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Review and Notes from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Review of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

During the Summer of 2020, I wanted to read a book with each of my daughters.  Two of the three participated and I am grateful. When the girls came to me with their selections, I could not have been more surprised and proud.  The 16 year old picked “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and the younger of the three picked “Becoming” by Michelle Obama.  Given how events have unfolded during 2020 and the Black LIves Matter movement, my girls thought these were the most appropriate books to choose.  Maybe they would have felt the dull pang of white guilt as they read their “Judy Blume” books by grandma’s country club swimming pool. I know I did, though I did not read much as a child.  All the while, the world is happening and they know nothing of that world and those living in ghettos just a few miles from their own home.  I know this was my experience growing up in the privileged western suburbs of Chicago and it never sat right with me.  I was the kind of kid that was bothered by inequality from a young age.  I was also pleased with the girl’s choice of reading material because I know nothing about race and the black experience in our country and I knew that if I wanted to engage and advocate, I needed to educate myself.  I never realized the huge discrepancy in how the war on drugs was being waged in different parts of our nation’s urban ghettos.  When I read books, I am tough on them.  There is a lot of highlighting and just about all the pages are tattered and frayed, even after just one study by yours truly.  When I finished the book, it occurred to me that I wanted to share these highlights and underlines and notes with my Tic Tok audience.  I was confident a lot of folks out there would not only be grateful but also need this education if we are to really address the root cause of the heinous system we call criminal justice… what it is in reality is a system of racial and social control, 100%.  There is so much to digest in this well researched effort by MIchelle Alexander.  While this book was written 10 years ago, everything presented is relevant today, it never wasn’t relevant . When I started sharing some thoughts and statistics on Tik Tok, it occurred to me that some people would also enjoy a written, higher resolution version of these clips.  There is a lot Alexander asks us to consider, what follows is not even the tip of the iceberg… doesn’t even scratch the surface.  My hope is that people will read these notes and watch my clips and want to engage on a higher level than what was possible before.  I call this progress.  There is so much more in this book than what I have included here.  It can be scary to address tough topics like this and most won’t even try.  But if you have courage, you can be a light for those stuck in the perpetual darkness of race and mass incarceration.  

The seeds for the war on drugs was started a long time ago.  One can go back to 1935 and the reefer madness movement.  This is nothing new.  Back then as it is now, it was black “jazz musicians” “Mexican workers” that would smoke the “evil weed” and rape “our white women.”  Saying there is 100 years of anti drug racist propaganda affecting how we see this issue is not an overly aggressive statement to make.  If this took 100 years (the war on drugs) to get us to this point, it is going to be a while longer before we are able to address the systemic racism that exists as a result of this messaging. 

Part 1

  • The War on Drugs is the New Jim Crow, plain and simple.  Once released from jail after a low level drug crime arrest, black and brown men are relegated to permanent 2nd class citizen status.  These people are no longer allowed to vote (the vast majority of the time), cannot receive federal or state aid or get housing.  Discrimination and exclusion are perfectly legal if one is labeled a felon.
  • Generations of black men have been prevented from voting.  Whether it was as a result of poll taxes, literally tests, or the felon label, these are new tactics with the same goal and result.  
  • Reconstruction started to see the wedge driven between poor white and newly freed slaves.  This political resentment was created in order that elite white would deflect anger from themselves to the newly liberated black man.  This strategy proved a highly effective tactic that is still employed by our current President, truly shameful that this occurs in what is to be the world’s greatest democracy.  
  • The War on Drugs was not started because the black mothers and grandmothers came out and claimed “We need your help, drugs are ravaging our communities.  The War on Drugs was started in 1982 (Nixon really got the ball rolling in 1972) and for example, crack cocaine didn’t even come onto the streets in a major way until 1984!

Part 2

  • After the Civil War, there was huge amounts of fear throughout the South.  “This state of affairs produced a temporary anarchy and a state of mind bordering on hysteria; particularly among the planter elite.  Newly freed slaves were literally roaming highways and roads throughout the South.  These newly freed slaves became the target of vagrancy laws that were disproportionately applied to blacks.  This leads to the practice of hiring prison labor… a.k.a. “convict leasing.”  What a horrible term.
  • The reaction to reconstruction was swift and severe.  Whenever newly freed slaves made gains, white outrage and panic followed.
  • Charges of “mischief” and “insulting gestures” were the low level cannabis convictions of the day.  Making sure the pipeline stays full with young balck and brown men, before they get any ideas about their own upward mobility.  
  • These laws were also designed so poor whites could still retained their sense of superiority over the newly freed slaves.  This made it less likely they would direct their anger and frustration at the planter elite and instead stay focused on feeling superior to the newly freed slave.

Part 3 

  • There was a big economic collapse in ghetto neighborhoods in the early 1980’s.  The combination of globalization and deindustrialization took industrial employment of black men from 70% to 28%.  This had a huge negative impact on communities of color in much the same way that the closure of auto plants throughout the midwest.  Over time, this became just another example of the wedge driven between poor white and blacks.  Add a dash of crack cocaine and you have the perfect launch pad for a racial caste system built off mass incarceration.
  • Bill Clinton was arguably worse for African Americans than either Reagan or Bush.  Bill Clinton decided he was not going to be considered soft on crime under any circumstance.  Reagan (maybe Nixon, too) started this dumpster fire and Clinton fanned the flames.  The message could not have been more contrived.  Bill Clinton was called the “first black president.”  This messaging is exactly how the system maintains legitimacy as there are politicians from both sides of the aisle that are supportive of being tough on crime.  It was Clinton that started the 3 strikes and you’re out and even went so far as to make one strike and you are out when it comes to housing aid. 
  • Consent searches are one of the key elements necessary for keeping the mass incarceration pipeline full.  This is where the 4th amendment was blown out of the water.  The supreme court has made it clear to all lower courts that from now on, the Fourth Amendment should place no meaningful constraints on the police in the war on drugs.

