Caste and Systems: #NJC Intro & Ch 1

Welcome to the 6 month study group on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Discussion will take place in the comments. All comments will be monitored – only those clearly reading the book will have comments unscreened. Disagreement is fine. Incivility will not be tolerated. Subscribing via RSS is highly recommended. You may join the group at any time.

For more information on the study group, the reasons behind it, and resources for study, please read this linked post.


On Caste

The fate of millions of people—indeed the future of the black community itself—may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society. The fact that more than half of the young black men in many large American cities are currently under the control of the criminal justice system (or saddled with criminal records) is not—as many argue—just a symptom of poverty or poor choices, but rather evidence of a new racial caste system at work. (NJC, p. 16).

From the New Jim Crow study guide:

In the introduction to The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander acknowledges her own reluctance, because of her biases and assumptions, to accept the harsh realities that her experience and research came to teach her about race, drugs, and criminal justice in the United States. Even though she was an African American woman dedicated to racial and social justice, she had failed to see— she did not want to see—the “other America” that was hidden from her in plain sight. A new “caste system” had emerged, one that shuttles children in ghettoized communities from rundown, under-funded schools to brand new, high-tech prisons. A system that locks poor people— overwhelmingly poor people of color—into a permanent, second-class status eerily reminiscent of an era we supposedly left behind.


Systems Thinking

In our discussions on mass incarceration, I will keep pointing us toward systems thinking rather than personalized or case-by-case thinking. We will need to follow the threads we are familiar with and try to see the pattern they form. To do this, we will need to, like Michelle Alexander did, examine our assumptions:

What are our assumptions about one another and about the society we live in? What are our assumptions about ourselves? One thing that may feel challenging to us in reading through this book and trying to educate ourselves on the system of racial violence that is mass incarceration in the US today is this:

What is our role in the system?

Despite our best efforts to be good people, we can easily become complicit in systems, the results of which some of our families may never see. Others of us? Our families live with it daily. We may not be hate-filled “White Supremacists” but we live in systems built from white supremacy – it infects our movies, our books, our music, our hiring practices, our school systems, and our systems of policing and imprisonment.

White supremacy is one way of thinking and being that forms a system. Seeing what underpins a system is the first step toward dealing with the system with some sense of knowledge and autonomy. As long as we can’t see the patterns at play, we cannot be in active relationship with them. We cannot invoke our will and make effective change.

Every time whiteness is a standard or the norm, white supremacy is at play. Every time a white shooter is said to be mentally ill and a brown shooter is said to be a terrorist, white supremacy is at play. Every time a white teen with marijuana is given a warning and a Black teen with marijuana is thrown in prison, white supremacy is at play.

What do we need to examine?

In this first examination of the Introduction and Chapter One of The New Jim Crow, I’d like to discuss systems thinking and share ideas on what might help us toward a deeper understanding of systems. We might also discuss what gets in the way of that: assumptions, emotional responses, lack of education…

Below are some questions from the study guide. We do not have to answer them all, but can use them as food for personal thought, and to help our conversation:

1. Initial Reaction
When you first opened The New Jim Crow, what beliefs about race, racial progress, and our criminal justice system did you hold?

2. Meaning of Caste

By describing the system of mass incarceration as a “caste” system, The New Jim Crow calls attention to the fact that millions of people labeled as “felons” or “criminals” are barred by law from mainstream society. Mass incarceration impacts not only those who are under the formal con- trol of the criminal justice system (in prison or jail, on probation or parole), but also the tens of millions who are governed by laws authorizing legal discrimi- nation against people released from prison. How do you feel about describing mass incarceration as a caste system?

3. How Close to Home?

Are you, or is anyone you know locked in the second- class status described here—unable to vote or legally discriminated against in employment, housing, edu- cation, or access to public benefits? What do you know, personally, about the struggles of those who are part of the undercaste?

4. Racial Bribes

In chapter one, the “divide and conquer” political tac- tics that helped to birth slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration are explored in detail. Alexander argues that poor whites have repeatedly been offered “racial bribes.” That is, special, largely superficial privilege have been extended to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and poor blacks. Was any of the history new to you? Do you see similar “divide and conquer” dynamics at work today? If so, what are they?

5. Is Beloved Community Possible?

Do you believe that Dr. King’s vision of a beloved community can be realized in the United States? How do your feelings on this subject impact how you relate to the call to end mass incarceration and our nation’s cycle of caste?

