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Review: “The New Jim Crow”

August 9, 2011

I was referred to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York, 2010) when I asked someone about continued resentment about racism among some blacks.

I found it a good read, giving us a history lesson on the race issue, and showing how it ultimately evolved into the mass incarceration system connected with the “War on Drugs”.
I still find it for some reason hard to believe that the majority of blacks incarcerated is because of drug offenses. When you hear about black crime, it’s usually stuff like robbery/burglary, assault, weapons, etc. Perhaps that’s what they want us to believe. But trying to look up the statistics, I see the claim is there that “Majority of U.S. prisoners are in due to drug war” (, and with plenty of links).

I can remember, in high school, right before crack hit the streets, white kids writing “Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll” everywhere. Occasionally, a black kid would cross out the “rock & roll” and replace it with “disco”. Then someone else would cross that out and put rock back.

The drug you primarily heard about in the black community was marijuana. For a heavy junkie, perhaps cocaine. Yet in white communities, you heard about LSD, angel dust, barbiturates, qualudes, uppers, downers, and even chemicals. LSD was sort of the worst thing, the one that would make you think you could fly out the window. It was only surpassed by crack.

I’m still cautious about rallying the cry about this, until I have more facts on it.
Unless we really clarify what this is complaint is about, people will not understand what the issue is. Especially terms such as “white privilege” (e.g. p21). Already, conservatives have been widely accusing us of incessant “whining”, and from that, thinking we just want more of their tax money (which becomes the tactic the elites and their spokesmen, such as talk radio and political candidates use to keep the disenfranchised whites blaming blacks, as she showed this was the tactic in previous times).

What’s fascinating was the history of the whole issue she gives in chapter 1 “The Rebirth of Caste”. Here is an outline:

History of racial caste:

p.22,23 Birth of Slavery

  • development of concept of race (relatively recent development)
  • black and white bondsmen terrorized by “the big planter apparatus
  • demand for land led to negative images of American Indians, who were “impediments”
  • Blacks chosen as slaves because Indians were in more of a position to fight back. European immigrants were in short supply, and enslavement would interfere with voluntary immigration to the colonies. Africans were thus ideal slaves.
  • Bacon’s rebellion: white property owner tried to unite slaves, indentured servants and poor whites against planter elite.
  • This led to shift from indentured servants to more black slaves shipped from Africa (rather than English speaking West Indies). They were easier to control and less likely to form alliances with poor whites.
  • Begin extending special privileges to poor whites to drive wedge between them and black slaves. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.

26 Death of Slavery

  •  White supremacy becomes “religion” of sorts. Detached from its initial function of slavery. Slavery deemed, in fact, for blacks’ own good, which alleviated consciences and reconciled the tension between slavery and “democratic” ideals.
  • End of slavery created dilemma for Southern society, as economy would collapse, no mechanism for preventing “amalgamation” with people considered intrinsically inferior and vile.
  • Blacks came to be viewed as menacing and dangerous; stereotypes of black men as aggressive, unruly predators begins.
  • “Black codes” foreshadowing Jim Crow begin.
  • Brief gains in “Reconstruction Era”; African Americans begin voting in large numbers, and even seize control in some areas of local political apparatus.
  • Poll taxes, literacy tests, threats of violence
  • Segregation begins to emerge as a comprehensive pattern in South by rhetoric of planter elite, who hoped to reestablish a system of control that would ensure a low-paid submissive labor force. (Segregation existed in North, but was more customary than comprehensive).

30 Birth of Jim Crow

  • Redemption“: Swift, severe backlash against Reconstruction gains, including terrorism, and including withdrawal of federal troops from the South.
  • Echoes of Black codes: Vagrancy laws again, debts that had to be worked off, debtor’s prison, etc. (Nation’s first prison boom).
  • Liberalism, conservativism, Populists as alternatives to Redeemers.
    Liberals emphasized stigma of segregation and and hypocrisy of government that celebrates freedom and equality yet denies both on account of race.
    Conservatives blamed liberals for pushing blacks ahead of their proper station in life, and that the liberal agenda presented a danger to their cause
    Populists criticized large corporations (such as railroads) and the wealthy elite. Viewed privileged as conspiring to keep poor whites and blacks locked into a subordinate political and economic position. Took aim at conservatives, known as a party of privilege. Pointed out divide and conquer tactics of these powers. Advocated unity between black and white farmers. (For many blacks, preferable to paternalism of liberals).
    [This parallels today’s conservativism and liberalism in several respects; but with no real, notable counterpart to populists! The libertarians are the closest thing, but have not impressed blacks, even though they claim their policies would help them the most].
  • alarmed by Populists, conservatives resort to Redeemer tactics (fraud, intimidation, bribery, terror), and Populists eventually cave into pressure and become conservative
  • Segregation laws as another racial bribe “As long as poor whites directed their hatred and frustration against the black competitor, the planters were relieved of class hostility directed against them”.
    White superiority campaign launched to overcome suspicions of poor and illiterate whites that they too were in danger of losing right to vote.
  • Dominant whites concluded it was in their best interests to scapegoat blacks
  • By turn of 20th century, Jim Crow was thoroughly entrenched, in part due to efforts by elite to decimate a multiracial alliance of poor people.

