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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.
 
 
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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.

A couple of days back, I spoke with her on the myth of colorblindness, on how media images frame public perceptions of prisoners and subsequent punitive policies, what mass incarceration means for ailing communities of color, and the struggle ahead for all sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Thanks for your time, Ms. Alexander. You begin the book with juxtaposed images of a Black man handcuffed and overshadowed by officers in some street gutter, and a Black man overshadowing a past of Jim Crow and segregation to make history happen. In the first, passersby ignore the Black man; in the second, hundreds of thousands are paying solemn attention to his every word. Can you take it from there?

Yes. With the election of Barack Obama, so many people have persuaded themselves that we’ve finally triumphed over Race, that we’ve moved beyond Race. Meanwhile, of course, there are millions of poor people of color who have been branded felons, relegated to a permanent second-class status, legally discriminated against. So, that young Black man kneeling in the gutter, at the same time the world is celebrating the election of Barack Obama, is, I think, a profound illustration of how our attention has been diverted, in recent years, away from those who’ve suffered from the emergence of this caste system, and how we’ve been enchanted by the election of a few African-Americans into positions of power.

You insist that forms of racism don’t die out but adapt to the times—preservation-through-transformation, as you describe. “The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy,” you write, “evolve and change as they are challenged.” Why have most civil rights groups failed to see this and take up critical action against it—preferring to lunge from courtroom to courtroom rather than attack the streets, where the real war is taking place? And you have some stern words for these groups—“adapt or die.”

Yes. I wrote this book because I was so deeply alarmed by the relative quiet of the civil rights community and African-American leaders in the face of mass incarceration. And I admit, at the outset, that I, myself, failed to fully grasp the extent of the devastation caused to communities of color as a result of the Drug War. There was a time when I didn’t fully get it.

I had a series of experiences representing victims of racial profiling, police brutality, and people who are struggling to “re-enter” a society—that never much wanted them in the first place—after being branded a felon. I had a series of experiences that affected me in profound ways; and now that I can see, with blinders off, the way it operates, the history, and how it functions to recreate a permanent second-class status for poor people of color (especially Black people in America), it is downright painful to watch so many of our African-American leaders, people who call themselves Progressives, including some in the civil rights community, standing by quietly as this Drug War rages on in our communities and mass incarceration continues at pace.

But my book isn’t just about wagging fingers, because I was complicit in this system for quite a while. It’s really an effort to inspire others, to wake people up.

What was the writing process like? I mean, what were you looking for, what did you find, and what weren’t you prepared for—what blew your head off?

In the course of my research, there were a number of studies that did blow my mind. One is that today there are more African-Americans under correction or control, in prison or in jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850. That’s a decade before the Civil War began. The scale of this system is astonishing! And we’re blind to it in part because prisons are out of sight and out of mind. During the Jim Crow era, there were “White Only” signs everywhere, Black people were supposed to sit on the back of the bus—there was no denying the caste system. But, today, if you’re not in it, it’s easy to deny. Prisons are typically located in White rural communities, far away from highways; and once former prisoners get out, they’re typically dumped back into the same racially segregated communities from which they came.

Another fact was that as of 2004 there were more Blacks disenfranchised than in 1870—the year the 15th amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws discriminating against the right to vote based on Race. And the Felony Disenfranchisement laws today have decimated the potential Black electorate.

And I read one study by the Urban League in Chicago—that was another study that completely blew my mind—showing that in Chicago nearly 80% of working-age African-American men have criminal records that legalize discrimination for the rest of their lives. Nearly 80%! Just the scope and scale of this system…

The book mostly details this new Jim Crow that marginalizes poor males of color. But is it not true that women, especially Black women, are fast becoming prime target, as well, even swelling up ranks just as swiftly as Black men did 20 years ago?

Oh, yes. It is true. And while my book focuses specifically on Black men, that is in no way to diminish the significance of women in the Criminal Justice System. In fact, one could argue that the harm caused by high rates of incarceration of Black women is greater than that of the incarceration of Black men, because our communities are so fragile. To remove mothers, who are just barely holding these families together, and put them in cages, relegates children to foster care—for relatively minor drug offences. And this threatens to unravel what’s left of the Black family.

Can you talk a bit about Ronald Reagan, the pater familias of this enterprise? Right as he announced the War on Drugs three decades back, only 2% of Americans considered drugs the most pressing national crisis. Soon enough, as you write, through legalized and sanitized bribery of local officials, this War became established as a serious threat worth endless resources.

Yes. Most people think the War on Drugs was launched absolutely in response to a rise in drug crimes. But that’s a big myth. Drug crime was actually on the decline when the War was declared. The War was part of a grand Republican strategy to issue racially coded political appeals—on crime and welfare: get-tough language—to poor White voters, especially in the South were many were disaffected from civil rights gains.

Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term—War on Drugs. But Ronald Reagan was able to turn that rhetorical war into a literal one. This was before crack actually hit the streets. And the Reagan administration seized the [subsequent] rise of crack, and actually hired staff to publicize inner-city crack-babies, crack-whores, crack-abuse, and crack-violence, in hopes of persuading Congress to devote millions more dollars to the Drug War. And the plan worked like a charm.

The Reagan administration was giving out cash to districts and agencies that were willing to boost the volume—the number of drug arrests—which gave them an incentive to just go out and round up, shake down, frisk, toss as many people as possible in order to boost their arrest numbers. And these stop-and-frisk practices are most prevalent in communities of color, because of a Drug War that has almost nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with racial politics.

You detail a number of studies, amongst which was one published in 2000 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, revealing some startling stats: White students used cocaine seven times the rate of Black students, used crack eight times the rate of Black students, used heroin seven times the rate of Black students. Another 2000 study, this time by the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, discovered White youth aged 12-17 fell over a third more likely to have peddled drugs than Black youth. But in a 1995 survey published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, wherein respondents were asked to shut their eyes and picture drug users, 95% envisioned Blacks, only 5% envisioned other racial groups—notwithstanding contrasting reports suggesting Blacks constituted only 15% of drug users at that period. So, why the disparity of reality?

A big part of the reason is media imagery. What you often see are Black men arrested and handcuffed for drug crimes; in movies, on television news, you see Black men depicted as drug criminals. And, again, this is no accident. At the time the War was launched, very few people cared about drug crime. And then, in the public consciousness, most people located drug use as White hippies smoking pot. That image changed profoundly after the Reagan administration launched a media campaign to publicize drug abuse and drug violence. The media became saturated with Black users as drug offenders. And by the time the War was unleashed, you couldn’t turn on the evening news without seeing images of Black and Brown men rounded in handcuffs as a result of drug sweeps. Now, routine coverage of drug sweeps aren’t as prevalent as they were in the ‘80s, but they still persist unabated, and the targets remain.

Now, that being said, there has always been a connection between African-American crime and the public consciousness—even dating back to Slavery up through Jim Crow. Every caste system has always been rationalized to some extent based on Black proclivity to crime.

On this issue, of media machinations, you raise a very serious concern, one of Public Pedagogy, where, as you lament, shows like Law & Order offer strikingly mythical misrepresentations of the justice system and the impacts on poor people of color caught up. Some arrested fellow screams, “I want my lawyer!” and, in the next scene, he’s sitting across a very competent, Yale-trained defendant willing to go to bat for him.

It’s such a myth. In reality, most people, if they’re lucky enough to meet with an attorney before they appear in court, meet for a matter of minutes before being forced to make decisions that would profoundly affect the rest of their lives. And the system is so set up to ensure innocent people pleading guilty to crimes they did not commit, from the threat of harsh mandatory minimum sentences or from probation promises—without being told that as a felon you’ll be discriminated against for the rest of your life: the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction. All of these come true because people are processed through the Criminal Justice System—like widgets moving through an assembly factory line.

I’m not sure you know of The Good Wife, but I’ve found it willing to let out some uncomfortable truths about inmates on Death Row, for-profit prisons, and the games politicians play with innocent lives hanging in the balance. Are there any shows getting it right on this issue, or is television just cursed from the start and innately untrustworthy?

Well, for the last several years I haven’t watched much television. I have three young kids, and I’ve been trying to write a book. I’ve been told that The Wire is very good. And I’ve heard good things about The Good Wife, too.

In Ohio, as you note, 90% of children charged have no lawyers. And across the country, young people, children even—some too young to brandish their skins with tattoos, or purchase Rated-R movie tickets, or legally drive cars—are sent to adult prisons, struck with lengthy sentences. (In fact, a brilliant book was released last year on this very frightening predicament, Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?) I’m wondering, how has media portrayal—demonization—of youth helped lead to a time and place where these ridiculously punitive policies are accepted as sane measures to address social problems plaguing young people?

Yes. There has definitely been a wave of punitiveness that has washed over. But I don’t think the effects are evenly felt. I mean, it’s extremely rare to have drug sweeps at fraternity houses or college campuses, to have upper-middle class kids courted to prisons and branded felons for the rest of their lives. So, I don’t think society has written off all youth—I think it’s written off some youth; and this has been defined widely by Race. Today, mass incarceration is really about marginalization—the disposal—of a group of people who are no longer essential to the functioning of our economy and our society.

We could, as a society, have offered bail-out plans, we could have flooded these communities with a wave of compassion. Instead, we declared a War on Drugs, we ended welfare as we knew it, we went in there and we rounded up young Black men en masse, and we disposed of them in prisons. So, I think those who are viewed as useful to our society are still treated relatively well in the media and in political discourse.

