Greg Thomas offers up a strong and important critique of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander’s book has taken many by storm and been credited by many as reigniting an important discussion around the hyper incarceration of Black and Brown communities. But what histories does the book omit or distort? What politics are used to interpret the subject? And what of the book’s suggested solutions to the crisis and associated crises?
WHY SOME LIKE THE NEW JIM CROW SO MUCH:
Michelle Alexander is unlike “Some Radical Group[s]” who must be “Crazy” & “Absurd”
“This book is not for everyone.”
– Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010)
Riveted on “skeptics,” Michelle Alexander writes of “three major racialized systems of control adopted in the United States today” in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). She will never label them “white,” or “white-supremacist,” or “colonialist.” Yet this “United States” remains a setter colony and, now, a super empire, still. Nor will she call the ‘latest’ system (of “control”) “racist,” or even a system of “racial hostility.” She labels these three systems “mass incarceration,” “Jim Crow” and “slavery” (Alexander 2012, 14). These labels are quite critically loose. By “slavery” she could only mean antebellum chattel slavery. For many slaveries thrive up into the 21st century, including penal slavery itself, globally as well locally. It is not clear why the colloquial term “Jim Crow” is the second term of choice. E. Franklin Frazier would remind us that the architects of segregation conceived of Black populations as “unfit for human association” – not merely “inferior,” “subordinate,” or “criminal.” Does Alexander comprehend this system; this North American apartheid, well beyond “Whites Only” and “Colored Only” signs, symbolically? Does “mass incarceration” describe the entire condition of Black oppression under the current era of white racist rule or, no doubt, one centrally important element of it? How much or how little can be revealed about white racist oppression and the Black condition of oppression via polite, generic euphemisms like “racialized systems of control,” moreover?
Later, The New Jim Crow will read in the title chapter of the text: “It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration)” (219). An ‘evolutionary’ model of analysis should raise all kinds of questions. How distinct, if at all, are Black historical experiences of “exploitation,” “subordination” and “marginalization,” which is to say, is there supposed to be no “subordination” or “marginalization” under antebellum chattel slavery; little “exploitation” or “marginalization” under “Jim Crow” or de jure segregation; and no defining features of “exploitation” or “subordination” in the context of “mass incarceration,” in actual truth? Why set up a basic conceptual framework that is so basically flawed? Lastly, for starters, why should “The New Jim Crow” continuation of “Jim Crow” of old not also be a “New Slavery,” or “Neo-Slavery,” since “Jim Crow” of old did reformulate antebellum chattel slavery itself in such scandalous ways? Where is the “slavery” of penal slavery in The New Jim Crow? Is the “Jim Crow” privileged here more comforting than the many slaveries of our past and present – to whom, and for what ‘evolutionary’ approach to history in the African Americas? Has this book been questioned at all?
“AUDIENCE” vs. “EVERYONE”
Apart from a curious subtitle, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow contains a very curious “Preface” and a potentially shocking set of “Acknowledgements” – where she identifies her husband as a federal prosecutor. This is before its general argument ever gets under way. But does anybody really read this text, or any text, these days in particular? This is a minted book, a “hot commodity.” There are three pages of blurbs or endorsements from some of the most establishment newspapers and media figures in North America, prior to the title page of the “revised edition” which now boldly in 2012 boasts “A New Foreword” by a commercial academician, “Cornel West.” For so many, it has quickly become a standard reference in contemporary commentary on prisons (or “mass incarceration”). This New York Times Best Sellers-style commodification certainly demands critical discussion itself, especially since uncritical consumers of The New Jim Crow include a number of political audiences which the author could not possibly have in mind. After all, if we skip the brand-name “Foreword,” her “Preface” begins, curiously: “This book is not for everyone.”
The author writes that she has “a specific audience in mind” and proceeds to list several contrasting audiences in suspiciously vague terms. First, there are “people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.” You may be left to wonder who can fail to “appreciate” the facts of “mass incarceration” and, relatedly, how they could still demonstrate their deep and apparently unquestionable concern for “racial justice” at the same time. At any rate, Alexander says she is writing in this case “for people like me,” herself, or “the person she was ten years ago.” Secondly, there are “those who have been struggling to persuade” others, or those “who have lacked the facts and data to back up their claims.” Allegedly, these people know the deal regarding “mass incarceration,” unlike Alexander of ten years ago; they instead, somehow, lack information, unlike Alexander of today, allegedly. Third, and finally, there are those who are prisoners themselves: “I am writing this book for all those trapped within America’s latest caste system. You may be locked up or locked out of mainstream society, but you are not forgotten” (xiii). Is the problem of “mass incarceration” one of forgetting? This is how Alexander’s one-paragraph preface ends. The wording suggests that she is not writing for this “audience” to read and critically analyze her writing – not at all; this would be a writing on their behalf, so to speak, whoever these theoretical prisoners are in her view, en masse, whose goal in her view would be to get out of prison and into “mainstream society.” You may be left to wonder where are the prisoners who have other political-ideological desires and far from “mainstream” intellectual traditions of their own, not only in this “Preface,” but in The New Jim Crow as a whole.