  • Dominique Leslie

    I will have to comment later tonight. I will say that I have read this intro and first chapter and this first writing about the topic. I will discuss further my fellings and understandings of caste, and sytems and how I try to pinpoint both within and without when power over systems are used and how I respond to them. I am at work all day today at San Francisco Adult Probation dealing with the everyday realities of assiting those probationers in finding and securing housing. There are many legal and societal roadblocks I face daily just trying to assist these wonderful humans to find housing because of their past or current involvement in the criminal justice(injustice) system. I beleive housing is a human right, so just that alone goes against the beliefs of this system, and many of the people who work in housing and are in position to provide housing to the people I work with. Now, I have more work to do with them, but tonight I plan to post more on systems and caste and my place in it all. Thanks again, everyone.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Dominique, I look forward to reading your thoughts on caste and housing. I agree that housing for all goes against the system… just as guaranteed income does. I was just reading – yet again – the figures that show it costs less to give the homeless housing than to deal with people living on the streets. As you know, I’ve helped feed people in San Francisco for many years and have seen direct effects of lack of drug treatment, the revolving prison door, and lack of housing.

  • Crafting Change

    I thought the use of caste systems was really brilliant and got me thinking about the CJ system in a new way. As a person pretty well versed in how a history of how prison time can limit a person (in housing, education access, jobs, etc…) I think the point of using the word ‘caste’ really made me think of how these individuals are treated as a whole – which was a connection I had missed.

    The point on racial bribes was important. This is something Howard Zinn touched on briefly in his history book, and also something I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates touches on in his article ‘The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy’ because of the way that so many poor white folks gained access to the American dream (ie. the housing loans given to WW2 vets, etc..). As I read this chapter, like when I read Coates article it hit home all of the ways my family’s ascent above the poverty of coal mines in rural PA and Appalachia is entirely predicated on our race, and how utterly depressing and frustrating it is that these realities were not fully understood by me until now.

    Something not in the above outlined in the above points but sat with me a lot was the idea of these ‘systems of control’ – how they replace each other in as one system is challenged. And.. perhaps as we talk about dismantling the system of control that is mass incarceration how can we do it with eyes wide open looking for whatever new system that might try to sneak into the void (of racism, fear and hate) created.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Crafting Change,

      Though I’d done some study on mass incarceration and its effects, the thinking in terms of caste was eye opening for me. It put so much into perspective and showed me what is lacking in larger conversations on social ills, poverty, violence etc.

      I’ve seen the “racial bribes” at play in my own family. For example, even though we got food stamps for part of my childhood, those who get them today are not deserving of them because my family – hard workers all, don’t get me wrong – worked hard to get off them. And to have the nice lives they have now.

      Coates’ article put together some important US history and is well worth reading (despite the lack of a strong close). I also wasn’t aware that Black servicemen weren’t allowed help under the GI Bill. For those who haven’t read the piece:

      Your point about systems of control is an important one for us to keep in mind as we read further. Please bring it up again.

    • An Elder Apprentice

      I was first exposed to the idea that the distinction of race in America was one of caste not class in my first week in college back in 1970. The professor in the first year social science sequence pointed out that there were middle class blacks, poor blacks, even a few upper class blacks, but the distinction between white and black was one that could not be changed by a change in economic status. And he said that this quality was the definition of ‘caste’, the society is structured so the distinction cannot be eliminated and trumps all economic distinctions.

      It appears that Michelle Alexander is arguing that the preservation of ‘racial caste’ is such a central component of social control in America that any occurrence that weakens that distinction must be prevented. The issue of being stopped for ‘driving while black’ occurs with black executives living in North Shore suburbs of Chicago as much as with any South Sider.

      An arrest basically for riding his bike and parking it in his back yard involving the 13 year-old son of our next door neighbor last year underscores this point for me. His case does move forward in Federal Court, as I guess economic class does have its privileges, but the message to the young man from our town’s police departement seemed mighty strong control. The policeman involved has not been disciplined even though his personal web presence was full of both racist and abusive images of handcuffed children. This occurred in liberal suburb of Chicago.

      A more personal experience is that for a number of years my son would be stopped frequently by police while walking at night. Once even arrested. He is tall, has an odd somewhat sauntering walking gait, and at the time had a full head of curly hair. Several friends both my son’s and mine pointed out that my son’s silhouette when backlit at night looked very ‘black’ and so when the local PD had a round-up he would get sucked in to the maw of that machine.

      • Crafting Change

        You raise a great point about the issue of ‘walking while black’ – which happens everywhere, but I know has gotten a lot of attention in the context of NYC’s stop and frisk laws. Again, this shows the unequal application of the CJ system on POC as a form of control.

  • zabuar

    to directly the study guide questions:
    1. Initial Reaction: I was happy to be reading a book that shared the Truth.

    2. Meaning of Caste: Using the term caste makes sense to me. For example, young black men in the prison industrial complex have inherited slavery from their ancestors and so in a white supremacist structure these young black men must continue to be enslaved/imprisoned.

