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Published: 23-11-2019

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Mass Incarceration in Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

For this paper, I intend to concentrate on Michelle Alexander’s award-winning book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which centers itself on the object of mass incarceration. Alexander’s beautiful account of the American mass incarceration technique pulls to the forefront the disproportionate amount of black men in the United States that are incarcerated compared to the quantity of white males behind bars, and moreover, the number of black males total in the United States. All through her research, Alexander utilizes each quantitative and qualitative analysis to draw up new proof relating to mass incarceration and modern demographics, utilizing historical context to curate an accurate image of the existing state of incarceration in America and predictions on what the future will look like, offered the modern reality that the evidence depicts. A single item that must be pointed out on the title alone of this piece: Alexander’s book was published in 2010, for the duration of the 1st Obama administration and shortly soon after the election of America’s 1st black president. The idea of sociopolitical colorblindness suggested by the title has changed significantly in the wake of the 2016 election of President Trump and the racially charged campaign that led to his presidency. Even though tensions in race relations have turn into much more apparent in very current years, Alexander’s mention of colorblindness in 2010 should be interpreted as becoming fairly prophetic.

Alexander opens The New Jim Crow by characterizing the then-new political landscape in 2010 as dangerously misleading in how the political ethos is championed for its supposed colorblindness. She describes leaving an election evening celebration in 2008 after the historic election of President Obama, quickly struck upon her departure by the image of a black man “on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as many police officers stood around him talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence” (2). This image is one which reappears in haunting style all through Alexander’s work, both in visual images, like this moment, and ones engrained in history and otherwise abstract statistics. They are brought to life via Alexander’s readings of what numbers mean as bodies, lives, and the communities who care for and are attached to these bodies and lives––living and dead, free of charge and behind bars. In an age of colorblindness, Alexander suggests, discrimination rears its head in an even uglier fashion: if race is no longer a difficulty, then certainly no authority could be punishing people, even people of the identical race, repeatedly, unfairly, due to the fact of their race… appropriate?

The answer to this question, obviously, is a resounding no. However, the commonality of this argument is all also familiar to folks belonging to racial minorities in the United States regarding punishment under the law. The New Jim Crow sets out to uncover the legacy of racialized punishment over generations, resulting in the very same sociopolitical effects as written discriminatory code enacted prior to the civil rights legal accomplishments of the 1960s. Alexander describes these mutations over time as not getting terminated the racial caste technique in the United States, but rather, as obtaining served to extend it in politically correct terminology so as to obfuscate the continued racial oppression of blacks and other minorities. Alexander identifies a main shift in the way blacks have been caste out of their social and political rights and participations that is not by way of Jim Crow, but by way of mass incarceration. An lawyer herself, Alexander unwinds all the legal techniques American society is legally permitted to discriminate against felons. “Once [felons] are released, they are often denied the correct to vote, [and are] excluded from juries,” she notes, continuing to highlight that felons are moreover “legally denied the ability to get employment, housing, and public benefits—much as African Americans were after forced into a segregated, second-class citizenship in the Jim Crow era” (four). Alexander powerfully accounts this phenomenon as getting recreated a racial caste in the United States which oppresses not only blacks, but other minorities as properly.

Compared to other industrialized countries, even exceeding ones with repressive governments, Alexander states, the United States’ rate of incarceration has burst to an extraordinary 750 incarcerated per 100,000 folks, a statistic that erupted alongside America’s War on Crime. “In significantly less than thirty years, the U.S. penal population exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the improve,” Alexander states (6). And whilst the surveys referenced by Alexander have shown that folks of all races use drugs and sell them at similar prices, whites use and sell much more so than individuals of any race in America. The incarcerated picture, nonetheless, appears a lot diverse than the base statistics. “In some states, black guys have been admitted to prison on drug charges at prices twenty to fifty occasions greater than those of white guys,” Alexander states, painting a portrait of an intense racial disproportionality that not only incorrectly reflects the reality of the drug crisis in the United States, but visually and statistically skews it so that the common public is reinforced to think that black men commit the majority of drug use and trafficking crime (7). Alexander hints to a pattern of Foucaultian biopolitics at play in the work of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs in the United States. The language of declared war on a substance, and not a individuals, was lost on its consequences in active policy and policing the general public. This language, combined with critical timing of declarative drug crises only served “to fuel conspiracy theories and general speculation in poor black communities that the War on Drugs was component of a genocidal strategy by the government to destroy black men and women in the United States,” Alexander writes (five).

Minority communities were not altogether wrong in believing their personal suspicions of the government. The subjectivity of mass incarceration is multifaceted in its punitive nature. “So lengthy as big numbers of African Americans continue to be arrest and labeled drug criminals, they will continue to be relegated to a permanent second-class status upon their release,” Alexander states, noting the slippery temporality of possessing been when incarcerated, in that the existing system by no means actually frees its prisoners (14). Alexander notes that observers of American history will see that racism is malleable more than spatial and temporal periods. This potential, to evolve and adapt primarily based on the political ethos of the time, is what one more legal scholar, Reva Siegel calls “‘preservation through transformation,’ [or] the method by way of which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change” (21). The evolution of the structures which delineate the underclass, or secondary class citizenship relegated to blacks and other minorities through time, is specifically what tends to make them so impervious to social confrontation.

Alexander notes that the social structure of racial caste is maintained “largely by appealing to the racism and vulnerability of lower-class whites, a group of individuals who are understandably eager to ensure that they in no way uncover themselves trapped at the bottom of the American hierarchy,” unknowingly participating in one thing of a racial bribe, fostered by the white elite (22). If decrease class whites can not band together with black Americans against the white house-owning elite, then the possibilities of political overthrow drastically diminish. The existence of this phenomenon is evidenced by the aftermath of the March 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. participated in shortly before his assassination. “Shortly before his assassination, [King] envisioned bringing to Washington, D.C., thousands of the nation’s disadvantaged in an interracial alliance that embraced rural and ghetto blacks, Appalachian whites, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans to demand jobs and income—the right to reside,” Alexander asserts (39). This was to be referred to as the Poor People’s Campaign, focusing on the inalienable intersections of civil and labor rights. It need to not go unnoticed that King’s death came incredibly close following his elevated attention to the rights of laborers. Throughout 1675, in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, white plantation owners saw the potential strength of poor white and black laborers converging against unfair laboring situations. “Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an work to drive a wedge among them,” Alexander states, noting that, as a consequence, “the language of the Constitution itself was deliberately colorblind (the words slave or Negro had been in no way employed), but the document was constructed upon a compromise regarding the prevailing caste system” (25-26).

The legacy of such ambiguous language, constructed into the foundations of the Constitution by the Founding Fathers, all of whom had been white men, and many of whom owned slaves themselves, trickles into the continued reality of mass incarceration as the chief architect of continued racial subjugation right now. “Just as the white elite had successfully driven a wedge between poor whites and blacks following Bacon’s Rebellion by making the institution of black slavery, an additional racial caste technique was emerging practically two centuries later, in portion due to efforts by white elites to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor men and women,” Alexander says, getting to the point of the Jim Crow laws (34-35). Again, we see three converging aspects duplicate over time by means of mutation: the object of the white elite, the multiracial poor, and the system devised between them to separate them in three components by race, class, and for that reason, caste. Soon after the disbandment of Jim Crow, a newly transformed “race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments,” in which white conservatives “found they could set up a new racial caste system with out violating the law or the new limits of acceptable political discourse, by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever’” (40). It is this discursive tactic of language that makes it however nearly not possible to challenge the issue of mass incarceration in the United States as an institution of racial oppression, without having getting labeled a social extremist or a political dissident seeking to arbitrarily villainize law enforcement.

