Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is a bestselling, holistic challenge to the notion that we live in a society that has left systemic racism and racial castes behind. Her book argues why mass incarceration is essentially the Jim Crow of our generation and how hard it is to find solutions in a colorblind society. She draws many striking similarities between the legally explicit racial subversion of black Americans and the thinly veiled caste system of mass incarceration, hidden behind ‘get tough on crime’ rhetoric. Both mass incarceration and Jim Crow are characterized by racial discrimination in legal codes, exploitation, political disenfranchisement, exclusion of blacks from juries, stigmatization, racial segregation, and more. Her mission with this book was to access both the black leaders that may be unaware of the severity of this issue, and white readers who may have little to no former knowledge of either mass incarceration or the history of institutionalized racism in America. She wanted to promote awareness, and incite a social revolution of activists who can find everything they need to know in one 260-word book. In this mission, I believe she was successful, save one thing that seemed to be missing.
The first thing that Alexander draws attention to is how black exceptionalism is used as an excuse that there is no longer racism integrated in our system. Alexander does an excellent job picking apart the issues with black exceptionalism, and how detrimental that line of thinking really is to Black America. Alexander draws attention to racist policies and campaigns such as the push to "get tough on crime" and the "war on drugs." Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton pushed these campaigns forward. This “war on drugs” was, Alexander argues, a reincarnation of the racial caste systems in America. Politicians cited “welfare queens” and the “crack cocaine epidemic” as thinly veiled racism intended to drive images of black criminality and laziness into the minds of the American public. They used this momentum to create absurd drug penalties and one- or three-strike policies to imprison black men and deny them and their families federal assistance.
While many sources can give you the facts that are thrown out back-to-back in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s most uniquely effective tool was delving into what real life looked like for black people who become victims of the criminal justice system. Alexander shows how the cards are stacked against young black men the second they fall into the trap of incarceration, and takes the reader through what life is like for ex-convicts. She amasses so many stories, court cases, and individual accounts, woven into her description, making it all the more real. This is incredibly effective, because it is much easier for people to maintain a cognitive separation between these institutions and the real lives and communities that they are destroying without personal accounts and examples. Once the issue is humanized, it is difficult to resist feeling outraged, and wanting to drop everything to make a change. This is what helps Alexander effectively engage the wide audience, and craft “the bible of a social movement,” as the San Francisco Chronicle called it.
The only critique to give The New Jim Crow falls is that it falls short in one aspect. She never outlines any concrete or potential ways to fix mass incarceration. Short of even the major fixes, Alexander doesn’t provide a now motivated and outraged readership a way to get involved or make a change. Alexander does show the difficulty of solving mass incarceration, by showing Supreme Court decisions that permit systematically violating our rights. However, writing as in an action oriented way is an extremely important part of any social justice book.
Throughout The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander carefully chips away at our recent and long-term history, until the reader watches their image of America crumble. This is, I believe, one of the most important purposes of this book: to see history from the perspective of the oppressed. She exposes the reality in a brilliant way, never losing her audience to claims that are too bold or that jump to the conclusion too quickly. Instead, Alexander guides the reader to reach this inevitable conclusion organically; that the America of the past and present has suppressed black people since they first arrived, and has been doing so since long after the history books tell us it ended.
The Condemnation of Blackness seeks to link the idea of black criminality and the making of apartheid America to a tangible origin: statistics becoming science and misinterpretation. Why does a dark complexion equal criminality, inferiority, and the inability to abide by law? Khalil Muhammad delves into the various factors contributing to this societal phenomenon, and exposes the unreliability of racial crime statistics.
To begin, Muhammad supplies the idea that scholars during the Progressive era in the late 1800's misinterpreted U.S. census data that showed blacks committed more crimes than whites and even immigrants. The census revealed that while the black people made up only 12% of America's population, they constituted 30% of the criminal population. The census did not inform its audience of the discriminatory punishments and race-conscious laws that African-Americans faced, implying that blacks were biologically more inclined to commit crimes than their caucasian counterparts. This census fueled debates about differences between blacks and white Europeans, and was used as justification for racist ideology.
