“The New Jim Crow” As Seen from the Right.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a text I’ve come across many times over the years. In fact, I don’t know if there is a single time I have walked into a major bookstore and have not seen the book displayed in prominence on an end cap or center aisle table. I’ve encountered all the arguments made within the text over the years in articles, during debates, and in university classrooms as an undergraduate. Perhaps the significance of Alexander’s work is best assessed in the foreword by Cornel West: “The New Jim Crow is the secular bible for a new social movement in the early twenty-first-century America.” Although the data and arguments found within have been seen both before and after Alexander’s work, this is perhaps the most definitive and comprehensive work on the topic of Black crime and mass incarceration in America, as seen from the left.
The overarching premise is that mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, and slavery have been the three primary measures adopted as public policy in the U.S. as a means to control the Black population. Several of Alexander’s contentions jumped off the page at me from the very beginning of the introduction, where she states that an essential goal of the Founding Fathers was to ensure citizenship to Blacks would be denied. In a way, I was thoroughly impressed, aghast even. I hear noxious phrases like “we are a nation of immigrants,” “America is for everybody,” and “this is a homeland for all,” almost daily, be it on social media, from politicians, the press, or in the media. And to see an author who has declared her goal is an “egalitarian democracy,” to be so honest, so frank, and so correct, is in many ways to be welcomed. Alexander displays from page one that she has a grasp of historical racialism as it pertains to the foundation of the U.S. and the Founders’ intentions. She finds this to be an unacceptable position, of course, but her admission that the U.S. was founded as a White nation is exceedingly rare nonetheless.
She notes the disparity of Whites and Blacks in prison for drug crimes and suggests that these disparities cannot be explained by respective rates of involvement in the drug trade (7). As evidence of this claim, Alexander cites studies that show Whites and Blacks both use and sell drugs at the same rates; therefore, disparities in incarceration must be due to racism. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable argument. However, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, 99.5% of the 94,678 people in federal prison for drug crimes are in prison for trafficking. So the people incarcerated for drug crimes are not in prison for simple use, or selling low quantities of drugs, but for trafficking, manufacturing, and distribution. Drug usage and selling of small quantities are simply not equivalent to drug trafficking. It would be similar to saying that every person who drank alcohol during prohibition was also likely to be in the business of bootlegging, rum-running, and operating speakeasies. Further, for her claim to be correct, it would essentially amount to a vast understanding from the highest levels of the Justice Department, down to beat cops, that White drug traffickers are to be ignored, while Black ones are to be arrested. I have a very hard time believing that the U.S. government is so racist, and so pro-White, that this would be their public policy.
Alexander makes another astute claim, with which I half-agree: “The widespread belief that race no longer matters has blinded us to the realities of race in our society and facilitated the emergence of a new caste system” (11–12). She is correct; the current brand of “colorblind” nationalism is incredibly harmful, especially to us. People who are unwilling to view our current social ills in terms of race realism have a very difficult time understanding much of what is happening, particularly White dispossession. Although I disagree with Alexander that lack of racial awareness is responsible for the caste system she says seeks to hold down Blacks, I can see her view that there is an emerging caste system — one that allows Blacks to play the “knockout game” with unsuspecting Whites, and not be called racists by the mainstream press.
Alexander claims that economic mobility is difficult, and in many cases, simply impossible (13). She further claims that Blacks are plagued by poverty and not free to move up in society, and that mass incarceration plays a key role in creating the Black underclass. According to the Brookings Institute, only 2% of Americans who finish high school, maintain a full-time job, and wait until they are 21 to get married or have kids will live in poverty. Further, 75% of Americans who follow those three rules earn $55,000 per year or more. Mass incarceration is hardly responsible for people choosing to drop out of school, have children out of wedlock, and not work.
Chapter 1 is a tendentious historical overview of Black history, beginning with slavery through the crime policies of the Clinton Administration. Alexander’s telling of the Atlantic Slave Trade would have one believe that slavery was a uniquely American phenomenon, despite that the majority of slaves would end up in South America and the Caribbean, and that slavery was common throughout the non-European world, and still is in many places As historian Seymour Drescher notes, “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution” at the time that Britain ended slavery in the early nineteenth century.