The War on Drugs proved to exact a effective impact on America’s white constituency moving into the 1970s and beyond. Pulling from the quantitative analyses of researchers Mark Peffley et. al, Frank Furstenberg, Stephen Earl Bennett and Alfred Turchfarber, Alexander delivers a powerful summary of white racial resentment in this moment of time:

Starting in the 1970s, researchers discovered that racial attitudes—not crime rates or likelihood of victimization—are an essential determinant of white help for ‘get tough on crime’ and anti-welfare measures. Amongst whites, those expressing the highest degree of concern about crime also have a tendency to oppose racial reform, and their punitive attitudes toward crime are largely unrelated to their likelihood of victimization. Whites, on average, are far more punitive than blacks, in spite of the truth that blacks are far much more most likely to be victims of crime. Rural whites are frequently the most punitive, even though they are least most likely to be crime victims. (54)

These statistics are very arresting when cross examined against the notion of white privilege that is somehow deserved. The idea of whites as belonging to a superior race, 1 that is far more or much less impervious to committing the majority of crime, particularly violent crime and crime connected to drug use and sale, is an utter fallacy. White privilege is extremely fragile when these beliefs are set against the stark contrast of reality. It is this fragility, held by whites, that demands the continual evolution of the terms and circumstances by which blacks and other minorities are socio-politically and economically suppressed over several generations.

Following the election of President H.W. Bush and the push again by white America for an even fiercer War on Drugs, and more broadly, crime, law enforcement budgets started to see drastic increases in funding. As they expanded, so did the numbers of black and minority prison populations. “In 1991, the Sentencing Project reported that the number of folks behind bars in the United States was unprecedented in globe history, and that a single fourth of African American males were now under the control of the criminal justice program,” Alexander states (56). Whilst this statistic reported one thing devastating to the subject of the civil rights in America, each Democrats and Republicans alike skirted about the situation with language of drugs and crime. When once again, the use of race-neutral verbiage eliminated any robust political confrontation of mass incarceration major back to the longstanding situation of black oppression by a modest political white elite, supported by an really defensive white electorate. “More than two million people discovered themselves behind bars at the turn of the twenty-very first century, and millions much more were relegated to the margins of mainstream society… exactly where discrimination in employment, housing, and access to education was perfectly legal, and exactly where they could be denied the appropriate to vote,” Alexander assesses, briefing us when more on the continued temporal punishment of imprisonment extended soon after an individual has been released from behind bars (58).

In addition, Alexander asserts: “Ninety % of these admitted to prison for drug offenses in a lot of states were black or Latino, however the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaption to the demands and demands of the existing political system” (58). She reminds us that two thirds of the boost in the federal inmate population are for drug offenses, and that “approximately a half-million men and women are in prison or jail for a drug offense right now, compared to an estimated 41,000 in 1980—an enhance of 1,one hundred %. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, far more than 31 million individuals have been arrested for drug offenses considering that the drug war began” (60). Most of these arrests and those incarcerated are belonging to a racial minority. Additionally, most of these arrests are not significant offenses, and are not arrests of men and women at the heads of drug circulation in the United States. Alternatively of rehabbing these individuals, America chooses to arrest and imprison them. While President Trump lately declared illegal opioid use in the U.S. a wellness crisis, the identical has not been stated for the residents of communities addicted to crack cocaine. It is not so far of a jump in rationale to assume that, for American politicians and their white constituents, that the distinction amongst a public well being crisis and a crime issue is contingent on race.

