Op-Ed by Marian Wright Edelman, President of the Children's Defense Fund
“Cotton’s story illustrates, in many respects, the old adage ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same’... In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind... Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
So begins the introduction to legal scholar and former litigator Michelle Alexander’s extraordinary book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Jim Crow has been praised for documenting in compelling detail how the current historic levels of incarceration in the United States have disproportionately targeted communities of color and function as a means of controlling people of color, just as slavery and Jim Crow did in their time.
Alexander acknowledges that many people find this argument hard to believe in the “age of colorblindness.” Many Americans wanted to see President Obama’s historic election as the final hopeful sign our nation has moved “past race,” and many believe the millions of other Black Americans who are imprisoned and disenfranchised are in that condition only because of individual bad choices. When we are confronted with the facts that our nation’s incarceration rates have quintupled over the last several decades and the United States has the largest prison population and imprisons the highest numbers of its minority population in the world, Alexander says many Americans simply accept the prevailing myth that “there is, of course, a colorblind explanation for all this: crime rates. Our prison population has exploded from about 300,000 to more than 2 million in a few short decades, it is said, because of rampant crime. We’re told that the reason so many black and brown men find themselves behind bars and ushered into a permanent, second-class status is because they happen to be the bad guys.” But as The New Jim Crow argues, the data show this is simply not true.
While incarceration may be rooted for some in poor individual choices, the glaring racial disparities in searches, arrests, convictions, and sentencing for the same crimes suggest our nation doesn’t treat everyone’s poor choices equally. What has skyrocketed over the years are not our nation’s crime rates—which have actually fallen below the international norm—but the number of drug convictions in the U.S. as a result of our declared “War on Drugs.” Many people assume next that of course Black criminals are being incarcerated for drug crimes at record rates because they are the ones committing them. In some states, Blacks comprise 80%-90% of all drug offenders sent to prison. But The New Jim Crow painstakingly outlines how media and political strategies manufactured the popular images of the War on Drugs as an assault on scary, violent Black male drug dealers, when in fact “[s]tudies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.” Meanwhile, as The New Jim Crow clearly shows, the dramatic increases in mandatory sentence lengths even for nonviolent offenses and the far-reaching consequences that come with being classified as a felon even after a sentence is completed have made incarceration today a historically punitive form of social control and social death—at exactly the same time as record numbers of African Americans are being confined.
This is how mass incarceration functions as the new Jim Crow, with predictably destructive results for Black communities and families. For those of us concerned about our nation’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline crisis, this latest danger threatens to overwhelm and destroy millions of our children’s futures. By identifying it and giving it a name, Michelle Alexander has placed a critical spotlight on a reality our nation can’t afford to deny. We ignore her careful research and stay silent about mass incarceration’s devastating effects at our own and our nation’s peril.
Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.