Alexander goes on to hail Lyndon Johnson, the civil rights movement, and the abolition of miscegenation laws, which led to the increase of interracial marriages. Without citing data on actual Black criminality, she further argues that the emergence of “tough on crime” rhetoric from Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, were not responding to legitimate fears of an increasing crime rate, but were less-than-subtle appeals to racial discrimination against Blacks.
Alexander claims that Nixon’s and Reagan’s use of language such as “welfare queen,” “lazy,” “ghetto,” and the like, were actually messages to working-class Whites that they would reform welfare and stop transferring wealth to Blacks. Alexander never really dives into these issues further; they are dismissed as irrational fear mongering and racism, for which there is no need for support with actual data. In reality, there is legitimate cause for fear of Black on White crime, and there is a legitimate grievance Whites have in terms of welfare use and taxes paid. In 85% of violent interracial crimes between Whites and Blacks, Blacks are the attackers, amounting to over half a million violent crimes per year against our people. In an analysis of fiscal impacts between races that account for taxes paid and services consumed, we see that Blacks and Hispanics both use far more tax dollars than they contribute, resulting in a net negative, which Whites are forced to subsidize. Criticism of crime and tax burdens that are placed on Whites by others is not merely some racist, fear mongering talking point — it is an objective reality.
Reading the second chapter of The New Jim Crow was somewhat of a peculiar experience for me, in that I do not think Alexander made any substantive argument where I disagreed or noticed any faults. She discusses in depth the “evisceration” of the Fourth Amendment, which has been wrought in part by the War on Drugs. Alexander briefly discusses the historical impetus behind the Amendment, which she characterizes as “[t]he routine police harassment, arbitrary searches, and widespread police intimidation of those subject to English rule…” (62). She goes on to describe the creeping normality of living under a police state under the guise of a drug war: no-knock warrants, warrants obtained through anonymous informant information, expanded surveillance, and nearly anything being “probable cause” to justify search and seizure.
Alexander cites Terry v. Ohio as an erosion of Fourth Amendment rights, reducing “probable cause” to “reasonable articulable suspicion,” which was a colossal shift in policy. Terry effectively moved public policy away from the rights of individual citizens, in favor of allowing police to use their “discretion” to protect themselves from potentially dangerous criminals, granting agents of the state the “right” to safety, over the citizen’s right to be free of unreasonable searches. (63)
She is also critical of Florida v. Bostick, a Supreme Court case which held that information voluntarily given to police will not be a legal basis for a Fourth Amendment violation. What came of this is the policy of police starting seemingly benign interviews, which lead to the police asking if they can search a person or asking a question like “do you have any drugs or weapons on you?” even when there is no reasonable suspicion. Here, Alexander argues (and I think accurately) that when accosted by police, most people are nervous, unaware of their rights, and will “consent,” although reluctantly. Most people, criminal or not, comply with police questions and consent to searches. As a result, the general lack of legal knowledge is leveraged by police to circumvent the most fundamental purposes of the Fourth Amendment. (64)
Alexander describes the incredible cost and inefficiency of the drug war, as well as the policy of civil forfeiture. When police suspect a person of being involved in a crime, they may seize things they suspect were also involved in the crime, such as cash they suspect was ill-gotten, or a car police suspect was used to transport drugs. The burden of proof for civil forfeiture is incredibly low — the state needs to only establish a “preponderance of evidence,” a far cry from “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Worse, if alleged perpetrators are not ultimately charged with a crime, they are afforded no legal aid to retrieve their property from the state, as civil matters do not entitle one to the right of legal representation. Of course, in many cases, this means it would be less costly to allow the state to steal your property than to hire a lawyer and seek justice. (83)
The chapter rounds out with a discussion of the inadequacy of state-provided legal aid, as many court-appointed defense attorneys are dealing with a tremendous number of cases while being paid on the lower end of what attorneys earn. Alexander also discusses the plea-bargaining system, which lends itself to prosecutors overcharging cases — even charging crimes on which they know they can’t convict — as leverage to force the accused to take a plea bargain instead of risking the uncertainty and expense of a jury trial. This is definitely a legitimate concern.
The only real oddity I found in the second chapter was how Alexander opened her book describing the United States as a nation founded for Whites and claiming the entire system needs a radical overhaul as a result, to becoming an originalist a few pages later when discussing the Fourth Amendment. She clearly does not like the idea that Whites have some sort of claim on the country they built, but she does want to keep the Fourth Amendment preserved as it was from the same era that biased immigration toward Western Europe. On one hand, she seems to be in support of the Bill of Rights as it was written, while on the other hand wanting to see equally important aspects of our nation destroyed and scattered to the wind.