35, 36 Death of Jim Crow

  • fears of blacks becoming susceptible to communism
  • Another backlash, not unlike the the reaction to emancipation and Reconstruction following the Civil War, as once again, racial equality was being forced upon the South by the federal government.
  • Southern Manifesto, new wave of terror, Citizens Councils, new Jim Crow Laws, civil rights leaders vs fire hoses, police dogs, bombings, beatings, arrests.
  • African American voting registration soared; Miscegenation laws declared unconstitutional, etc.
  • Civil rights turns focus to economics, evolve into a “Poor People’s Movement”, including white poverty.
  • Conservatives begin searching for formally “race neutral” system of control; could not involve explicit or clearly intentional race discrimination. New race-neutral language was developed appealing to old racist sentiments.

40 Birth of Mass Incarceration

  • “Law and Order” rhetoric, Civil Rights protests depicted as “criminal”
  • federal courts accused of “leniency” towards “lawlessness”
  • Segregationists insisted that integration causes crime, citing lower crime rates in southern states
  • FBI reports fairly dramatic increases in the national crime rate; offered as further evidence
  • riots in period gave fuel to argument
  • police harassment as cause of uprisings dismissed
  • realignment of political parties–Southern Strategy, which ended New Deal alliance of blacks and whites. Some strategists admitted that appealing to racial fears and antagonisms was central, though it had to be done surreptitiously. Nixon emphasized “the whole problem is really the blacks”; Ehrlichman “we’ll go after the racists”. Played upon Southern white Democrats’ feeling alienated by Democratic Party’s support for Civil Rights. Desire to see black Democratic party in the South to further the polarization, and create new Republican majority.
  • Again, “conservative” vs “liberal”.
    -Liberals pushed war on poverty as getting to root causes of criminal behavior. Antipoverty programs = anticrime programs.
    -Conservatives argued poverty was not caused by structural factors related to race and class, but rather to “black culture” or “tangle of pathology”. Misbehaviors of poor transformed from adaptations to poverty into “character failings” that accounted for poverty in the first place.
    -[The modern Libertarian Party would arise during this period, and parallel the old Populists in some regard; but still, overall, be more on the conservative side of the “programs” debate]
  • Black “welfare cheats” and their dangerous offspring emerged for the first time, into the political discourse and media imagery.
  • Competing images of poor as “deserving” and “undeserving” became central components of debate.
  • Burden of integration fell on lower and lower middle class whites. They were forced to compete on equal terms with blacks for jobs and status, and attend schools affected by busing. Affluent liberals who pushed this were sheltered and immune from costs of implementing minority claims. [i.e the much decried “limousine liberals“]  Conservatives could now claim “liberal Democratic establishment” as out of touch with ordinary working people.
  • Resolved how to persuade poor and working class voters to align with corporate interests and the conservative elite
  • Majority in poll believed law and order had broken down because of “negroes who start riots”, and “communists”.
  • “War on Drugs” suggested by Nixon, later implemented by Reagan, who rode into office mastering “excision of race from conservative public discourse”, and condemning “welfare queens” and food-stamps recipients living richly while the listener can only buy hamburger; and criminal “predators”.*
  • “color-blind” rhetoric on crime, welfare, taxes, and states rights clearly understood as having a racial dimension, though this was impossible to prove.
  • “new Republican majority” would continue to support the extraordinary expansion of federal government‘s law-enforcement activities and that Congress would continue to fund it.
  • just as war on drugs was kicking off, inner city communities were suffering from economic collapse. (Factories closed, multinational corporations transferred jobs away from American cities to countries that lacked unions. And today, unions are seen as to blame. A worker is not supposed to have bargaining rights; he is to either take what he gets, or use his “freedom” to climb up and become an owner.).
  • Crack appears on scene, right after drug war announced, and along with even more joblessness.
  • Media hypes up “drug scourge”
  • Bush and “Willie Horton” campaign.
  • KKK joined war on drugs as “eyes and ears of the police”.
  • Democrats try to prove how tough they are on crime;
    Clinton vows he would never permit a Republican to be perceived as tougher on crime.

