I recall sitting in Professor Livingston’s American Politics class at Seattle Central College when a white student raised his hand and asked why black men were so prone to going to jail. I myself along with three other black students had a shocked look on our faces, but the truth is that we had no answer. Sure most black people know that there are systems in place for black Americans to fail, but I couldn’t provide a concrete response. Our teacher gave us a brief explanation as to how slave labor along with convict leasing and mass incarceration played a major role in the large number of black men that are incarcerated. Our teacher’s response felt extremely incomplete. As a future black woman in law, I was embarrassed with myself and felt compelled to explore more. That is when I discovered The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The book draws similarities between mass incarceration today and past systems of racialized social control like Jim Crow. The book also highlights the racial ties to the war on drugs. It argues that federal drug policy unfairly targets black men by tossing them in jail in large scales in order for black men to remain inferior while whites benefit economically. I was blown away by this new concept that had factual evidence to back it up. Michelle Alexander became my hero.
Michelle Alexander began her legal career as a civil rights lawyer in 1992. There was one particular case that later became the seed of The New Jim Crow. Alexander was representing a young black man in a case against the Oakland Police Department. The man kept a detailed journal of every police encounter in which he was abused or harassed. As Alexander questioned him she discovered the man was a felon and hesitated to move forward with the case because she knew that his testimony would not be credible. The man insisted that he had been framed by the police, but Alexander was still reluctant to represent him. The man became angry and stormed out of her office yelling “you are just like the rest of them.” A while later Alexander opened up the newspaper and came across a story in which a number of police officers, including one that the man mentioned months ago, were arrested for framing and beating up innocent black men. In an interview from 2012 Michelle Alexander recalled how this made her feel: “…he’s right about me. The minute he told me he was a felon, I stopped listening. I couldn’t even hear what he had to say. And I realized that my crime wasn’t so much that I had refused to represent an innocent man, someone who had been telling me the truth, but that I had been blind to all those who were guilty and that their stories weren’t being told.” Thus The New Jim Crow came into fruition.
Alexander exposed the truth behind the so called “War on Drugs” which was the greatest instigator of mass incarceration. It was a deliberate strategy to control black people and keep them inferior. Most people assumed that the War on Drugs was in response to the crisis on crack cocaine being sold in inner city neighborhoods. However, In 1982 President Regan announced the war on drugs a few years before crack even became a crisis in poor black neighborhoods. This was the first indicator of the fictitious war. There was speculation that drugs were being brought in to the black neighborhoods through the CIA. It was at this time that crack spread rapidly. Images of black whores, crack babies, and drug dealers were scattered throughout various media outlets. As a result of the war on drugs, the US has more people incarcerated than any other country, mainly black. Alexander made an astonishing statement when she revealed that “The US has more black people in prison than blacks locked up in South Africa during the height of apartheid” (27). The mass incarceration of blacks in the 1980’s appeared eerily similar to racial slavery before emancipation.
During reconstruction it was difficult for black Americans to become assimilated into white culture. Although technically “free” the impediments for black growth were very much evident in black codes and other forms of oppression. Basic rights such as walking on a particular side of the street or vagrancy charges were some of the few that would cause black people to be jailed. Under the 13th amendment, slavery was abolished except for in the form of a punishment. One of the most destructive practices of this time period was a form of punishment for black prisoners knows as convict leasing. White plantation owner were worried about losing their businesses that were built off of the bloodshed of slaves, and needed a new form of the same free labor. Their businesses simply could not be sustained without black workers. Mass amounts of black men were jailed for erroneous charges. This was evident in that whenever the prison companies came into town, there would be a big sweep of black men jailed. In the documentary Slavery by Another Name, Mary Ellen Curtin worded it quite bluntly, “If you used to get something for free in the past, you don’t want to pay for it.” Thus white business owners developed a systematic way to rent out prisoners for hire.
Similar to renting a vehicle these days local businesses could rent out prisoners for a monthly fee. It was quite simple, plantation owners went to prisons to pick out the prisoner of their liking, took them back to the plantation, and worked them to death. One white man from the south during this time period nostalgically recalls “Before the war, we owned the negros. If a man had a good negro, he could afford to keep him….But these convicts, we don’t own ‘em. One dies, get another one” (Mancini, 3). It was somewhat of a slow process, but eventually white folks figured out that they could make a fortune off of convict leasing: a new form of racial slavery. What began as a slow process of convict leasing developed into a major revenue for prisons and private business. In 1898 73% of Alabama’s entire annual state revenue came from convict leasing. Black prison workers were significant to the growth of the nation much like slavery was. Had it not been for black prison workers, economic development in the south would have plummeted. Abolitionist movements and large massive reforms eventually lead to end of convict leasing by the 1930’s.
By the 1980’s we witnessed the return of prison labor exploitation as Michelle Alexander has revealed in The New Jim Crow. Similar to various forms of mass incarceration of blacks, the War on Drugs was used as another form of black imprisonment. According to Alexander, the policies during this time “seemed designed to send folks to prison, which is what, in fact, happens the vast majority of the time” (13). The mass incarceration of black people during this time immobilized the black community just as it has done repeatedly. Incarceration hinders black advancement pertaining to family, employment, loans, and more aspects of ones life. Just imagine how employers feel when a black man walks in for an interview. To illustrate this, it was said that “the concentration of imprisonment amount young black urban makes is so extreme today that many of us simply assume that, when we encounter a young black man, he has a criminal record” (Clear, 2). This is significant to the lack of progress we see in black Americans versus white folks today. Automatically labeling someone as a criminal can prevent black development.
It is difficult for a society to shift their attitudes towards black people when they have always been considered a main source of profit. Especially in the case of the United States in which the country was built off of free slave labor. A nation such as the U.S. that has developed its superpower economy from the kidnapping of innocent Africans to be used as free labor producers has a difficult time letting go of this practice. We see evidence of this from convict leasing, to mass incarceration in what Michelle Alexander calls The New Jim Crow. Alexander suggests that ending mass incarceration will require a grassroots movement of people, white and black, criminal and non-criminal, demanding peace and prosperity for all.
Mancini, Matthew J. One Dies, Get Another: Convict Leasing in the American South, 1866-1928. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina, 1996. Print.
“Legal Scholar: Jim Crow Still Exists In America.” RSS 20. Wbur.org, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Clear, Todd R. Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
Slavery by Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. Prod. Catherine Allen and Douglas Blackmon. PBS, 2012. Film.
” What Was Jim Crow.” Jim Crow Museum: Origins of Jim Crow. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.