    3. How Close to Home?: My brother (who is working-class white) and my cousin (who is brown mixed-race) have both been in prison. I have seen how being in prison has affected their access to the system and their interpersonal relationships in the family.

    4. Racial Bribes: This history was not new to me and I appreciated hearing more about it. An example in today’s system is the disproportionate benefits that white receive from the government while more people of color are receiving less.

    5. Is Beloved Community Possible?: I am optimistic and imagine it works better for now in smaller communities. The basis of Beloved Community would definitely end or disrupt mass incarceration and white supremacy.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Zabuar, regarding #4, it is also interesting how the *perception* by so many is that people of color receive more from government.

      We can be so blinded by these systems of white supremacy.

      • An Elder Apprentice

        Hasn’t “the *perception* by so many is that people of color receive more from government.” been carefully packaged and sold by right wing political operatives for decades? The essence of the ‘Southern Strategy’ and its decedents spread nationwide seems to be the constant message ‘the government is taking from ‘you, Mr. and Mrs. hardworking etc. etc.’ to give to ‘them’, who are not like you. Direct the anger at ‘them’ (who are not like you) and not a those holding power (who are like you) is perhaps the oldest political trick in the book – and it works.

        And I am not so proud and certain of any superiority to say that this marketing doesn’t work on me too. For me it may be more subtle, a bit more intellectual and reasoned but it worms its way in. After all I am toward the end of an extremely successful career serving the corporate beast and like all servants I am going to tend to hold values of the system that has treated me so kindly, provided status and a modicum of wealth. The point made in the chapter that so often the anger of the working class whites against the upper middle class white liberals was justified, those people did suffer, a loss of status and a much more competitive economic environment, while people like me saw little effect on our lives being in rather privileged and protected.

        One of the pleasures of her analysis is that the author is never busy blaming the ‘yokels’ even if they were manipulated. To paraphrase her point ‘being at the bottom in America is something to diligently avoid’ and their reaction to a situation that may be nearly as awful as that of the blacks is completely understandable.

        • T Thorn Coyle

          I also appreciate how Alexander avoids the superiority trap of many liberals – blaming “yokels” as you put it. She also talks firmly about her own journey from indoctrination toward seeing more clearly. That is part of what makes this work so powerful. She’s with us.

          Thank you for your reflection on how things work on us. The more rich we become – even relatively modestly – the more isolated from poverty we become, the more insulated our lives and thinking can become. It becomes easier and easier to believe what others tell us when we no longer have direct experience.

          • An Elder Apprentice

            “It becomes easier and easier to believe what others tell us when we no longer have direct experience.” Also I become more attached, to my wealth and social status, I have more to lose. Thus I am more open to what other tell me as it aligns with my assumed interests and fears

          • T Thorn Coyle


  • An Elder Apprentice

    The statement (on page 23) “The concept of race is a relatively recent development” produced a rather shocking awakening. That section of the chapter preceded by the quote from Lerone Bennet Jr pointed out that the system of race that we are living in is very much formed with words and these words and thus the system has an etymology. Back in the 17th and 18th centuries when this concept of ‘race’ first emerged I have to assume this headwater of this cultural stream emerged largely from the unconscious creation of ambitious men, interested in protecting, increasing, and justifying their own power. Someone, some small group, drew a new distinction, the trope of race, and it proved very useful, both to those in power and as pointed out in that section of the chapter to others to justify and maintain (through the creation of difference and fear) their positions in a social order.

    “Energy goes where attention goes”, and the little conceptual rivulet dug deeper, capturing streams of thought and consciousness and now the distinction of ‘race’ seems self-evident, yet remains, perhaps like all concepts, largely unconscious. In our time we now have ‘skilled technicians of meaning’, PR and advertising professionals, political operatives and so forth, experts in manipulating words, images, and our media for the purpose of control. A cold comfort, is that to channel and dredge any river requires an understanding of the stream’s structure, thus the very process of their manipulation must often make the hidden concepts and their purpose visible. At least this engineering discipline of control through meaning, requires that scholars like Michelle Alexander be trained and that media to disseminate ideas and images must exist. Perhaps this is what Marx meant by ‘the self-contradictions of a system’.

    I do find it wonderful that this study group is held in the context of both a systems world view and a magickal one. There are so many definitions of magick most come out something like “Consciousness Changed Under Will’, but all assume that the world, my world, is changeable for the better based on working with consciousness. Perhaps to claim to practice magick is to become an ‘artist of control through meaning’. It seems one works in magick for the smallest most efficient action to produce the most effective change, with a crystal clarity of at least of why I am attempting to change myself and my world. My understanding of a systems view is that any system has points where very small inputs can produce very large changes in the system. This group should be very interesting and effective!

