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Prison Racism and the Myth of a Colorblind Justice System

A conversation with author Michelle Alexander on media manipulations and the mass injustice incarcerated minorities face across the United States.

Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow. —Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010), p. 4.

If news reports from the last three decades should check clean, Black and Brown males only number the Criminal Justice System today because they choose, of own free will, to turn the ways of crime and disorder; perhaps also because they seem to come from stock inherently deformed and defiled—unable to adapt to a civilized world where barbarism is unacceptable.

And if the renowned rants of Black butlers on the Right should be treasured, Black males only find their human rights violated constantly, only find their dignities criminalized, only fall in the crosshairs of this very real War on Drugs, because they’ve discarded phonetics, filled their iPods with N.W.A. records, altogether accepted academic success as a White Thing, and preferred to sag their khaki pants three inches below waist level.

Of course delusion is powerful, and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, in her scathing text The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, levels these reports and rants with rare clarity, depth, and candor.“Mass incarceration, like Jim Crow, helps to define the meaning and significance of race in America,” she writes. “Indeed, the stigma of criminality functions in much the same way that the stigma of race once did. It justifies a legal, social, and economic boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

The “them” have long found out their society lost faith in Redemption about the same time it sent into office a B-movie Hollywood actor/corporate salesman, who took on the causes of the rich and ruthless; pronouncing drug users Public Enemy No. 1, shelling out cold cash to any districts desperate enough to hook their tongues around the fishing rod. Since, sentencing rates have “quintupled,” for-profit prison stocks have boomed, rehabilitation resources have dwindled, and a “collapse of resistance” has seized activists and concerned citizens once outraged enough to topple the system of incarceration entirely.

It’s become increasingly easy to neglect those caged in and denied meaningful citizenship for the rest of their lives because for most, even before buying or selling those couple pounds of weed, even before lifting that crack pipe to their lips and inhaling with blissful pain, even before signing those flat checks amounting a few hundred dollars, society didn’t consider them clean enough to warrant concern. So now that the stain has grown greatly, and spread through far and wide, it’s more acceptable—even reasonable—to turn backs, eyes, and ears to millions crying out for help.

Now the wind has changed direction and I’ll have to leave
Won’t you please excuse my frankness but it’s not my cup of tea

Communities of color can suffer immeasurably from unwarranted (often deadly) police presence, and no significant, mainstream outrage is raised. Families of color are dropped to their knees, with fathers and mothers saddled with lengthy sentences for harmless infractions, and news channels implore their cameramen and correspondents to keep seeking more sensational stuff. Increasingly, working-class Whites are bullied into prisons for sinking one or two pills into their throats, for digging into their arm veins with H-filled needles; but, even then, they’re “not the real target”—they’re mere collateral damage, alibi even: to assure the world no Race-specific agenda is at work. Michelle Alexander begs to differ.

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