Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sat 22 May 10 14:24
I found a lot of new perspectives in reading your book. Thanks for that. Could you talk about the history of the development of a racial caste system in this country? It seems to be an undercurrent of your argument. I was not aware of how early the poor and working class whites were used as a pawn in the game and for differing reasons throughout our history. As I was first reading, I kept thinking it is "all about money", but as I progressed I decided it is "all about power". And one of the solutions will have to be about empowerment for all of us.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sat 22 May 10 15:48
I must confess that I have not watched most of the Wire! I don't watch much television and don't even subscribe to HBO. Because I kept hearing how great the Wire is, I rented the back episodes. I've only watched season one so far. I like much of what I've seen, but I worry that the depiction may end up reinforcing people's basic assumptions and stereotypes. I may be asking too much, but I wish the series could draw attention to the reason why so many young men in ghetto communities are chronically jobless. If the broader economic and political context were layered into the depiction - if viewers were given some understanding about how deindustrialization and globalization turned these inner city areas (which were once stable economically) into isolated, jobless wastelands - then perhaps viewers might have a better understanding of why these kids are selling dope. And if the series depicted the vast amount of illegal drug dealing in suburban white communities, and contrasted the treatment of white youth using and dealing dope to the treatment of black youth, I would have more hope for the series as a tool for raising awareness. But again, I've only watched the first season, and I'm probably hoping for too much from mainstream media treatment of the issue. Despite my moderate disappointment, I am impressed by the effort to show how compromised all the players in the bureaucracy are, and how complicated (and often disturbing) their motives can be. So I'm not dismissing the show, I'm just saying there's an even bigger story to be told and I would love for a talented filmmaker to tell it. I'll turn to the history question shortly - hopefully later tonight. The repeated success of white elites in pitting poor and working class whites against African Americans as a means of achieving their political and economic goals is a critically important subject that receives scant attention in traditional history textbooks. The dynamic dates all the way back to slavery . . . .
those Andropovian bongs (rik) Sat 22 May 10 16:36
Michelle, here's the URL to a two-part interview the Bill Moyers did with David Simon, creater and writer of "The Wire". He cuts right to the heart of the matter, and I think you'll find yourself in firm agreement with most of it. It opened my eyes, and it's really worth an hour of your time. <http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/10022009/watch.html>
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sat 22 May 10 22:17
Have you read Thomas Shapiro's work on black wealth?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 23 May 10 07:36
I think the connection you draw between globalization, de-industrialization, and the decay of black neighborhoods is important. Americans are aware of the decline of Detroit, because it had such an iconic industry, but I don't think most Americans alive today have much of an idea of how much manufacturing used to take place in cities. In New York, for example, everyone knows about "loft apartments," but they give little thought to why there are so many of them, and why they are all available for residential use. To a lot of New Yorkers today (and I'm not one, but visit frequently) the idea of manufacturing in Manhattan sounds as unlikely as raising cattle in Manhattan. Blacks had only recently gained full access to such jobs when the jobs began to go away. As you point out, the disapparance of high-wage jobs not requiring much formal education basically turned many blacks into people who were and are completely superfluous - our economy has no need for them, and neither does our society. In a perverse way, putting them in prison has become our answer to the question "what do we do with all these people?"
Ed Ward (captward) Sun 23 May 10 09:27
Not to mention that you could live in Harlem and take the subway to Brooklyn or Queens to work. There was a lot more industry out there, especially stuff that needed space.
