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“Felony is the New ‘N-Word”: Michelle Alexander on Mass Incarceration as “The New Jim Crow” in the Age of Obama

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by Paul Street

The author – himself a renowned Left, anti-racist scholar and activist – calls Alexander’s work “as close to being a perfect book as you are going to see.” While established Black leadership spent most of its political capital defending affirmative action programs that never reached the masses of Black people, the U.S. was busy establishing a “new racial caste system” based on mass Black incarceration and “unimpeded by the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights legislation”

 

Felony is the New ‘N-Word”: Michelle Alexander on Mass Incarceration as “The New Jim Crow” in the Age of Obama

by Paul Street

Once you’re branded as a felon, all the “old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal.”

Early in her courageous and important new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander offers a painful and poignant memory from the evening of November 4, 2008:

As an African American woman, with three young children who will never know a world in which a black man could not be president of the United States, I was beyond thrilled on election night. Yet when I walked out of the election night party, full of hope and enthusiasm, I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New Jim Crow. A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several polices officers stood around talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence. People poured out of the building: many stared for a moment at the black man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze. What did the election of Barack Obama means for him?”

The Race to Incarcerate

What did Obama’s ascendancy really signify for the African American man waiting to be hauled off to the nation’s disproportionately black jails and prisons? That’s a good question. Consider the following cold facts from the officially “colorblind” United States, self-proclaimed homeland and headquarters of global “freedom”:

* Between 1980 and 2000, thanks primarily to the bipartisan U.S. War on Drugs, the number of people confined in U.S. prisons and jails rose spectacularly, from 300,000 to more than 2 million. Drug incarcerations accounted for the majority of that remarkable increase.

* By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans (1 in 31 adults) were under the supervision of the criminal justice system: behind bars or on probation or parole.

* The U.S. has by far and away the world’s highest incarceration rate (750 per 100,000, compared to 93 per 100,000 in, for example, Germany), “dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country” and “surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran” (Michelle Alexander).

* Most of the spectacular number of Americans behind bars are incarcerated for non-violent offenses – drug crimes primarily – that most other nations do not view as remotely prison-worthy.

The per capital incarceration rate for drug offenses in the U.S. rose by 930 percent between 1980 and 1996.”

* Illegal drug use is the single leading offense for which U.S. prisoners are doing time.

* Thirty years ago, there were less than 300 arrests for drug crimes for every 100,000 adults in the U.S. There were 2 prison admissions for every 100 drug admissions. By 1996, the drug arrest rate more than doubled to nearly 700 arrests per 100,000 adults and there were 8 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. The per capital incarceration rate for drug offenses in the U.S. rose by 930 percent between 1980 and 1996.

It gets much worse when you factor in skin color. The people incarcerated and marked by prison histories and criminal records in the world’s leading penal state (the U.S.) are very disproportionately black and male:

* 1 in every 14 black U.S. black man was imprisoned in 2001, compared to 1 in 106 white men

* 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars in 2006 and a much larger percentage was under parole, probation or some other form of penal control.

* The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than did South Africa at the pinnacle of apartheid.

* In Washington D.C., home to the nation’s first black president, 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prisons. In the city’s poorest neighborhoods and across the many highly segregated black urban ghettoes that persist across (not-so) “post-racial” America, similar incarceration rates and expectations prevail and time behind bars has become “normative” for young black males.

* In seven states black Americans make up 80 to 90 percent all drug prisoners. In more than fifteen states, blacks are sent to prison on drug convictions at rates from 20 to 57 times greater than those of white men.

* Three fourths of all Americans behind bars for drug crimes are black or Latino.

* On any given day, nearly a third (30 percent) of black males ages 20 to 29 is under some form of correctional supervision.

* Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall U.S. population but account for more than 45 percent of the nation’s prisoners.

* One in three black U.S. adult males carries the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record [1].

Felony is the New ‘N-Word’”

This last problem – felony marking – is no small problem for social and racial justice in America. The prison experience itself is only the tip of the many-sided mass incarceration iceberg, whose chilling impact on black opportunity spreads across the societal terrain. A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi argues: “Felony is the new ‘N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon…today’s lynching is a felony charge…A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.”[1A]

 

There’s reason for the preacher’s strong language. In the fourth chapter (titled “The Cruel Hand”) of The New Jim Crow, Alexander shows how once you’re branded as a felon, all the “old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal,” Alexander observes, “you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”[2]

Racism Adapts: Redesigning Caste

“‘New Jim Crow’ – is she serious? Didn’t we just elect a black man to the presidency?” I can almost hear and see my white neighbors and relatives asking these questions with incredulous looks on their faces. Can a nation that just put a black family in the White House really have a powerful new anti-black racial caste system?” Yes, it can, Alexander demonstrates.

