Writing in Mother Jones, Michelle Alexander has an excellent article on The New Jim Crow. It’s about how the War on Drugs has led to a permanent American undercaste. Similar ideas came up in my class yesterday as we discussed equity and excellence in education. As with many other topics we saw how making progress within education cannot be separated from addressing the same problems beyond the walls of academia.
Here’s an excerpt from her article:
Ever since Barack Obama lifted his right hand and took his oath of office, pledging to serve the United States as its 44th president, ordinary people and their leaders around the globe have been celebrating our nation’s “triumph over race.” Obama’s election has been touted as the final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow, the bookend placed on the history of racial caste in America.
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.
Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.
She offers some important information that should make us all question how America deals with race today, starting with:
There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
The article addresses the obvious questions that some readers may have, such as “well, shouldn’t we be locking up criminals?” or “aren’t we at least improving in the ways we deal with racism and poverty?”
It’s worth noting that Alexander’s just saying that the absolute number of African Americans under correctional control today is greater than the number enslaved in 1850. In a sense that makes it less horrific. One might also qualify the claim by pointing out that being on parole is very different from being a slave.
Nevertheless, some aspects of the modern system are even worse and less justifiable. Many people would be surprised to learn that the absolute scale of the institution is now greater. Unlike slavery, it’s now pervasive in every state, and stands out as inconsistent with other contemporary practices. And the current prison system doesn’t even produce goods; it simply drains scarce resources to destroy lives.