Saturday, June 12, 2010

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander:

Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States has come to function as a stunningly comprehensive and well disguised system of social control analogous to Jim Crow....In the era of colourblindness it is no longer permissible to use race as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt. So we don't. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of colour criminals, and then engage in all the practises we supposedly left behind....Once you are labelled a felon, all the old forms of discrimination - housing discrimination, employment discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service - are suddenly legal....We have not ended racial caste in America. We have merely redesigned it.

...If someone were to visit the US from another country or another planet and say you know ‘is the criminal justice system some kind of tool of racial control?’ most Americans would just swiftly deny it, they’d say ‘Nooooo, bad schools, black culture, poverty is to blame, you know; the system isn’t run by a bunch of racists, it’s run by people who are trying to fight crime.’

...[I]t's important to understand the history of where the drug war came from. Most people assume that the war on drugs was launched in response to the emergence of crack cocaine in inner city communities. That's just false. Actually the drug war was launched a couple years before crack hit the streets and captured public attention in the media. The drug war was motivated by racial politics, not drug crime. It was part of a broader project that the Republican party was engaged in then, the so-called Southern Strategy, to try to appeal to poor and working class whites who were resentful of and threatened by de-segregation, bussing and affirmative action, poor and working class whites who were once solidly part of the Democratic New Deal coalition, but who the Reagan administration realised could be won over to the Republican Party through not so subtle racial appeals on issues around crime and welfare. So the drug war was launched as a way of trying to appeal to poor and working class white voters with the promise that "we’re going to get tough on them”, “put them back in their place”, and them was not so subtly defined as African Americans. When crack emerged a few years later, the Reagan administration responded with glee. They seized on the emergence of crack cocaine in inner city communities as an opportunity to build public support for the war [on drugs]. They actually hired staff to run a media campaign to publicize crack babies and crack dealers, crack mothers in inner city communities, and almost overnight, images of black crack dealers and users saturated the media and forever changed our conception of who drug users and dealers are.

Angela Davis:

Alexander's research and argument also follow in the wake of Loic Wacquant's work over the last few decades:

Not one but several ‘peculiar institutions’ have successively operated to define, confine, and control African-Americans in the history of the United States. The first is chattel slavery as the pivot of the plantation economy and inceptive matrix of racial division from the colonial era to the Civil War. The second is the Jim Crow system of legally enforced discrimination and segregation from cradle to grave that anchored the predominantly agrarian society of the South from the close of Reconstruction to the Civil Rights revolution which toppled it a full century after abolition. America’s third special device for containing the descendants of slaves in the Northern industrial metropolis is the ghetto, corresponding to the conjoint urbanization and proletarianization of African-Americans from the Great Migration of 1914–30 to the 1960s, when it was rendered partially obsolete by the concurrent transformation of economy and state and by the mounting protest of blacks against continued caste exclusion, climaxing with the explosive urban riots chronicled in the Kerner Commission Report. [1]

The fourth, I contend here, is the novel institutional complex formed by the remnants of the dark ghetto and the carceral apparatus with which it has become joined by a linked relationship of structural symbiosis and functional surrogacy. This suggests that slavery and mass imprisonment are genealogically linked and that one cannot understand the latter—its timing, composition, and smooth onset as well as the quiet ignorance or acceptance of its deleterious effects on those it affects—without returning to the former as historic starting point and functional analogue.

[1] See, respectively: Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, New York [1956] 1989; Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Cambridge, MA 1998; C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, Oxford [1957] 1989; Leon Litwack, Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, New York 1998; Allan Spear, Black Chicago: The Making of a Negro Ghetto, 1890–1920, Chicago 1968; Kerner Commission, 1968 Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, New York [1968] 1988.

