Friday, February 13, 2015


This post is written in an academic style, which I haven’t used since writing a paper for Anthony Hecht’s Shakespeare class in my senior year of college.  So this post is lengthy, but hopefully with less blathering than my college papers.

I’m just telling you that so that if you want, you can go make hot chocolate instead.

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Thoughts on The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

A few days ago there was a shooting at a nearby public space.  (Is there ever a week in America, anymore, where this is not true somewhere?)  The shooter is a 17-year-old.

One newspaper story noted this: 

The teen had spent time in the juvenile justice system and, according to court documents, became the subject of some custody cases when his parents were incarcerated.  PittsburghPost-Gazette, Feb 8, 2015

This could be an example of a phenomenon I read about in both Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, and in Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow.  It is this:

Having a parent incarcerated increases a child’s chance of juvenile delinquency between 300 and 400 percent; it increases the odds of a serious psychiatric disorder by 250%... if you lock up too many people for too long, the collateral damage [to the social system] starts to outweigh the benefit [of locking up criminals].  Gladwell, p 245, 246

Alexander’s book contends that the war on drugs has disproportionately targeted African-Americans.

Today, the War on Drugs has given birth to a system of mass incarceration that governs not just a small fraction of a racial or ethnic minority but entire communities of color.  In ghetto communities, nearly everyone is either directly or indirectly subject to the new caste system.  The system serves to redefine the terms of the relationship of poor people of color and their communities to mainstream, white society, ensuring their subordinate and marginal status.  The criminal and civil sanctions that were once reserved for a tiny minority are now used to control and oppress a racially defined majority in many communities, and the systematic manner in which the control is achieved reflects not just a difference in scale.  The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer concerned primarily with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.  Prior drug wars were ancillary to the prevailing caste system.  This time the drug war is the system of control.  Alexander, p. 188

Yes, there have been improvements in race relations since the 1950s.  Racism is no longer on display in the form of “Whites Only” signs at drinking fountains.  America just marked the Friendship Nine’s historic sit-in of a South Carolina lunch counter with a public apology from a judge and prosecutor.  But we have not reached race neutrality, not yet.

Yesterday, the Director of the FBI James Comey said this:
Many people in our white-majority culture have unconscious racial biases and react differently to a white face than a black face. We simply must find a way to see each other more clearly. . . . It is hard to hate up close.  Washington Post via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Feb 13, 2015

Alexander contends that the War on Drugs of the past twenty years is not overtly racist, but becomes a racist system because of those unconscious biases.

Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow [are] not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term.  Race plays a major role – indeed, a defining role – in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry.  This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility – a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.    Alexander, p. 203

What does Alexander prescribe?  She doesn’t give a detailed to-do list, but asks people to care.  She says that a policy of “color-blindness” does not serve us well, but exacerbates the problem, because of those unconscious biases.

Alexander recognizes that it is damned hard to care about a criminal.  There is a reason that Rosa Parks was picked to challenge the racially segregated bus system in Montgomery – she was an exemplary citizen.  Alexander quotes John Edgar Wideman:
It’s respectable to tar and feather criminals, to advocate locking them up and throwing away the key.  It’s not racist to be against crime, even though the archetypal criminal in the media and the public imagination almost always wears Willie Horton’s face.”  (John Edgar Wideman, “Doing Time, Marking Race,” The Nation, Oct 30, 1995, quoted in The New Jim Crow)

I promised less blathering here than I did in college papers, but really, saying in a blog that I care is just so much blather.  I am ashamed to admit that I am not sure exactly how to go about caring, and that I am also scared what may be required of me.  Perhaps I will start by spending a little time outside of my comfortable environment.  On Sunday our church has planned a “field trip” to a men’s shelter we support.  This shelter does so much more than just put a roof over the men’s heads at night, because a roof is only one part of the shelter each human being needs. The visit to the shelter does not really have anything to do with race relations.   But going there will definitely force me out of my comfort zone.  It’s my little Household Mom way of practicing this 10° Rule.  It’s as close as I can get to nonconformity.

The victims of that shooting need our prayers for healing.  How about the perpetrator?  Can we pray for his healing, too? 


Alison said...

I think you should change your blog title to "Compassionate Household Mom."

Hmm, you've got me thinking...maybe shelters need our little recital performances even more than the churches and nursing homes?

Any ideas on how we can make that happen?

Angie said...

Scholarly, well-researched, and from the heart. I hope it all goes well at the shelter.

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

You are a rock star. Cooler than one, actually.
This makes me think more than I'd planned to tonight, so thank you for that, too.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

I was at our town's international film festival today and saw "Evaporating Borders" -- a small, incredibly well-done film about how complicated a problem can be (in that case, immigration) and how seeing people as "The Others" damages our hearts and minds. It's easier to only be with those who are just like us, but it's much more important to stop viewing everyone else with suspicion.
I agree, Compassionate Household Mom.

The Crislers said...

I like Alison's suggestion of "Compassionate Household Mom."

I love this post- it made me think, it made me consider new things, it also made me think of this video:

If that there linky doesn't work, just google "vlog brothers incarceration".