The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. From 1980 to 2000, the number of incarcerated people climbed from 300,000 to 2 million, with the vast majority of those imprisoned being people of color. What does it say about our conceptions of safety—of freedom—that we assume that locking away an increasingly large proportion of the U.S. population would help the rest of us feel safer and more secure? Why do so many Americans constantly and strongly support punishment? How does such a formally colorblind criminal justice system achieve such racially discriminatory results?
Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow stimulates a necessary conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States. Alexander gives a voice to those who have been directly impacted by mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and systemic racism. Indeed, supported by the nation’s white supremacist history, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.
To lay the groundwork for her central argument, Alexander demonstrates the adaptability of racism. The rules and reasons the political system employs to enforce status relations of any kind, including racial hierarchy, evolve as they are challenged. Efforts to abolish slavery and Jim Crow—efforts made to try and achieve a greater racial equality—have brought about significant changes in the legal framework of American society. Alexander mentions new “rules of the game,” (Alexander, 55) — rules that are justified by new rhetoric, new language, and a new social consensus. These new rules, however, give way to the same results every time. Despite the shifting of rules and rhetoric, each adaptation of racism is characterized by the maintenance of white privilege above all.
Historically, white people have made repeated efforts to control African Americans, through institutions like slavery or Jim Crow and enforced segregation. These institutions eventually die but are always reborn in a new form, one that is tailored specifically to the needs and constraints of the given time period. Following the collapse of slavery, Jim Crow, or any other system of control, a transitory period soon follows during which those who are the most committed to keeping this system of racial hierarchy alive define these “rules of the game.” As a result, those who find themselves on the lowest rungs of the social ladder are, consistently throughout history, rendered powerless—chiefly by appealing to the vulnerability of lower-class white people, a group that is understandably eager to ensure that they never find themselves at the bottom of American society.
Even the structure of the Constitution reflects a deep seated desire to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially white landowners. Alexander notes that the document was designed so that the federal government would be weak, not only in its relationship to private property, but also in its relationship to the states in having limited rights to conduct their own affairs. The language of the constitution was deliberately colorblind—it never mentions the word negro or slave. Instead, it was built upon a compromise dealing with the prevailing racial caste system. Federalism, the division of power between the states and the federal government, was employed to protect slavery. Upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy and the American prison system.
Present day society relies on this foundation of oppression and color blindness that documents like the Constitution or political systems like democracy or federalism support. For example, just a decade ago in Chicago, 55% of the adult black male population had a felony record. Alexander describes how the Reagan government exploited 1980s hysteria over crack cocaine to demonize the black population so that “black” and “crime” became interchangeable. It was a war – not on drugs – but on black people.
“The new Jim Crow is defined by the illusion that it has created. In this modern world of “colorblindness”... We have become anesthetized to it, to the point that we, in the face of what this system has done to generations of African Americans, demand either ignorantly or cynically for them to “pull up their pants” and “be more responsible.” (Alexander, 179)
Data collected by College Guild, supported by comparable data in The New Jim Crow, reveals that a quarter of the incarcerated people whom CG instructs are indeed people of color. Moreover, many have only a high school diploma. Once blackness and crime, especially drug crime, became conflated in the public consciousness, the criminalblackman, as described by Alexander, inevitably became the primary target for law enforcement.
To become a truly equitable society, the United States must acknowledge the existence of this new “racial caste,” (Alexander, 30) and then act to ensure its deconstruction. We must begin to recognize each other’s humanity, to care for each other despite racial backgrounds. As Alexander notes, however, doing so requires increased federal funding on, among other needs, basic education and healthcare—rights to which every US citizen should have access. Until then, College Guild will continue to hear the voices of prisoners who may not have been heard prior to incarceration. By providing human connection through an emphasis on educational courses, CG reaches individuals from a broad spectrum of educational levels, regardless of offense, arming students with skills that afford them a more equal right to a basic standard of living.
Written by: Charlotte Wulf - CG Intern