The Obama presidency was lauded as the moment that would usher in a new era of color blindness. An African American man had become president of the United States for the first time in its long history. Before Obama climbed to this height, it was long considered something that was an impossible dream for an African American man to meet. Yet despite this great achievement, and the fact that African Americans throughout American society have progressed greatly in many areas such as entertainment, business, and government, there still exists great racism within the United States. Contrary to what mainstream history and society teaches us, segregation did not end with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to historian Michelle Alexander in her new book titled, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In the Age Of Colorblindness”,Jim Crow has been recreated in the United States through the country’s prison industrial complex.
Today, just like under Jim Crow, African Americans are disproportionately being put into a lower class system compared to mainstream Americans as a result of the Prison Industrial complex. According to Michelle Alexander, three fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been African American or Latino (Alexander 97). In 2000, she mentions that Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African Americans constituted 80 to 90% of all drug offenders sent to prison (Alexander 96). Fifteen states had blacks being admitted to prison at a rate that was 20 to 57 times the rate of whites. While African Americans and Latinos’ are small minorities of the population, they are more represented in the prison system than whites.
What is alarming about this is the fact that African Americans are not using drugs at higher rates than whites. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse in 2000, whites were actually reported to use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students. Whites also used crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students and heroin at seven times the rate of black students (Alexander 96). Marijuana was used at similar rates between the two different populations. The National Household Survey On Drug Abuse also reported in 2000 that white youth aged 12-17 was more likely to sell drugs than African American youth of the same age. Whites were more than a third more likely to sell drugs. While African Americans were being arrested significantly more than whites in 2000, whites really engaged in a higher rate of illegal drug activity, according to Michelle Alexander’s book.
This racial disparity is similar to what existed under the Jim Crow system in the south through the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. African Americans were disproportionately represented in the prison system during this time period. The PBS documentary, “Slavery By Another Name”, mentioned that roughly 90% or more of the prisoners in the convict leasing system were African American (Slavery By Another Name). Whites only represented 10% of the population. Most the time, that population was even less.
The documentary mentioned that both groups of people committed crimes that could have been punished by a sentence in the convict leasing system. However, while whites were doing the same crimes African Americans were, such as debt, public drunkenness, and stealing small things such as a piece of a fence, African Americans were predominantly going to prison for it. Such laws as vagrancy laws, which were written in a colorblind fashion, were disproportionately enforced on African Americans who did not have a job. According to the numbers, this is not all that different compared to what is going on now.
The book mentions that once labeled a felon, an individual loses many rights that many other Americans get to enjoy. The right to vote is stripped away. One cannot serve on a jury (Alexander 2). Public assistance in areas such as housing is denied. Employers, who have access to the criminal records of job applicants, become legally eligible to deny someone a job on the mere basis of a drug conviction. Only 40% of employers have said that they would consider hiring someone with a drug felony on their record (Alexander 92). Those who do get jobs are often relegated to low paying jobs that do not provide enough to raise a family or even oneself. In the past, ex felons had a chance of getting a good paying job in fields that often did not discriminate against them too much, such as construction and manufacturing (Alexander 147). Due to the effects of deindustrialization and the growth of the suburbs, these opportunities have largely left the cities where the majority of these felons who are predominantly African American return to. As a result, there exists very little opportunity for economic growth.
Under the era of Jim Crow in the south, many African Americans had their right to vote denied to them through practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfathers clauses. Many were excluded from government aid programs such as Social Security, which originally excluded agricultural workers and domestic workers, which were professions the majority of African Americans had at the time. Housing loans were often not given to African Americans by banks who wished to keep them out of the white suburbs. Employers also significantly discriminated against African Americans. Often, they were forced to take low paying jobs, such as sharecropping and domestic housework, because the better paying jobs discriminated against them. Many unions had no blacks allowed policies through the first half of the 20th century. The discrimination they face now as a result of the drug war is very similar to the discrimination they faced back then.
Through limiting the African American vote today, like under Jim Crow, the cities across America where African Americans tend to live have lost valuable representation in state legislatures. Many inner communities have been stripped of their real political voice. Meanwhile, the rural locations of many prisons in areas where whites typically are the majority of the population has seen their representation in state legislatures increase. Because prisoners are counted towards representation, all the African Americans behind bars are helping strengthen the political power of white communities while their very own communities are losing it (Alexander 188). As a result of this, many cities do not have the means to get the aid that they deserve, such as education aid for struggling inner city schools. Like under old Jim Crow America, white people are enjoying immense privilege at the expense of African Americans, despite the fact that African Americans do drugs at the same or less rate depending on the drug than whites do.