During the Reconstruction era, Muhammad surmises blacks were placed against insurmountable odds post-slavery. Blacks suffered during Reconstruction due to lack of accumulated wealth and inability to find work compared to whites. This inherent poverty placed blacks into a realm apart from the rest of the United States and immigrants at similar odds, physically and metaphorically. African-American families typically could not afford to live in affluent white neighborhoods, and realtors tended to avoid showing houses in white neighborhoods to black individuals. This poverty further divided blacks from normal society and perpetuated the "separate" mantra held by many Americans. Blacks were never truly assimilated like white immigrants were. Muhammad states there was apathy towards blacks and thus, blacks were not aided during Reconstruction. This lack of aid further placed blacks at odds and attributed to the supposed crimes. There is a moment in which Muhammad states blacks were more likely to be arrested for crimes committed than whites, thus skewing the objective data analysis of crime among racial group due to policing in black areas.
Contemporary scholars of the time viewed the data and concluded blacks were more likely to commit crime due to their moral inferiority. And thus, "the ideological currency of black criminality" was legitimized (Muhammad 3). From the 1890's until the 1940's, black criminality would become one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in this modern urban world. This ideology has perpetuated until today, as evidenced by the daily acts of police brutality towards innocent black citizens.
With this increased crime rate and poverty among blacks, residential segregation was perpetuated due to economic inabilities to move elsewhere. The 'ghetto' became the product of this poverty and segregation. The increased crime rates in the 'ghetto' did not help the plight. The poor living conditions blacks suffered became associated with being black itself and perpetuated black inferiority to many Americans whom believed in meritocracy. Being black meant being inferior. And thus, white superiority was somehow justified in the minds of many. This supposed proven inferiority justified the exploitation of blacks. And the vicious, covert cycle of controlling blacks continued.
Interestingly enough, blacks being criminals meant mass incarceration of the group. And so it was that blacks became controlled by the white population through prison, rather than slavery. Perhaps it is just slavery by another name.
Part 1: The Slow Poison
The first chapter is where we first start to see the plight of the Cottenham family. The Cottenhams (a variation of Cottingham) are a slave family owned by Elisha Cottingham, a prominent white man with an estate along the Cahaba River in Bibb County, Alabama. The beginning shows promise for the family, as the Civil War has just ended, freedom rings, and Henry Cottenham can finally marry Mary Bishop, a former chattel slave like himself. It should be noted that the Cottenham slaves had a rather different experience than that of most slaves in the Deep South. Because of the Cottinghams’ belief that cruelty was sinful, the slaves were rarely beaten, and they were buried only a few feet from their master Elisha in a crude graves, something thought unthinkable by other southerners. The Cottinghams believed in a greater sense of family surrounding both them and their slaves, that may be why following the Emancipation Proclamation, the majority of the Cottenham slaves stayed in Cahaba River Valley, where they continued to sharecrop and work the land. Following the end of the War, things for the Cottenhams and many other southern former slaves took a turn for the worse. In the years before and during the Civil War, slave labor proved to be increasingly useful for coal mining and and the production of iron, as skilled slaves made large profits for their masters by being rented out to work in these mines and iron furnaces. Industrialization reared its head, and southerners saw the potential money to be made in the steel, iron & coal industries after production increased greatly for battleships, submarines and weapons used for the war effort. Railroads also called for increased production in these fields. Looking to replace the profitability of slave labor in the cotton fields, it seemed these metals would be the way to do so. This is where the need for cheap labor came in, and thus, the exploitation of the rights and lack of educational and economic resources of the black people as a whole. White southerners found an ostensible solution: returning blacks to their position in society and getting free labor out of them. How? “…every southern state enacted an array of interlocking laws to criminalize black life.” Current prisoners were leased to Railroad Companies and other industries to provide the labor they needed for free. Soon began a new process of involuntary servitude. Blacks were arrested for false crimes such as “vagrancy” or accused of owing some false debt to some white man. They were brought up on charges, and in illegitimate trials they were charged with the court fees of arrest, trial, etc. Prominent white figures then offered to pay for these fees in exchange for some labor. So, these blacks signed contracts to work for the white men who were "helping them out” by alleviating their debt by allowing them to work for them. These sentences of work lasted for months, and after being fed poorly, clothed poorly and barely sleeping, they were brought up for being provided with food, clothes and shelter, and then sentenced to work more time to pay off the increased debt.