The remainder of the book was a bit of a letdown. Although I had anticipated the typical Leftist argument that Whites were oppressing non-Whites, I was hoping there would be more well-thought out legal arguments and a better theoretical bases, as in the second chapter. What came was mostly a victim mentality, constantly invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and the argument that drug laws create a de facto caste system in America based on race.
Alexander brings up the argument over and over again, that because Whites and Blacks use and buy drugs at the same rate, the representation in prison should also be similar. Not once did Alexander note the incredible leap from drug use to drug trafficking. Nor did she note that the vast majority of those incarcerated for drug crimes are for trafficking, not simple possession. She repeatedly states that the racist American system is the reason for the overrepresentation of Blacks in prison for drugs. However, she never considers that in England, Blacks are also over-represented in crime per their population percentage and as compared to Whites, although I suppose she would blame the White British for that. Alexander also does not bother to mention the fact that Blacks in America commit a disproportionate amount of crime of every type, not merely drug crime.
Alexander suggests that the reason so many Black children grow up without fathers is due to mass incarceration, which the War on Drugs perpetuates. “Hundreds of thousands of Black men are unable to be good fathers for their children, not because of a lack of commitment or desire but because they are warehoused in prisons, locked in cages” (180–181). Alexander notes that about one million Black men are behind bars in prisons and jails currently but fails to investigate what percentage of them have children or whether they were supporting the children until they became incarcerated. According to the Kid Count Data Center, as of 2011, there were over 6.5 million Black children being raised by single parents. A rate of nearly 70%. To suggest that the reason 6.5 million children are being raised without a father is due to one million Black men in prison is patently absurd.
A recurring theme through the book is that the rise of U.S. prison population is due largely to the drug war. However, the federal and state prison data does not support this claim. If every person that was incarcerated for only drug offenses in both federal and state prison were released, the total prison population would drop by about 14 percent.
The “crack vs. cocaine” argument was forwarded as well. Alexander alleges that because cocaine has a connotation of being used by wealthy White people, it carries lower sentences than crack, which is seen as used more widely by the Black community (112). When we compare crack sentences to meth or PCP — both seen as more “White person” drugs — the disparity in grams needed to land you a 5-year prison stay nearly disappears. The majority of people in jail for meth are White, with only a small amount being Black. Nobody claims that meth laws target poor Whites but they claim crack laws target poor Blacks. They always use the erroneous “cocaine vs. crack” dichotomy to make their invalid argument. Alexander is eerily silent on the widespread use of meth, heroin, and opioids in the White community.
The final chapter of the book opens with the story of the Jena Six, a group of six Black teenagers who beat a White student so badly he was hospitalized. The beating was said to have been “provoked” by a racial joke or the connection to rising racial tensions that involved nooses being hanged from courtyard trees. Alexander praises the Black community’s response to the “plight” of the six Black attackers. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and MLK III were all in attendance, along with rappers, and thousands of protesters who joined in the fight against the “racial bias” leveled against the Jena Six, as they were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder (pp. 221-222). The Jena Six story is used as an example of “successful” civil rights advocacy; the kind Alexander urges is necessary for this next era of civil rights and ending oppression.
A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration and build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflection a compassionate rather than punitive impulse toward poor people of color fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and locked out of American society. (235)
An eternal victim mentality permeates the pages of The New Jim Crow. At no point in the entire work is the notion that Blacks might be committing a high rate of crime entertained or perhaps that they should stop involvement in drug trafficking. Alexander writes that despite affirmative action, unemployment rates in the Black community are similar to those of Third World countries (246). This level of unemployment is of course attributed to the alleged racial caste created via mass incarceration in the U.S., and not the shared social attitudes, academic achievement, and behavior among Blacks. For Blacks, education is the royal road to the middle class, but the reality is that relatively few of a population, half of which has an IQ of less than 85, is unable to take advantage of this.
The final sub-chapter opens by reaffirming that the United States was created by White men, for White men (255), and then quickly asks Whites to “sacrifice their racial privilege” (257). “Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structure of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege” (257).