Another similarity Alexander brings up is the issue of debtor’s prison. Under Jim Crow, African Americans could go to jail for owing a debt. Today, many African Americans can also go to prison for owing a debt. Upon release from prison, ex offenders are saddled with debts (Alexander 150). They are forced to pay for the costs they accrued through legal fees, their stay in prison, and the drug rehab they have to undergo when they were released. Many have their paychecks garnished (Alexander 151). If they do not pay back these debts and refuse, they can be thrown back in prison, just like under Jim Crow.
Like the convict leasing system that existed under Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex today is making an obscene amount of money off of predominantly exploiting African Americans through the drug war. According to Alexander, each city or county receives about roughly $153 in state and federal funding for each drug arrest (Alexander 77). Crimes that are not drug related, such as rape and child molestation, receive no federal dollars. The Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance program provides millions of dollars to states and local enforcement agencies willing to fight the war (Alexander 92). The Pentagon also gives millions of dollars in money and equipment to state and local agencies willing to fight the war.
Due to the great amount of money that is going into the system since the early 1980s, prison populations have exploded across the country with drug offenders. 2/3s of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000 was due to the drug war. An estimated 31 million people were arrested for drug offenses during that time period, which resulted in a great amount of wealth for local and state governments (Alexander 59).
Because prisoners have to be taken care of, industries have sprung up around the prisons geared towards taking care of them. Clothing, food, and prison guard industries have expanded due to this, creating much wealth for the people who run the businesses and the prison guards. To help support these industries, prisoners, like under the convict leasing system, are often forced to work. Many inmates work for these industries in prison earning less than $3 per hour (Alexander 152). Sometimes, they are paid as low as 25 cents an hour. Paying these people less than minimum wage is legal because the 13th amendment does allow slavery as punishment for a crime. The pay just is there to make what is slavery look less like slavery for aesthetic purposes. Thanks to prisoners being forced to pay back the costs of their imprisonment that are racked up with these industries upon their release, these industries are not really losing money taking care of the prisoners. If they cannot pay, they are simple put back into the system to be exploited as cheap labor, just like what happened with debtors under the Jim Crow convict leasing system.
The violence inflicted upon African Americans today by the power establishment, according to Alexander, is also akin to that practiced in the south years ago. Police agencies have free reign to pretty much stop and frisk anyone at will, which is not a pleasant experience (Alexander 65). African Americans are constantly frisked in their communities for drugs as they walk down the street or sit on a bus. According to Atwater vs City of Lago Vista, if someone commits a minor traffic violation, such as failure to use a turn signal or not stopping long enough at a stop sign, the police have free reign to be search the offender. If they refuse, they are legally allowed to arrest the individual (Alexander 68). Because everyone commits minor traffic violations, this has given police forces the power necessary to target African Americans for just about anything in order to get them into prison and ensure their own job security and the wealth of their city, state, or county. As a result, police cars can constantly be seen just about every few blocks or so in many urban communities, as if the communities are under siege.
This idea of being under siege manifests itself truly in the way swat teams act in the inner city. Swat teams have the authority, with a warrant usually given by a judge who works for the state who has an incentive to lock people up, to search the homes of people suspected of drug crime. Because people are human, often, this has led to many innocent people having their homes raided by by overzealous swat teams who from time to time, end up killing a family pet or innocent human being. Those who are innocent of any drug crime are sometimes the victims of planted evidence, as stated by people like Stephen Anderson, an ex NYPD cop, who admitted that the agency planted evidence to frame innocent people in order to reach quotas (Stephen Anderson Admits To Issuing Fake Drug Charges To meet Quotas).
Under Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan acted as a sort of arm of the state to enforce the will of the power establishment. The KKK used violence to suppress the economic, and political power of many African Americans. Many African Americans were lynched for something as small as flirting with a white woman or being rude to a white man. Many, who were completely innocent of any crime, were lynched. The police forces today, like the KKK under Jim Crow, which often were police officers in disguise, has acted as a violent force to predominantly hurt African Americans. The drug war has lynched many African Americans, in a symbolic sense, silencing them permanently.
