Michelle Alexander wrote a paradigm-shifting exploration of modern racism, the so-called war on drugs and the prison-industrial complex. You can obtain a copy of this eye-opening paperback, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” directly from Truthout right now by clicking here.
Mark Karlin: Before we get into the details, is it accurate to characterize your thesis, in a colloquial way, by saying that institutionalized racial casting is alive and even ratcheting up in the United states in 2012?
Michelle Alexander: Yes, I do believe that something akin to a racial caste system is alive and well in America. For reasons that have stunningly little to do with crime or crime rates, we, as a nation, have chosen to lock up more than two million people behind bars. Millions more are on probation or parole, or branded felons for life and thus locked into a permanent second-class status. The mass incarceration of poor people of color, particularly black men, has emerged as a new caste system, one specifically designed to address the social, economic, and political challenges of our time. It is, in my view, the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.
MK: You identify the key societal perpetuation of the stigmatization of the black male as the so-called “criminal justice system.” It appears to have become an accepted bureaucratic injustice.
MA: Mass incarceration has become normalized in the United States. Poor folks of color are shuttled from decrepit, underfunded schools to brand new, high tech prisons and then relegated to a permanent undercaste – stigmatized as undeserving of any moral care or concern. Black men in ghetto communities (and many who live in middle class communities) are targeted by the police at early ages, often before they’re old enough to vote. They’re routinely stopped, frisked, and searched without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Eventually they’re arrested, whether they’ve committed any serious crime or not, and branded criminals or felons for life. Upon release, they’re ushered into a parallel social universe in which the civil and human rights supposedly won during the Civil Rights Movement no longer apply to them. For the rest of their lives, they can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. So many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind during the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once you’ve been branded a felon. That’s why I say we haven’t ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. In many large urban areas, the majority of working age African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. It is viewed as “normal” in ghetto communities to go to prison or jail. One study conducted in Washington, D.C. indicated that 3 out of 4 black men, and nearly all those living in the poorest neighborhoods could expect to find themselves behind bars at some point in their life. Nationwide, 1 in 3 black men can expect to serve time behind bars, but the rates are far higher in segregated and impoverished black communities. A massive new penal system has emerged in the past few decades – a penal system unprecedented in world history. It is a system driven almost entirely by race and class.
MK: How fast has our prison incarceration rate grown and to what extent does the growth correlate with the arrest of black males for nonviolent offenses? Doesn’t the US have the largest incarceration rate in the world?
MA: The United States does have the highest rate of incarceration in the world dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia, China or Iran. This reflects a radical shift in criminal justice policy, a stunning development that virtually no one – not even the best criminologists – predicted forty years ago. Our prison population quintupled in a thirty year period of time. Not doubled or tripled – quintupled. We went from a prison and jail population of about 300,000 to now more than 2 million. Most people seem to assume that this dramatic surge in imprisonment was due to a corresponding surge in crime, particularly violent crime. But that simply isn’t true. During the same period of time that incarceration rates skyrocketed, crime rates fluctuated. Crime rates went up, then went down, then went up, then went down again. Today, crime rates are at historical lows. But incarceration rates – throughout all of these fluctuations – have consistently soared. Most criminologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the United States have had relatively little to do with each other. Incarceration rates – especially black incarceration rates – have soared regardless of whether crime has been going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.
The U.S. government’s 40-year experiment
on black men with syphilis
by Borgna Brunner
“The United States government did something that was wrong—deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens… clearly racist.”
—President Clinton’s apology for the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to the eight remaining survivors, May 16, 1997
From the Blog:
| If this is your first time at the site, it can look a little daunting. To help you navigate, we’ll spell out how everything is organized so you can find what you need.
This is an online Left reader focusing largely on American resistance history. The readings are organized in sections (“Chapters”). If you are struggling with a particular question, you can go that chapter. For example, if you want to know “Why are there so many people in prison?” you can go to “Chapter 3: The Long Chain”. We’ll include a good starter essay here for each. Notice that some chapters have so many readings that it won’t fit on one page; use the UP and DOWN buttons below the list to navigate to additional readings.
If you aren’t dealing with a particular question, feel free to work your way through all the starter essays and head back to the issues that stirred you the most. Here we go:
|If you haven’t been in school for awhile (or are in a terrible school), some of the words might trip you up. Dictionary.com and Wikipedia.org are two good resources to help you. And because we’re your friends, you can email us if you have any questions.|
by Guest Contributor MK, originally published at Prison Culture
Last week, I was privileged to organize an event for a project that I am affiliated with called Girl Talk. As part of the event, my friend, the brilliant Dr. Beth Richie, spoke about her new book Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation. I can’t recommend the book any more highly.