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Elder Apprentice, there are two things you bring up that I’d like to address. The first is “race”. I only learned of how recent a phenomenon it is when I went to university in my 30s to get my BA. I discovered there that race became a firm construct with the rise of the Modern period and the formation of the Nation State. Wow.

      Regarding control of meaning, one thing I recommend everyone watch is Century of the Self. It shows the roots of the manipulation you speak of as it came about by the Father of Public Relations – Edward Bernays, who was the nephew of Freud. Fascinating and insightful documentary: “This series is about how those in power have used Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”

      Yes, changing our thoughts and views can help us change systems. I agree! It is why in my intro to this study group I spoke of the need to exercise the Power to Know. That is a first step toward change.

      • An Elder Apprentice

        Thorn, Thank you for the reference to the film on Bernays. I knew of him but not of the documentary.

        • An Elder Apprentice

          I started watch this series at Top Documentary Films this morning. For me the series’s theme ties into something on my mind about how the system creating racial caste ties into even larger social systems of fear based control related to sexuality and desire.

          There is far too much, and my thoughts are still much too inchoate, for me to try to expand on this now. Exploring and resolving the relationship between fear and desire seems to have much to do with the path to a Beloved Society.

    • Jennifer Locke

      Decades ago (high school?) I heard the theory that rather than hate having to be taught, hate – the ugly face of fear – is a natural behavior because fearing the “other” is a form of self preservation: one needs to be wary of those outside the group. It made sense to me at the time, and I’ve thought about it occasionally, but not until I read the statement in the book did I even question why one might see a person of a different race as “other.”

      So here I am, years out of college, learning for the first time that race was invented only in the recent past. This has been a good beginning for me.

  • Tony Rella

    1. When I opened the books, I held an awareness that certain groups in the US are disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and lacking in access to resources as a result of systems of white supremacy and racism. I have been working in a re-entry program with mentally ill people who are transitioning out of prison, or on probation/corrections supervision, and I am aware that 1/3rd of my clients are African-American, whereas the larger demographics of the region in which I live is that less than 1/10th of the city’s population is African-American.
    I grew up during the time period in which the War on Drugs began, and it was shocking to me to learn that the prison system was so much smaller before that time… it just seems unfathomable.

    2. & 3. Caste seems like a useful framework. Like one of the other commenters, part of my job is trying to help people coming out of jail/prison to find housing and other resources for stability, and there are some crimes for which that is a complete nightmare. Even with relatively “minor” crimes, the resources are scarce and waitlists are long. Since this population gets stigmatized as criminals, even if they have served their time and tried to put their lives together, it can be very difficult to get those basic necessities, and I think there is so much shame and stigma that it is hard to even consider organizing for change. Plus the lack of a vote means they have less of a voice. Some of my clients are just overloaded with requirements to fulfill and do not have the money needed to meet those requirements, and get housing, and eat, and get the training needed for legal work.
    I keep thinking that our justice system is allegedly organized to punish people and then give them a second chance, but most people don’t get a second chance. It is also really awful to sit with a person whose first arrest was for nonviolent marijuana crimes now that marijuana is legal in our state, but it’s too late, since they’ve been put in the revolving prison door.
    4. I was talking about this with my dad lately. My family has Irish and Italian ancestry, both of which were stigmatized groups at different points in US history, and my dad was wondering why these groups could make progress at a different rate than African-American communities. I’ve read How the Irish Became White, which was an eye-opening account of the use of racial propaganda by the Irish to promote their interests at the expense of African-Americans.
    I think one of the things struggle Whites get fed is the dregs of our sense of entitlement, that somehow White people “deserve” some measure of privilege and the only reason these particular Whites do not have it is because these “Other” groups are leeching from their resources by taking jobs, using the social safety net, shifting the focus on similarly disempowered people instead of looking at the larger systems of wealth inequality that concentrate more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer.
    5. The part of me that wants to be cynical and apathetic does not want to believe in it, because believing in it means that I need to take action. Increasingly I find I cannot see reports about inequality and suffering without feeling empathy. I think this is a good thing. I was watching Dr. Joy DeGruy’s lecture on Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome and noted that one of the consequences of white supremacy for White people is a deadening of our capacity to have empathy for the suffering of People of Color. I think this kind of intellectual work helps to remove those mental barriers to our empathy, reopening that cognitive dissonance of realizing that I want to live in a just society and I do not.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Tony, I wonder if you have any impressions about how the conditions of caste affect people’s mental health, which affect their imprisonment, and on and on.

      That story about first time offenders trapped in the prison system even though marijuana is now legal is just heartbreaking.