Mass incarceration, putting absurd amount of blacks into prisons for “crimes” that are not treated the same way for whites, is just another form of slavery. Before it was a way to get free labor, now it is how the black man is kept “in his place” in society.
Part Two: The Convict Leasing System
After the Civil War, the demand for labor was high due to the lack of an institutional slavery system. The productivity of plantations were depleting due to the lack of slaves. Once the Emancipation Proclamation was established, the plantation owners that freed their slaves had to pay blacks to work for them. This was an odd concept for Whites to commit to. In result, Black people in economic destitute were routinely captured and tried on petty or non existent charges, only to be ordered to pay an unaffordable crime. They were often falsely accused and tried in front of a white jury, thus diminishing their chances to be freed. Farming and mining businesses saw this as an opportunity to acquire the labor they lacked under the contract-leasing method. They admired the work effort of the Black population.
Part 2 of Slavery by Another Name references John Davis, the son of former slaves, and John Pace, the son of slave owners. In the beginning of the 1900’s, Davis was arrested and fined. Simultaneously, Pace bought land and was in the process of acquiring slaves through the contract method. He formulated contracts that stated he would pay their fine monthly in return for labor. Also included in these contracts, he stated that the people incarcerated were to be treated as slaves. He did this with John Davis and worked with law enforcement to arrest a certain other individuals. Whenever their contract expired, he would formulate another charge against them or simply force them to stay enslaved. Through this, his productivity drastically increased until he was investigated by the federal government and arrested.
Southern states completed these task so effortlessly through the Black codes. The Black Codes were laws passed to restrict African-Americans freedom.The incarceration and re-enslavement of Blacks was used to intimidate them out of the political elections and economic success. This manner of blackmailing blacks into slavery continued until the end of WWII
How does this translate into today’s society? Slavery is legal in prison and verified through the 13th amendment. Inmates are required to work unless cleared by a medical professional. Common labor includes mining, steel manufacturing, agriculture, and sewing. The penal system in the United states is to contribute to the mass incarceration of Blacks. The U.S only makes up 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prison population. In prison, approximately 40% of inmates are Black. It is all a system of control.
Blackmon tells his story through examples, and let’s the records speak for themselves in part three of Slavery By Another Name. He continues with the story of Green Cottenham, a black man from Columbiana, Alabama. On March 31, 1908, he was arrested and jailed for riding a freight train without a ticket. Even though the sheriff that arrested him could not provide any evidence to the reason behind his arrest, the judge charged him with “vagrancy.” Cottenham and his friend “Mun” Monroe Dolphus were shackled and brought to the Pratt Mines in Pratt City where they were expected to pay off their $30+ fines. It would take them about six months each of hard labor. Cottenham and Dolphus were just two of thousands of prisoners sent to work in coalmines where they would face disease, death, and extreme violence. Often women would come to beg for their men by performing sexual favors for the guards. Sometimes they were arrested and the guards used them for sexual entertainment.
Slope No. 12 was a prison built where a Methodist school building used to be in Alabama in 1907. Here, just as in Flat Top and Coalbury prisons, prisoners were forced to go underground at gunpoint. Prisoners faced black lung disease, intestinal disorders, and seeping waste from the walls. Young black boys were known as “gal-boys” and were raped and forced to perform sexual favors often. Physical punishment and torture was a common punishment prisoners faced. Outside of the mines, deputy sheriffs took “justice” into their own hands by lynching mining protestors.
