inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #76 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 26 May 10 06:21
    
As Michelle points out in the book, we've pretty much thrown the "paid
your debt to society" concept out the window.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #77 of 174: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 26 May 10 07:11
    
There seems to be =some= recognition of the problem. Here in Massachusetts 
marijuana use has been decriminalized, and there is a strong movement to 
erase the "ever committed a felony" box from employment applications, 
along with other ideas to make it possible for those who have been through 
this nightmare get a fair chance. Given how corrupt and hysterical our 
state political process is, I am not super hopeful, but at least the 
issues are come up, people are reading the stories in the newspaper. It's 
a start from a state that just replaced Ted Kennedy with Scott Brown.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #78 of 174: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 26 May 10 07:27
    
Oh, the "new version on passing" angle is very powerful.

We've got something like that going on in Oregon -- a guy who worked
for the state was just discovered to be using the identity of a dead
person, and they have no idea who he really is.

<http://www.idahostatesman.com/2010/05/13/1191804/still-no-mystery-man-id-in-or
e.html>
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #79 of 174: David Albert (aslan) Wed 26 May 10 09:04
    
> There seems to be =some= recognition of the problem. Here in
Massachusetts ...

we have a probation department whose chief was just suspended for
patronage hiring.  What he was NOT suspended for was how he ran the
department for the last umpteen years, which was to find every excuse
to get kids back in court on probation violations, whereas previous
directors did a lot more to get kids help for technical violations
rather than send them back to prison.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #80 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 26 May 10 09:17
    
In D.C. we have the opposite problem - a youth justice system which
repeatedly lets genuinely dangerous criminals out, or lets them escape
and does nothing about it.  I believe 9 homicides this year have been
committed by people under their supervision.

That's one reason I think the focus on the War on Drugs makes the most
sense.  It will just let the air out of the whole mess.  Right now, we
have mixed the dangerous and the harmless (and not a few people who
are just crazy) together into a huge gulag.  "Drug Peace" would
immediately and vastly reduce the number of harmless people who end up
"in the system."

Of course, it would also raise a lot of thorny issues about what to do
with the millions of people already confined or under supervision, or
simply marked as felons.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #81 of 174: Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 26 May 10 09:19
    
<aslan> correctly notes that in MA we have other problems. Still, I am 
more hopeful that I would feel in, say, California (or Mississippi).
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #82 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Wed 26 May 10 10:14
    
Decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana nationwide would be a huge
step in the right direction.  Most people are unaware that the War on
Drugs has been focused on rounding people up for minor, non-violent
drug offenses.  In fact, during the period of the greatest expansion of
the drug war, nearly 80 percent of the increase in drug arrests was
for marijuana possession! There are people doing life sentences in the
United States for marijuana possession. I doubt any of those folks
doing life for smoking pot are white, though it would be interesting to
find out.  

I do have a concern, though, about these reform efforts.  I worry that
marijuana will be decriminalized, some mandatory sentences will be
reduced, and other similar reforms will be achieved without a national
conversation/debate about the role of race in getting us into this
mess.  If these important reforms are achieved without us learning the
basic lessons of our history, and without the movement-building work
that is necessary to build a more compassionate society -- one that
openly embraces people of all colors -- we will repeat this history one
way or another.  Mass incarceration will morph and change form, just
like convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just like
mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow.  Reforms are critically
important, but not nearly enough.  We need a major shift in public
consciousness in order to break our nation's habit of viewing groups,
defined largely by race, as unworthy of our collective care and
concern.  

We must learn to care about people like the Scott sisters, for
example.  Never heard of them?  Hopefully that will change soon.  Their
story is a classic example of how callous we, as a society, have
become - disposing of black people quite casually.  A grassroots
campaign is underway to free the Scott sisters and I'm praying this
campaign sheds some light on the many forms of injustice that take
place every day in our system without much notice.  

