What if Jim Crow didn’t Die in the 60’s?
What if Jim Crow didn’t die in the 60’s?
That’s the question you come to grips with when reading Michelle Alexander’s first book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Written for the children and grandchildren of those who lived, fought, died and survived the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950’s, the 1960‘s, and the early 1970’s, this book challenges those of us who feel we’ve “arrived” to question the notion of a “Post-racial America.”
In The New Jim Crow, Ms. Alexander gives an historical account of America’s love affair with systems of racial control and their importance to the American economy. From the Institution of Slavery to Jim Crow Segregation to Mass Incarceration, Michelle Alexander demonstrates how the idea of racial caste did not die. Rather, the way caste was implemented and maintained was tweaked in order to better fit the changes in Society. As Ms. Alexander says:
The fact that some African Americans have experienced great success in recent years does not mean that something akin to a racial caste system no longer exists. No caste system in the United States has ever governed all black people; there have always been “free blacks” and black success stories, even during slavery and Jim Crow.
Rather than being satisfied that racial caste has ended, Ms. Alexander argues that “it may have simply taken a different form,” and that mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex comprise the new front in the Civil Rights Movement. There are several comparisons to highlight her claim:
- “More African American adults are under correctional control today – in prison or jail, on probation or parole – than were enslaved in 1850…”
- Legalized discrimination that exemplified both Slavery and Jim Crow are a reality for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.
- Despite the fervor behind reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act and vigilance against voter disenfranchisement, “Felon disenfranchisement laws have been more effective in eliminating black voters in the age of mass incarceration than they were during Jim Crow.”
- “The combined effect of race-based peremptory strikes and the automatic exclusion of felons from juries has put black defendants in a familiar place – in a courtroom in shackles, facing an all-white jury.”
Worst of all, Michelle Alexander asserts that “…mass incarceration defined the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.” This is proven by the endless bent of black culture – depicted by music, sports, film and reality TV, and enacted on inner city streets – to prove its toughness.
So what if Jim Crow didn’t die in the 60‘s?
What do you think? What are your initial reactions to these comparisons?
If you buy these comparisons then the idea of a “Post-racial America” is only a myth. The enduring struggle for Civil Rights becomes a tangible one that moves away from the nostalgia of the historical Civil Rights Movement and beyond a simple protection of Voting Rights and clamoring of our bourgeois notions of disparity (mine too).
The claims made in The New Jim Crow are well-founded and tough to dispute. Yet, the work is heavy on the facts and data. At times, it is too academic. Moreover, the issue being dealt with in this work is tough to stomach. It is hard to accept that living with all the opportunities that we (I, myself) have, there could still exist a system of racial caste right beneath our noses! Because of this, The New Jim Crow can be difficult to read. Honestly, it took me a couple months to make it all the way through (I was still in Seminary at the time and still reading for my classes…don’t judge me! )
Despite the difficulty of facing the material and the heaviness of the facts and data, The New Jim Crow is extremely informative and eye-opening. Ms. Alexander has strung together the facts in a very compelling and revealing way. The title is bold and you might wonder: “Is the comparison to Jim Crow a valid one?”
It certainly is valid, and if you doubt that then I challenge you to read this book. What if Jim Crow didn’t die in the 60’s? What if we are still living with a veiled system of racial caste? Can people who love Justice afford to take that chance? What do you say?