Lisa Harris (lrph) Mon 17 May 10 09:25
I'd like to welcome Michelle Alexander, the author of "The New Jim Crow" to Inkwell.vue. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010). Michelle is a long-time civil rights litigator and advocate, as well as a legal scholar. For several years, Michelle served as director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, and subsequently directed the Civil Rights Clinics at Stanford Law School, where she was an associate professor. She's a former law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and has appeared as a commentator for numerous media outlets, including CNN and NPR. She currently holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. The New Jim Crow is her first book. Leading our discussion is Mark McDonough. Mark has been a denizen of the Well for 20 years. He has long been interested in drug and criminal justice issues, although for better or worse, he ignored all the people who told him to go to law school. In the early 1990s, he co-authored a book on alcohol treatment, which made him even more aware of the fact that our drug laws have almost nothing to do with science or medicine or crime. In a puckish mood, he once coined the term "War on Some Drugs" (WOSD), which according to Google has achieved some minor currency. Thank you both for being here.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 17 May 10 09:36
And I have a first question for Michelle. If you were going to look objectively at the state of black America today, you would have to say that criminal justice issues are front and center. Most of us are familiar with at least some of the eye-crossing statistics: the huge percentage of young black men who are incarcerated, on probation or on parole; the observation that a black man is far more likely to go to prison than graduate from college; the astonishing disparity between US incarceration rates and the rest of the world (with blacks and Latinos accounting for much of the difference). Given all this, why have we heard so little from the traditional Civil Rights organizations about criminal justice issues (as opposed to, for example, affirmative action)?
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Wed 19 May 10 20:18
You're absolutely right that, given the sheer scale of mass incarceration, one might think that criminal justice reform would be the top priority of every civil rights organization in the United States today. The magnitude of the crisis is utterly astounding. Our prison population has quintupled in thirty years -- a development that has very little, if anything, to do with crime rates. Our nation now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world thanks largely to a drug war waged almost exclusively in poor black and brown neighborhoods. The drug war has ripped apart families and communities, and it has resulted in the majority of African American men in many urban areas being branded felons for life. Once labeled a felon, so many of the old forms of discrimination -- denial of the right to vote and automatic exclusion from juries, as well as legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits -- are suddenly legal again. The clock has been turned back on racial progress to an extraordinary degree. So why the silence? There are a number of reasons for the relatively tepid response from the civil rights community, I believe, the most obvious being that civil rights advocates are not immune to prevailing racial stereotypes. Many of us believe the standard justifications that are trotted out for the stunning racial disparities. In the introduction to the book, I confess that I once failed to appreciate the true magnitude of the harm caused to communities of color by mass incarceration. I believed the biggest myths about our criminal justice system. I thought crime rates drove incarceration rates, and that crime rates could be explained by things like poverty, bad schools, and broken homes. For many years, I was blind to the emergence of a vast new system of racial control, even while I was working as a civil rights lawyer on issues of racial profiling and biased drug law enforcement. The dominant narrative that blames black culture or poverty for incarceration is extremely compelling, until you know the facts and really begin listening to people's stories. But there's another, equally important reason for the relative quiet. Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation - when black men were more likely to be lynched than receive a fair trial in the South - NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of black people accused of crimes unless the lawyers were absolutely convinced of the men's innocence. The major exception was death penalty advocacy. Over the years, civil rights lawyers have made heroic efforts to save the lives of condemned criminals. But outside the death penalty area, civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to leap to the defense of accused criminals. Advocates have found they are more successful when they draw attention to certain types of black people (those who are easily understood by mainstream whites as "good" and "respectable") and tell certain types of stories about them. Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites. The Rosa Parks story is a prime example. The problem in the era of mass incarceration, however, is that the time-tested strategy of using those who epitomize moral virtue as symbols in racial justice campaigns is far more difficult to employ in efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Most people who are caught up in the criminal justice system have less than flawless backgrounds. It's not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them "damaged goods" from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates. The difficult reality civil rights advocates must face today is that, if we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we must be willing to embrace those who are most oppressed by it. That means cultivating compassion, care and concern within and outside the civil rights community for those who are most demonized and despised in our society -- i.e., those labeled criminals.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 20 May 10 05:10
The issue of criminal stigma is in some ways central to your book, and I want to return to it. But first, let me pick up on what you said about the myths of the criminal justice system. I think most people, even people who oppose the war on drugs, have no idea how disproportionately it impacts the black community. I didn't until I read your book. So maybe we should fill in the picture a bit. The most recent war on drugs goes back to Richard Nixon - he talked much, and did relatively little, but he got the ball rolling. Can you give us a little historical sketch of how and why the drug war started, and what was going on socially and economically in the urban black community at that time?