The Scott sisters were wrongly convicted in Mississippi of a robbery
netting less than $50. No one was injured. Neither of them have prior
convictions, and yet they were sentenced to double life terms! As
tragic as their case is, they are not alone. As the book describes,
there are thousands of people behind bars who are innocent, and
thousands more who may have committed crimes but have been given
sentences that are unconscionable. See
http://freethescottsisters.blogspot.com/search/label/Case%20Summary.

As important as the Scott sisters campaign is, a much bigger challenge
looms.  If we are going to end mass incarceration as we know it, we
are going to have to learn to care about people who are actually guilty
of crimes -- not just those who are wrongly convicted.  That's the
challenge -- a challenge civil rights activists have shied away from in
the past.  The necessity of meeting that challenge is why the work of
the Innocence Project -- as important as it is -- barely touches the
tip of the iceberg. 



  
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #83 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Wed 26 May 10 15:25
    
I certainly agree.  It's not just about drug laws, and it's not just
about people who were wrongly convicted. Back when criminals were seen
as most likely to be lower-class whites, there was a whole pop culture
narrative of redemption.  It centered on the idea that bad companions,
or bad luck, or the wrong woman (of course, they had to blame the
woman) could lead you astray and into a life of crime.

I know this stuff all seems corny and ancient history now, but there
was Father Flannagan with his "there is no such thing as a bad boy"
slogan, and the saying I mentioned above about having paid one's debt
to society.  If you'd done your time, you deserved another chance.

Since the default setting for criminality became blacks suddenly it's
all about "super-predators."  We've been acting as if everyone who ever
committed a crime is a maniacal sociopath.

As Richard Pryor observed in one of his routines, there are definitely
people who should be in prison to protect the rest of us (he met a few
while shooting a film in a prison).  But we no longer want to make the
distinction between the truly dangerous and those who have simply made
bad choices, become addicted to alcohol or other drugs, picked the
wrong boyfriend, etc.  We just punish, and when that doesn't work, we
punish some more.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #84 of 174: die die must try (debbie) Wed 26 May 10 15:25
    

>If we are going to end mass incarceration as we know it, we
 are going to have to learn to care about people who are actually guilty
 of crimes -- not just those who are wrongly convicted.


Yes. I feel very strongly about that. It was powerful to read parents
writing compassionately about the person who killed their child, and to feel
we are all connected, break down the us/them model, and the idea that you
are more than your worst action.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #85 of 174: David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 26 May 10 16:14
    
Is there the political will to take the mass incarceration complex on?
 If it doesn't come from the civil rights organizations who have
numerous problems with the issue then from whom?  In your book
Michelle, you take them to task for their risk-aversion.  
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #86 of 174: Gail Williams (gail) Thu 27 May 10 08:32
    
Quick aside -- somebody pointed out these Democracy Now interviews
with Michelle. For anybody who has not yet gotten the book, these are
excellent introductions to the issues and Michelle's work on the
issues:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AB3TqS2zxM part one, and

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRyzrhe9ElI part two.

How the drug war was introduced, with racial code words, as part of
the GOP's "Southern Strategy," and how Obama's election is part of an
illusion of progress as more and more young African American men are
prevented from ever voting after being caught getting high...   well
spoken summaries of points from the book.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #87 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Thu 27 May 10 12:51
    
I recently wrote a piece for CNN.com's "census" series, in which they
were encouraging people to describe how they "identify" on the census
or in society more generally.  I wrote that I now choose to identify as
a "criminal" and that I thought we'd all be better off if we openly
acknowledged our own criminality, rather than assuming that criminals
can only be found in ghettos.  See
http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/05/18/alexander.who.am.i/index.html.

I received a wide range of responses - mostly wildly enthusiastic or
extremely hostile (such is the nature of the blogosphere).  Those who
were hostile, as well as some who were lukewarm, seemed annoyed that I
lumped together people who commit felonies with "normal" people who
break the law.  