Perfect musical parallel to this:

Here we see the development of the trends that lead up to today’s rhetoric. The split between the “conservative” and “liberal” approach, how the “angry middle class” came to see corporations (capitalism) as the hero and instead focus on welfare and crime to get them to blame blacks, while dismissing black “whining”; all the while able to insist there is no proof of “racism”.
This is perfectly summed up by the statement of Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater, advisor of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee, regarding the Southern Strategy (which many modern Republicans ignore when trying to argue “the Democrats were historically the racists, not us”):

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” (Lamis, Alexander P. et al. (1990) The Two Party South. New York: Oxford University Press; Herbert, Frank, (October 6, 2005) “Impossible, Ridiculous, Repugnant,” The New York Times)

And it should be added that anyone who suggests a class war waged by the rich is called a Marxist!

Clearly we see a definite aim and pattern, to exonerate the rich, and blame the poor (or minorities, if you can) for all our problems.

But in reality, who better to hold responsible for the drain of money than those who have all the money. How could it be the fault of those with the least money?

*We can also see in the libertarian-“paleo-conservative” movement of the late 80’s and 90’s the drive for an “Outreach to the Rednecks”, “which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. (David Duke and Joseph McCarthy were seen as models for this). “These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an ‘unholy alliance’ of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.” (These associations, particularly with Lew Rockwell, continue to dog Ron Paul today, who claims to have known nothing about them back then).

The libertarian version of this rhetoric does often add “big business” as part of the problem (like the old Populists had done), but it seems to be only a certain segment of it: “liberals” (and as much as they may criticize conservatives; it’s for being too “big-government”, like the liberals). Rather than seeing business in general’s direct involvement in the financial state of things; the harshest attack is still often leveled against poor minorities. Hence, they continue the legacy of the “‘Populists’-turned-conservative”. (Many even share the populists’ insistence on the “gold standard”). So they are in-between; against nearly all “programs; both antipoverty, as well as the War on Drugs also, which some like Paul put forth as proving their policies would be good for blacks; despite the other rhetoric.

The “Outreach to the Rednecks” thinking underlied the political ideology I was so alarmed by two decades ago, and it echoes the tactics used in all the earlier stages of racism! Turn the “disaffected” against those lower down than they are, and drawn largely on race, however, with the race rhetoric now subdued! (While “rednecks” are mentioned, “blacks” aren’t; only a “looting, parasitic underclass”).

Other points;

p5, 6 stories circulated on the street that crack and other drugs were being brought into black neighborhoods by the CIA; Agency’s admissions on Nicaragua.

p7 drug crime was declining, not rising when a drug war was declared.

59, 90f, 203 vast majority of those arrested are not “kingpins” or arrested for serious offenses (Aren’t they the ones you would want to get, if you’re really warring against drugs? Or are they good to keep there, to lure more potential new low level offenders into the system?!)

71ff Federal govt. pays local law enforcement with grants to wage war on drugs
(Do conservatives who scream about “big government spending” criticize this? To their credit, libertarians do, and they actually get called “liberal” by the conservatives for things like that —seen as “lawless”)!

103 whites constitute the vast majority of drug users, but everyone pictures a drug user as black

124 Seattle study debunks assumption that white drug dealers deal indoors (less difficult to detect); shows police, driven by stereotypes and not facts, concentrating drug enforcement in one downtown area where frequency of drug transactions was lower than white areas, and reports were more likely for residences

164ff Challenges notions that blacks do not want safe streets, peaceful communities, etc.; favors “gangsta” culture.

188 Prisoners counted by Census bureau as residents of jurisdictions where prisons are located, increasing representatives in those communities (reminiscent of “three-fifths clause”).

213ff grassroots Civil Rights movement becomes legal campaign; “professionalized” and disconnected from communities they claimed to represent. Civil Rights lawyers pursuing their own agendas, reluctant to defend accused criminals.

(This must be why they seem so ineffective today, and just comes across to everyone as “whining”, thus further fueling conservative deflection. Problem of legal mindset illustrated by fact that even in early days of movement, Rosa Parks chosen over less “respectable” previous plaintiffs. Litigant, and even litigant’s family had to be above reproach).

218-20 prisons as private business industry. This would make it extremely difficult to end, since it would cost many jobs.

This is exactly what slavery was about. Race was used as the vehicle to carry it out
(also mentions how kids go from crumbling schools to high tech prisons)

Next, we shall explore the religious angle of these developments, when a child of the conservative fundamentalist movement (which was very involved in some of the stuff seen above) gives a history of that side of things.

From → Politics

  1. When It Comes To Illegal Drug Use, White America Does The Crime, Black America Gets The Time

  2. Prosecutor Tells Black Congressmembers The War On Drugs Isn’t Racist

    William Otis, said the U.S. should stick to harsh mandatory minimum punishments.

    “We know what works and we know what fails. What fails is what we had in the 1960s and 70s, when we had a feckless and unrealistic belief in rehabilitation and not really a belief in incarceration,” Otis said. “What works is what we’ve done for the last 30 years.”

    But witnesses on the other side, like Marc Levin from the conservative criminal justice reform group Right on Crime, rattled off statistics about successes in states that have recently reduced or eliminated mandatory minimums. For example, South Carolina got rid of a host of mandatory minimums in 2010, and since then, the state has seen its crime rate go down by 14 percent.

    “After decades of expensive, excessive drug sentencing laws, it’s telling that today’s supporters of those laws are retired prosecutors who are using talking points from the 1980s,” said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit group working to reform sentencing laws. “Drugs are a serious problem, but 30 years of locking up drug users and sellers alike for decades hasn’t solved it.”

    “Works” for what? Just filling up the jails (while the the kingpins don’t even seem to be touched).

  3. Been seeing a lot of posts and memes on the Prison industrial complex:

    Prison Industry: Big business or new form of slavery

    I say BOTH big business and slavery. For slavery was big business.
    One person commented on my FB share of this, comparing community service to slavery.

    I responded:

    What opened my eyes to this, of course, was The New Jim Crow.

    And even since then, putting together all the political rhetoric I’ve heard, starting with the old focus on how they “want the nation back”, and it was so good when it was founded, and how “others” have all messed it up, it is clear that slavery was the ideal system, that never should have ended, or at least should have been replaced with some other form of low-paid servanthood (Which is which they have been pushing for ever since).

    This is why they refuse to even blame big business for any part of the economic problems, and instead insist poor lazy minorities have gotten all the money. For it was always about the rights of rich corporate leaders, and basically, when slavery was ended, and then the people integrated into society, money was in effect forced to be shared with these people, who were supposed to stay on the bottom.
    So they deeply resented the “government” for this ever since, and hence the whole Confederate issue (which they try to deny was about race, but it’s fighters at the time, and reprisers in Civil Rights days clearly said it was).

    So it provided a neat platform for a whole glossary of “code” terms, like “government”, “taxes” or especially “spending” (“welfare”), aimed at race, but made to look like it is not.
    There’s now a term for this: “cuckservative”, being leveled by those more radical “white nationalists” and others, who are tired of hiding what they believe is “the truth” about race. Minorities are raping the land blind, and mainstream conservatves are playing games hiding “the truth” behind code (for fear of “political correctness”), instead of “naming the elephant in the room”.
    But they all agree minorities are destroyng the nation (Especially under the “N___ in Chief”), and need to be corralled or killed off (by cops, or by each other, with readily easy to get guns, or with ‘armed citizens’ with their stockpiles of guns, if necessary), to “make the nation great again”.

    So the Prison complex is killing several birds with one stone. It’s big business (the perceived Savior of the nation, and what ran slavery to begin with), and then hopefully, it will catch as many blacks as possible, and justify them being discriminated against. As a bonus, they even try to get the old chain gangs back at times, so I imagine people driving by on the road can sigh, with a tear in their eye and their hand/hat in their chest, taking in those nostalgic feelings, imagining the Old South has “risen again”.

  4. Top adviser to Richard Nixon admitted that ‘War on Drugs’ was policy tool to go after anti-war protesters and ‘black people’

    “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

    “The damage done by the war on drugs’ cruel policies doomed generations of black people.”

    “Think of all the lives and families that were ruined and absolutely devastated only because they were caught in a racial net from the highest end reaches of government.”

  5. Arlie permalink

    Hi there! Such a nice post, thank you!

  6. A worthy development, (from two years ago already:)

    New Jersey Prisons End Ban On ‘The New Jim Crow’ After ACLU Protests

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