Skip to comments.Is mass incarceration the new caste system? (Yes, they mean just what you think they do)
Posted on 04/19/2012 1:07:24 AM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
After the dismantling of segregation nearly a half-century ago, African Americans have made tremendous strides: winning the right to vote, upward economic mobility and even the presidency. But alongside these achievements, something else happened the prison population exploded.
In just 30 years, between 1980 and 2000, the number of U.S. prisoners skyrocketed from 300,000 to more than 2 million, most of them poor people of color. The United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and imprisons a higher percentage of black people than South Africa did under apartheid.
This phenomenon, says law professor Michelle Alexander, has become the countrys newest racial caste system. In her award-winning book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander explains how Americas criminal justice system is no longer a system of crime prevention, but one of social and racial control, similar to segregation in the South.
In an interview with the Banner, Alexander, who will be speaking in Cambridge next Wednesday at 6 p.m., discusses mass incarceration, the fallacy of colorblindness, Trayvon Martin, the George Zimmerman-mindset and more.
What do you mean when you say mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow?
Its important for people to understand that the system of mass incarceration isnt primarily a system of crime prevention and control. It has become in recent decades a system of social and racial control. I refer to it as the new Jim Crow because even in this age of Obama, even in this era of so-called colorblindness, weve managed to recreate something akin to a caste system.
Thanks largely to the war on drugs and the get-tough movement, millions of people overwhelmingly poor people of color have been swept into our criminal justice system mainly for nonviolent and drug offenses, branded criminals and felons.Then [they are] ushered into a parallel social universe in which they are stripped of many of the civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement: the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, the right to be free from legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.
Many of the old forms of discrimination that we supposedly left behind in the Jim Crow era are suddenly legal again once youve been branded a felon. Thats why I saw we havent ended racial caste in America weve just redesigned it.
How did this happen?
One of the greatest myths about mass incarceration is that its been driven by crime and crime rates, when in fact our prison population has exploded quintupled in a period of a few short decades. We went from a prison population of about 300,000 in the 1970s and into the early 1980s, to now well over 2 million.
We now have the highest rates of incarceration in the world, a penal system unprecedented in world history, and this occurred in an astonishingly short period of time a few short decades. During those decades, crime rates fluctuated. Today, crime rates are at historic lows, but incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have consistently soared.
How has this racial caste system adapted to the colorblind or post-racial age, we supposedly live in today?
This system is colorblind on the surface. Our drug laws on the surface say nothing about race. Unlike the images of the old Jim Crow the images of overt, latent bigotry and racism this system has a colorblind veneer that is very seductive.
But the reality is that these colorblind laws, particularly our drug laws, are enforced in a grossly discriminatory manner. Even though studies have shown consistently now, for decades, that contrary to popular belief, people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites, people of color have been arrested and incarcerated at grossly disproportionate rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race African American.
The drug war has defined as its enemy, folks primarily who live in impoverished, racially segregated, ghettoized communities. It is the people who live in those communities, and their children, who are targeted by the police for routine stops and frisks [They] are subjected to tactics that would be met with outrage in middle-class white neighborhoods, or on college campuses, even though drugs are equally likely, or more likely, to be found there.
Does your argument apply to the way the United States has conducted the war on terror?
Unfortunately, many of the failed tactics that have been used in the war on drugs have been adapted in the war on terror. One of the important things for people to keep in mind is that you cant declare a war on a thing, like drugs or terrorism. You declare war on people. In the drug war, the people who became the enemy were poor folks of color, living in ghettoized communities.
In the war on terrorism, a group of people we imagine to be the terrorists have been the targets of investigation and subjected to practices that many believe violate many of our basic constitutional principles and standards.
How does the Trayvon Martin case fit into this?
Even during the Jim Crow era, crimes committed against black people, whether by whites or by other black people, were deemed trivial. It was often very difficult to get any action to be taken on behalf of the victim in those kinds of cases, and that remains true to a large extent today. When this unarmed teenager was killed, law enforcement accepted, relatively uncritically, George Zimmermans explanation. They ran drug tests and a criminal background check on the victim, but did no such thing for the man who pulled the trigger.
What Im concerned about, as all of the politics and the drama surrounding Trayvon Martins case plays out, is that we have demonized Zimmerman, rather than acknowledge that Zimmermans mindset, far from being unusual or aberrational, is absolutely normal and institutionalized within law enforcement itself.