To be sure, in the current era, it is no longer permissible to discriminate, exclude, and condemn people explicitly on the basis of race. Still, it is perfectly legal, common, and customary to discriminate against people with criminal records in nearly all the same ways that it was once considered appropriate and lawful to discriminate against blacks. “Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge,” Alexander notes, “that racism is highly adaptable.” Racial caste has died and then re-emerged in new forms throughout that history. In the current, officially (and deceptively) “colorblind” era (whose illusory post-racial gloss is fed by Obama’s election), much of the core substance of the old discrimination – objectively racist bias in the job market, housing, finance, public welfare, voting rights and more – is born again and rendered legal and “normal” once millions of blacks are labeled as felons. “We have not ended racial caste in America,” Alexander observes, “we have merely redesigned it.” Open and conscious racial bigotry is not really required.

Much of the core substance of the old discrimination is born again and rendered legal and ‘normal’ once millions of blacks are labeled as felons.”

Alexander is not unaware of big differences between the old and new caste systems. The old Jim Crow was explicitly racist, characterized by over racial hostility. The new version is not. It relies primarily on racial indifference, not racial antagonism. The new version generates a significant number of clear white victims – Caucasian drug prisoners and criminals who end up being what Alexander calls “collateral damage” (with shorter sentences and milder records, however) in a drug war whose real “designated [and primary] targets” are people of color. There is more black support (quite qualified and limited however) for “get tough” drug crime policies than there was for Jim Crow, for reasons that are not mysterious. The original Jim Crow system was part of the white southern ruling class’ effort to economically exploit black labor on a massive scale but the current mass incarceration version serves mainly to warehouse economically marginalized and largely post-industrialized and de-proletarianized black and brown people who no longer provide much labor for the capitalist state.

Beneath these real contrasts, however, the similarities are impressive. They include legalized discrimination in “nearly every aspect of social, political, and economic life,” political disenfranchisement, exclusion from juries, the refusal of top U.S. courts to take seriously clams of racial bias at “every stage of the criminal justice process” (so that “the new racial caste system operates unimpeded by the Fourteenth Amendment and federal civil rights legislation”), the “symbolic production of race” (the provision of racial stigma to blacks in its time: as members of an officially inferior ethno-cultural group in the late 19th and early 20th century and as criminals today, in a time when “the stigma of race has become the stigma of criminality”) and the creation and maintenance of racial segregation (reinforced by the largely black composition of the nation’s many prisons and by the flood of black prisoners who return to nearly all-black ghetto communities each year).

Black Exceptionalism”: Loving “Barack” While Hating Lakeesha

I live in a state (Iowa) where many white middle class liberals are beside themselves with pride over the fact that they played a role in making Barack Obama the first black president but where many of the same folks just shrug when you tell them that that very same state has the highest racial incarceration disparity in the nation. In my current Obama-mad residence of Iowa City, this indifference is not uncommonly combined with white grumbling about the growing population of poor and unemployed blacks that is receiving ever more criminal justice attention on the town’s Southeast side. When a young black man (John Deng) was shot to death in cold blood by a white sheriff’s deputy (Terry Stotler) in Iowa City last summer, nary a white liberal Obama supporter joined the short-lived protest movement that quickly rose and collapsed. The moral silence was deafening. Among many of the affluent campus-town Aca-Democratic whites around here, loving “Barack” (progressive Democrats like to pretend that they are on a first name basis with the president) and “Michelle” in Washington (Obama bumper stickers are still ubiquitous on the backs of Volvos and Toyota Prius’s at the local food coop) is the other side of the coin of caring not a whit about local Lakeesha and Jamal.

Mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars.”

By Alexander’s analysis there’s no real paradox here. It all makes perfect sense. As she explained in response to a query from this writer (Street) in a recent book salon on the progressive Web site Firedoglake, Obama’s success with Caucasians (within and beyond white Iowa) fits very well with the redesigned, officially colorblind racism of the neoliberal, post-Civil Rights era:

During Jim Crow, individual black success was a threat to the prevailing system of control. Today, the opposite is true. The current caste system depends, in no small part, on black exceptionalism. Mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars. A belief that all blacks belong in jail would be incompatible with the social consensus that we have moved “beyond race” and that race is no longer relevant. So we as a “colorblind” society need to have some black people doing well, ones we like. We therefore embrace certain types of black people — those who make whites comfortable and don’t challenge the status quo. Their success actually helps to rationalize the treatment of the rest[3].