This plea struck me as outrageous given that she is speaking on behalf of the group that is the aggressor in 85% of violent interracial crimes between Whites and Blacks. Whites suffer over half a million violent crimes each year at the hands of Blacks. I’m sure Alexander will excuse me if I’m in no hurry to support her aspirations, especially after hailing the Jena Six case as a victory for Blacks.
Something else struck me while reading the book, particularly on page 125, where she remarked that many Blacks refer to police in their neighborhoods as “the occupation,” thus seeing their own neighborhoods as territory occupied by a hostile forces. In her discussion of White police coming into Black parts of town with what they see as bad intentions, I was very sympathetic. Amid Alexander’s constant appeals to more welfare for ex-convicts, pleas for Whites to surrender the remnants of our homeland to Blacks, and complaints that Blacks cannot be given a fair trial in a White nation, I couldn’t help but think the underlying theme to all this was an implicit desire for self-determination—their own Wakanda. Obviously, an ethnostate would be an excellent solution for Whites as well.
I think that Michelle Alexander has a sentiment for something she cannot express in a way that she’s come across in academia or through her legal training. There was certainly a hostile undertone, and sometimes overtone to her work, wanting to “dismantle” what was once our nice White country. Yet I think on a deeper level than that, was the desire for self-determination. The desire for Blacks to decide if they want to legalize the drug trade and drug use. The desire to not operate within a White framework, to conform to White laws, or exhibit White behavior. I could be way off base here, but it seemed to me that Alexander was, on one hand, saying Blacks should not be subjugated to White rule, and on the other hand, asking for White tax dollars for welfare programs and help from those ridden with White guilt.
On some level, I agree with her. I don’t want White tax dollars to be spent looking for marijuana in “ghettos” (a term she uses often) either, or anywhere for that matter. I would much rather the money be spent stopping the drugs from entering the country in the first place, at the border, and would much rather see a drug war waged against Purdue Pharma, as opposed to those smoking weed. Although she seems to think the whole War on Drugs somehow benefits all White people, by making even the poorest and least successful of Whites somehow “above” Blacks, I think her understanding lacks a certain depth. She’s right, the police do not work for the people, and they are very often the trappings of an occupation, but she’s wrong in thinking Blacks are the only ones being subjugated by a hostile elite. She’s right: the entire system is corrupt and oppressive. Alexander made many mentions of social programs that could be used to help the Black community instead of incarcerating them, yet she never bothered to think that it is White people paying the taxes for those programs, while Blacks are a perennial net negative.
Alexander posits many times that this racial caste system somehow benefits all Whites. But nothing could be further from the truth. Taxing Whites at oppressive rates in order to hire people to police, house, monitor, and try Blacks, does not benefit the average White. A handful of people who own stakes in the prison industry benefit, and nobody else apart from Whites spared from the depredations of incarcerated Blacks. The amount of money Whites must spend to have a multi-racial country is astronomical, and we receive zero benefits from policing Blacks.
Cities that have experienced heightened levels of social unrest, Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, and others, have experienced a rise in crime. High profile cases of violent police interaction, followed by protests and riots, has had a chilling effect on policing behaviors, especially of Black communities. The withdrawal of police presence leading to a rise in crime in cities that experiences civil unrest and high profile incidents has been dubbed the “Ferguson Effect”. Although Alexander never indicates that she views police activity in Black neighborhoods as anything but negative, the removal of police has, in at least several cities, led to the murder rate increasing, and more Blacks dying.
I do not foresee the solution that Alexander proposes happening. The idea of having multiple nations trying to exist in one country is proving to be a disaster; “coexisting” is going to be more and more strenuous as this great multicultural experiment continues to unfold. Instead of handing the country to the horde of non-Whites that quite openly hates us, we should offer a mutual separation through a generous repatriation program. If this were my nation to run as I saw fit, I would offer all criminals currently incarcerated or under state supervision a one-time deal, renounce your US citizenship, leave, and never come back, in exchange for a total pardon. Non-white mass incarceration would end overnight. For all those in the country legally, but feel they are owed a reparation, I would gladly pay a one-time, lump-sum, cash settlement in the amount of their lifetime net-burden to White tax-payers to renounce their US citizenship, leave, and never come back.
This whole thing could end peacefully with every group having total self-determination, which I think might have been the subtext to Alexander’s entire work.
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