      • Tony Rella

        My impression is that imprisonment is definitely bad for one’s mental health, resulting frequently in PTSD, which can increase the likelihood of a person being triggered and responding with aggression, increasing the likelihood of a return to prison. Plus PTSD contributes to a general sense of hopelessness and a firm belief in one not having any kind of future ahead of them, which renders some of my clients less able to accept any kind of assistance as they either do not believe they will benefit or acknowledge that they cannot tolerate being in crowds or chaotic places, such as shelters or most of the places that provide services around here.

      • Tony Rella

        Here is an article that more broadly addresses the mental health impact of caste/racism:

  • Crystal Blanton

    1. Initial Reaction

    In reading the beginning of the book I was already aware of racial caste systems currently in place because of my academic and personal studies but I was still shocked by some of the statements she made. Most of the shock came from some of the quotes that were hard to read and conceptualize, the acceptance that some people think like this. (“these cities “were repaid with crime-ridden slums and black discontent””). Or George C Wallace (my relative) was quoted
    in the book saying “the same Supreme Court that ordered integration and
    encouraged civil rights legislation” was now “bending over backwards to help

    2. Meaning of Caste

    I feel it is one of the most accurate ways that we can look at the laws and social/criminal policies we have in place. The underlining foundation of white supremacy in our social policies create such strong system that locks out those who are not welcomed, and increases opportunities for those who are on the inside. This ties us right into the economic principles idealized within all of this, and how that ties into economic injustices that prompt continued divisiveness among the races. Alexander speaks about this when she references the dramatic progress made post the civil rights act of 1964, through 1969, and how this prompted civil rights activists to explore how “the vast majority of blacks would be locked in

    These systems, theses caste systems, have served to contain the growth of certain populations of people, promoting a social dawinistic principal that is very important to conceptualize. By keeping Black people enslaved to the
    systems of the law (incarceration, parole, probation, etc) then we (the US
    government) continues to make the decisions on who is available to thrive in
    this country, and who we are willing to extend social policy to include.

    3. How Close to Home?

    Several family members, including my husband, have wrestled with this second class citizenship concern because of legalized discrimination practices towards form ally incarcerated. And as a social worker, much of my work (professionally and academically) revolved around this disenfranchised group, often made up largely of people of color.

    Regardless of crime, the status of criminal or felon is one that targets large groups of people for reduction of human rights allowances. Even the laws around access to food stamps is eliminated if someone has a drug offense on their record, even if they are in recovery. The stamp of criminality often eliminates possibility for reform.

    4. Racial Bribes

    This was not a new concept for me, and I see that in the public education system today. Schools in predominantly Black areas are deprived of resources compared to schools in White areas, even if them are poor white neighborhood. The resources are diminished based on racial divide, coupled by economics. This form of segregation that exists today continue the lack of relation with other races, despite the commonality of poverty. We also see this in social tones that exist within modern society. Poor Blacks are assumed to be criminal, or to have more chance to succumb to criminal activity, where poor white people are just poor.

    This generalization of society compounds the systemic failures with ongoing
    microaggressions that often times poor White people escape.

    5. Is Beloved Community Possible?

    I have not come to the belief within myself that his ideal of a beloved community can be a realization within the United States. Systems of power continue to hold us back, in our capitalistic mind frame, from considering the true value of each human being and our past choices as a nation for the pre-cursor for today’s problems. Instead it is easier to align criminality and the need to control, with racial segregation qualities, and control the masses through this method. We need that control; it has always been about control. So the equality that King desired in a beloved community is a threat to the power base that exists because of this inequality. If there is no racial caste system, how will people of color be controlled?

    • T Thorn Coyle

      “This form of segregation that exists today continue the lack of relation with other races, despite the commonality of poverty. We also see this in social tones that exist within modern society. Poor Blacks are assumed to be criminal, or to have more chance to succumb to criminal activity, where poor white people are just poor.”

      You’ve said a lot with this statement, Crystal. The more we can uncover these types of biases, the more clearly we see the scope of the problem.

      Your final point about the need to control, echoes Crafting Change’s question: how do we not simply replace this system with another oppressive system?

      For one thing, more white people need this type of education – just so we know what the systems of control actually are, and how they affect all citizens whether directly or indirectly. An unjust society is unjust to all, it is just a matter of degrees. Large degrees, admittedly. The racial bribes try to mask that we are all in this together.

      And all of us need more education of the heart. What does liberation actually look like?

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I wrote a pretty long comment last night…did it not post, nor appear in the moderation queue?

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Argh Lupus! I have not seen it. It did not appear in my queue. So sorry to see that.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        I’ll see if I can reconstruct it tonight…it took me about a half hour to write. Apparently, Disqus doesn’t like people talking about these things! (It wouldn’t be the first time Disqus has messed up, though.)