It was clear that, despite major changes in how felonies are defined
under state and federal law, most people still assume that a person
labeled a felon is necessarily a very serious criminal - a murderer,
rapist or child molester.  I informed some of the people who e-mailed
me that possession of marijuana can be charged as a felony in most
states, and that prosecutors exercise their discretion in a highly
racially biased manner - charging African Americans with felony drug
possession and whites with misdemeanors (when they're arrested at all)
-- but most were incredulous.  They refused to believe that people were
serving long sentences for felony drug possession.  I assume these
folks were white; they probably don't know anyone who has ever been
convicted of felony drug possession or felony welfare fraud (lying on a
food stamp application), etc.  Not surprisingly, they also resisted
the suggestion that prosecutors exercise their discretion in a racially
biased manner.  

In the book I don't address violent crime much, a fact I now regret. 
Because people's views about violent crime color their perspective (pun
intended), much more should have been said about the ways in which the
drug war has helped to fuel violence in poor communities of color and
create so many of the problems it is supposedly designed to solve. 
Fortunately, sociologist Todd Clear has written an excellent book on
this subject -- Imprisoning Communities:  How Mass Incarceration Makes
Disadvantaged Communities Worse.    
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #88 of 174: Maria Rosales (rosmar) Thu 27 May 10 13:34
    
I don't think your correspondents are necessarily White--I know some
middle-class Black folk who think criminals are a wildly disparate
group from them.

Also, your story reminded me a student (White) who has talked to me
more than once, casually, about her marijuana use.  When she was
applying to law schools, she was upset because she had to say that she
had been in trouble in the past for breaking the law--the application
explicitly said that traffic violations counted.  She said, "I have to
check that box, as if I were a felon!" I said, "You've told me yourself
that you've committed felonies--you just haven't been caught."  Then I
had to soften that some, since she is a student and was freaking out.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #89 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 27 May 10 13:56
    
It's funny you guys mention this.

I was idly thinking today what would have happened to me if I'd
actually been caught and convicted of every crime I've ever committed. 
Most people commit crimes pretty regularly, typically starting with
under-age drinking (not to mention the millions of teenagers who commit
statutory rape).  Pretty much everyone I knew in college could have
been convicted of felony drug possession.  And so on.

There was a guy on the WELL a few years ago who had a pretty good rap
about how we should concentrate on "predatory crimes" - crimes that
actually involve victimizing other people.  He later went off in a
completely different direction, but I thought it was a good suggestion.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #90 of 174: David Wilson (dlwilson) Thu 27 May 10 15:21
    
My friend, the manager for my apartments, read part of the
introduction to the book.  He put it down and said "I don't need to
read this.  She's talking about criminals.  They break the law.  They
should go to jail."  I can't get him to consider picking the book back
up.

He is 67, black, grew up in Memphis, migrated to Chicago and
eventually to Minneapolis.  I take him to be a reliable source because
he doesn't censor himself and he is willing to talk freely about race
without much of an agenda or any defensiveness.  He is a working class
guy who took his high school education and worked as a short order
cook, a boxer, a laborer, and various clerk positions. 
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #91 of 174: those Andropovian bongs (rik) Thu 27 May 10 16:02
    
I suspec that the generation gap has something to do with his disdain, as
well as the fact that the dynamics Michelle descibes occurred after he
became mature and a solid citizen.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #92 of 174: Evan Hodgens (evan) Fri 28 May 10 08:50
    

I don't think a lot of people have any idea how trivial a "crime" can
result in a felony conviction.  Here is Virginia (the asshole of the
universe when it comes to law'n'order), if you get into a fistfight and
give someone a bloody nose, you were be charged with "malicious
wounding", a felony, that carries a 3 year sentence.

We have become a complete nanny state.  As a friend of mine recently
said, "when I was a kid, we'd get into fights, the cops would come,
give you a stern lecture and send you on your way".  Now, they arrest
you and charge you with a felony for what they once would have
considered a juvenile nuisance not worth their time to deal with.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #93 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Fri 28 May 10 19:24
    
Why did we become so tough and merciless with our children (and with
each other)? Why did we become so punitive, even in response to
relatively minor crimes?  Why do we think of drug abuse as a crime,
rather than a public health issue?

