Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Reason for Those Saggy Pants

“The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander, foreword by Cornel West, 2010

This instant classic is the product of a liberal black civil rights attorney who suddenly realized that she had not been paying attention to the key issue of black time – the mass jailing of hundreds of thousands of black, mostly male youth in the U.S.  This so-called ‘post-racial’ society – isn’t.  The U.S. has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world – higher than all the ‘bad’ countries in U.S. mythology – Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Syria, North Korea.  2.3 million now sit in jail, while another 5.4 million are on parole, or in some other continued link to their time as ‘felons.’ 

Alexander clearly links indentured servitude, slavery, the subsequent forced labor regime associated with Jim Crow, and its present successor, mass incarceration, usually for ‘drug crimes’ – as natural evolutions of white supremacy.  (A history of mass convict leasing under Jim Crow, “Slavery by Another Name,” reviewed below.)   The U.S. government was set up on the basis of making accommodations to slave holders.  Hence the existence of a Senate, which reduced the influence of populous states; the electoral college, which took voting control out of the hands of the voting population; federalism, which accommodated ‘states rights,’ and the ‘compromise’ that a black person was 3/5ths of a person, as stated in Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution.  (now repealed.)  In essence, she says the U.S. was founded on white supremacy and that still is an essential part of its regime of labor and social control.  It has only changed form.

Alexander does a short tour of U.S. history and the evolution of systems of black labor control.  Only in short periods was this system disrupted - after the Civil War during Reconstruction; after the end of World War II and the return of black veterans and after the victories of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s.  She carefully notes that it was in periods of unity between black and white workers that the planters, big farmers and capitalists instituted laws against the fraternization of the ethnicities.  This happened after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, which lead to the wholesale adoption of formal black slavery and the ending of white indentured servitude.  It also happened after the successes of the Populist movement of the 1890s to unite whites and blacks, which brought in strengthened Jim Crow laws as a response.  Roosevelt’s policies, which benefited black and white workers, also angered the segregationists, but still allowed them Democratic Party control in the South. The present hostility to black and Latino felons is the result of the successes of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, which united southern blacks with northern whites.

The response to the wave of social change in the 1960s was ‘law and order’ politics.  These politics were first mentioned by Barry Goldwater, then made weak government policy by Richard Nixon, enforced and institutionalized by Ronald Reagan with support from a majority of Democrats, and fully embraced by the Democratic Party under “new” Democrat Bill Clinton.  Alexander even calls Clinton ‘the president, more than any other, responsible for the current racial under-caste” given his passage of ‘three strikes and you’re out” and the turning of welfare into limited block grants in the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.” (an Orwellian name, if any.)  Federal money from welfare then flowed into the burgeoning prison-industrial complex instead. Clinton, of course, grew up in the segregationist state of Arkansas. The 'Drug War' is essentially the name this whole process was subsumed under, though drug use was going down when Reagan proposed it. (Read "The Marijuana Diaries," fictional books about weed, reviewed below)

This is the drug-war/law and order state we live in today, under a half-black president.  Evidently, the White House Negro does not notice.  Given U.S. history, only a class-based approach will unify blacks and whites, and break the ‘racial bribe’ paid to white workers.  Indeed it is the only thing in history that has.  This is something the U.S. Marxist and communist movements have understood very well, and which has been a basis for their organizing.


Alexander, an attorney, goes into case detail on the Supreme Court decisions that have made the drug war easy for the government.  “Consent” searches and ‘pretext” car searches allow cops to search numerous people and their property without cause, negating the 4th Amendment to be free of unreasonable search & seizure.  Under Reagan, money began to flow to police departments for seized goods, and the Pentagon and federal programs started providing military weaponry and massive amounts of money to start anti-drug programs.  Local SWAT teams based on Pentagon funding have grown exponentially, and are now most used in ordinary drug arrests.  The Supreme Court, in essence, has become the chief drug prosecutor.  Obama increased funding to Clinton’s federal drug programs, both COPS and the Byrne grant program, which increases payments to localities for each drug arrest.  Yes, the more you arrest, the more you get, courtesy of the federal government.


Alexander shows how the drug war is carried out against minorities, even though all statistics show white people are more liable to be drug sellers and drug users.  The media, in hand with the government, has cooperated in showing ‘crime’ and especially ‘drug crime’ to be an overwhelmingly black and Latino issue – crack whores, gang-bangers, ghetto dealers and the like.  (See review of “Bad Boys, Bad Boys” below, about television crime shows.)  Her legal approach cites Supreme Court case after case that protects prosecutors, jury selection and the court system from any accusations of racial bias except based on direct racist statements.  The public defenders offices have been defunded and most defendants who are poor plead guilty to avoid mandatory sentencing guidelines.  Police have been allowed by Supreme Court decisions to base stops on ethnic characteristics – as long as they are not the ‘only’ reason - thus justifying racial profiling.  Statistics that show black and Latino people to be the overwhelming victims of arrest, property seizure, jailing, convictions and prison time for drug offenses have been ruled inadmissible.  Since no one any longer is stupid enough to clearly state racial bias, the practice instead has been institutionalized as ‘color-blind.’ So smoking weed while white (SWWW) is far less dangerous than driving or walking while black. (DWB & WWB)