jelly fish challenged (reet) Sun 23 May 10 09:44
Wait'll you get to Season 4, the schools one.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sun 23 May 10 12:17
I look forward to watching the Moyers interview and seeing the rest of the show. In fact, I might do that tonight - Mark, I think you're absolutely right that the rise of mass incarceration is inextricably linked to the surplus of unskilled, black labor in the post-industrial age. Every caste system to date has reflected the prevailing economic system. Slavery was primarily a system of exploitation - exploiting black labor (stealing it). Jim Crow was primarily a system of subordination - locking black people into a lower status, confined to certain low wage, low status jobs. Mass incarceration is primarily a system of marginalization. As sociologist Loic Wacquant has pointed out, the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that "it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce." Instead, it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age. The new system does not seek primarily to benefit from black labor, as earlier caste systems have, but instead disposes of a population deemed largely irrelevant and unnecessary to the newly structured economy - an economy that is no longer driven by unskilled labor. While marginalization may sound preferable to exploitation, it may prove even more dangerous. Extreme marginalization poses the risk of extermination - which is why those residing in ghettos who screamed "genocide" in response to the War on Drugs were not as crazy as most people think. Going back to the political history, for a moment, I think it's important to emphasize that white elites have consistently pit poor white workers against poor African Americans, a strategy that has been wildly successful and triggered the emergence of successive new systems of racial control. Even slavery is traceable to this dynamic. In the early colonial period, both whites and blacks served together for a time as indentured servants - bond laborers. Some blacks were enslaved, but not all. On many plantations, blacks and whites worked together. As plantation farming expanded, and demand for land and labor increased, more Africans were imported as slaves. But that is not the only reason an all-black system of slavery emerged. Whites and blacks began joining together in rebellions against plantation owners -- the most famous of which being Bacon's Rebellion -- which were terrifying to plantation owners. In an effort to prevent future multi-racial alliances, and to achieve control over the labor force, plantation owners abandoned their reliance on indentured servants, and granted poor whites some benefits under the new system. They were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and they were granted greater access to Native American lands. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they weren't slaves. A similar dynamic preceded Jim Crow. During the agrarian depression, Populist leaders began building coalitions between poor blacks and poor whites, leading to a series of stunning victories challenging corporate power - particularly the railroads - and the plantation elite. Alarmed by the success of this multi-racial coalition, conservative elites aimed to decimate the alliance by proposing laws that would disenfranchise blacks, as well as discriminate against them in every aspect of social, political, and economic life. Their goal was to appeal to the racism and vulnerability of poor whites. Poor whites were encouraged to view African Americans as inferior, not worthy of the same benefits as whites. They wanted poor whites to feel that it was beneath them to join in common cause with blacks. Initially Populist leaders resisted black disenfranchisement and other Jim Crow laws, but ultimately they abandoned their former allies, believing they would have greater chance of winning their economic goals if they did not engage "the race issue." As resistance collapsed across the political spectrum, politicians began competing to prove who could be "tougher" on blacks and put them back in their place -- a competition that would be repeated one hundred years later as politicians competed once again to pass ever harsher drug laws, in an effort to prove no one could be "tougher" on "them."
Jack King (gjk) Sun 23 May 10 15:13
"How can you say that a racial caste system exists today? Just look at Barack Obama! Just look at Oprah Winfrey!" Many people don't realize that poor white men couldn't vote in the original 13 states, and for many years thereafter in the South until after the Civil War, but landowning, slaveholding blacks could, the privilege of property. There was a period of Reconstruction, the former states in rebellion were readmitted, and then it was payback time. It's still payback time, as a reaction to affirmative action and the perceived decline of white privilege, if not white supremacy.
Ari Davidow (ari) Sun 23 May 10 16:27
This country didn't invent caste or ostracization of the "other," but our relationship with descendents of black slaves feels uniquely bad to me relative to other countries and their minority populations. But there is a difference between "descendent of former slave" and "minority."
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sun 23 May 10 23:35
<scribbled by tcn Sun 23 May 10 23:36>
Ted Newcomb (tcn) Sun 23 May 10 23:37
Recently discovered a unique movement re: Ari's comment in <35> at www.comingtothetable.org where former slave's descendants are meeting with former slave owner's descendants to foster unity.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 24 May 10 04:14
I think the discussion of The Wire is interesting. I'm not a heavy TV watcher and have seen only a few episodes on DVD, but as drama I thought it was very impressive. But it brings up another issue which Michelle discusses in the book - the way that the image of black criminality has almost come to resemble minstrelsy. The "gangsta" image has become so pervasive that for many people - black and white - it's now seen as the true and authentic representation of black American culture. And there's the definition implication that if you're not part of the criminal lifestyle, you're somehow not real and authentic. It sort of reminds me of a humorous (but also sad) incident I had as a high school teacher years ago. We were having a discussion about racial and ethnic stereotypes, and several of my black students complained that when they walked down the sidewalk in our mostly white city, people always assumed they were gang members. I pointed out to them that they all took great care to dress like gang members and that perhaps that if they dressed a bit differently, they might not have that problem. No sale. To them, dressing and to some extent acting like gang members was part of their identity and giving up that image was an idea not even worth considering.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 24 May 10 04:15
And that should, of course, say "definite implication." Typing before coffee!
David Albert (aslan) Mon 24 May 10 05:34
But we should admit that they have a point. Perhaps it is up to us to stop thinking that anyone who dresses a certain way is necessarily a gang member, rather than making them change the way they dress. The stereotype is still unfair. Shades of "long hair" issues from the '60s. Or for that matter, the years in which anyone carrying a pager was assumed to be a drug dealer (before that, they were assumed to be doctors). It is up to us to change our views, not up to the people who need to carry pagers (do pagers even exist any more?).
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 24 May 10 06:25
Well, if I walked down the street in clown makeup, wouldn't you assume I was a clown? ;-)
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 24 May 10 06:30
But here's where I agree with what you're saying. My familiarity with these students made me very much aware of the fact that a) they weren't gangbangers, and b) that not everyone who dresses like a gangbanger is one. In fact, I became so used to hanging out with kids who looked like gangbangers that I was afraid I would eventually make the opposite mistake - run into an actual gangbanger and assume it was probably just some decent kid from our high school. But if all you know about "the hood" is what you see on TV (either in the news, or in shows like The Wire), you're not in a position to make those sort of distinctions.