David Albert (aslan) Thu 20 May 10 05:54
I have not yet finished reading the book, so I don't know if you give us more hope than you did in your posting above for what can realistically be done to solve the problems you raise. I will wait until I'm done before I ask more detailed questions. But so far I will say this: in reading the book, I alternated between "Oh yes, I read that news story" and "This is so terrible that you must be making it all up; how could it possibly be true?" Of course I know you aren't making it up. And of course I knew some of this before, even if I hadn't put all the pieces together (I was young during the Nixon era, but not so young during that of Reagan). But I think the bottom line reaction of most people (possibly myself) when we're done with the book is going to be one (or both) of two things: an intense desire to solve the problem, followed by frustration because we can't; or an intense desire to forget about the whole thing because it is too terrible to believe.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Thu 20 May 10 06:27
(for our off-site readers, please email <email@example.com> with your questions and comments for Michelle Alexander)
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 20 May 10 08:43
Hi Michelle I think you hit a home run with your book. However, I think you do yourself a disservice with the title. You argue persuasively about the different systems of social control--slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration--pointing out the similarities and differences. But you make the point that there are qualitative differences that make them 2 different animals even though the outcomes both codify discrimination. By law in the first case and by pattern/practice in the latter. I remember how the Civil Rights Movement was able to marshal moral indignation as one of the driving forces to topple Jim Crow. You are clear that not many people are willing to sit-in or march for criminals. So mass incarceration stands and the discrimination is perfectly legal without the moral argument. As a civil rights lawyer you used to be able to argue pattern and practice to fight discrimination. With mass incarceration you show that the Supreme Court has gutted that strategy. You make it clear that mass incarceration *is* pattern and practice!
David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 20 May 10 08:48
I should add racism vs. color-blindness.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 20 May 10 08:56
Yes, the history of the Supreme Court cases is worth going into (although we don't have to get everything out here on day one - it's a big subject!). As a non-lawyer, I had no idea that the SC had basically eliminated statistical proof (no matter how strong) as legal evidence of racial discrimination. The example I liked best from the book was the state law for LWOP in drug cases. 98+% of those convicted under the law were black. Which, according to the Supreme Court, is not proof of racial discrimination. You basically need to have a prosecutor come out and say "Yes, I did it because I'm a racist!"
Jessica Merz (baker) Thu 20 May 10 09:42
I'm still finishing the book as well but I've gotten through most so far and find the book and central premise very compelling. I, like <aslan> and <mcdee> wonder what we can do to balance the scales again. I'm not one to settle for white guilt and be done with it -- I prefer action to inaction. What can we do?
David Albert (aslan) Thu 20 May 10 12:54
> As a non-lawyer, I had no idea that the SC had > basically eliminated statistical proof (no matter how strong) as > legal evidence of racial discrimination That was one of the cases I read when it first came out in the news, however long ago that was. It was the recognition here and there, during the reading of the book, of cases I had read, despaired over, and then ultimately forgotten, that made me keep going when I just wanted to pretend it was all some cruel hoax.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Thu 20 May 10 19:07
The last thing I want to do is create a sense that this problem is just too big, too overwhelming to confront or to solve! I devote the last chapter of the book to discussing what can and should be done to end mass incarceration. I don't want to leap ahead to the conclusion just yet, but suffice it say that I firmly believe that nothing short of a broad-based, multi-racial social movement holds any hope of ending mass incarceration and breaking the cycle of racial caste in America. Significant gains can -- and will -- be made without such a movement, but the system will adapt and rebound to reforms if the public consensus underlying the current system is not completely overturned. Admittedly, "building a movement" may sound terribly daunting, but keep in mind that when civil rights activists were talking about building a movement to end Jim Crow during the early 1950s, most people thought they were crazy. Jim Crow was too big, too deeply entrenched in the social, political, and economic fabric of the South to be overthrown in the foreseeable future. But fortunately civil rights activists ignored the naysayers -- including many African Americans who initially resisted the movement -- and brought Jim Crow to its knees a decade later. So we CAN end mass incarceration in America, but it won't happen through piecemeal policy reform. The Supreme Court, for its part, may have done us a wicked favor by eliminating litigation as an avenue for challenging this system of control. Litigation can be a distraction. For all the fanfare, Brown v. Board of Education accomplished next to nothing in the South. Ten years after Brown was decided, virtually no desegregation had occurred and Jim Crow was alive and well. It took a Civil War to end slavery, and a mass movement to end Jim Crow. Those who imagine that something less is required to end mass incarceration are engaging in fanciful thinking - a form of denial. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself. Mark asked me to provide a bit of history, and I think it makes sense to begin at the beginning. So that's where I'm going to start tomorrow . . . .