After conviction, felons in many states are barred from voting, cannot serve on juries, are kicked out of federal public housing, lose food stamps, become ineligible for student loans and are forced to tell prospective employers that they are felons, thus reducing their chance of ever getting a decent job.  Picture that you are a former drug ‘felon’ and now you cannot even vote the shitbags out of office that put you there.  These votes, of course, would have turned the tide in many elections. Given this treatment once released, many turn to crime as the only way to survive.  A majority end up homeless.  Many cannot pay the large fines, costs and charges associated with probation, and end up in debt, even if they have a job; or worse, back in prison.  Alexander calls this continuing form of discrimination, which is not used in almost any other country in the world, part of the new Jim Crow.   It relegates felons to second-class citizenship in a permanent under-caste.

She both compares mass incarceration to old Jim Crow, showing the similarities and differences.  The similarities are somewhat obvious.  The differences are the criminal justice system is not openly based on racial categories, unlike Jim Crow.  White stoners can end up in jail next to black brothers (although some whites were also imprisoned in labor camps in the South during Jim Crow for the same bogus reasons as blacks…)  Her third point is that there is black support for ‘get tough’ policies, especially from black churches and upper-middle class blacks. 

Alexander discusses the shame that permeates the black (and presumably Latino community too) about incarceration.  You do not mention it in your church, your job, even your family.  Black churches especially maintain a moralistic tone that puts ‘felons’ on the outs with ‘good black people.’  This moralism has led to the growth of high-profile Republicanism among some blacks, as well as upper –middle class scolds like Bill Cosby and Barak Obama lecturing on ‘missing black fathers.’  As Alexander points out, no one wants to face the fact that all the ‘missing black fathers’ are in fact locked up in jails!  Where have all the black men gone? ask the many single black women.  Into the prison/industrial complex, my dear! 

Alexander describes ‘gangsta rap’ as a modern-day minstrel show, celebrating the very prison of oppression that has incarcerated so many black men, many times for a majority audience of whites, who see it as confirmation that blacks naturally should be behind bars, as it is part of their ‘culture.’

Alexander criticizes the modern ‘civil rights’ movement’s focus on affirmative action, which many times only benefits the black elite.  Obama ran with a prominent 'drug warrior,' Joe Biden; had Rahm Emanuel, a proponent of stricter drug laws and slashing welfare, as his Numero Uno; and appointed to the DOJ Eric Holder, who campaigned in D.C. for harsh mandatory minimum sentencing for marijuana.  (Read commentary on Eric Holder, "Fire Holder, Don't Hold Your Fire," below.) Instead, she echoes Martin Luther King’s later call for a ‘revolution’ – not piecemeal reforms of the structural racism evinced by the criminal justice system.  She describes the massive forces financially benefiting from the prison/industrial complex – private prison corporations, gun manufacturers, security firms, health providers and over a million employees working in the jail business.  She even points out that unemployment figures would be much higher if prisoners were taken into account, which they aren't.  

I will only end here with a point from Marx.  Alexander is not a Marxist, but a left-liberal disgusted by the evolution of slavery in the modern day.  The large prison population in the U.S. does not even reach the level of a ‘reserve army of the unemployed’ – as that army occasionally has a job, certainly more than many released felons.  Prisoners are almost permanently warehoused because capitalism is not just racist – it actually cannot provide jobs for its citizens. So it locks them up, using your taxpayer money.  The system of incarceration and the criminal justice system terrorizes the rest of the present black and Latino population, just as Jim Crow's prison labor laws affected all the 'free blacks' in the South.  It just took capturing a critical mass of that population to scare the rest, much as large unemployment scares the employed.  Racism is a tool it uses to divide black, white and Latino workers, and to justify incarceration, not just a 'bad idea.'  No surprise here.

But all of this is done for ultimately financial reasons, as it was under slavery and Jim Crow.  Wasting labor and talent is business-as-usual for capitalism, if it means staying in control.  Mistaking the mask for the face is what liberals do.  Yet under the hood is the local businessman and the international businessman.  Dig deeper and you see a very profitable strategy – one that has been the basis of U.S. society since the beginning.  Of course, this strategy is not confined to the U.S. but is present in every capitalist country to some extent.  Yet it is in the U.S. that this strategy has reached its apotheosis - although South Africa gives the U.S. a run for its money, and still does.

And I bought it at May Day Books
Red Frog
May 29, 2013

No comments: