A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our white countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to the principles and ideas that control and guide us, as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as being a characterless and purposeless people; and hence we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nation’s scorn and contempt. – Frederick Douglass, in a statement on behalf of delegates to the National Colored Convention held in Rochester, New York, in July 1853.
*One could say that this statement by Frederick Douglass that headlines chapter 4 in author Michelle Alexander’s bold new book and stunning work of scholarship, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, frames the debate in this provocative book – A book in which Alexander won the 2011 NAACP Image Award for. Perhaps we need also to allow the Supreme Court’s famous proclamation a few years later in 1857 that the author references to resonate with us to better understand the haunting picture that Alexander presents in her book – [the black man] has no rights which the white man is bound to respect. This was actually a statement by Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney.
Jim Crow was actually the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-Black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-Black racism. There is a relationship between crime, security, and human rights, or lack thereof. In order for one group to feel safe, another must be watched, suspected, and treated as pariahs. Thus, giving a sort of twisted legitimacy to Jim Crow.
Alexander uses a pertinent analogy in her book, when she states: “Saying that mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow can leave a misimpression. The parallels between the two systems of control are striking, to say the least – in both, we find racial opportunism by politicians, legalized discrimination, political disenfranchisement, exclusion of blacks from juries, stigmatization, the closing of courthouse doors, racial segregation, and the symbolic production of race – yet there are important differences. Just as Jim Crow, as a system of racial control, was dramatically different from slavery, mass incarceration is different from its predecessor. In fact, if one were to draft a list of the differences between slavery and Jim Crow, the list might well be longer than the list of similarities.”
I, personally, can identify and appreciate many of the hypotheses that Alexander comes up with in her book, such as false accusations, privacy violations, and racial profiling. Many young black Americans, including my own children, have resorted to having a mistrust in the police, feeling that somehow because of the color of their skin, their civil rights might be violated. Unfortunately, my own daughter, has a serious dislike for the police. I suppose seeing her brother, my son, being brought into a courtroom in chains had a lot to do with that. It was a hurtful experience for me, as well as the rest of our family, especially considering the fact that a couple of years earlier he was an Honor Roll student in high school and would later receive a scholarship in architecture to Syracuse University. Nothing could have prepared our family for the indignity and hurt that we would later experience, which is sometimes typical of other black experiences, and what the author so eloquently describes in her book.
A particular passage resonates with me in Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, as she states: “Fully 70 percent of men between the ages of eighteen and forty-five in the impoverished and overwhelmingly black North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side are ex-offenders, saddled for life with a criminal record. The majority (60 percent) were incarcerated for drug offenses. These neighborhoods are a minefield for parolees, for a standard condition of parole is a promise not to associate with felons. As Paula Wolff, a senior executive at Chicago Metropolis observes, in these ghetto neighborhoods, ‘It is hard for a parolee to walk to the corner store to get a carton of milk without being subject to a parole violation.’” I actually lived in this North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago before moving out to San Diego.
Ironically, the author references my former Church in Chicago, the Apostolic Church of God, as she states: “It was no ordinary Sunday morning when presidential candidate Barack Obama stepped to the podium at the Apostolic Church of God in Chicago. It was Father’s Day. Hundreds of enthusiastic congregants packed the pews at the overwhelmingly black church eager to hear what the first black nominee for president of the United States had to say.” It was at this Church where I would get my baptism in Prison Ministry, for 10 years driving our Church van over to Cook County Jail to minister to a majority black inmate population once monthly, then occasionally going down to Statesville Prison in Joliet, Illinois, to also minister to a mostly black and latino inmate population. On one occasion while down at Statesville with our Prison Ministry, and someone called out my name – my younger brother happened to be the incarcerated.
The significant part about the author referencing the speech by presidential candidate Barack Obama at my former Church, was Alexander stating; “The message was a familiar one: black men should be better fathers. Too many are absent from their homes. For those in the audience, Obama’s speech was an old tune sung by an exciting new performer. His message of personal responsibility, particularly as it relates to fatherhood, was anything but new; it had been delivered countless times by black ministers in churches across America.” Leave it to Alexander, this brilliant author and former director of the Racial Justice Project at the ACLU of Northern California, to put Obama’s speech in its proper and historical context, as she states in The New Jim Crow: “The fact that Barack Obama can give a speech on Father’s Day dedicated to the subject of fathers who are ‘AWOL’ without ever acknowledging that the majority of young black men in large urban areas are currently under the control of the criminal justice system is disturbing, to say the least. What is more problematic, though, is that hardly anyone in the mainstream media noticed the
oversight.” The author of this book, that is the recipient of an NAACP Image Award, further states in regard to President Obama’s speech: “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. They did not walk out on their families voluntarily; they were taken away in handcuffs, often due to a massive federal program known as the War on Drugs.” Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites, according to Alexander.
Perhaps President Obama’s most significant appointment that was made once he ascended to the Oval Office, was that of appointing Eric Holder, another black man, to Attorney General of the United States, where he could combat years of unequal application of the laws of the land on young black men – such as a D’Mustafa A. Abdullah, a longtime and childhood friend of mine that had been caught up in the crack vs. cocaine debate on sentencing. D’Mustafa has missed the majority of the formative years of his son’s life, like so many other black men, languishing in prison. Probably most egregious in D’Mustafa’s case, is the fact that a now fired Special Agent, was allowed to divert drugs and monies, while entrapping young black men – with court records indicating that an Assistant U.S. Attorney understood it as the “cost of doing business!”
In an interview with the author while she was on a book promotion tour in San Diego, I questioned her about the propriety of an incarcerated black man with a documented history of mental illness being executed, and Alexander stated to me that she thought that was a human rights violation.
Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has started a much needed discussion around the world, one of which is The Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights in Springfield, Missouri – plans to discuss whether felons deserve protection from discrimination beginning at its Feb. 15 meeting. Commission Chairman George Davis said that if employers refuse to hire felons for non-risk jobs, they need a valid reason. This book is a call to action, a book that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild and the author of a book about Chicago politics, “The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago.” He has been a freelance contributor to the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper and EURweb. Mr. Moore can be contacted at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter at: @DennisMoore8.