Part 4

  • The militarization of local law enforcement was also a key component of the war on drugs.  Federal grants for cash and equipment were significant.  Not only do people not want the “cash and prizes” to stop once they start rolling in, officers and prosecutors knew their jobs depended on keeping numbers high so that the “money and stuff” never stopped.  It seems like that all this country is about… money and stuff.
  • Military SWAT style raids that used to be only in extreme situations are now commonplace.  One lady died after a flash grenade was mistakenly thrown into her apartment and she suffered a cardiac arrest… passing away a couple hours later.  
  • Prosecutors are an important part of the mass incarceration industrial complex.  They have huge amounts of power.  Prosecutors rack up charges they may have probable cause for but could not prove in court.  These charges carry longer and harsher sentences, which gives the prosecutor leverage to pressure defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid ever seeing the inside of a courtroom.  These people become a part of the mass incarceration system and not the criminal justice system.  

Part 5

  • Why is it that crime rates are at historic lows though the levels of incarceration continue to climb.
  • Most people under state control are not even in prison.  2.3 individuals are under state control and in prison, the remaining 5 million people are still considered under state control when you take into consideration, parole, probation, community service, electronic monitoring, house arrest and other forms of control.  When released from prison, black and brown men live their daily existence with the felon label, relegated to permanent 2nd class citizen status.  Watch where the money goes, there are many ways to make money controlling people not in prison, assuming they have the felon label, the sky is the limit in terms of the number of ways that discrimination ensues.  
  • It is important to remember, this is all done in a “colorblind” fashion.  Racism can always be denied because there was no noose, or the police officer involved never said the “n word.”  The exclusion of overt racism supports the idea that then no racism exists.  It is the genius of the new system of control that it can always be defended on non-racial grounds, given the rarity of a noose or racial slur in connection with any particular crime or case.
  • One of the most effective tactics in the mass incarceration movement, is the “closing of the courthouse doors.”  The criminal justice system has been manipulated in a way as to guarantee black and brown people never get their day in court.  Court does not exist for these people.

Part 6

  • The war on drugs could have been waged in the suburbs, corporate offices, and college campuses.  IT was not as this would have been political suicide.  My own fraternity at the University of Alabama should have been a target, it was not.  The money would have stopped if whites were the predominant targets in the war on drugs.
  • The war on poverty was replaced with the war on drugs.  They even keep black Americans malnourished… ghetto neighborhoods are known as food deserts with little to no access to quality, healthy food.  Residents of these ghettos call the work of law enforcement “the occupation…” I can see why.
  • In 2010 50,300 (138 PER DAY) low level Marijuana arrests were made in New York City… mostly young men of color.  These arrests serve a couple of sad and sick purposes.  First, they are “training opportunities” for rookie officers, many times earning large amounts of overtime while engaged in such “training.” The second purpose is to fill the mass incarceration pipeline by collecting fingerprints, photos, and other data on young people not yet entered into the “justice” system.  
  • Huge amounts of shame is felt by the family members of incarcerated individuals.  This causes depression and anxiety that ripples through communities of color.  Everyone wants to be seen as part of the upwardly mobile middle class.  

Part 7

  • Black men such as Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and even President Obama, make statements reinforcing black stereotypes all for political gain and selfish self interest.  The most egregious example of this is Thurgood Marshall Jr., as he serves on the board of directors of the largest private prison company in the world.
  • None of these elite blacks talk about the fact that thousands of black and brown men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for crimes that largely go unnoticed in white communities.  
  • One of the saddest parts of all this is that this entire system now seems normal and natural… a regrettable necissity.
  • The new and the old Jim Crow a similar in a few ways.  They both support political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, closing the courthouse doors, in addition to being the definer of what race means in America today. 

Part 8

  • Drunk driving also occurred during the 80’s.  Most of these violations are made by white males and this problem was much worse than drug use.  The remedy to this was to keep these violators functional and in society, while drug offenses were typically charged with felonies and sent to jail.  Drunk driving at the end of the 80’s produced 22k deaths and alcohol overall could claim 100,000 lives a year.  Drug deaths during the same periods were 21k… less than drunk drivers and a fraction of the total number of lives claimed by alcohol.  
  • The bottom line is punishment becomes more severe when drug use is associated with people of color but softens when drug use is associated with whites.  
  • The economic devastation continues and white collar looting of neighborhoods of color is rampant.  Taxpayer funds meant for crumbling schools and social services in ghetto neighborhoods often are diverted into the pockets of wealthy investors as a result of political cronyism and corruption.  People in suits and ties loot too!

Part 9

  • The debate in the black community is the same as in the rest of society.  Some say it is racial bias and others believe it is a “cultural” phenomena.
  • Is the problem inside or out?  Most first will look inside themselves and at the community.  On the surface this seems acceptable given that when researchers control for joblessness, differences in violent crime between young black and white men disappear.Now it is the systemic descrimination and racism that must be checked.
  • Elite blacks have not always been good advocates for their black countrymen.  Many did not want to rock the boat and wanted to stay on the “inside rail.”  Others thought that racial equality could/would be attained by assimilation into white culture/society.
  • Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are almost universally condemned.  We now believe and support that if these aspects of our past are absent from our present, no racism exists, and it could never be considered systemic under these assumptions.

Part 10 

  • Affirmative action is addressed in great detail and I freely admit I need to go back and read this section.  I will be reflecting and studying this book for years to come.
  • Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom, actually choose their fate.
  • What about black police chiefs?

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