Welcome to the 6 month study group on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. All comments are screened. Disagreement is fine. Incivility will not be tolerated. Subscribing via RSS and subscribing to comments is recommended. You may join the group at any time.
“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.” – Frederick Douglass
What Douglass speaks of is still, unfortunately, true.
This chapter details what it means to be disenfranchised: ineligible to gain a driving license, professional licenses, or student aid, prohibited many public benefits like Section 8 housing or food stamps, lacking the ability to enlist in the military, or, in many cases, to exercise the right to vote.
Most often, it is impossible for the formerly incarcerated to get jobs – Who wants to hire them? – yet they are also denied government assistance. These people have no social security.
The formerly incarcerated are outcasts to society, and yet we blame them for not conforming, for not fitting in, for not making an effort. They leave prison with nothing – often after having worked for years – and yet, are expected to get work and housing and food on their own, with no help.
When we look at this in light of the War on Drugs, we see that this applies to many people who have committed no violent crimes. In fact, the only crimes they have committed are breaches of laws that many people flout daily, feeling they are ridiculous and petty, even unjust. Those who don’t get caught or convicted, as we’ve seen, are most often white.
Where is our compassion?
“Hundreds of years ago, our nation put those who were considered less than human in shackles; less than one hundred years ago, we relegated them to the other side of town; today we put them in cages. Once released, they find that a heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon them.” – Michelle Alexander
We are punishing people for life for doing things that many of our own friends and family members have done. Like having a baggie of marijuana in a purse or pocket.
Personal story: I was once marching to California Governor Jerry Brown’s residence, in support of the prisoners in Pelican Bay who were on hunger strike protesting the torturous practice of long-term solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a punishment that is supposed to be used for fewer than 30 days. It is punishment meted out by no judge, but by guards and wardens. Some people languish in solitary – known to cause mental breakdowns, known to be torture – for ten years.
On this march, a young man shouted at us from the sidewalk, wondering what we were doing. I went to speak to him, and explained. Clearly intoxicated, he said that if someone was in prison, they deserved it. This is a common attitude. If you haven’t done anything wrong, you won’t get noticed by “the law.”
Looking for a connection point to this young man, I replied, “Some people are in prison because of pot.” He retorted, “No one goes to prison for pot!”
They do if they are non-white. And they can lose their whole life for it, even upon release.
“More than 650,000 people are released from prison each year, and for many, finding a new home appears next to impossible, not just in the short term, but for the rest of their lives.” – Michelle Alexander
The racist systems in place, which we’ve examined in earlier chapters, leads us to this point where we don’t need to look at race in order to make our brothers and sisters “Other.” We just need to brand them as “criminals” and that does the job nicely, enabling us to take our gaze away from their suffering.
White liberals often look to institutions to provide answers to society’s problems. But when the institutions themselves are the problem, what then?
Many Pagan traditions hold to the laws of hospitality, and of welcoming the stranger. Yet many Pagan traditions have equally strong laws regarding those considered to be “outlaws to society.” When the laws we have erected are so unforgiving and so often incorrect or unjust, how can we hold people to them?
Instead of treating the formerly incarcerated as outcasts and outlaws, how can we find ways to change our communities and welcome them home?
Questions for Contemplation and Discussion:
(All questions adapted from the New Jim Crow Study Guide)
What happens when we begin to view people as less than human, as shameful or characterless? Are there parallels to the treatment of those thought to be “illegal aliens”?
2. Human Rights
Laws that authorize discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public benefits make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to find work in the legal economy, and greatly increase the likelihood that they will be arrested again. But are any of these laws necessary? Do you agree with Dr. King that everyone has basic human rights to work, food, education, and shelter? Should employers and housing officials ever have the right to discriminate against people with criminal records? Under some circumstances? In certain professions? For how long? Are community safety, human dignity, and racial justice advanced or undermined by the positions you take on these questions?
Chapter four discusses the shame and self-hatred that consumes a great many people labeled criminals and felons, and notes that “gangsta rap” is an expression of desperation—an attempt by young people to carve out a source of pride and make a statement of defiance to a society that despises them. What can we do to address the severe shame and self-hatred that keeps communities impacted by mass incarceration divided, often shaming and blaming each other?
Beginnings of Action
Does your city or town have a “Black Box” that released felons are required to check on employment forms? Are you willing to do research and begin organizing to get this changed?
Frederick Douglass, “Claims of Our Common Cause”.