Obama and other “good” and safe, properly bourgeois and respectful “not like Jesse” blacks are the exceptions proving the rule that the persistent poverty, segregation[4] and often enough incarceration and criminal marking experienced by other and poorer blacks is really all about those bad blacks’ bad values and bad behavior.

A Literal War on the Black Community”

Consistent with “black exceptionalist” racial doctrine, most Caucasian Americans will tell you that the reason for grossly lopsided black drug incarceration and felony marking is simple: disproportionate black drug crime. Wrong! “People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates” and numerous surveys suggest that whites, especially white youth, are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug use and dealing than people of color, Alexander notes. “The great majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white” – this even as three-fourths of the nation’s drug prisoners are black or Latino. “From the outset,” Alexander explained in the aforementioned book salon (and in her book’s second chapter, titled “Lockdown”):

The drug war had little to do with drug crime and nearly everything to do with racial politics. The drug war was part of the Republican Party’s grand strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working class whites who were resentful of the Civil Rights Movement – especially busing, desegregation and affirmative action. Pollsters and political strategists found that by using racially coded ‘get tough’ appeals they could get poor and working class white voters to defect from the Democratic Party. In the words of H. R. Haldeman, President Nixon’s former chief of staff: ‘The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.’ Nixon coined the term ‘war on drugs.’ And Reagan turned the rhetorical war into a literal war on the black

community”[5].

As one would expect given the harsh incongruence between actual black drug use and black drug incarceration, it’s s a war marked among other things by savagely unequal patterns of surveillance, policing, arrest, and sentencing.

White youth are significantly more likely to engage in illegal drug use and dealing than people of color.”

Some brief examples from my own experience and research may (or may not) be in order here. I’m white and I have been stopped and cited for not wearing a seat belt twice in my life. Both incidents occurred in Chicago’s South Side black ghetto at intersections where the police dragoon people using the seat belt issue as a pretext to get into folks’ cars and find (or claim to find) drugs. The second time the police officer apologized for pulling me over and explained the situation in no uncertain terms: I was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the racist national drug war.

Shortly before these two little educational experiences on the South Side (where I worked in a black [post-] civil rights organization between 2000 and 2005), Chicago newspapers offered some interesting reports on how local and state criminal justice authorities had chosen to deal with a rising number of “young [white] suburbanites” said to be purchasing heroin and other banned narcotics in the city’s predominantly black West Side. The Chicago Tribune reported that Dupage County Metropolitan Enforcement Group (a “collection of the top drug cops from the county departments”) had selected a rather mild sanction for the suburban offenders. “Officers,” the Tribune noted in August of 2001, “have seen teens making drug buys, traced the license plates of their cars, and notified the registered owner, often a parents, where the vehicle has been.”

In June of 2002, both the Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times reported that Cook County prosecutors and police had increased the level of punishment for the young suburbanites, threatening to impound their automobiles and suspend their driver’s licenses. William O’Brien, Chief of Narcotics for the State’s Attorney’s Office gave the following rationale for this “new crackdown,” which contrasted sharply with the prison sentences faced by 15-year old inner city youth caught selling narcotics next to a public housing project: when it comes to predominantly white automobile-centered suburban youth, O’Brien explained, “driving privileges may resonate more...than the threat of jail.” Of course O’Brien failed to note that prison histories and felony records resonate in powerfully negative, poverty- and inequality-intensifying ways across the entire life experience of the disproportionately black people who are saddled forever with what the neoliberal Anglo American magazine The Economist in 2002 called “The Stigma That Never Fades” – a felony record (the “new N-word”)[6].

Democrats Have Actually Been Worse”

Okay,” I can hear my liberal white Obama-adoring neighbors saying, “so Alexander is saying it’s all about the racist Republicans.” Not-so fast. Like almost every other policy evil in this corporate-managed imperial and white supremacist fake-democracy, the drug war has been a richly bipartisan affair. As Alexander noted in the aforementioned salon (and as she shows in The New Jim Crow):

Democrats have actually been much worse than Republicans when it comes to the drug war. It was Bill Clinton who escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessor ever dreamed possible. And it was Bill Clinton and the so-called ‘new Democrats’ who pushed through laws barring drug felons from public housing (no matter how minor the offense) and barring drug felons from food stamps for the rest of their lives. Pregnant women, people with HIV and AIDS are barred even from receiving food stamps if they were caught with drugs and charged with a felony. Clinton, in his zeal to win over those so-called ‘white swing voters,’ ramped up the drug war and ‘ended welfare as we knew it.’”[7]

You read that right: “Democrats have actually been worse” (something the people of Afghanistan can relate to).

