The new Jim Crow
I consider Michelle Alexander’s book THE most important book dealing with race relations that’s been published since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in 1865. According to many, it helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War and the end of slavery. Several movies based on the book were made, and I can remember a silent version with Uncle Tom and Little Eva on an ice floe. I am convinced that if enough white people read Alexander’s book it could make a severe dent in racism. Professor of law and civil rights advocate Alexander has written a stunning book with statistics verifying almost every statement.
In his foreword to the book, the eminent professor Cornel West says, “There is no doubt that if young white people were incarcerated at the same rates as young black people, the issue would be a national emergency. But it is also true that if young black middle- and upper-class people were incarcerated at the same rate as young black poor people, black leaders would focus much more on the prison-industrial complex … The social movement fanned and fueled by this historic book is a democratic awakening that says we do care, that the racial caste system must be dismantled, that we need a revolution in our warped priorities, a transfer of power from oligarchs to the people—and that we are willing to love and die to make it so!”
Today’s racism, called “Jim Crow,” has taken an inhuman and sinister form—“mass incarceration,” which affects people of color—Hispanic, Asian and African Americans— and young men principally. The means is illegal drug usage, manufacture or sale. Although white people also use drugs under similar circumstances and in similar amounts as people of color, the penalties are different says Alexander. “The United States has a comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized control, unparalleled in world history, that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow … Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.”
For example, in searching neighborhoods for drugs, police typically look in black communities although drug usage is about the same percentage of the populations in white as well as in black communities. In a recent study it was shown that 15% of the New Jersey drivers on the turnpike were racial minorities, yet 42% of all stops and 74% of all arrests were racial minorities. Maryland studies showed that although African Americans constituted only 17% of drivers along a specified highway, yet 70% of those stopped and searched were racial minorities. Both studies showed that whites were more likely to be carrying illegal drugs than minorities.
The New York Times reported in 2008 that the New York Police Department stopped 545,000 people and 80% of those were African Americans. On the whole, stop-and-frisk arrests are not productive and less than 1% of motorists stopped resulted in guns being found.
A 2000 study of the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that white students use powder cocaine at seven times the rate of black students, use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students. Still, law enforcement, at all levels, concentrates on black communities.
Vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” as crimes have been enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing, in which prisoners are contracted out as laborers to the highest bidder.
In the 1920s, when I was a child living in Hot Springs, Ark., there were certain unspoken and unwritten racial rules. A white person called any black person by his/her first name and any black person addressed the white person as a Mr., Mrs. or Miss. All people of color entered the homes of white people by the back door. Schools were segregated and one had only to view the exterior of school houses to realize the inferiority of the black school system. It’s not so obvious today. Guests at the leading hotel are from all ethnic groups and it appears on the surface that racism is dead. But underneath, whether in Minnesota or Arkansas, racism still lurks. Its ugliest aspect is the massive and most often, unjust, incarceration of young black men for drug convictions and is the theme of Michelle Alexander’s new (2010) barn-burner of a book, “The New Jim Crow,” replete with statistics to bear out her thesis.
Virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war. Mandatory drug testing has been approved along with random searches and sweeps of public schools and students; people have been permitted search warrants based on anonymous tips; and helicopter surveillance has been permitted without a warrant. State and local law enforcement agencies have been granted the authority to keep for their own use the vast majority of cash and assets they seize when waging the drug war. (This has occurred in Minnesota.) The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 provided mandatory minimum sentences for the distribution of cocaine, including far more serious punishment for distribution of crack—associated with blacks—than powder cocaine—associated with whites.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the basic requirement that motorists stopped by police have to give their consent to a search, thus negating the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) trains police to conduct utterly unreasonable and discriminatory stops and seizures through the United States. The “drug-courier profiles” utilized by the DEA and other law enforcement agencies for drug sweeps on highways, as well as in airports and train stations, are notoriously unreliable.
Thousands of people are swept into the criminal justice system every year pursuant to the drug war without much regard for their guilt or innocence. Police are allowed by the courts to conduct fishing expeditions for drugs based on nothing more than a hunch. Once in the system, people are often denied attorneys or meaningful representation and pressured into plea bargains by the threats of unbelievably harsh sentences—higher than many countries impose on convicted murderers. Legal representation provided criminal defendants is often illusory. Approximately 80% of criminal defendants are indigent and unable to hire a lawyer and the nation’s public defender system is woefully inadequate with attorneys unable to handle their enormous case loads.
This is the way the roundup works in virtually every major city in the country. The San Jose Mercury News reviewed 700,000 criminal cases and found that “at virtually every stage of pre-trial negotiation, whites are more successful than nonwhites.” The state of Georgia’s “two strikes and you’re out” legislation imposes life imprisonment for a second drug offense. As a result, 98.4% of those serving life sentences were black.