David Albert (aslan) Fri 21 May 10 04:02
> Those who imagine that something less is required to end > mass incarceration are engaging in fanciful thinking - a form of > denial. Oh, I don't. But that is indeed too daunting for me to imagine being able to do something NOW. I can, of course, imagine supporting such a movement once it is in progress. But I have no idea how one starts a broad-based, multi-racial social movement, and I rather think the task is beyond me.
Lisa Harris (lrph) Fri 21 May 10 07:27
I imagine that was a similar thought by many prior to abolitionism, suffragism, and the civil rights movement of the 20th century.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 21 May 10 08:14
It's a daunting challenge, and part of it has to do with the attitudes about criminality which Michelle mentions in her first post. A lot of people agree that our incarceration rates are insane - they're certainly way out of line with the rest of the world. But criminals, and more especially black criminals, are the one group we're definitely all given permission to hate. A mass movement organized around "Free the Criminals!" isn't going to go anywhere. Which leads me to the same conclusion Michelle reached - that the target really has to be the drug war, which is largely targeted at blacks, and which is responsible for the majority of mass incarceration. That's a pretty daunting prospect too, with the amount of energy which has been put in to demonizing drugs and their users. But it gives you one edge. As Michelle points out, people of all races use drugs at pretty much the same rate. So there's a common bond there. Those laws could affect you or your kid or your niece or nephew even if you're white and living in a fancy zip code. Whereas laws against, say, burglary, are pretty unlikely to affect you unless you're a burglar.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 21 May 10 08:52
The War on Drugs is another legacy from Reagan like his Supreme Court appointees. I point that out because of how entrenched both are and the overall impact on American society. We all know that if you scratch the police, you find that they are just boys who love their toys. That and a power grab is what the Drug War has has spawned. The same can be said of the providers of private prisons. They will fight just as vehemently as the insurance companies and big pharma fought health care reform. Add to this the current political and economic climate. Much different than when the Civil Rights Movement got started and gained momentum. Back then there was a productive economy where the majority of the population felt they had part of the affluence. Of course institutional racism tried to exclude and control Blacks. But the irony was that "trickle down" actually worked better then and if Blacks remained docile they could get some of it. A lot of the Republicans were actually the "good guys." Now the right wing has taken control over the symbols and meanings. Congress is gridlocked. And the first Black President has inherited the worst economic situation since the Depression. He has to tread lightly otherwise he will be accused of killing their first-born in addition to the rest of their crazy fantasies. Like I said in another post, given the overwhelming force of slavery and Jim Crow, you still had a moral argument to support the political actions to undo the injustice. Blacks were still considered to be human. What has changed, I think, is that the people caught up in mass incarceration are no longer considered to be human. It is a short step to conclude that the communities and families that they come from are not worthy either.
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 May 10 09:14
>We all know that if you scratch the police, you find that they are >just boys who love their toys. No, in fact we don't know that--at least, the police officers that I know do not necessarily fit that category at all. We do not need to demonize the police for acting on the laws that =our= representatives, influenced heavily by what gets them votes, enacted.
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Fri 21 May 10 09:47
I appreciate your standing up for the majority of cops, but my realworld experience suggests that the cop bureaucracy is like any other bureaucracy, and unwilling to give up turf. My real world experience, which includes two low-level pot busts, showed me quite clearly that there are cops who love their power, love flexing their muscles, and revel in fucking with citizens.
Gail Williams (gail) Fri 21 May 10 10:05
I would agree with both of you. People go into police work for all kinds of reasons. A shallow interest in wielding guns may be true for some, but others want to serve their communities or just need a job and see that as the best work they could get. However, because the police have to face being both unfairly demonized and rightly mistrusted, and because of legal stupidities like letting police forces fund their operations with confiscated property, they learn to act a lot like members of yet another urban gang at times. Power, face to face on the street, is a dangerous intoxicant that can be both addictive and destructive. The voting public seems to be very happy with funding prisons and cops. We may smoke a lot of weed in California, but we and our elected representatives are pretty reliably enthusiastic about funding the penal system and cops of all kinds. That is so strange.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 21 May 10 10:40
I wasn't going after individual cops. I meant the bureaucracy and power structure. Yes power structure. The police are a parallel political universe that while integrated into the general society and well within its control, can and do act sometimes act as if it is independent. I wasn't demonizing the police. I was just pointing out structural and systems features. Max Weber said that the state has a monopoly on violence and the police are the agents of that control.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 21 May 10 11:54
That should read *legitimate* violence
Ari Davidow (ari) Fri 21 May 10 12:37
Getting off to a new digression, may I interrupt to laud the amazing boston-area "Minuteman" library system which enabled me to discover from my office at work that the book was available at the branch two minutes from my office, and to likewise laud the librarian who, noting that there was a space on the shelf where the book should have been, thought to look at the "book check-in" pile where someone helpful had gathered it from a previous patron prior to reshelving. Looks interesting! Here's what I wonder before I even start reading. Earlier this week (yesterday?) there was an NPR report on how the economic gap between black and white was growing. As I heard the report, I kept waiting for someone to say, "well, duh, we have cycled most black males through our jail system--that should count for something." Are these really unrelated phenomena?
David Albert (aslan) Fri 21 May 10 14:16
Well, I finished the book. Seems to me one big question is going to be whether this book can convince anyone who didn't previously believe half the assertions in it. It had no problem convincing me of the nature of the problem, the history behind it, and the (possibly impossible) tasks ahead of us if we are to do anything about it. I found the book well-researched, and (with the exception of a quibble or two) saw nothing to poke holes at. The argument is, to my mind, obviously true and obviously there are some major changes needed in society. But I'm easy. I already think there are major changes needed in society. For one, I don't think people should go to jail at ALL (or for more than a day or two) for most reasons short of violence (although one could argue about what exactly constitutes a violent act) and then only to keep other people safe, not for purposes of punishment or retribution. What about the folks who don't already believe? Are they reading this book? Are they here in this conference? Will they read it and change their minds because of it? Will people in the communities most affected by this issue read the book? Will THEY believe it?
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Fri 21 May 10 14:46
I'm not worried about persuading mainstream, "swing" voters just yet. The first step in movement-building is raising consciousness among people who care enough to take action. Most people in the civil rights community do NOT already know most of the stuff that's in the book. That's why I wrote it. People like me, civil rights advocates - people who care about racial justice - have been blind to the realities of this new system. And most people in the communities most affected don't know the history, and don't fully understand how this system works and why. If we don't understand how we got here, we will fail in our efforts to break the cycle of caste in America. As for the link between economic inequality and mass incarceration, David, you are absolutely right. They are completely urelated phenomena. Here's some history that may be useful to understanding the economic and political context: Back in the 1950s, despite racial segregation and a brutal Jim Crow system, things were going relatively well for African Americans. Black people had jobs. In fact, many of the black communities that we think of today as ghettos were doing quite well economically, with most black men employed in industrial, factory jobs located in urban areas. Factories were built in inner-city communities so they would have quick access to cheap, black labor. In 1954, black and white youth had about the same rates of employment - with black youth actually having a slightly higher rate of employment. As recently as the early 1970s, about 70 percent of black men held industrial jobs in cities like Chicago. But by the early 1980s, when the drug war was kicking off, that figure had plummeted to less than 27 percent. Indeed, by 1984, the black unemployment rate had nearly quadrupled, while the white rate had increased only marginally. This was not due to a major change in black values or black culture. This dramatic shift was the result of deindustrialization and globalization. Urban factories shut down as our nation transitioned to a service economy. Practically overnight, jobs vanished from inner cities. Hundreds of thousands of black men were suddenly jobless and inner city communities were suffering from economic collapse. Sociologist William Julius Wilson documents this tragedy in his book, When Work Disappears. The economic collapse of inner-city, black communities could have inspired a national outpouring of compassion and support. Economic stimulus packages could have sailed through Congress to bail out those who were trapped in segregated, jobless ghettos through no fault of their own. Education, job training, public transportation, and relocation assistance could have been provided, so that youth of color would have been able to survive the rough transition to a new global economy and secure jobs in distant suburbs. A wave of compassion could have flooded these struggling communities in honor of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. All of this could have happened, but it didn't. Instead we declared a War on Drugs. The collapse of inner city economies coincided with the conservative backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, resulting in the perfect storm. No longer needed to pick cotton in the fields, or labor in factories, lower-class black men were hauled off to