Ari Davidow (ari) Mon 24 May 10 13:14
I think that it is true that when most of us think of blacks at home we get a "gangsta" image, or see something out of the movie "Precious". (This probably changes radically when one has a number of black friends.) But when I think "drug dealer" or "drug user" these days, I think of all those rural meth labs and stringy, strung out incoherent violent white guys. Is that reflected at all in arrest stats? Is it still 90% black people or whatever?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Mon 24 May 10 17:39
Michelle has so many great stats on this in her book that I'm going to let her pick her favorite ones. But the basic answer is "no, it's not reflected in the arrest stats." Although it is interesting that the other group targeted for drug law enforcement is a group of people who in some way resemble ghetto blacks - poor, uneducated, whites from economically distressed rural areas.
Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Mon 24 May 10 20:38
Mark, I'm willing to bet that the young black kids you described were offended and/or annoyed when you suggested that they change the way they dress in order to avoid being viewed like a criminal. As you point out, the way they dress is an important part of their identity; it's their way of showing solidarity with their fathers, brothers, friends and loved ones behind bars, as well as all those who are "free" but viewed and treated as no good -- unworthy. To change the way they dress would be an act of distancing themselves from people they love and care about, a form of disloyalty. Baggy pants mimic prison issue pants, which don't come with a belt and therefore sag below your rear. That's where the fashion trend comes from. It emerged after the drug war was declared, when suddenly hundreds of thousands of black kids were swept off the street and ushered behind bars. The kids who have been the targets of the war typically come from ghettos where there are no jobs, and where the schools resemble prisons more than places of learning or moral development. Middle-class white kids sell dope for fun or for extra cash, but ghetto youth sell dope because it's the only game in town; their survival often depends on it. One interesting study showed that a tidal wave of homelessness would occur in ghetto communities if drug money was not circulating there. These kids share their drug money with their parents, siblings, and friends so they can buy food, clothes, and pay rent. Yes, they buy fancy shoes and jewelry when they can afford it, but research shows that the overwhelming majority of drug dealers in ghetto communities earn less than minimum wage. This is about survival for most of them, which is why they're willing to risk their lives and likely imprisonment to do it. So here you are - a young kid and you've watched your family members and friends getting locked up - and you've been harassed by the police as long as you can remember, maybe brutalized more than once; how do you cope? What sustains you? You cope by bonding as tightly as you can to the people in your life who seem to give a damn, who have been going through all of this with you, who will be there for you when things get really bad, who understands what life is like - really like - in the 'hood. You don't distance yourself from them just because society says they're the bad guys. No, you resent the fact that they're labeled the bad guys, you resent the circumstances, and you resent being thought of as a bad guy yourself. So you're going to stand with them. You're going to claim them; even though the rest of society won't. And your music is going to reflect that commitment, and your dress is going to reflect it as well. I don't know what kind of high school the kids you described attended, but, as a black kid, you don't have to live in the ghetto to know the deal. You know that, if you're stopped by the police, you may easily find yourself behind bars or brutalized whether you committed a crime or not. And in major urban areas today, most black families have at least one relative who has been branded a felon or is currently doing time. This is all very personal. ' So, to say, don't dress like a clown if you don't want to be viewed as a clown is to say: don't claim your father; don't claim your brothers, uncles and cousins; they're no good. If you look like them, don't blame me for thinking you're no good too. Embracing the style is an act of solidarity, an attempt at forging a positive identity in a society that seems to despise you. Just as "black is beautiful" and "queer pride" are slogans and strategies of empowerment; "gangsta love" arises from the same impulse to turn a stigma on its head. "You say black is bad; I say it's beautiful." "You say, being queer is shameful; I say I'm proud." "You say I'm nothing but a gangster; well, I say I love my gangsta crew." Hip hop music is filled with shout-outs and expressions of love and solidarity to all those behind bars. The style and culture is a form of resistance to the criminalization of generations of black and brown men. Now, I'm the first to admit that "gangsta love" as a strategy for self-esteem and political solidarity is highly problematic, as it can be easily interpreted as an endorsement of the worst kinds of crimes. The misogyny and violence in gangsta rap is inexcusable. But it's important to keep in mind that gangsta rap is more popular among white suburban kids than black kids. Hip hop, and the culture it reflects, is far, far broader than gangsta rap. I agree with Paul Butler (a former federal prosector, who is now a crusader against the drug war), that hip hop music and culture is best understood as a progressive, creative form of resistance to the prevailing system of control. This is a long way of saying I have no problem with black youth embracing hip hop culture in terms of their dress and style. And I think they're right that they're entitled to dignity and respect whether or not they remind somebody of a "thug." The truth is, they aren't going to be treated much better by the police if they wear regular jeans and a Polo shirt. I know, first hand, because of the way my father was treated when he was alive, and the way my friends have been treated - some held at gun point - for no reason than looking like a criminal. It had nothing to do with what they were wearing, and everything to do with the color of their skin. Changing outfits doesn't buy as much respect as you might think; a fact they likely know all too well.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Mon 24 May 10 21:04
