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Equity & Diversity Opinion

‘The New Jim Crow’

By Deborah Meier — May 24, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’ve had a startling experience—even though “I knew it all” before. But it didn’t add up until I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.

Everything connects with everything, but the role that the incarceration of black men in America has played and continues to play seems suddenly a greater crisis than bad schools, or even poverty. If we—white Americans—were truly concerned about the “achievement gap,” it’s the gap in incarceration rates where we might start. No, it isn’t a fact that it all starts with “pathology” or the “culture of poverty.”

Alexander’s rigorously researched and passionate book was hard to put down and equally hard to pick up. We (white Americans) keep inventing new ways to maintain racism in its most naked form—even as we about talk colorblindness. I think I have fallen into the trap, too, when pointing out that the white poor face many of the same obstacles that the black and Hispanic poor do. I, too, have been urging a more colorblind attack on our school system’s miseducational policies. Tactically, it might have seemed wise, but factually, it’s nonsense.

Alexander’s detailed account of the invented crisis over drugs reminds me of David Berliner’s The Manufactured Crisis. She lays out step by step how the war on drugs and the “law and order” obsession (as well as our gun obsession) have been tools for disempowering an extraordinary number of black men from all the rights we take for granted as citizens! Of course, it has its impact on black women and children as well. And, on schools.

That is not to say that all those who fell for the law-and-order “crisis” saw the underlying consequences. Nor that the black politicians who supported it (many did not) were in league with those who knew exactly what they were up to. But ... it goes on and on and on, today, without any relationship to the data on crime or drug use. (Doesn’t it, in this respect, remind you, Diane, of “school reform”?)

Anderson finishes her book with a long quote from James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time.

This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor history will ever forgive them, that they destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not wish to know it ... It is their innocence which constitutes the crime."

I count myself guilty for “having played innocent"—even if, at times, it was a “tactic.”

Baldwin ended thus: “You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, ‘The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off ...’.” Shook with rage. It’s the rage I was trying to black out. (The lines were written to his brothers and sisters of color, but I read it and say, yes, yes, as a white woman.)

One out three black men today is either in prison or under the control of the prison system (e.g. parole). And many of these will never again be allowed into public housing, to get a loan from the government for college expenses, or to enter the polling place to vote!

If we are sometimes alarmed by the constitutional “originalists” who claim liberals are inventing a new constitution, this should dispel such notions. We have utterly reinterpreted the entire meaning of the 4th Amendment as it applies to people of color. (And thus could be applied to other minorities, too.) Actually, while the crisis is more acute for black men, black women are directly involved as well, and not only through their men, as are any of us who might someday become a “minority” of some unacceptable sort.

Again, to quote from The New Jim Crow: “When I leave here (jail), the bigger hurdle you gotta get over ... is shame ... the stigma ... the label round your neck,” a man named Dorsey Nunn says. Then there are the concrete effects noted by Henry, an African-American ex-prisoner: “It’s like you broke the law, bang, you’re not part of us anymore.” Says another woman, “for me to leave here, will affect my job, my education ... custody of my children ... child support, it can affect ... family, friends, housing...even to get into the school, to walk with my child’s class ... all I need is one parent who says, ‘Isn’t she a felon? I don’t want her with my child.”

And then we see the anger and hire people to teach “anger management.” Which includes teachers, who watch the impact of anger, too often helplessly. Knowing that “guilt” won’t help, but not sure what will.

This rage is not disconnected with doing well in school or how we thoughtlessly judge children and their families. The two subjects speak directly to each other. The connection is both overt and covert. We don’t know how to respond so we take an ugly short cut and discuss the pathology of poverty. We create schools that operate by harsh prison-lite rules, that play on shame, that accustom children to the language of prison.

Doing no harm requires far more than that from us. In the schools I worked with and in which I did my “best,” but ... I think of all the conversations we never had because, maybe I, too, was afraid of where they might lead.

I am shocked again and again on hearing the data, but the numbers didn’t stick in my head. In 1980, 41,000 drug offenders were in jail. Since 1980, there have been more than 31 million drug arrests in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project, and they have disproportionately involved people of color. (Four out of five for possession of drugs, not selling them.) Somehow we found the money needed to do this massive job of “ethnic cleansing.” Is using such language going too far?

The manufactured school “crisis” we are living through may have much to learn from the “crime” and “drug” crisis that has built prisons instead of schools, torn fathers from children, and then blamed their mothers for not having husbands; given additional voting power and funding to the towns where they were imprisoned and less to the districts where their families lived; and on and on. We fell for that one—so we need to be sure we don’t fall for the “school crisis” as an excuse for separating black children from white children, treat disobedience in schools for black children as cause for exile and shame, and claim there is no space or funds for small class sizes because we are spending so much to control “unrest"—billions on policing and confining fellow Americans in prisons.


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