Race looms large in the answers to each of these questions, though
policymakers - progressives and conservatives alike - tend to avoid the
racial dimension and focus on other factors. Race is the elephant in
the room.  Mass incarceration, and the overwhelmingly punitive approach
to drugs and crime, would not exist but for the racialization of crime
and drugs in the media and political discourse.  It is inconceivable
that anything remotely comparable to the drug war would have occurred
if the primary targets had been defined as white and middle class.  If
the majority of young white men were under the control of the criminal
justice system in many urban areas, we'd have a revolt on our hands
that would make the Tea Party look tame.  We wouldn't be asking
ourselves "what is it about white culture that causes white kids to
deal dope?"  No, we'd be asking, "what's wrong with our laws and
policies"? And "what's wrong with the police?"  And "why has the
Supreme Court allowed this to happen?"  And "how could we do this to
our young people?"  Those questions aren't being asked today because
we, as a nation, care less about black and brown young people than
white young people. We think differently about them and assume they
deserve different things.  We assume we need to "get tough" on black
and brown kids, and we fail to recognize the complicated racial origins
of that overwhelmingly punitive impulse.  

Given all that, what accounts for black people who support "get tough"
measures?  And why did the older African American man mentioned
earlier refuse to consider what my book had to say, once he suspected
it might be sympathetic towards "criminals"?  And why has the civil
rights community offered relatively little resistance to the emergence
of this vast new system of racial control?  Indeed, what excuse do
civil rights leaders have for their preoccupation with affirmative
action, as millions of people of color have been branded felons and
ushered into a permanent racial undercaste?  

These are the questions I hope to explore this weekend. In the book I
argue that many African Americans and civil rights organizations have
been complicit with this new system of control, but that doesn't mean
they support it.  It's a distinction that makes a difference.  But as
civil rights activists found during the 1960s, weak-kneed African
Americans and silent white liberals often pose a greater threat to the
cause of racial justice than the Ku Klux Klan.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #94 of 174: Evan Hodgens (evan) Fri 28 May 10 22:39
    

>Race looms large in the answers to each of these questions

Race does loom large in the answers to each of these questions, yet I
have come to learn that in trying to deny that that is the case by the
establishment, we have now begun to  achieve a "race-less justice
system" in which we are now bending over backwards to "prove" we treat
everyone just the same - like those awful white people need to be
locked up just like those awful black people for minor "crimes" to keep
the social system in control.

(BTW, kudos to <mcdee> for his excellent hosting of this topic, and
for his invention of the phrase "War On Some Drugs", which he to date
has not been acknowledged for, as far as I can remember.
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #95 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sat 29 May 10 06:56
    
Yes, I'm frequently asked "Isn't the answer getting tougher on white
youth who violate drug laws?"  My law students often argue strenuously
for more police sweeps of fraternity houses on the grounds that it
would be "fair."  

It's true, of course, that if the effects of the drug war were more
broadly felt, there would be more resistance to it.  And it's also true
that white youth have the opportunity to experiment with drugs and
sell to their friends without being labeled a felon and relegated to a
permanent undercaste.  But arguing that more people should suffer
unnecessarily, so things will "be fair," is like arguing everyone
should starve, because some people do.  Why not feed the hungry, and
stop putting people in cages for minor drug crimes? 

I'll return to black support of get tough tactics in a moment . . .
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #96 of 174: those Andropovian bongs (rik) Sat 29 May 10 07:30
    
What DO you see as a working, action-oriented, strategy for changing this?
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #97 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 29 May 10 08:24
    
The key, I think, is having some despised and/or scary group which is
associated with the use of the drug(s) in question.  With alcohol, it
was Catholic big-city immigrants.  The Prohibition movement was pretty
much 100% Protestant and predominantly small town and rural.  With LSD
it was hippies (as Art Linkletter's death reminded us this week).

Blacks, especially young urban blacks, have become the default
scary/despised people of 21st century America, with an honorable
mention going to Latinos.  So yes, in that sense, the key is definitely
race.

The suggestion of cracking down equally on whites is one I made
jokingly above.  It's a "heighten the contradictions" strategy that has
a certain perverse appeal, but trying to head in the right direction
by turning in the wrong direction is a pretty peculiar idea.  

