By Chet Yarbrough
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
By: Michelle Alexander
Narrated by Karen Chilton
MICHELLE ALEXANDER (AUTHOR, CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, VISITING PROFESSOR AT UNION THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY)
Multicultural societies are threatened by closed minds. Michelle Alexander pulls no punches in explaining how American minds are not exempt. From both conscious and subconscious actions, people who are perceived as different are treated unequally.
America like most (if not all) nations is a failed egalitarian state. From its early history, America has striven to mitigate inequality but with mixed results, and only marginal successes.
This is not to suggest America is less egalitarian than most nations but that unregulated human nature is a danger to all nations. Witness the murderous regimes of Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and more recently, al Assad in Syria.
Money, power, and prestige corrupt every nation’s leaders; whether well or poorly educated. America is different from many nations because society is subject to a system of checks and balances. However, checks and balances have not saved America from discrimination and inequality.
As memorialized in the Constitution’s 14th Amendment (which requires equality of all before the law) America attempts to treat all people equally. America succeeds in principle and fails in practice.
Though the American mind is willing, the will fails to support the mind. Alexander notes how some laws passed by the American government purposely, and sometimes inadvertently, undermine the Constitutional guarantees of equality for all.
The veil of which Dubois is speaking is the real affect of American laws and customs on black Americans. It is the same veil one sees in history that is written by victors; not the defeated.
Examples of unequal treatment are noted by Alexander. She exposes the insidious affects of the war on drugs and America’s “3 strikes law” that disproportionately affect the poor; particularly those raised in black communities.
Alexander reflects on America’s failure to address root causes of crime—like unemployment, inadequate medical care, poor education, and racial discrimination. She suggests those failures are exemplified by “…New Jim Crow” laws. Her point is that “…New Jim Crow” laws are re-hatched by the War on Drugs and “3 strikes law”.
Jim Crow laws segregated the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her argument is that today’s Jim Crow laws are like Dubois’s explanation of the veil of American acts of conscience. It is a veil in the guise of fighting crime.
No one wants crime; whether poor or rich. The author does not argue that fewer violent crimes occur in poor communities. She acknowledges more violent crimes occur in poor communities. But, poor communities, like all communities, abhor the reality of violent crime.
Whether poor or not, all want protection from violence. No one wants to see their family threatened. Those truths make the policies of the War on Drugs and 3 strikes appealing to most Americans. Alexander’s point is these well meaning policies do not address the root causes of crime. They attempt to treat symptoms rather than offer cures. In treating the symptoms, the underlying causes remain untouched and ever virulent.
Alexander suggests the war on drugs and “3 strikes law” are a return of Jim Crow laws that segregated the Southern United States.
The War on Drugs and 3 strikes neglect the reality of living in poor neighborhoods. Poor neighborhoods resort to drug use and sale because it is the only job available, or often the only way of escaping the reality of being trapped in a circle of despair.
When a person is convicted of a violent crime, manufacture or sale of drugs, or minor drug charges, they are marked for life.
Job applications ask if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If the answer is yes, most are left with poor prospects for employment or advancement. No effort is made to rehabilitate but only to isolate. Once a criminal, always a criminal.
America chooses not to spend money to educate the young in poor school districts. America chooses to ignore the circumstances of drug addiction or the need for medical treatment. Crime is a zero-sum game with no treatment for the psychologically disturbed. Little investment is made in rehabilitation or re-introduction into society for the first-time offender.
The drug laws and “3 strikes law” dis-proportionally fall on the poor and black as evidenced by America’s prison population. Alexander argues the real effect of these laws is the same as the historic Jim Crow laws. They segregate minorities from the dominate American culture.
Alexander’s book is difficult for some to read because it denies the universality of the American Dream. What is forgotten is how much the luck of race and circumstance play in everyone’s life. Equally forgotten is the good for those in power is not always good for those without power.
Dubois and Alexander have something in common. Minds must be kept open to the truth. Empathy is needed by both those in power and those without power. Trust must come from both sides of any power structure.
Police who brutalize the poor are as guilty of crime as the poor who victimize the rich. Each needs to put themselves in the other’s shoes to understand their own closed mindedness.
With better understanding of ourselves and others, more will be done to constructively address public policy failures. The alternative is increased cultural deterioration, discontent, and violence.