Beth suggested on Thursday that the book is to some extent autobiographical, in part tracing her personal involvement as an activist in the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement. In reading the book, I found my own story also represented in the history that she illuminates through her research.
Today, I want to focus on one key aspect of the thesis that Beth advances in the book. She contends that the “success” of the anti-violence against women and girls’ movement in passing legislation and gaining public legitimacy was in large part due to the increasingly conservative political climate that was emerging in a parallel way. That conservative political climate emphasized a “law -and-order” and “tough-on-crime” approach to addressing social problems.
Beth pointed out in her talk that many activists within the anti-violence movement (particularly women of color and queer people) spoke out about the fact that increasing criminalization would adversely affect certain populations. Their voices, however, did not win the day. (Click Links Above for Rest of Article)
The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity
Following the civil rights movement, race relations in the United States entered a new era. Legal gains were interpreted by some as ensuring equal treatment for all and that “colorblind” policies and programs would be the best way forward. Since then, many voices have called for an end to affirmative action and other color-conscious policies and programs, and even for a retreat from public discussion of racism itself.
Bolstered by the election of Barack Obama, proponents of colorblindness argue that the obstacles faced by blacks and people of color in the United States can no longer be attributed to racism but instead result from economic forces. Thus, they contend, programs meant to uplift working-class and poor people are the best means for overcoming any racial inequalities that might still persist. In Colorblind, Tim Wise refutes these assertions and advocates that the best way forward is to become more, not less, conscious of race and its impact on equal opportunity.
Focusing on disparities in employment, housing, education and healthcare, Wise argues that racism is indeed still an acute problem in the United States today, and that colorblind policies actually worsen the problem of racial injustice. Colorblind presents a timely and provocative look at contemporary racism and offers fresh ideas on what can be done to achieve true social justice and economic equality.
“I finally finished Tim Wise’s Colorblind and found it a right-on, straight-ahead piece of work. This guy hits all the targets, it’s really quite remarkable . . . That’s two of his that I’ve read [the first being Between Barack] and they are both works of crystal truth . . .”
“Tim Wise’s Colorblind is a powerful and urgently needed book. One of our best and most courageous public voices on racial inequality, Wise tackles head on the resurgence and absurdity of post-racial liberalism in a world still largely structured by deep racial disparity and structural inequality. He shows us with passion and sharp, insightful, accessible analysis how this imagined world of post racial framing and policy can’t take us where we want to go—it actually stymies our progress toward racial unity and equality.”
—Tricia Rose, Brown University, author of The Hip Hop Wars
“With Colorblind, Tim Wise offers a gutsy call to arms. Rather than play nice and reiterate the fiction of black racial transcendence, Wise takes the gloves off: He insists white Americans themselves must be at the forefront of the policy shifts necessary to correct our nation’s racial imbalances in crime, health, wealth, education and more. A piercing, passionate and illuminating critique of the post-racial moment.”
—Bakari Kitwana, author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crises in African American Culture
“Tim Wise’s Colorblind brilliantly challenges the idea that the election of Obama has ushered in a post-racial era. In clear, engaging, and accessible prose, Wise explains that ignoring problems does not make them go away, that race-bound problems require race-conscious remedies. Perhaps most important, Colorblind proposes practical solutions to our problems and promotes new ways of thinking that encourage us to both recognize differences and to transcend them.”
—George Lipsitz, author of The Possessive Investment in Whiteness
I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a Black man in America. As circumstance would have it, I am a Black man in America, so I suppose that makes sense. However, in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, I’m not alone; the rest of the country, at least temporarily, appears to be interested in the lives of Black men, particularly young Black men. Out of that tragedy has arisen the need to explain the story of Black men on a national scale.
Of course, there isn’t a single narrative, one that will definitively place all the experiences of Black men into a neat package for a curious public. However, there are commonalities, uniting factors that can help those who will never be Black men or will come into scant contact with Black men to get a general sense of what shapes the lives of Black men. There’s the hope that, perhaps, the more the world knows about us, the fewer Trayvons there will be. A prayer set out into the darkness, no doubt, but that in itself is a part of the Black male experience.
It occurs to me, reflecting more in this moment about the lives of young brothers, that it’s a familiar enough story. It’s as human as it gets, despite the best attempts to deny us our humanity. I have found that Black men experience this world in ways that are quite similar to the widely known Kubler-Ross “5 Stages of Grief” model:
1. Denial. In his life, every Black man is afforded a period of unburdened optimism. The length varies for each individual, and some may not remember it. Whether it lasts until they turn five or 50, there’s at least a moment where a Black man can look out into the world and see it as full of opportunity. There exists no limits in his mind as to who or what he can become. It’s a time free of history’s lessons and society’s prejudices.