In the 1970s, the period of time surrounding President Nixon’s declaration of America’s War on Drugs, “illegal drug use and abuse was not a pressing concern in most communities,” Alexander writes, noting an intriguing push back from law enforcement agencies on the politically declared drug war (72). Because law enforcement agencies initially felt that the political concentrate on drug crimes served as a distraction of consideration and sources from a lot more severe circumstances “such as murder, rape, grand theft, and violent assault” the Reagan administration responded in 1988 by funneling “millions of dollars in federal aid” to those “state and nearby law enforcement agencies prepared to wage the war” (73). Soon after decades of shifting sources in the direction of law enforcement, officers steadily became more than willing to make arrests on behalf of the federal government’s constant requests. “According to the Cato Institute, in 1997 alone, the Pentagon handed over far more than 1.2 million pieces of military equipment to neighborhood police departments,” Alexander states, noting that the National Journal had published a report which showed “that between January 1997 and October 1999, the agency handled three.4 million orders of Pentagon gear from over eleven thousand domestic police agencies in all fifty states” (74). The use of SWAT teams and forced entries since the establishment of these funding trends to law enforcement recreated a culture of intense threat and dominance inside law enforcement agencies that reminds us of previous injustices to black America. Now armed with military equipment and encouraged to use military tactics in SWAT drug raids, law enforcement became newly emboldened to use the very same repressive and degrading tactics of law enforcement in Birmingham, Alabama throughout the 1963 civil rights protests.

Alexander reminds us that once a particular person has been imprisoned with a felony, even for a minor drug offense, they are excommunicated from any sense of normalcy regarding life in the United States. Barred from voting and jury duty, unable to gather any type of welfare to restart their lives once more as free of charge citizens, and forced to reveal their status as a felon to prospective employers, the formerly incarcerated becomes politically disempowered and socioeconomically disenfranchised. Simply because of this cyclical imprisonment in the context of broader society, she suggests, there ought to be no confusion as to why former prisoners often uncover themselves back behind bars time and time once more right after their initial arrest. “According to a Bureau of Justice Statistic study, about 30 percent of released prisoners in its sample have been rearrested inside six months of release. Inside three years, almost 68 % have been rearrested at least as soon as for a new offense. Only a small minority are rearrested for violent crimes the vast majority are rearrested for property offense, drug offenses, and offenses against the public order,” Alexander states (94). This cyclical phenomenon relegates drug offenders, specifically black and minority offenders, to a second-class status that is undeniably imprisoning beyond the limitations of the physical imprisonment they completed as penance for their crime. Whilst rural whites purchase, use and sell drugs at a higher rate than any other racial group, law enforcement has been encouraged to target minority neighborhoods and the justice department to deliver stricter punishment on blacks and Latinos than whites by an incredibly massive margin. “Nevertheless, black guys have been admitted to state prison on drug charges at a price that is far more than thirteen times larger than white guys,” Alexander reports, reminding her readers that the “gross racial disparities” seen by way of statistic like this “simply can't be explained by prices of illegal drug activity among African Americans” and other minority groups regarding drug crimes (one hundred).

Drug use as being contrary to law and order switched in the 1970s from becoming publically observed as a overall health crisis, and to a war on the individuals who employed and as a result bought drugs, but elevated its hold on the political ethos substantially during the mid-1980s. Alexander references findings in research of tv network news between 1990 and 1991 “which found that a predictable ‘us against them’ frame was used in the news stories, with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a handful of corrupted whites” caught in the debase cycle of drug use (105). This false narrative has permeated the white American consciousness so a lot so that even if a black perpetrator of drug crimes in no way exists in the retelling of a drug arrest story, white viewers and listeners will fill in the schematic imaginary gap to incorporate the race of the perpetrator as getting black. In the study Alexander references which suggests this, “60 percent of [television] viewers who saw a story with no image falsely recalled seeing one particular, and 70 percent of those viewers believed the perpetrator to be African American” (106). This evidence of fierce cognitive bias in white minds suggests that the media’s role in reinforcing falsehoods and stereotypes of black Americans and drugs is almost undisputable in its relevance. Even if whites are consciously free of charge from racial bias, implicit bias tests have proven multiple instances more than a number of generations that subconscious bias in white Americans frequently holds negative sentiments toward blacks and other minorities, drawing them closer to tips of violence, drug crimes, and general hostility. In turn, these subconscious biases result in whites becoming overtly defensive and hostile to these racial groups. Combined with politically correct language obfuscating truthful conversations about race, violence, and the object of mass incarceration, white resistance to vital reflections of privilege continue to stymy race relations in the United States.