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          Okay…at last, I have a moment, so I can see what I am able to remember.

          I had some knowledge of these matters before reading the book, but I didn’t quite realize how “deep” it went, so to speak, in terms of how being a convicted felon ruins one’s chances of doing practically everything that we consider to be associated with a “successful life.”

          I work in collegiate education, and four of the five colleges I’ve worked for thus far have been primarily for either members of the local community, or members of the military or veterans; I taught at one large state university for a semester. In all of that time, and having had around 350 students total (of which about 160 were at the large state university), I’ve had about 7 African-American male students, and about the same number of African-American female students. (There were zero in my classes at the state university.)

          Very foolishly, I hadn’t made the connection that the only reason that these students could be in my classes, and that some of them were in the military at the time when they were taking my classes (or had been recently), was that they didn’t have status as convicted felons. I had also foolishly assumed that on all of the applications I’ve filled out, for college admissions and for jobs, that asked if one is a convicted felon, and then gave space to “provide an explanation,” that such things would not automatically disqualify one for the job or the collegiate admission. Given that the section on those matters comes close on the heels of questions about whether one is a legal citizen of the U.S. who is able to work, though, I suspect they’re there to indicate “If ‘yes,’ then ignore everything after this.”

          That I am currently aware of, I have only met two African-American males who have served a prison sentence. One of the occasions really opened my eyes to how completely fucked up these matters are. On December 31, 2004, I was at a friend of a friend’s house in Yonkers, NY, about to go to a New Year’s Party. A young African-American male friend of someone else who lived there was over, and we were all hanging out between different rooms, and the young guy said that he had just been released from prison. I had a thought that my parents and friends and relatives back home would have all advised me at that point to be in fear, to check if I still had my wallet, and to get away from this man as fast as possible…and yet, there was absolutely nothing to fear from him, he was a nice guy just trying to enjoy the occasion (and probably all the more so given his recent circumstances). I was there with a very tall gothy friend of mine, who is also gender-variant, and we were sitting on the floor, and I was leaning back against my gothy friend, who had his legs spread and I was sitting between them on the floor. The African-American guy asked, “I don’t mean to be offensive or anything, but are you two gay or something?” We explained that we’re pansexual, but that we weren’t offended by the question, but we also weren’t involved with each other, we were just good friends, and he responded that he’d never be able to sit like that with any of his friends. We sort of laughed about how different cultures handle these things differently, and that seemed to be that. Then, a short while later, when we were getting ready to leave, my gothy friend and I put our coats on–long black trench coats–and suddenly the African-American guy came up and said, “You know, I’m so sorry about what I asked before, I really didn’t mean anything by it.” My gothy friend and I were surprised by this, but reassured him that it wasn’t a big deal, and then he said, “Oh thank God–I had no idea when I asked you that y’all were in the Trench Coat Mafia!” We all laughed a bit uncomfortably about that, needless to say…and further reassurances followed, certainly.

          It absolutely dumbfounded me that here was someone that my own upbringing taught me I should be totally afraid of, suspicious of, and should avoid if possible, and yet it was him that was (perhaps deathly) afraid of us simply because of what we were wearing, and how he had heard that weird gender-and-sexually-odd white people in long black coats might just decide to kill him for pretty much no reason.

          So, as I said, apart from only two individuals I can think of readily, all of the African-American males I’ve known (not that there’s been too many overall, unfortunately) have not been convicted felons, because the places I’ve encountered them are as students where I’ve taught, fellow students where I’ve gone to college, or they’ve been in the military.

          To answer some of your other questions and discussion topics briefly: I do think this is an under-caste, as Alexander writes. I have to hold out hope that beloved community is possible, even though it’s extremely difficult under the current circumstances. I am frustrated beyond reckoning that there isn’t more that I, personally–nor that most of us–can do individually to change this situation, apart from what we’re doing now, i.e. educating ourselves about this, telling others (which I do in my history courses and elsewhere), and doing everything possible to not act on the racist programming that we’ve been forced to internalize in our culture.

          • T Thorn Coyle


            The “convicted felon” box is one thing I would like us to keep in mind as we continue to read because it is one thing citizens who have more rights than felons can actually *do* pretty effectively to make change. We can lobby to get that box off of applications for housing, school, and jobs.