>drug dealers earn less than minimum wage Freakanomics went into that. http://freakonomicsbook.com/freakonomics/chapter-excerpts/chapter-3/
paralyzed by a question like that (debunix) Mon 24 May 10 22:18
>Baggy pants mimic prison issue pants, which don't come with a belt and therefore sag below your rear. That's where the fashion trend comes from. It emerged after the drug war was declared.... Thank you for that. I've asked lots of kids about that one and never gotten an answer that made any sense. A small 'lightbulb' moment amid many larger and more important points. Downloading the book to kindle-on-the-phone right now.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Mon 24 May 10 23:22
Funny you mention fashion and music as the expression of what black people experience on the street. The same thing happened in the 40's and 50's with bebop. Like hip-hop, bebop was seen as a kind of craziness colored people get up to while they entertain everyone else. The political economic context was that blacks served in the military and worked for the first time in good paying factory jobs connected to war production. In 1945 there was no longer a need for their labor. So they were turned out into the street. The musicians were undergoing a transformation at the same time because the music business was moving away from big bands to small groups. At the same time there were groups who were experimenting with the musical forms and the musicians wanted their due as artists instead of being treated as lowly entertainers. This is truly the birth of cool as a coping mechanism. Heroin was the drug of choice. Then it got conflated in popular culture. But the music started processing and reflecting the societal tensions. There were some brutal slap downs for those uppity musicians who were chafing against Jim Crow. But as with most things American, the market commodified the music and the culture. Plus ca change...
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 25 May 10 04:21
Michelle, I taught in a funny high school. It was in an old New England city which ran the gamut from ghetto to mansions. My kids were multi-ethnic, but because of the program I was teaching in they were pretty much 100% from the ghetto side. But with that said, it was not exactly "The Wire." Gang activity was pretty minimal, and the city was reasonably safe. And yes, I understood where my students were coming from - in fact I could even recognize something similar in part of my own ethnic background. It was the "lace curtain Irish" immigrants who tried to "act white," and abandon their ethnic identity. An unthinkable choice for most, including my own family, which while educated was certainly more on the "shanty Irish" side of the ledger. But anyway, my main point in asking that of my students was to get them to think about it. It was also true that almost all of my black students saw no future for themselves. In fact, most expected to die (specifically, be murdered) before they reached adulthood, even though statistically this was quite unlikely. Our city was no paradise, but youth murders were very rare - less than one a year. Growing up as part of a pariah class has mental and spiritual effects that are almost impossible to fathom as an outsider - even as a sympathetic and not utterly clueless outsider. Ok stats... we forgot the stats. Let me have some coffee and comb through my notes.
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 25 May 10 05:11
OK, in terms of stats, the first thing that's good to know is that as I mentioned somewhere above, a series of Supreme Court decisions essentially mean that no statistical proof of race discrimination in arrests, prosecutions, or imprisonment rates will ever be accepted in a US court. To prove race discrimination, you have to get someone to admit that their actions were motivated by prejudice. And good luck with that. On to stats. I'll mix up the general with some interesting more specific ones. The state of Georgia has a "two strikes" law that imposes life without parole for a second drug offense. Prosecutors seek the penalty for 1% of white defendants facing a second drug conviction and 16% of black defendants. 98.4% of those serving life sentences under the act are black. This result was ruled not discriminatory by the Georgia Supreme Court, which relied on the US Supreme Court's McCleskey v. Kemp decision. Michelle already cited above statistics on white vs. black unemployment: In 1954, black and white youth had equal levels of unemployment. By 1984, black youth unemployment was 4x that of white youth, and the situation has not improved since. On the general increase in incarceration under the War on Some Drugs: As of 2008, there were approximately 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails and another 5.1 million people on probation or parole. About as many people are returned to jail for parole violations in 2000 as were imprisoned for all reasons in 1980. On discrimination against blacks as part of the war on drugs: Between 1983 and 2000 (the key years for ramping up the drug war) African American rates of drug-related imprisonment increased by more than 26 times (not 26%, 2,600%). Imprisonment rates for whites also increased by 800%. About 3/4ths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses are black or Latino. A majority of drug users are white, and rates of drug use do not vary much across ethnic groups. And there's more! If you haven't yet done so, read the book. No matter how bad you think it is, it's worse than that.
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