Deaths occurred not from just disease, but electrocution from exposed wires, collapsing rocks, and other things that were the result of extremely dangerous working conditions. Owners of the company were trying to keep up with the work of modern technology through manual labor, and pushed the men to their limits, and sometimes that was death. By 1910, coal companies were making 15 million tons of coal per year. Using prisoners to mine the coal was cheap labor, which benefited the company owners, and sheriffs often profited from bringing men in even for ludicrous crimes such as train “jumping” and “vagrancy” a “catch-all crime.”
Blackmon concludes with that through all this, white men were benefitting from forced slave labor. For owners, it was a cheap method of production, for sheriffs, they also made a profit for rounding up black men on the street and selling them as laborers to local planters. This process did not start diminishing until five days after the attack on pearl harbor because America was afraid that it was a basis for enemy propaganda.
Focusing primarily on Baltimore, Patricia Fernandez Kelly’s The Hero’s Fight highlights the lives of 50-60 families whom she interviewed during a span of well over a decade. Kelly theorizes that the understanding of an embedded autonomy that shapes the government’s interaction with the majority of its citizens is not what is experienced by the citizens of places like Baltimore. Instead, what she calls the “unholy trinity” of disinvestment, predatory commerce and bureaucratic interference are main contributors to the plight faced by members of the families she interviews.
Kelly describes capital retrogression, otherwise known as “White Flight” as the exodus of financial and human resources from inner cities (p.109).” The phenomena began in the 1970’s as a result of the migration of southern Blacks to northern cities in search of opportunities for work and distance from the extreme bigotry that they still experienced below the Mason-Dixon Line. As white business and homeowners fled the scene, property values plummeted, and a foundation of resources and productive investment went along with them. This left these spaces to be occupied by the other two portions of the “unholy trinity”: predatory commerce and government bureaucracies, both of which did little to support the success of inner city black business.
Finally, the presence of liminal government institutions plays an enormous role in the inability of many blacks to prosper in settings like Baltimore. Kelly uses the word “liminal” to describe agencies that operate on the implicit or explicit assumption that their claimants are likely deceitful and undeserving (p.116). The mark of suspicion on the relationship between the state and its impoverished citizens creates what Kelly calls a “distorted engagement.” It is the constant interference of these institutions such as Child Protective Services, that haunt struggling parents like Lydia Forrest with the threat of losing their children. Living in such constant fear creates horizontality between parent and child that can undermine a parent’s authority, which is what Kelly uses to explain the behavior of some of the young boys and girls she interviews in her account. Children in these situations don’t believe in the authority of a poor parent, who is in turn hesitant to discipline them.
Patricia Fernandez-Kelly’s overall theory that American inner-cities do not benefit from an embedded autonomy resonates deeply with many who see the effects of liminal institutions on men and women living in poverty. While her method of interviewing so many families and giving such detailed accounts does raise a question of privacy, it also raises the level of intimacy. Her work is different in that it features one of her actual, living characters dying an actual violent death. Her accounts do unfortunately seem to spell a similar fate for most of her young interviewees, but such blatant honesty is the only way to get across her point that the state simply does not supply resources in the inner city that it does in the suburbs. Additionally, the attention that the state does direct to these areas is rarely constructive. This is shown when Manny Man, a smart kid in an inadequate school system, must find other ways to entertain himself and is wrongly diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, and then spends two weeks in a juvenile facility for stealing a box of cookies. The state’s excessive response to minor offenses only masks their inability to deal with a major issue. Kelly goes on the attack in this work and while there are minor flaws to her methodology, her confidence in her theory and her accounts of real lives does shed light on the deeply flawed relationship between America and the urban poor, and that because of it we are still managing to lose this “War on Poverty.”