Let me begin the first entry of my Lenten reading series by claiming my own privileges and biases: I am a white female coming to terms with my own complicity in an unjust system which values people like me above black Americans. As such, I am writing these reflections for people who want to become more aware of the injustices in our nation, who want to be good allies, and are doing what they can to nudge those in power and privilege into solidarity and action with the oppressed and marginalized.
As part of my #BlackLivesMatter reading list, I read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
To describe it as eye-opening is an understatement.
I knew there was underlying racism in our prison and criminal justice systems, but I didn’t know how it could happen. Like many other white Americans, my education conditioned me to believe racism in America is dead and gone. I’m still dealing with those biases, and Alexander’s thorough work brought the stories and statistics long hidden in the dark into the bright light of day.
Alexander’s thesis is this: the current mass incarceration of black Americans in the United States acts as a new system of control reminiscent of Jim Crow society. She begins by explaining the relationships between black slaves and white indentured servants early in American history. Since the indentured servants and slaves otherwise occupied the same class and social ranks, they collaborated together against the white land owners for whom they worked and fought side by side in rebellions. To prevent further collaborations, the white land owners pushed an agenda of white supremacy, which caused a cease in interracial collaborations. Alexander then goes into detail about emancipation, the failure of Reconstruction, and the rise and “downfall” of the Jim Crow laws, setting up the stage for the start of the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of black Americans which followed.
As of now, there are over 2 million people imprisoned in the United States, compared to 300,000 people thirty years ago. Four million more are on parole or probation. However, despite the fact that the use and selling of drugs across races is similar, three out of four young black men are likely to serve time in prison, and black men are often admitted on drug charges “at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of white men.”
Alexander compares this mass incarceration of black men for drug use the “New Jim Crow” because of the permanent and legal revoking of the rights of incarcerated citizens upon receiving a felony conviction. Revoked rights include the right to vote, access to government assistance, and securing a job, similar losses black Americans legally sustained during the Jim Crow era. Unfortunately, few are able to push back against these losses, because so many legal cases have supported a “colorblind” criminal justice system, and racism is only seen as a matter of intention instead of a subtle, systematic issue. This is because the only ones deemed racists today are the KKK and people who act in outright ways to show hatred and hostility to black Americans. Subtle, even unintentional and everyday, acts of racism are not regarded as racist, because they are “unintended” and, to some, invisible.
This is an excellent and important read, because to those unaware, Alexander provides insight into the racist (intentional or otherwise) structure of our legal and prison system. When a disproportionate amount of black people are imprisoned for drug crimes committed at an equal/greater rate by white people, something in need of confrontation and change is lurking below the surface.
The problem is not guilty people being imprisoned for drug use. The problem is the obvious racial biases inherent in the War on Drugs, which result in the targeting of black Americans and black communities at a rate disproportionate to Americans involved in drug crimes. The problem is mandatory minimum sentencing laws which require any person charged with any type of possession to be sentenced from five years to a decade or more in prison. The problem is the inability to be able to plea anything other than guilty, even when innocent, because of biases surrounding race and lack of financial and legal assistance.
This is a human rights issue, and unfortunately, because these human beings are labeled criminals and felons, few seem willing to rush to their defense.
However, if we claim to be a just and equal society, we must stand up for all Americans, and the incarcerated are our citizens. If we claim to be Christians who follow Jesus, who is found with the imprisoned, we must advocate for their full inclusion in the world as children of God.
The stories, facts, and questions Alexander raises can increase awareness around the nation and push activists, new and seasoned alike, to confront the injustices occurring in a system called to uphold the law. Alexander, who wrote this book seven years ago and before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began, calls the activist community to cease ignoring this issue. Her advice and wisdom seem all the more appropriate and timely now.
The insights from Alexander’s work can also begin the long overdue conversations about race which honor the voices of black Americans, those incarcerated and free, and white voices affected by crippling poverty. They can push white people to confront their own biases, intentional or otherwise. As people shaped in a society in which most of the power is held my white people, racial biases are inevitable, and we must confront, acknowledge, and deal with them, or else we refuse to heal and be good allies to our black brothers and sisters.
In short, Alexander reminds us we need to find solutions to make America a true democracy for ALL. In the fight for justice, we must seek it for “all of us, or none.”
To become involved in the fight for prison and criminal justice reform, check out The Sentencing Project, NAACP – Criminal Justice, and/or FAMM – Families Against Mandatory Minimums.