But there also comes a moment, an internal realization generally prompted by an outside force, where Black men have to confront their reality as “the other.” If you’re lucky, it could be something seemingly innocuous, like being told “you speak so well.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be potentially deadly, like being pulled over by a police officer for “looking suspicious.” It very well could be purposeful, as in an elder handing down to you a dog-eared copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Black male anger isn’t an anomaly, it’s a consequence of breathing.
Again, the timing and form of this message will vary from person to person, but eventually something pushes a previously dormant voice in the mind of every Black man to say “wake up, you’re Black” and he doesn’t want to believe it.
This isn’t so much about the denial of one’s Blackness as it is a denial about world’s reaction to that Blackness. No one wants to believe their mere existence is a problem, that the fact of their skin color will be an impediment to their goals. Everyone wants to be judged fairly based on who they are. No one wants to believe the worst in people. For a while, a Black man may choose to say to themselves that it simply isn’t true, that the world can see their humanity just fine. A few get stuck there, either by choice or delusion. Even those who make it past this stage may continue to long for the days of well-meaning ignorance and optimism.
2. Anger. Who can blame Black men for being angry? You’re born into a legacy that includes slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, marches, protests, and riots. From the moment you’re old enough to know what it is, you’re told that it’s likely you’ll end up in prison, and you start to believe it as you watch fathers/uncles/brothers/cousins be hauled off. Everywhere you go, you’re viewed as a problem that needs to be solved.
How can you not be angry when it seems like every other week you’re learning the name of another brother you’ll never meet, for all the wrong reasons? Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Abner Louima. Ramarley Graham. Oscar Grant. James Byrd. Troy Davis. James Anderson. Their names make it into the news and a familiar sense of pain and rage settles in, because the story never changes.
An interesting view from Author Robert D. Putnam on inequalities in American society and the economy. Putnam believes that racism isn't the major impediment to economic mobility in the country anymore - class is. And as far as that goes he may be correct. However, in weighing whether racism is an issue - a lot depends on just what you define as "racism".
1 Church, 1 Job, 1 Young Black Man Working
July 3, 2012
The Black Star Project Presents…
The 1 CHURCH, 1 JOB, 1 Young Black Man Working Program
In times of economic strain, our whole community suffers from the complications of unemployment. In an effort to develop a new model of community outreach and economic sustainability, The Black«Star Project will soon launch the 1 Church, 1 Job program. It is estimated that inChicago alone there are approximately 10,000 churches. The Black«Star Project will offer the opportunity to participate in this program to as many churches as are willing. During this five-week program, young, jobless African Americans participating will receive a salary of $1000, job training and administrative mentoring throughout, and valuable work experience to draw from in the future.
By the end of the five-week program, all those who participate will gain something valuable. The workers, in addition to the five weeks of steady salary, will develop the skills and knowledge they need to pursue lasting employment. The churches will strengthen their community by keeping young people away from extra-legal forms of income, violence, and joblessness. Businesses will gain cheaper labor, informed workers, and federal recognition. Finally, those governmental bodies offering their support will help combat the problems they’ve been appointed to solve.
Louisiana’s incarceration rate is the highest in US and it get much worse. As Charles M. Blow details. New York Times: Plantations, Prisons and Profits.
“Louisiana is the world’s prison capital. The state imprisons more of its people, per head, than any of its U.S. counterparts. First among Americans means first in the world. Louisiana’s incarceration rate is nearly triple Iran’s, seven times China’s and 10 times Germany’s.”
That paragraph opens a devastating eight-part series published this month by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans about how the state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing, and how many with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it.
The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.
First, some facts from the series:
• One in 86 Louisiana adults is in the prison system, which is nearly double the national average.
• More than 50 percent of Louisiana’s inmates are in local prisons, which is more than any other state. The next highest state is Kentucky at 33 percent. The national average is 5 percent.
• Louisiana leads the nation in the percentage of its prisoners serving life without parole.
• Louisiana spends less on local inmates than any other state.
• Nearly two-thirds of Louisiana’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders. The national average is less than half.
In the early 1990s, the state was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding, but instead of releasing prisoners or loosening sentencing guidelines, the state incentivized the building of private prisons. But, in what the newspaper called “a uniquely Louisiana twist,” most of the prison entrepreneurs were actually rural sheriffs. They saw a way to make a profit and did.
It also was a chance to employ local people, especially failed farmers forced into bankruptcy court by a severe drop in the crop prices.
But in order for the local prisons to remain profitable, the beds, which one prison operator in the series distastefully refers to as “honey holes,” must remain full. That means that on almost a daily basis, local prison officials are on the phones bartering for prisoners with overcrowded jails in the big cities.
The eight part series from The Times-Picayune of New Orleans on this abomination. The Times-Picayune: LOUISIANA INCARCERATED.
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