Also, I have no faith in America's basic rationality on this subject. 
Are we really sure that Americans wouldn't come to accept the idea
that we must imprison millions of white college students, accountants,
computer programmers, waitresses...?

After all, they are drug users!
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #98 of 174: Ed Ward (captward) Sat 29 May 10 10:24
    
That's a good point, and strengthened by the "fact" that the blacks
were equated with crack cocaine, a drug supposedly so powerful that
once you've tried it, you can't stop til you're dead. And it's cocaine,
and we've known for ages what that does to black people!
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #99 of 174: Michelle Alexander (m-alexander) Sat 29 May 10 12:08
    
"What DO you see as a working, action-oriented, strategy for changing
this?"

Good question.  The first step, I believe, is consciousness-raising -
i.e., truth telling - especially in the communities most impacted by
mass incarceration and especially in groups and forums where
progressives dwell.  

People often tell me that consciousness-raising in those crowds is a
waste of time, because it amounts to "preaching to the choir."  I
disagree.  One of the reasons there's been so little resistance to this
system of control to date is because the very people who are most
impacted, as well as their natural allies, believe so many of the myths
and stereotypes that serve to rationalize this system.  Most of the
people who claim to care about racial justice don't really know the
truth about how this system operates, and why it was constructed in the
first place.  In my view, the pervasive ignorance among the very folks
who must build and lead this movement is the biggest stumbling block
to successful movement-building work today.

In this vein, I keep thinking about Maria's comment a couple days ago.
 She pointed out, correctly, that I was mistaken to assume that all
the people who were insisting that drug possession is never a felony
were probably white.  I think my assumption was partly based on their
hostility, which smacked of deliberate indifference to racial
suffering.  Nevertheless, her point was right on the mark.  So many
middle class African Americans - and so many people in the civil rights
community - have little clue how the criminal justice system actually
works, as opposed to how it's depicted on shows like Law and Order.  

Most people don't know that incarceration rates have little or nothing
to do with crime rates in the United States; or that the overwhelming
majority of the increase in imprisonment during the past 30 years has
been for non-violent and drug related offenses; or that law enforcement
gets rewarded in cash for the sheer numbers of people they arrest for
drug crimes, no matter how minor the offense.  And most people don't
know that state and local law enforcement agencies are entitled to keep
up to 80 percent of the cash, cars, and homes of suspected drug
offenders - even if they're never convicted of a drug crime.  And I
find most people find it hard to believe that in major urban areas,
like Washington, D.C., large majorities of young black men are under
correctional control simply because they live in a virtual police
state.

Ellis Cose, a reporter for Newsweek, wrote a column shortly after my
book was released in which he praised my effort to raise consciousness
on issues of bias in the system, but dismissed as implausible my claim
that the majority of young black men were under the control of the
criminal justice system in many large urban areas.  When I read his
article I was upset and annoyed that he could dismiss the facts so
casually, simply because he found them impossible to believe.  The
Sentencing Project was first to report a decade ago that 1 in 3 young
African American men were under correctional control nationally. 
Numerous other reports have pointed out that the national data actually
obscures a much more dismal reality in many large urban areas.  In
D.C., for example, it was reported several years ago that 3 out 4 young
black men, and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods could
expect to serve time in prison. Another report found that nearly
two-thirds of young black men in Baltimore were under correctional
control. How could Ellis Cose casually dismiss this data as
implausible?

But after taking a deep breath, I reminded myself that I, too, once
found it hard to believe that this system was truly functioning in the
manner that it does.  Often I have to remind myself to be patient, and
to remember that I didn't see what is hidden in plain sight for a long
time myself.  

So I think consciousness raising is the most important first step. If
the people who are most affected by mass incarceration and their allies
don't "get it," successful movement-building work is next to
impossible. 

   
  
inkwell.vue.384 : Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow
permalink #100 of 174: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sat 29 May 10 13:14
    
I agree emphatically.  I have been interested in the drug war and
related issues for years, but I really had no idea about any of this
until I read your book.  I thought I had a general sense of how bad
things were, but actually they're much worse.
  

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