            Some cities have already taken it from government job applications. A small step, but something toward overturning the power of caste.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            That’s an excellent thought, Thorn. Perhaps they can also take away the predetermined choices for “gender” on applications as well…but that’s a whole other issue. ;)
            I didn’t even realize that being a convicted felon took away one’s voting rights until I was working on a human rights ordinance campaign back in ’99, and when we were collecting signatures for it at a table in a park at a local event, a (white) woman came up and asked if her signature would count, since she couldn’t vote due to being a convicted felon.
            As an educator, it is ironic to me to know that some (though by no means all) prisons have educational access for inmates…which may be the only education many of them can get, since they likely couldn’t before being in prison, and will have a much harder time afterwards as well. Though, at the same time, I wonder what kind of “deal” was made with whom in order to make that possible, and whether it does ultimately benefit the inmates as much as it might seem it could or should.

  • Crafter Yearly

    I’ve been studying mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex for the past 8 years. While Alexander does not present much in the way of new information in this book so far, she does a fantastic job of synthesizing information from a number of other sources in order to give a compelling and accessible account of the crisis we’re facing. For those interested in more data on mass incarceration and its effects on communities of color and the quality of our democracy, I’d suggest looking into Marc Mauer’s work as well as Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza’s work.

    The question from the discussion guide that resonated with me most was the one about racial bribes. I see evidence of this frequently in my classrooms. Generally, when I teach about white supremacy as a structural foundation of American political, economic, and social life, the students that are most resistant and/or hostile in conversations tend to be low-income white males. There’s a lot of resentment there because from my low-income white male students’ perspective, they don’t seem to be benefitting from things as they are now. When we talk about white supremacy, these students often assume that for white supremacy to exist, all whites have to benefit equally from it. They also seem to assume that those benefits must be measurable in terms of economic value, so that as long as there are some Blacks that have more than some whites, there cannot exist such a thing as white supremacy.

    One of the challenges that faces movements that want to bring diverse groups together to work in common cause with one another is getting people to be able to recognize that we all have unique positions when it comes to both privilege and subordination. We may be privileged in some contexts and subordinated in others. So, the challenge for me in my classrooms is getting my low-income white male students to recognize that they can benefit from whiteness while being marginalized under capitalism. Too often, there seems to be a tendency to think of privilege as all or nothing, which allows many of my students to ignore the ways in which they are privileged while focusing only on their experiences of subordination. Divide and conquer racial dynamics really undermine our ability to create meaningful social change.

    • An Elder Apprentice

      Crafter, I wonder if the idea that ‘privilege is all or nothing’ is when turned on its head actually one of the primary social control myths that we have, part of the ‘American Dream trope? That is the ‘promise’ that one can become well to do, is the ‘proof’ that rich ain’t different and we all are the same. Thus there being well to do blacks becomes for your low income white students proof to them that there is no such thing as privilege in America, and they can thus rise. The use of the term ‘class warfare’ in recent right wing speech seems similar, the trope accuses the left of creating a false difference by saying that in America privilege exists. Does the binary thinking reinforce this trope, ‘look even blacks can become wealthy, therefore there are no classes?

      • T Thorn Coyle

        “Divide and conquer racial dynamics really undermine our ability to create meaningful social change.” Yes. This. Divide and conquer is used in many, many ways. We would all do well to keep it in mind, I think.

        The American Dream is one reason people are loathe to criticize the current oligarchy. I see that in my working class family who would rather criticize people on food stamps instead of the uber wealthy who often get by on greater government handouts.

        We see it now too, in the “you got a Black president, what more do you want” thinking that is prevalent these days. And the racist backlash from the election of Obama.

        “Post-racial” and “no class differences” are both lies to keep us from seeing what is actually happening.

        • Crafter Yearly

          I just started a great book today by Ian Haney-López called Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class that might be of interest to you (if you haven’t already read it). Those interested in understanding divide and conquer politics would probably find this book really interesting.

      • Crafter Yearly

        I think that’s a really good point. The students who believe that white supremacy no longer influences American life are usually also the same students who believe most passionately in the American dream.

        Over the last semester I had a student in my course who was particularly heartbreaking to me. He was a returning veteran in his late 30s or early 40s. He was extremely hostile to the idea that white supremacy influences outcomes and adamant that the American dream of social mobility for those who work hard is reality. It was difficult for me as an educator to not point out his years of hard work and service that had not resulted in significant economic benefits for himself and his family. It seems to me from experience that the students most persuaded by racially divisive politics are those who are most negatively affected by racially divisive politics. It breaks my heart.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      I very much agree, Crafter, and I’ve seen similar things in my own experience as an educator.
      I also get a lot of resentment on these matters from students–whether male or female–who are white and of lower economic status who are resentful of affirmative action. Last week, one was telling me that she worked her whole life to get good grades and so forth, and then was denied scholarships and admissions to colleges because, she felt, some non-white person was being admitted or given the scholarship to fill a quota. She did admit that it would be nice to actually try and improve the education system and options in place for non-white youths, and wished there could be focus on that rather than on affirmative action, but the latter was a real sticking-point for her.