A discussion board exchange reveals how mass entertainment commodities, in this case The Wire, function propagandistically, to conceal, deny and offer a substitute for this history equipped with pseudo-critique, despite the purported postmodern cynicism and savvy of audiences. But really to understand the total effects and how the mass media assist in a) the reproduction of race/caste, b) the disguising of political purpose behind the image of institutional folly and c) the naturalisation of ruling class point of view, one needs to consider The Wire and Sex and the City together, along with all other versions of the imagined urban America simultaneously available. The spectacular context mustn't be amputated from the whole historical context in which mass culture commodities are embedded. Against any totalising comprehension, the array of commodities militates, each individually flaunting its charisma in competition, seeking to prohibit a divided worship in devotees. The problem is perhaps less the programmes - most of which are undisguisedly entertainment and fiction - than the uncritical fanaticism inculcated in certain viewers:

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #25 of 162: David Wilson (dlwilson) Fri 21 May 10 21:20


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?

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #27 of 162: 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.
. . . .

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #28 of 162: 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.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #32 of 162: jelly fish challenged (reet) Sun 23 May 10 09:44

Wait'll you get to Season 4, the schools one.


inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #63 of 162: David Wilson (dlwilson) Tue 25 May 10 13:01

(say goodnight Gracie! SLIP!)

The way this discussion is going you will have to view "The Wire." At least the David Simon interviews by Bill Moyers. I sense a reluctance on your part Michelle to give it its due. You wrote a great book (for a lawyer) and your arguments will be used as the basis for any future discussion of the impact of the mix of mass incarceration, racism, and black experience in America going forward.

What "The Wire" does is take believable characters, allows the audience to follow them over time, and shows how people experience the many themes that you raise in your book. Hell, I learned how to read social science and can even enjoy it. But the name of the game always is *can you tell a good story."

It's just a suggestion, but if you captivate your audience in the right way, you stand a better chance of getting your message across.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #64 of 162: Ari Davidow (ari) Tue 25 May 10 13:23

That is a great interview. Makes me want to get the Wire via Netflix.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #65 of 162: Gail (gail) Tue 25 May 10 13:27

Fiction can also send a powerful message, that's for sure.

(I finally rented all of the DVDs for The Wire series after a friend told me that it is the best illustration of how naked capitalism (in the form of the drug trade) and bureaucracies, from the gangs to the cops to the unions to the schools to city hall, really function. It was worthwhile, and it could indeed help lay some groundwork for
appreciation for more scholarly works among some of the population.)

Cultural change comes from many fronts, hopefully.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #66 of 162: Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 25 May 10 15:20

It made me put them at the top of my Netflix queue! Disc One should
arrive by Wednesday.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #67 of 162: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Tue 25 May 10 15:43

A great book *for a lawyer*! Ooh, way to insult the guest! ;-)

I will say that reading the careful and logical arguments in Michelle's book *almost* made me wish I'd gone to law school. She really put a case together.

But I think 's post and several others point towards a good question - where do we go next, and how do we get more people interested in this issue?

As good as The Wire is, and it's great, I don't think it's going to result in a mass movement to end the drug war. Yes, the futility of the drug war is there for anyone who wants to see it, but we inhabit a country where the last 3 Presidents (we're pretty sure) all at least dabbled with drugs and still it's the great third rail of American politics.

And while not criticizing The Wire, which really manages to turn this tragedy into art, lurid images of black criminals in popular entertainment are more part of the problem than part of the solution.

Maybe we need affirmative action in arrests. For every black kid swept up on ghetto streets, they have to go arrest some pot-smoking 50-year-old white lawyer in Chevy Chase.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #68 of 162: Gail (gail) Tue 25 May 10 16:14

Right now there is some progress towards legalizing marijuana. If that comes to pass, will that help?

I was thinking about the underground economy. If marijuana was legalized, regulated and taxed, that would no longer be part of what could pay the bills for street kids.

Without some economic reform and some other jobs, the problems are not fixed simply by legalizing controlled substances.

inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #69 of 162: David Wilson (dlwilson) Tue 25 May 10 16:23

I should have added that you weave 3 takeaway points from "The Wire" into any presentation on mass incarceration.

The war on drugs is senseless, destroys lives, and costs society way too much.

What gets rolled out onto the street by the various bureaucracies is done merely to "juke the stats."

Capitalism and globalization are driving this train. People *know* when they are dished dirt and no amount of bullshit can cover that up.


Consciousness is increasingly the consciousness of commodities.

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