If Zimmerman had had a badge with his gun, we wouldnt even know Trayvon Martins name today. What Zimmerman did view a young black teenager as a problem to be dealt with, confronted and controlled for no reason other than his race is how police treat young black men every day in this country.
If Zimmerman had a badge with his gun, stopping, confronting and interrogating Trayvon about who he is and what hes doing in that neighborhood, would have been perceived as perfectly normal. And if Trayvon had wound up dead in that encounter, people would have uncritically accepted the officers account of the event.
Although people are celebrating the second-degree murder charges that have been filed against Zimmerman, people fail to grasp that its not Zimmerman the man whos the problem its the Zimmerman mindset that infects our society as a whole, that weve given license to the police to institutionalize.
There was a tremendous outpouring of anger over the execution of Troy Davis last year. Do you think Americans are starting to understand what youve been talking about?
I do think people are waking up to the reality of how our criminal justice system functions. But Im concerned that these moments of outrage will not prove transformational unless we begin to see these cases as expressions of something that is fundamentally wrong with our criminal justice system.
If we fail to connect the dots and probe more deeply, I think well continue to see that these moments of outrage will subside and reemerge in cyclical fashion. So its my hope that through this tragedy, we begin to ask the bigger questions and begin to see that these cases arent aberrational, but are reflections of something much deeper that has gone wrong in our criminal justice system and our society itself.
Michelle Alexander will be speaking at Harvard Law School, 1585 Massachusetts Ave., on April 25 at 6 p.m.
There is a problem here. Since the late 1960s....the United States has become a drug problem. Go and drug-test every guy you arrest for a year in any major urban area....the vast number (my humble opinion) will be over 80 percent failing a drug test. I won’t even say this is a racial issue anymore...you likely get the same numbers with every society.
I admit, the drug war is a failure. But the massive number of drug users in the American population....doesn’t measure up percentage-wise with what you have in France, Japan or Denmark. They don’t have mega-jails, because they just don’t have the same amount of crime going on.
There’s a problem in existence, but I doubt that we can ever get a handle on this.
The solution is simple - AG Holder could institute a “Fairness” quota system for prison residents.
Mr. Obama could pardon every black incarcerated in the United States as one of his last acts in office. I could see him doing it, too.
Michelle Alexander - another person making a living off of race.
Yes, when you incarcerate criminals, crime goes down. Also, 1+1=2.
I guess it has nothing to do with who commits the crime it is only about race?Sorry don’t believe it.
Seems like half the folks on this board want to lock up people for possession of a plant. Those folks are actually part of the problem, such as it is.
Prison should be solely for those who commit violent crimes or victimize others through theft, force or fraud.
“Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil” i.e. “Moron”
Do the crime, serve the time. Justice should be color blind. BTW, there is no such thing as a “love crime”, so every crime is a “hate crime”. The burgeoning prison population IS a problem - what this country needs is a penal colony like Devil’s Island.
The obvious solution to this horrific problem (and I’m going to waive my usual exorbitant consultant’s fee for this one! You’re welcome!) is for “poor people of color” to STOP DOING SO DAMN MANY CRIMES!
Honestly, how hard is that to figure out??!?
Speaking of math, from the story:
In just 30 years, between 1980 and 2000...
Is it me, or is that 20 years?
“Seems like half the folks on this board want to lock up people for possession of a plant.”
Never mind the drug, it is the crime committed to obtain the drug or the crime committed under influence of the drug that should be prosecuted.
I don't think that the article author wants to legalize drugs. If all sorts of drugs were available in the local liquor store under the same conditions as buying alcohol, he would be running around screaming about "our young men being destroyed by the easy availability of heroin and cocaine!"
No, what he wants is for the drug dealers to be able to continue their occupations, just with police no longer hassling them for it.
Maybe, if African-Americans stopped breaking the law, there wouldn’t be so many of them in prison.
Just a thought.
How about we look back at government policies dating back to the '60's that destroyed the black family unit. If you're looking for the first cause of the epidemic of crime in certain racial groups, let's start there.
If this is a matter of racism, this it should be pretty easy to confirm or rebut. Check the percentage of black Caribbean and African immigrants imprisoned, compared to that of the native black population. I’m going to wager that it isn’t anywhere near as high.
"QUIT BREAKING THE LAW, A**HOLE!!!" -- Jim Carrey, in "Liar Liar."
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