Bill Clinton escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessor ever dreamed possible.”

Alexander’s observation of this harsh reality leads her to a radical conclusion: “the movement that must be built has to fundamentally change the nature of our political system – not just get more Democrats in office.” Alexander (herself a very successful black law professor and political commentator) understands the very big and real difference between the meaning of the Obama ascendancy (a symbolically powerful color-change in the nation’s and indeed the world’s top elective office) and what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for again and again in the last years of his life: “the radical reconstruction of society itself” through a mass democratic social movement that transcended the quadrennial big money candidate-centered and corporate-crafted electoral extravaganzas that pass for the only politics that matter among many Americans today.

His Election…Demobilizes Those Who Should Seize the Moment”

A section of the last chapter of The New Jim Crow bears the title “Obama – the Promise and the Peril.” Upon first glance I assumed that this section would show how the election of a first black president has reinforced the white majority’s mistaken, self-satisfied belief that racism no longer poses significant barriers to black advancement and racial equality in the U.S. But that’s not quite Alexander’s primary contention. She is far more concerned with Obama’s pacifying impact on blacks than with his effect on white Americans. As she noted in our aforementioned online conversation (salon):

Actually, my argument about the promise and peril of Obama’s election is a bit different. I argue that on the one hand Obama’s election holds real promise because he’s condemned the drug war and mandatory sentences. He ‘gets it.’ But on the other hand, the unique and concerning situation racial justice advocates now face is that the very people who are most oppressed by the current caste system – African Americans – may be the least likely to challenge it, now that Obama is in the White House. Do African Americans want to pressure the Obama administration on any issue, let alone issues of race? Could it be that many African Americans would actually prefer to ignore racial issues during Obama’s presidency, to help ensure him smooth sailing and a triumphant presidency, no matter how bad things are in the meantime? [emphasis added] The fact that last question could plausibly be answered yes, is the real peril of the Obama presidency. His election masks the severity of racial inequality and actually demobilizes those who should seize the moment.”[8]

Knowing What’s Right is Different Than Doing Right”

Just because Obama likely understands the racially biased (and even racist) nature of the new mass incarceration system, she feels, that hardly means he’s going to actually do anything to dismantle it – not unless he’s compelled to do so by a significant social movement that targets the “new Jim Crow.” “When I say Obama ‘gets it,’” Alexander ads in a very important qualification, “I don’t mean to imply that he is planning to do anything about ‘it.’ In fact, I’m pretty sure that he intends to avoid race issues to the greatest extent possible. Knowing what’s right is different than doing right. I’m not sure his predecessor even knew what’s right; Obama knows the drug war is wrong, very wrong, but that doesn’t mean he’ll do anything about it. Unless he has to. That’s our job – to make Obama do what he knows he should.”[9]

(“Knowing what’s right is different than doing right” – that distinction could very well end up being a nicely stated post-mortem reflection on the Obama presidency. It applies to the current administration on every relevant policy level).

The Civil Rights Establishment “Clinging to the Gains of the Past”

Beyond its brilliant criticism of the drug war, the mass incarceration system (broadly understood to reach far beyond prison walls), the U.S. political system (with Democrats as culpable as Republicans), the Obama effect, and the myth of a color-blind America, Alexander also advances an important critique of the leading black civil rights institutions. She argues that the nation’s civil rights establishment has been dysfunctionally preoccupied with affirmative action and “clinging to the gains of the past” during an era in which millions of people of color have been rounded up, thrown behind bars, and stigmatized for life for relatively minor, non-violent and drug related offenses. “The struggle to preserve affirmative action in higher education, and thus maintain diversity in the nation’s most elite colleges and universities, has consumed much of the attention and resources of the civil rights community and dominated racial justice discourse in the mainstream media,” Alexander writes, “leading the general public to believe that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. relations – even as our prisons fill with black and brown men.”[10]