When a defendant pleads guilty to a minor drug offense, he probably will not be told that that “guilty” plea will most likely prevent him from receiving any kind of government benefits. The American Bar Association says the sentencing might be probation, community service and court costs. Also unmentioned may be his lifetime denial of health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing and federal educational assistance. His driver’s license may be suspended and he may no longer qualify for state employment and professional licenses. He will not be permitted to enlist in the military, possess a firearm or obtain a federal security license.
Jury selection also reflects a racial bias. Achieving an all-white jury, or nearly all-white jury, is easy in most jurisdictions because relatively few racial minorities are included in the jury pool. Potential jurors are typically called for service based on the list of registered voters or Dept. of Motor Vehicle lists—sources that contain disproportionately fewer people of color because they are less likely to own cars or register to vote.
It has been changes in our laws—particularly the dramatic increases in the length of prison sentences—that have been responsible for the growth of our prison system, not increases in crime.
My mother, sister and I lived in the home of my grandparents when I was growing up. He was a medical doctor who loved his home and family, never took a vacation and made daily house calls to a variety of patients. He was the only father I ever knew; I called him “Big Daddy.” His office waiting room was bi-sectioned—one for white and one for colored. We always had one colored maid-of-all work and we children were to respect her and never to “sass” her. When she was ill, my grandfather attended her. If she or her spouse were in any difficulties with “the law,” my family would take care of it. Her relationship with my family might be called “symbiotic.” All privileges were on one side. It’s amazing that in the span of my lifetime there is now an African-American president and that is good.
But genuine equality still does not exist in this country. It doesn’t exist in South Africa, either, where the African population has received political equality but not economic equality. Michelle Alexander’s new book (2010), “The New Jim Crow,” does not deal with the economic inequality in the United States; that would have required another book. But, among other issues, it does give the reader a picture of the U.S. legal system and its tremendous shortcomings with reference to African Americans who have been sentenced to prison for convictions relating to drug laws.
In 1880 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that black people were to be considered for juries. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have tolerated “the most egregious examples of racial bias in jury selection.”
A recent Duke University study found that the racial composition of jury pools has a profound effect on the probability of a black defendant being convicted.
According to the study, juries formed from all-white jury pools in Florida convicted black defendants 16% more often than white defendants. In cases with no black potential jurors in the jury pool, black defendants were convicted 81% of the time, while white defendants were convicted 66% of the time. When at least one member of the jury pool was black, the conviction rates for white (73%) and black (71%) were almost identical, presenting strong and convincing evidence that the racial composition of the jury pool actually has a major effect on trial outcomes. Research on this selection process abounds.
Legal representation furnished to indigent and low-income people is usually that of a public defender, who is most often underpaid and overworked. Thus the legal services available to low-income (mainly minorities) defendants cannot compare to those available to a person of means. The right to effective counsel is at the heart of the criminal justice system.
When an individual pleads guilty to a criminal charge, he becomes a felon.
RELEASED FROM PRISON
If a released felon has no friends or relatives, he will be forced to find a homeless shelter. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 granted public housing agencies the right to use leases to evict any tenant, household member or guest engaged in criminal activity. Later legislation urged that drug offenders be excluded from public housing based on their criminal records. Throughout the country public housing agencies have accepted policies that deny eligibility to applicants even with the most minor criminal backgrounds. The Housing and Urban Development program requires every public housing lease to stipulate that if the tenant, or any member of the tenant’s household or any guest of the tenant, engages in any drug-related or other criminal activity, on or off the premises, the tenancy will be terminated. In a 2002 ruling, the Supreme Court stated that under federal law, housing tenants can be evicted whether they knew of or participated in illegal criminal activity.
A McCormick Institute of Public Affairs study found that nearly a quarter of the guests in homeless shelters had been incarcerated within the previous year—unable to find housing. Research of the Corporations for Supportive Housing in New York shows that the use of state prisons and city jails dropped significantly when people were provided public housing. More than 650,000 people are released from prison annually and for many, finding a home appears impossible.
Forty of the 51 state parole agencies require parolees to “maintain gainful employment.” But most employers will not hire individuals with any kind of criminal record. Employers in growing numbers are barred by state licensing agencies from hiring such people. Most ex-offenders have difficulty even getting an interview.
Manufacturing jobs have almost disappeared. Most offenders are tracked for prison at early ages, labeled as criminals in their teen years and shuttled from underfunded city schools to prison. Once labeled criminals, their job prospects are forever bleak. Given the incredibly high level of discrimination suffered by black men in the job market it is not surprising that huge percentages of African Americans are unemployed.
A war has been declared on young black men who have engaged in precisely the same crimes that go largely ignored in middle class white communities. The drug war is a system of control. Laws prohibiting the use and sale of drugs are facially race-neutral, but they are enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion. If we could return to the l970’s rate of incarceration (PUT THE REST OF THIS SENTENCE IN ITALICS) we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars.