Monday, January 5, 2015

Let's Require All College Freshmen to Read "The New Jim Crow"

Michelle Alexander, author of "The New Jim Crow"
Why? Because "The New Jim Crow," by Michelle Alexander, more than any other book I know of, describes our times, our predicaments and our society's greatest tensions (an understatement, really): race, the prison industrial complex, socioeconomic class, oppression, indifference, and how they are all so intertwined.

A professor at my college has proposed it to be the incoming first years' required reading book for multiple years now, and I am hopeful his advocacy will be successful this year, and that the incoming class of 2018 will all read Michelle Alexander's searing, brilliant, researched-to-a-T book. Especially given everything that has happened in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in other towns across the country--Alexander, writing in 2012, shows us exactly how and why the lives of black men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner are so devalued.

I want all white first year students to take in this paragraph:
"...[T]he drug war could have been waged primarily in overwhelmingly white suburbs or on college campuses. SWAT teams could have rappelled from helicopters in gated suburban communities and raided the homes of high school lacrosse players known for hosting coke and ecstasy parties after their games. The police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found hidden in someone's dresser drawer. ... All this could have happened as a matter of course in white communities, but it did not. Instead, when police go looking for drugs, they look in the 'hood. Tactics that would be political suicide in an upscale white suburb are not even newsworthy in poor black and brown communities (p. 124, emphasis mine)."
Perhaps the student readers would do as I did--smile a little at the absurd visual of SWAT teams dropping into the white 'burbs to break up high schoolers' parties or busting down frat doors for small amounts of marijuana. And then perhaps, as I did, they would re-read the paragraph and realize--well, that it is exactly what is happening regularly in low-income brown and black neighborhoods. The same list of Drug War "interventions" that are absurd, unreal when applied to white middle and upper class communities are exactly the norm in poor black and brown ones.

Although white people are more likely to use and sell illegal drugs in the U.S. (data here, here and here, for examples), our country imprisons a greater percentage of our black citizens than even South Africa did during apartheid (p. 6), mostly for drug-related crimes. And these are not the heads of drug cartels, they are often first-time offenders and overwhelmingly non-violent crimes.

The statistics that Alexander shares throughout the book are astounding, but (as the title of her book indicates) more powerful still are the clear patterns and connections she reveals, showing how our criminal justice system is most of all, a tool for the social control of black and brown people. She lays out her argument historically:
"Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve and change as they are challenged. (p. 21)"
For although the criminal justice system is on paper "race neutral," it functions in just the same way as past forms of racist social control, like slavery, sharecropping, and the Jim Crow Laws, just with a new tune: "A new race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments...demanding 'law and order' rather than 'segregation forever.' (p. 40)." People with criminal records of any kind--even when they serve no jail time and immediately go to parole, even when their crimes are non-violent--are deeply oppressed in our society, not even eligible for public housing! "Criminals...are the one social group in America we have permission to hate. In 'colorblind' America, criminals are the new whipping boys (p. 141)."

And who makes up the vast majority of America prisoners and parolees? Who makes up the vast majority of the people we are allowed to hate and legally discriminate against? Alexander demands that we as a nation need to talk frankly about the answers to these questions. Who better to delve in than incoming college students, our supposed future leaders?

What's particularly important for college students (and all of us, really) to discuss that Alexander so brilliantly writes about, is that racism can occur even when people honestly don't think they are being racist. And if it weren't a library book, I would have underlined this sentence multiple times because it comes up in so many of my conversations about race with white students:
"The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial (p. 182)"
Rather, "This system of control depends far more on racial indifference...than racial hostility (p. 203)." It is the avoidance of talking about race and racism that allows systems like the criminal justice system to function, thrive and grow. Alexander's book (in addition to the other resources she provides here) is one tool in the long fight ahead, so if you're with her, let's promote her book. I know many of you work in colleges and universities. Can you propose it as summer reading to your Dean of Freshmen or Dean of Studies? Can you incorporate it into a workshop or class that you teach? Can you read it with a group of your friends and discuss?

Of course, "The New Jim Crow" is no panacea. But if people of all races who care about social justice could work to share language, to see through assertions of colorblindness, to share understandings of our country's racist history, and to challenge ourselves to learn more and do better, we will be in a stronger position to make it even a little better, a little more just, for the next generation.

Michelle Alexander's NYT 11/26/14 op-ed on Michael Brown's death: "Telling My Son About Ferguson"

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