading up the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Northern California:

“I was rushing to catch the bus and I noticed a sign stapled to a telephone pole that screamed in large bold print: THE DRUG WAR IS THE NEW JIM CROW. I paused for a moment and skimmed the text of the flyer. Some radical group was holding a community meeting about police brutality, the new three-strikes law in California, and the expansion of America’s prison system. The meeting was being held at a small community church a few blocks away; it had seating capacity for no more than fifty people. I sighed and muttered to myself something like, “Yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in many ways, but it really doesn’t help to make such an absurd comparison. People will just think you’re crazy.” I then crossed the street and hopped on the bus.”

Decades later, the once-skeptical Alexander has written the most influential prison book in years, based on the very thesis she once dismissed as absurd—and making the problem of mass incarceration the rallying cry for a new movement for racial justice. For prison activists who have spent years making such historically based arguments about our criminal justice system—indeed, those “radical group” members from the small community church—Alexander has become an important new ally, and her book a valuable educational and organizing tool.

The New Jim Crow tells the story of how the racist laws passed to keep free slaves under control following Reconstruction evolved over the past century to a different, more insidious system of social control that has culminated in the incarceration of nearly 2.4 million people, most of them men of color. The result, she says, is a modern-day racial caste system: men and women who come out of prison do so having retained only certain rights, establishing a criminal subclass that is defined largely along racial lines. “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans,” she says. “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal.”

Recognizing the inevitable resistance to her thesis from people who might point to the election of Barack Obama as proof that we now live in a “post-racial” society, Alexander chose a cannily ironic subtitle: “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” In our ostensibly enlightened age, she notes, “it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.” It’s a provocative argument, one that she herself would have once dismissed. But her book’s popularity—a surprise for many in the publishing world—suggests that it is no longer too provocative an argument to make to a wider audience.

For activists, the success of The New Jim Crow signals something far more significant. No longer can it be argued that racism is not the right basis of a strategy to end the death penalty and other forms of harsh sentencing. Anti-racist arguments that were once considered radical or too aggressive have now broken into the mainstream political consciousness—mainly because the facts have become so impossible to ignore. The scale itself is astronomical: In a few short decades, our prison system has swallowed so many human beings that if Americans wanted to reduce our incarceration rate to that of the 1970s, Alexander points out, “we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today.” When it comes to parole, as recently as 1980, parole violators represented just 1 percent of all prison admissions. Twenty years later, parole violations represent 35 percent. As Alexander writes, “to put the matter more starkly: “About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all other reasons.” But the statistics about race and the criminal justice system are also impossible to ignore: Today there are more black men in prison than were enslaved in 1850. This is disturbing not just to activists or people with loved ones behind bars. And at a time when President Obama’s citizenship is being questioned by boldly racist public figures—and conservatives are making hay out of such absurd things as a hip hop artist’s invitation to the White House, everyday racism is forcing Americans to stand up and take notice. For activists, this is a critical opportunity. As one leader of the new movement inspired by The New Jim Crow, Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, says, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

Hayden is a longtime activist who spent years locked up at New York’s notorious Attica Prison before eventually winning his appeal and then his freedom. Six days after his release, the historic Attica uprising occurred, which led to the slaughter of dozens of prisoners. He watched it on TV. Years ago, Hayden wrote a paper titled “Unfinished Business,” on the problem of felon disenfranchisement. “It followed the same line of research as [Alexander’s],” he recalls. “And it led to the same conclusion: that mass incarceration was a push back to the successes of the civil rights struggle. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the civil rights movement declared victory and went on to reap their rewards from affirmative action. They stopped short of full victory. They stopped at the prison walls and left felon disenfranchisement in place.” For Hayden, Alexander‘s book was a eureka moment. “When I saw her book, with the same image that I had on my paper, and read her research, I knew we were a natural match,” he says. “My paper could have been the outline for her book.” Most importantly, the framework of the “new Jim Crow” was one that could apply to the broadest range of components of the criminal justice system. “Now we had an umbrella that all of the ‘boutique activists’ could fit under,” he says.

In New York, this has meant that the Harlem chapter of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty has come together with activists who have spent years committed to other aspects of the criminal justice system, like reentry or felon voting rights. Hayden has spearheaded a new initiative titled “The Campaign to End the New Jim Crow,” based not just on Alexander’s book, but on organizing taking place throughout the rest of the country. For example, a gathering of formerly incarcerated men and women met in Alabama this past March, seeking to build a movement of former prisoners. “To launch this movement they retraced the steps of the civil rights activists by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge”—the site of the famous “Bloody Sunday” assault by authorities on peaceful Civil Rights protesters in 1965—as well as “lobbying their legislators, and developing their vision and mission statements to guide their future work to dismantle this system of mass incarceration and have all of their civil and human rights restored.” Hayden, a member of the group’s central committee, is “trying to replicate their efforts in the Northeastern region of the country.” He points to organizing taking place in other cities, from Georgia to California. “It is my prediction that a national movement will emerge to take care of the unfinished business of the civil rights struggle,” he says.

It’s not just formerly incarcerated people who are reading and using The New Jim Crow. Alexander herself has received enormous response from people who are currently behind bars. “I have several boxes of prison mail in my office and at my home,” she says, some of which comes from prisoners seeking legal help, but “others are reflecting on my book or articles.”  At New York’s Shawangunk Correctional Facility—where 54 percent of the prisoners are black and 30 percent are Latino—prisoners have been passing the book around from cell to cell. These are the human beings behind the statistics, whose families and neighborhoods struggle with the legacy Alexander describes. As the anti-death penalty movement looks for ways to connect with the new activists organizing under the framework of abolishing “the New Jim Crow,” it is critical to keep them in the forefront of this work. As Alexander writes, “the central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control, or not? If we are, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done.”

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