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Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

The New Jim Crow book coverOn February 9, 2012,  my wife, Priscilla and I participated in a program sponsored by the Center for the Healing of Racism which focused on a new book by Michelle Alexander titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.   I thought I knew a lot about the criminal justice system having worked on the death penalty issue for many years.  However, I was shocked by what I learned in this program.

If you want to understand why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world,  I recommend that you read Michelle Alexander’s book.  After reading this book, you will come to understand why we have over 2 million people incarcerated and another 5 million under court-supervised probation or parole.  You will also come to understand why our prison population is overwhelmingly people of color – it is because they have been targeted in the so-called “war on drugs” that started during the Reagan Administration.  The purpose of the drug war was not so much to fight drugs, but to woo white voters in the south from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.  Unfortunately, when Bill Clinton became President, he strengthened the war on drugs in an effort to woo voters back to the Democratic Party.   The “tough on crime” policies of the Clinton Administration resulted in the largest increase in incarceration of any U.S. President according to the Justice Policy Institute.  It is an amazing statistic that more African American adults are under court supervision today than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. 

When you read Alexander’s book, you will also come to understand that a new caste system has been created by the “war on drugs”.   Thousands of people of color who were “locked up” as a result of minor drug convictions were later “locked out” of society because they could no longer vote, serve on juries, get a job, live in public housing or get food stamps.  They are prevented from fully participating as U.S. citizens even though they have paid their debt to society.  No other nation in the world disenfranchises convicted felons in the same way as the United States.    This is just plain wrong.  Alexander calls this the “new Jim Crow” and she is right.      

It is important to understand that the U.S. Supreme Court has been complicit in mass incarceration and creation of the new caste system.    A succession of Supreme Court decisions have resulted in people of color being targeted for drug investigations and unfair treatment in the courts.  Because of these decisions it is just about impossible to counter racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, although it clearly exists. 
After reading Michelle Alexander’s book and the research on which it is based, it is very clear that the criminal justice system in the United States is a costly, discriminatory system that is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families and crime.

But what can be done to correct this situation?   U.S. Politicians and the U.S. Supreme Court have indicated little appetite for reform although problems with the current system are clearly evident. Politicians don’t want to appear to be “soft on crime”.  Furthermore, billions of dollars have been invested in the current system, including the building of hundreds of new prisons throughout the country.  And the U.S. seems to be immune from criticism by human rights organizations, including the U.N. Human Rights Committee which has charged that U.S. disenfranchisement policies are discriminatory and violate international law.  

In Michelle Alexander’s opinion, which I agree with, there is only one response to “mass incarceration and disenfranchisement”, that is a “mass movement” for basic human rights.   This mass movement must involve all races and ethnic groups and all sectors of society.  A “mass awakening” is the first step in this movement and I recommend Alexander’s book to achieve that.   Following this mass awakening, we must organize ourselves to convince our politicians that the racist system that has been created over the past 30 years must be deconstructed.    This will not be easy to accomplish considering the huge investment in the current system by so many people, but it must be done even if it takes a generation or two to accomplish.  Perhaps one of the most promising ways of accomplishing this change will be to focus on the ineffectiveness of the current system in driving down crime as well as the huge cost to American taxpayers of maintaining this ineffective system. 

Michelle Alexander cautions us that the broader issue of race in our society must also be addressed if we are to prevent another caste system based on race to develop in the future.  She states, “..if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to create an ethic of genuine care, compassion and concern for every human being – of every class, race and nationality, within our nation’s borders, including poor whites who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America.  Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge…”  What Alexander is ultimately calling for is the creation of the Beloved Community of which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of so eloquently.   So, as we work on one level to deconstruct a racist criminal justice system that has resulted in mass incarceration and disenfranchisement, let us work on another level to create the Beloved Community. 

View the website for The New Jim Crow for more details. A trailer for the book is also available below.

David Atwood