It’s a misplaced focus I know well. Back when I was still being paid to try to effectuate progressive anti-racist change through mainstream Civil Rights (perhaps I should say post-Civil Rights) institutions (in my position as research director at The Chicago Urban League), I penned a major grant-funded study titled “The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs, and Community in Chicago, Illinois, and the Nation” (Chicago Urban League, 2002)[11]. Focused largely on the profound labor market problems experienced by black people with felony records, the report was released at a day-long conference held at the League’s headquarters at 45th and Michigan Ave, in the historical heart of black Chicago. The enthusiasm and energy surrounding “The Vicious Circle’s” release and the gathering of activists and policy intellectuals and policymakers to discuss its implications was pronounced. The events included an appearance from then state senator Obama, who gave an eloquent and informed speech about and against “racially disparate mass incarceration.” My then boss, the CEO of the Chicago Urban League, was reminded of past gatherings there during the 1960s and during the progressive black mayoralty of Harold Washington (1983-87). The conference and study dominated the top page of the black daily The Chicago Defender. It got respectable media coverage in the two leading papers (the Tribune and the Sun Times) and on local television news. It was a big deal.

A consistent theme in comments I received from black activists, citizens and commentators was that my report and our conference was a “long overdue” look at a many-sided problem that was grossly underestimated within the black community and by the wider society. “This,” one activist told me, “is not just one more civil rights problem we’ve got to tackle along with all the ones we know about. I’m starting to think that in many ways this is the problem. You know what I’m saying?”

She argues that the nation’s civil rights establishment has been dysfunctionally preoccupied with affirmative action and ‘clinging to the gains of the past’ during an era in which millions of people of color have been rounded up, thrown behind bars, and stigmatized for life.”

The excitement faded. State senator Obama (whose “deeply conservative” [Larissa MacFarquhar] taste for conciliation would soon help propel him into national prominence [11A]} and a few other state legislators worked with the leading correctional authorities to pass some very minor legislation on behalf of “ex-offender reintegration.” As the excitement over the issue (“the problem” according to one activist) receded while the politicians and policymakers tinkered, my office reverted to more traditional issues. Within three years I was gone to teach U.S History (my original field) as a visiting professor for one ill-fated year and then to embark on a writing “career” with a long list of book topics I wanted to pursue.

I can check off one of those topics (the many sided American system of racist mass incarceration and felony-marking) and put it in the category labeled “been done” (and done very well: The New Jim Crow is about as close to being a perfect book as you are going to see). Alexander’s argument is deftly developed over six highly readable and richly informed chapters that: review the historical record of radicalized social control in North American history from the colonial era through the present (Chapter 1); describe the fundamentally racist structure and operation of the officially “colorblind” contemporary U.S. drug war and mass imprisonment system (Chapters 2 and 3); detail how the new caste system operates on its black victims once they are released (on an all-too temporary basis in most cases) from prison (Chapter 4); draw direct historical parallels between the old and the “new” Jim Crow (Chapter 5); and show how and why only a major new social movement (one that among other things “talks [candidly] about race” and “resists the temptation of colorblind advocacy”) can overthrow the new caste order (Chapter 6). Order or borrow a copy now.

My only difference with Michelle Alexander is off to the side of her main thesis. It is based on my experience in corporate-Democratic Chicago before and as the Obama phenomenon rose to national prominence in 2003 and 2004. It is just this: I never felt any hope or enthusiasm of any kind in relation to Obama’s election. “Demobilizing those who should seize the moment” is what Barack Obama has always been about. It was one of his core promises to the predominantly white corporate and imperial power elite who really select “our” “viable” presidential (and other) candidates and presidents in advance [12], whether or not ex-offenders possess and exercise the right to vote.

Paul Street’s next book is The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2010/ http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=243410)

Street will speak on racial politics and the Obama presidency at “Socialism 2010,” the annual meetings of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel in downtown Chicago on Friday June 18, 2010 at 4 pm (see http://www.socialismconference.org/chicago/talks).

NOTES

1. See “The Stigma That Never Fades,” The Economist (August 10, 2002)for this last statistic (on black male felony-marking). Most of the rest of the data at the beginning of this article is culled from Marc Maurer, The Race to Incarcerate (New York: New Press, 2006); Paul Street, The Vicious Circle: Race, Prison, Jobs and Community in Chicago, Illinois and the Nation (Chicago, IL: Chicago Urban League, October 2002) at http://www.thechicagourbanleague.org/723210130204959623/lib/723210130204959623/_Files/theviciouscircle.pdf; Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010); Jeremy Travis, But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry (Washington DC: Urban Institute Press, 2005).

1A. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), 159.

2. Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 2.