prison in droves. The drug war was launched as part of a well-orchestrated political campaign to build a new, white Republican majority in the South. President Nixon coined the term War on Drugs, but it was a purely rhetorical war designed to appeal to white swing voters. President Reagan turned the rhetorical war into a literal. Reagan officially declared the current drug war in 1982, at a time when drug crime was actually declining, not rising. It was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who, quite understandably were resentful of, and threatened by, many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement -- most notably, desegregation, busing and affirmative action. In the words of H.R. Haldeman, President Nixon's White House chief of staff: "[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this, while not appearing to." A few years after the drug war was announced, the Reagan administration got lucky. Crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with glee, hiring staff who were responsible for publicizing inner city crack babies, crack mothers, crack whores, and crack related violence. The goal was to make inner-city crack use and violence a media sensation, bolstering public support the war, which, it was hoped would lead Congress to devote millions of dollars in additional funding to it. The plan worked like a charm. Almost overnight, our television sets were flooded with images of black and brown drug criminals. Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove they could be even tougher on "them" - the dark skinned pariahs. In President Clinton's boastful words "I can be nicked a lot, but no one can say I'm soft on crime." Clinton's tough on crime policies resulted in the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. But Clinton was not satisfied with exploding prison populations. He and the "new Democrats" championed legislation banning drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and denying them basic public benefits, including food stamps for life. Discrimination in virtually every aspect of political, social, and economic life is now perfectly legal, once you've been labeled a felon. History repeated itself, and the same politics that gave rise to Jim Crow - a furious competition to win the votes of poor and working class whites - resulted in the birth of yet another caste system. One of the reasons we remain in denial about the existence of this new caste system and its role in creating and perpetuating racial inequality is because prisoners are not included in unemployment and poverty statistics. Prisoners are treated as though they do not exist. The exclusion of 2 million poor people, most of whom are people of color, from poverty and unemployment data creates the impression of far greater progress in remedying racial inequality than has actually occurred to date. During the 1990s, for example, during the economic boom of the Clinton years, African American men were the only group to experience a steep increase in real joblessness, a development directly traceable to their rapid inclusion in the criminal justice system. In fact, during the 1990s - the best of times for the rest of America - the true jobless rates for noncollege black men (including prisoners) was 42 percent! Standard unemployment data underestimates true black joblessness by as much as 24 percentage points, by failing to count prisoners. Yes, some African Americans are doing very well - enrolling in universities and graduate schools at record rates thanks to affirmative action - but as a group, African Americans are no better off (and in some respects much worse off) than they were when King was assassinated and uprisings swept inner cities across America. In the United States we have become blind - not so much to race - but to the existence of racial caste.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 21 May 10 20:15
There's more in that post that I can respond to at the moment, because I need to read and digest it, but to hop back to the need for a movement, and the overall impact of your book... before I read the book, I knew a lot of the pieces, but I hadn't really seen the whole picture. I don't think every person involved by any means said "I am working hard to build a system of racial control," but that's very much what's been built. The whole drug war thing is a very good cautionary example of the dangers of sticking your nose in other people's business. It really started as a bit of do-gooderism with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907 - and I think everyone involved really felt they were doing the best thing for society. Getting morphine out of patent medicines and all that - who could be against it? You start to see the flip side, and the first entry of racial politics into it, with the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 - there were explicit references made to "cocaine-crazed Negroes" by supporters of the act. Then a very nasty and power-mad bureaucrat named Harry Anslinger picked up the ball - although he was just a petty empire builder and had no real agenda beyond some forlorn hope to rival J. Edgar Hoover. It lay more or less dormant until Nixon came along and saw the political opportunity...
David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 21 May 10 21:20
Michelle Before we get to get to the steak, potatoes, and peas, I think it would be good to warm up a little. The problem that you have described and analyzed is so daunting that it is hard to think of strategies and solutions right away. Could we work up to the substantive issues by exploring some anecdotal material first? The HBO television series "The Wire" portrays the War on Drugs and shows the impacts on institutions, communities, and individuals. What they have done is taken the issues that you have identified as mass incarceration/drug war and dramatized it so that viewers can follow the impacts on people and their communities. Baltimore becomes a metaphor for America. Each season the producers take an institution and show how the bureaucracy forces its foot soldiers to "juke the numbers." The first season the focus was on the cop bureaucacy and the drug gangs. The second season introduced the impact of globalization by focusing on the longshoremen's union in addition to the ongoing story arc of the drug business. The third season focused on city hall and the city elections and continued the drug narrative arcs. The fourth season depicted the schools and showed how they were recruiting grounds for the drug trade. In the fifth season they focused on the media in the person of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. Like an opera it told a compelling story and built to a crescendo. It showed that the individual bureaucracies were interrelated, linked, and complicit in the problem. That brings us to what you wrote about in your book. What is your take on "The Wire" and what should we takeaway from that viewing experience?
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