  • Dominique Leslie

    I have been reading the book and reading all the comments, many of which I also agree with and understand, especially about the divide and conquer dualism that has affected my life so deeply. Racial bribery, class division and racial identity politics have repeatedly culturally systemically found ways to deny my fullness of self upon this Earth.

    This is a very rare case, so I ask only that this thing I share with you be held in perfect love and perfect trust. I am an ex-con, a convicted felon, who served time in CA prison system. The reason for my behaviors that lead me to that point were my usage of drugs, which at the time, allowed me to survive in my misgendered/missexxed birth body, and which was the shadow of my negation of accepting my full self. But then again, the few times i tried to openly be myself when I was young I was punished and threatened with being put into a locked psych ward and lobotomized. Being the woman I was born to be was not in the cards for me at that time for Society, culture and myself, none of which was ready to have me in it.

    In prison I fought to be in the main population, which was unheard of. I was a woman in a male body in prison, with 38c breasts from hormonal replacement I had started many years before incarceration. The Prison Industrial complex housed me with men, yet segregated us form the general population as they said we could not be safe in general population. The segregated unit had no assets, like school, or other activities, like AA meetings I could attend.(I was trying to turn my life around). Also, men who wanted to control women like us, would claim to be leaving their gang affiliations or say they were gay and would ask to be moved from general population to our segregated housing(which was allowed) where they could prey upon us, treat us as personal whores to be pimped out to their gangs, or made to choose between having them as a lover/cellmate or face victim-hood at they and their gang’s orders.

    Until prison I have never been told to be with only one race, which was what I had to do to join general population. I did do so for I felt it was better to choose my own rapist/lover/cellmate/protection than to have one chosen for me by the system. When I finally made the yard with general population I was well sought after. Of course to live in general pop I had to live within the Latinos and not mix with blacks, although we could sometimes also mix with whites, but none of the big white extremist’s who also hated me for choosing the Latinos. I lived with the same tatted prison gangster who was a lifer during my stay. He was both protector/cellmate and my chosen lover, and at time I also had to perform sexual favors,usually blowjobs, to other gang members at my cellmates request, or face worse. With him, privately, we were sweet and loving partners, until his homie’s were around, then he had to assume his gansta persona, but he left me well guarded, so I had access to most of the prison with his homies escort’s. After me, now in CA, trans women are allowed in general pop, if they ask, and can prove they can do it, like I did. Many don’t though and still are in segregated housing.

    I since have managed to turn my life around, and am even employed with the Department of Probation now. I find it odd and somewhat satisfying that I went from being on parole and probation to working for probation.I work as a Housing Resource Specialist and manage some 60 Stabilization Housing Units for Adult Probationers in the city where I live. It is an everyday struggle for me and all of my client’s to even find housing, as most housing they can afford on public assistance(which is generally all they have to depend on at first, upon release); even if they meet the highly restrictive costs(median income is very high here, so “affordable” housing like public and non-profit housing, which is usually less than market rate housing, is more than public benefits) is almost impossible for them to get, because some laws restrict certain convictions from housing and genrally when one says they are a convicted felon, even if like myself, they have paid their debt to society, completed parole and probation and have reentered the world at large; have received multiple college degrees, been awarded by governors, and other politicians in power, have remained in recovery, clean and sober for over 25 years now, and have no current legal proceedings against them; are still denied both housing and employment regularly. I recently was denied employment and housing.

    My advantage to all this systemic oppression has been being able to pass as white.(my mom is Guatemalan, my dad Scottish).

    I am open and share often that I know the privilege I possess as a person who can pass as white, and who, like, myself, has chosen to hide parts of themselves in the past to be acceptable to exist within the culture of America.My language is theatrical and stylized, so others can not trace my accent. My presentation is middle of the road older white lady. I know I have advantages because I can play along(sometime better than others); however I still speak out and confront this oppression in my life and in my work.

    For now, naming my oppressions and oppressors and how I have chosen to exist, sometimes, hidden, sometimes not, within this racist, classist society is my only means for working to unhinge these systems.

    And to draw forth, those, like you all that are here at this place also, in love and power, and to direct our wills to change this.

    • T Thorn Coyle

      Thank you so much for sharing your powerful story with us. I’m so glad you made it through. I’m so glad you are doing the valuable work you are doing today.

  • T Thorn Coyle

    I hope you are all reading Chapter Two. We will start that discussion on June 25, after I get home from Pagan Spirit Gathering.

    Speaking of which, I’ll be gone from the 15-23 of June. Crystal Blanton has kindly offered to moderate and unscreen comments that come in during that time.

    • Jennifer Locke

      Do you have a schedule of readings posted anywhere?