3. Paul Street and Michelle Alexander, “Firedog Lake Welcomes Michelle Alexander,” Firedoglake Book Salon (May 30, 2010) at http://firedoglake.com/2010/05/30/fdl-book-salon-welcomes-michelle-alexander-the-new-jim-crow-mass-incarceration-in-the-age-of-color-blindness/.

According to the noted anti-racist race scholar Stephen Steinberg, however, there was in fact some of this black exceptionalism in the Jim Crow era. As Steinberg noted in his important Clinton-era study Turning Back: the Retreat From Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995): “Even in the worst days of Jim Crow, there were blacks who owned land, received favored treatment from whites and were held forth as ‘success stories’ to prove that lower-class blacks had only themselves to blame for their destitution…The existence of this black elite did not prove that racism was abating (thought illusions to this effect were common even among blacks). On the contrary, the black elite itself was a vital part of the system of [racial] oppression, serving as a buffer between the [ruling white] oppressor and [most truly black] oppressed and furthering the illusion that blacks could surmount their difficulties if only they had the exemplary qualities of the black elite.” Steinberg, Turning Back, 149.

4. For my own detailed research and reflection on the persistence of extreme racial disparity and de facto race apartheid in a leading U.S. metropolis, see my widely ignored book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefied, 2007).

5. “Firedog Lake Welcomes Michelle Alexander.”

6. “Teens Trek to City for Heroin,” Chicago Tribune, 13 August 2001; “Cops Warn Suburban Teens About Drug Buys,” Chicago Tribune, 14 June 2002; “City Targets Heroin Buyers From the Suburbs,” Chicago Sun Times, 13 June 2002; “The Stigma That Never Fades.”

7. “Firedog Lake Welcomes Michelle Alexander;” Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 54-56, 76.

8. “Firedog Lake Welcomes Michelle Alexander”

9. “Firedog Lake Welcomes Michelle Alexander.” For details on the remarkable extent to which Obama has in fact gone to “avoid race issues,” see Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, August 2010), Chapter 4: “Barack Obama, the Myth of the Post-Racial Presidency, and the Politics of Identity.”

10. Alexander, The New Jim Crow, 9.

11. Street, The Vicious Circle.

11A. Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”

12. For an I hope useful review of Obama’s political career and related reflections on the corporate-run U.S. elections system, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).

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Same situations, different century

First, I want to commend the author for bringing this subject to light for the younger generation of African-Americans. However those of us who studied history and lived through some of it are keenly aware that this is not a new issue with black people. The White power structure or the system of white supremacy has morphed many ways to keep our people in a state of slavery throughout the centuries. How? First was indentured servitude, then outright slavery, followed by sharecropping and the peonage system. Finally culminating, at least at this point, with the mass incarceration, centuries of inequalities which developed a permanent lower class, the mass flooding of black neighborhoods with drugs, poor schools, limited economic opprotunites and corporate redlining. As Dr. Claude Anderson points out, they are working on making black people a permanent underclass. With the new statistics regarding employment, underemployment and unemployment we are just about there. Once you become a felon, your rights as an American citizen in essence are taken away and you can be denied basic human rights.

Home issues are more pressing than issues abroad. We can't help anyone else if we can't help ourselves.

The Demographic War’s First Front

The original Jim Crow system was part of the white southern ruling class’ effort to economically exploit black labor on a massive scale but the current mass incarceration version serves mainly to warehouse economically marginalized and largely post-industrialized and de-proletarianized black and brown people who no longer provide much labor for the capitalist state.

For now I guess. But prisons are business and prisoners are business. When the China option dries up the capitalists will always have their concrete plantations back home to return to. The constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery still allows it under penal conditions. Only thing that is missing is the political will. Add the white nationalist political movement, “rational racism” and a legitimized “race science” that is on the rise then all the conditions needed to provide the political will to introduce prison labor producing cheap commodities for sale on the market will have been met. Slavery re-established.

End the War on Black Men

I have been begging, kicking, and screaming for the Rev. Al Sharpton amongst others to call for an end to the War on Black and Latino Men.  It is an extension of slavery and segregation.  It is being used to marginalize black men disproportionately as African-Americans are 1/4 as likely to have drugs on them at a common traffic stop and are amongst the nation's lowest drug users as a population.

They created the economic and social conditions for drug dealing and then they created the penalization for it.  It only took 13 years to repeal alcohol prohibition because society found white-on-white violence to be too gruesome.  To bad they don't give a crap about the effects of drug prohibition on blacks.  Instead, they ratchet the war up year after year and we have become an endangered species because of it.  Of course, that is their intent.

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