Michelle Alexander’s main argument that the prison system has recreated Jim Crow is a very plausible argument to make considering all the evidence presented in it and the nations history. The United States has a long history of being a very racist society. Racism has long embedded itself in United States government policy. To think that the United States government would not be taking part in such a system would be similar to thinking that a man who was cheated on by his wife who has a long past of violence towards her did not murder her. Common sense dictates that when someone or something has a long history of taking part in something, that behavior will not just simply go away. The United States has long acted as a racist entity so what Alexander argues is fairly believable.
The only issue present with her argument is the fact that economic class is much more interwoven today than it was under Jim Crow. According to Michelle Alexander, 2/3s of the people detained report annual incomes under $12,000 (Alexander 151). She also brings up the point that many defendants in drug cases are typically denied meaningful legal representation. Tens of thousands of poor people go to jail every year without ever talking to a lawyer. In Wisconsin, more than 11,000 poor people with an income of $3,000 or more go to jail every year because they are considered able to afford a lawyer (Alexander 84). They, while being unable to scarcely afford to pay rent, are forced to pay for a lawyer themselves. Alexander also makes the point that many publically appointed lawyers do not have the time, resources, or sometimes the inclination to give poor people effective legal representation. In Lake Charles, Louisiana, the public defenders office has only 2 investigators for the 2,500 new felony cases, and 4,000 new misdemeanor cases it handles each year. She makes it quite clear that poor people across America, particularly in inner cities where poverty is often the greatest, are not getting adequate and fair legal representation.
Because states and cities receive more money for each person they arrest, there is a profit motive for them to target people who cannot put up a good legal defense. They are not looking so much at inner city African Americans criminals simply as being black criminals as a reason to arrest them but as an easy way to make money. African Americans who do live in the suburbs have a far less likely chance of being searched by police officers because police agencies tend to target those areas less partially due to the fact that the people there have the means to put up a more effective legal defense. It would cost the states and cities a ton of money fighting thousands of middle class citizens from the suburbs in court battles who have the ability to afford good lawyers. It is simply more cost efficient to target the poor people within the cities. Because blacks are predominantly poor, they get targeted more on the basis of that and not there race so much, like under Jim Crow.
When one looks at the prison system today, the numbers are more equal than they were under Jim Crow. According to a report from the Bureau Of Justice Statistics in the first half of 2007, black men represented 35.4% of the prison population and white men 32.9% (US Prison Population Hits All-Time High: 2.3 Million Incarcerated). Under Jim Crow, the numbers were less equal. African American men were roughly 90% of the prison population or more and white men 10% or less. If a true Jim Crow system were being recreated, white men would not be in prison to that extent. This shows that class is playing a little bit more of a role than it did under Jim Crow.
African Americans who are wealthy can afford to get off for crimes today that they would not have gotten off for under Jim Crow. African Americans such as OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Marshawn Lynch, and many others, have been able to get off for things that they would have been arrested for much more easily and probably lynched for under Jim Crow. Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault. If the prison system was truly recreating Jim Crow, he would have probably never made it to a trial. He would have been lynched for the mere accusation of doing it. Marshawn Lynch ran a woman over with his car, which would have also probably led to him getting lynched if it happened in 1930s Alabama by a KKK member who was probably also a cop. Emmett Till was killed simply for flirting with a white woman in a Jim Crow society. The prison industrial complex today is not fully recreating Jim Crow.
Besides the class issue present more today and cases like Kobe Bryant’s, Michelle Alexander’s argument is very sound. The statistics she has brought up and the similarities she has exposed between both time periods hold up and show that there is a definite correlation. She has used reliable statistics from a variety of sources, such as the United States government. The information she has provided one can reasonably conclude to be accurate. So with that said, one can honestly say that for the most part, our prison system today is recreating the Jim Crow society that existed before in the United States. The similarities Alexander brings up are simply too great.
1,) Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2010. Print.
2.) Slavery By Another Name. Dir. Sam Pollard. PBS. February 21st, 2012.
3.) Thomas, Pierre. “US Prison Population Hits All-Time High: 2.3 Million Incarcerated.” Abcnews.go.com. June 6th, 2008. ABC news. June 6th, 2008. April 4th, 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=5009270&page=1
4.) No one author. “Stephe Anderson Admits To Issuing Fake Drug Charges To Meet Quotas.” Huffingtonpost.com. October 13th, 2011. Huffingtonpost. October 13th, 2011. April 8th, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/13/stephen-anderson-admits-t_n_1008831.html