Alexander suggests that “racially biased police discretion is key to understanding how the overwhelming majority of folks who get swept into the criminal justice system in the War on Drugs turn out to be black or brown, even even though the police adamantly deny that they engage in racial profiling” (123). They do so whilst actively targeting poor black urban communities more than wealthy white suburban ones, since the police know their sources would be lost over a drug bust of a rich white suburban enterprise owner’s son’s lawyer in court. Meanwhile, a poor young black man with no sources in the urban ghetto is most likely only in a position to rely on his public defender, and will be counted as a legitimate arrest in the eyes of the law. Alexander calls on legal scholar David Cole’s observations of the court method to describe the challenging and unrewarding experience of black and minority defendants who challenge the court on its racial discrimination. “The barriers are so high that couple of lawsuits are even filed, notwithstanding shocking and indefensible racial disparities. Procedural hurdles, such as the ‘standing requirement,’ have produced it practically impossible to seek reform to law enforcement agencies through the judicial approach, even when the policies or practices at concern are illegal or plainly discriminatory,” Alexander explains (128). She notes that there exist examples of court rulings that have rendered it practically impossible to challenge the court for becoming racially discriminatory, such as the ruling of Adolph Lyons v. the City of Los Angeles, in which after becoming place into a police chokehold, Lyons decided to sue the city for violating his constitutional rights, looking for to ban the chokehold. “The Court’s ruling in Lyons [created] it really hard to challenge systemic race discrimination in law enforcement and obtain meaningful policy reform. For example, African Americans in Seattle who hope to finish the Seattle police department’s discriminatory techniques by way of litigation would be required to prove that they plan to violate drugs laws,” and would as a result be expecting to come into contact with law enforcement once again in their life, Alexander reports (129). The choices of courts in cities across the United States have a profound influence on a single yet another and can reinforce or weaken situations in other municipalities.

If the method of mass incarceration is so unbound to our current discussion of civil rights, and the court system is so firmly entrenched in previous rulings, how can we move forward in addressing these problems? Alexander suggests that our future as a country cost-free of racial caste is bound in the fabric of colorblindness and our willingness, or unwillingness, to shatter stereotypes with truth. “Seeing race is not the dilemma. Refusing to care for the men and women we see is the dilemma. The fact that the meaning of race may possibly evolve over time or lose a lot of significance is hardly a cause to be struck blind,” Alexander states (244). And if we are actually serious about dismantling the systemic racial control of mass incarceration, then we must be severe about funding public defenders at the exact same level as prosecutors, legalizing marijuana, rescinding mandatory drug sentencing laws, adopting meaningful re-entry applications for felons, and retraining of these former prisoners so that they might “realistically attain for higher-paying jobs and viable, rewarding career paths,” Alexander states (233). Our seriousness in solving the problems of institutionalized racism in the kind of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs will manifest itself in the tangible action we take as individual members and collective groups. These reforms gradually chip away at the foundations of these racist systems by means of policy reassessment and active change. Gradually, as these reforms construct in number and in scope, racial caste will adjust, not only simply because new policies have been enacted, but due in big component to the analysis and education it will require of legislators, reformers, and the basic public to get to this spot of racial equity beneath the law. If there is 1 factor Alexander believes, it is that continuing to have conservations under the colorblind language that presently dominates our political and social encounter, will not get us there. We must be willing to strip away the veneer of a colorblind society and accept the damages of our past in order to move forward. The technique is repairable, and as Alexander reminds us, “as King insisted forty years ago, ‘a radical restructuring of our society,’ then perhaps we can also agree that a radical structuring of our method to racial justice advocacy is in order as well” (260).
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