I loved so much your analysis of the street culture many young Black males adopt to, in many ways, search for solidarity and support—for familial meaning. You say, when their schools are transformed into prison sites, when they are rendered parentless, they inevitably come to embrace this stigmatized identity. And you ask: “Should we be shocked when they turn to gangs or fellow inmates for support when no viable family support structure exists? After all, in many respects, they are simply doing what black people did during the Jim Crow era—they are turning to each other for support and solace in a society that despises them.”

Yes. I think there is so much finger-wagging going on, even by Barack Obama, who on Father’s Day [two years back] said Black fathers are AWOL: they’ve abandoned their families, they’re acting like—Boys—instead of men. But so many of these men haven’t abandoned their families voluntarily. They’ve been rounded up. And in an environment like this—where a war has literally been declared upon you and your family—what do we expect these young folks to do? When you’re stopped and frisked on your way to school, stopped and frisked at school, told you’re never going to be anything but a criminal, harassed by officers, it is just utterly unreasonable for us to expect that youth subjected to this kind of treatment wouldn’t try to find some way to carve out a positive identity in the midst of all this—and try to have a posture of resistance.

You take it a step further in arguing that branding people of color as felons might be more insidious than many today admit—that the very act of incarceration might in fact be about Identity and Role in a racialized society. So you say, “The process of marking black youth as black criminals is essential to the functioning of mass incarceration as a racial caste system. For the system to succeed … black people must be labeled criminals before they are formally subject to control. … This process of being made a criminal is, to a large extent, the process of ‘becoming’ black.” It’s curious that in 1961, that great prophet you ended the book with, James Baldwin, touched on this topic—“What they do see when they look at you is what they’ve invested you with. And what they’ve invested you with is all the agony and the pain and the danger and the passion and the torment: you know, sin, death, and hell…” It’s stunning that 50 years after The Fire Next Time, Nobody Knows My Name, Notes of a Native Son, Blues for Mister Charlie—if you fast-forward, all the same pathologies still exist.

Yes! Absolutely! It’s astounding, actually. When you go back and just read those books—you see how much relevance they have today. It’s eerie, even. When you read Dr. King’s speeches. You read much of what Malcolm X had to say. When you go back and read this stuff, and when you think about it in the context of mass incarceration, you barely need to even change a word for it to have as much meaning and resonance for today.

Can the same also be said of the current immigration debate, over color as cause-for-suspicion, color as probability of outcast-alien status? You cite, in the book, the case of United States v. Brigoni-Ponce (1975), which essentially granted allowance of Race in suspecting Brown people of illegal immigration activity. How relevant is that with today’s Arizona unrest?

Yes. Well, I think most of what can be done in movement-building today is to identify the links, to be able to map the links between forms of oppression African-Americans are experiencing and forms of oppression Latinos are experiencing. There’s certainly a kind of divide-and-conquer attempt at work.

So, I think it’s critically important for us to see that what’s happening in Arizona has some common origins with the rise of mass incarceration in this country, which had to do with White anxiety over having to compete with a group of people they looked at as inferior. And here, in Arizona, you have the same dynamic—of White fear, anxiety, and panic over a group of people deemed to be inferior and undeserving.

I want to end on an issue you raise early in the book. Mere decades ago, you write, activists were bubbling across the country with fervor to overthrow the prison system entirely—not just in egregious instances, but altogether: to erase it as alleged blind arbiter of justice. Then one thing led to the other—Nixon came along, Reagan swooped down, Clinton swept in—and society has not been the same since. And this sense of powerlessness—in midst of privatized prisons and other grotesque metamorphosis the machine underwent—has created a “collapse of resistance.” But the clock is ticking, and the time is now for any redress of these very serious problems. So, how do you suggest this moment is seized by all those just as fed up as you are?

Yes. You’re absolutely right: people want to talk about a world without prisons and they’re dismissed as crazy or quacky, but it wasn’t that long ago when mainstream criminologists and policy advocates were talking about dismantling prisons because they caused more problems than they solved.

And, ultimately, I’m interested in building a movement not just to end mass incarceration but to end the cycle of racial caste. And centering on these isolated policy reforms is doomed to fail because the system can so easily adapt and bounce back. And a fierce backlash to any major form of downsizing to the system is inevitable because there are so many people—corporate interests—that have a stake in the maintenance and expansion of the system. And the backlash would come in forms of racially coded political appeals about the need to get tough on crime and not give people free passes. And most people’s biases would be tapped into again, to shore up this system and ensure it continues to function for a very long time.

And this is why I believe we need to build a movement to end mass incarceration head-on, rather than pretending this system is primarily about crime control—and can be fixed through criminal justice reform. This system is primarily about racial control.

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.
 
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