If this book is “not for everyone,” then who is “everyone” exactly? Who is the excepted ‘non-audience’ of The New Jim Crow, by its own, awfully indirect admission? How does this affect its form as well as content? Alexander uses no racial signifiers to describe her intended audience for a book on “racial caste.” From the outset, this is one of many “racial taboos” she will not think of violating as a writer and lawyer grounded in mere liberal reformism, simple “civil rights” liberalism. The actually implied audience of the text is a provincial white and middle-class audience for whom any anti-racist talk that is too Black or too radical is an abomination. Others may buy the book and advertise it for her and The New Press. But any hint of such Blackness or such radicalism is actively and aggressively barred from The New Jim Crow, like “barbarians at the gate” of an ironically Negrophobic analysis.
“Racism enters, on the psycho-social level, in the form of a morbid fear of both Blacks and revolutions,” wrote George L. Jackson in Blood in My Eye (1972) or “On Withdrawal” (Jackson 1990, 125). (I can quote this text; this figure; this context. My audience is Black … and anyone who can read without the need to eliminate or whitewash Blackness from their universe of reading, writing and meaning.)
A former prisoner himself, Huey P. Newton wrote in “Prisons” (1969) of two types of prisoners, famously, the “illegitimate capitalist” and the “political prisoner.” The first type was dubbed so because they had tried to acquire everything or something that capitalism defines as “legitimate,” while the capitalist elite defines their attempt to participate in the world of exploitation as “illegitimate” – or “crime.” The second type “argues that the people at the bottom of the society are exploited for the profit and advantage of those at the top…. Thus, this second type of prisoner says that the society is corrupt and illegitimate and must be overthrown.” “They do not accept the legitimacy of the society and cannot participate” in its corrupting exploitation – or in what Alexander instinctively embraces as “the mainstream,” “whether they are in the prison or on the block” (Newton 1995, 219).
The BPP co-founder’s legendary hero, George Jackson often spoke of the “inside” prison and the “outside” prison. The world’s most famous political prisoner ever, perhaps, he spoke of all imprisonment and all prisoners as either “political prisoners” or prisoners of a specific political order, a specific political economy. The 20th century’s most powerful theorist of “neo-slavery,” not merely “Jim Crow” segregation, he wrote in Soledad Brother (1970), no less famously: “After one concedes that racism is stamped unalterably into the present nature of Amerikan sociopolitical and economic life in general (the definition of fascism is: a police state wherein the political ascendancy is tied into and protects the interests of the upper class – characterized by militarism, racism, and imperialism), and concedes further that criminals and crime arise from material, economic, sociopolitical causes, we can then burn all of the criminology and penology libraries and direct our attention where it will do some good” (Jackson 1994, 18).
The Freedom Archives describes him the “leading theoretician of the modern prison [or anti-prison] movement” in Prisons on Fire: George Jackson, Attica & Black Liberation (2002). Yet there will be no memory or mention of him or Huey Newton or the Black Panthers … or any prisoner movement … or the Black Power or Black liberation movement … or any of the globalizing social movements of the 1960s and ’70s at all in Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. She will indeed “forget” them (i.e., their activism, their critical ideas and ideals), for the benefit of her rhetorically masked audience (which is assuredly a reflection of herself). Who can afford to overlook this ideological sleight of hand, this censorship – in the name of the Black masses?
In her “Introduction” to The New Jim Crow, the keywords are imperial buzzwords like “Founding Fathers,” “democracy,” and “reform,” not to mention “Obama.” The only political organizations of note are the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Urban League. No others can be mentioned or taken seriously, for serious mention might lead some from thinking “reform” to thinking “resistance” or what Harold Cruse famously referred to as “rebellion or revolution.”
Pivotally, Alexander traces the origins of her book and its title to a flyer she saw on the street years ago: “THE DRUG WAR IS THE NEW JIM CROW,” it read. Her response was, she says, dismissive: “Some radical group” was holding a community meeting. She “sighed” and “muttered” to herself: “Yeah, the criminal justice system is racist in many ways, but it really doesn’t help to make such an absurd comparison. People will just think you’re crazy.” She headed to her new job as “director of the Racial Justice Project” of the ACLU, which is by no means “some radical group” (Alexander 2012, 3). Its members are “people,” the quasi-generic “people” of Alexander’s target audience; and they are not “absurd” or “crazy.” The radicals implied by this story are invoked anxiously, sparsely and pejoratively in the remainder of this “Introduction” as “activists” and “conspiracy theorists.”
Unlike “people,” or her “racial justice advocates” of liberal reformism (19), they will never have individual or organizational names, let alone books, articles or position papers, to be cited or engaged in any manner, even though they have provided Alexander with the very idea and title for her first and highly commercialized book (along with all of its perks on lecture circuits, cable television shows, etc.). Quiet as its kept, the thought of radicals, old or new – the thought of being affiliated or associated with “unreasonable” radicals and their “crazy,” “absurd” thoughts, this haunts Alexander’s The New Jim Crow from beginning to end.
The first chapter, “The Rebirth of Caste” is a rewriting of history — U.S. history, the only history imaginable here, a self-contained or isolationist U.S. history disconnected from the history of the world. It moves first from “The Birth of Slavery” to “The Death of Slavery,” despite the fact that “slavery” does not ‘die.’ Indeed, Alexander first lauds the “achievement” of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, for “abolishing slavery” (29), and only belatedly concedes that it reframed or rearticulated slavery instead of abolishing it. For “slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime” (31). In the following section, “The Birth of Jim Crow,” she cites work by two white historians, David Oshinsky’s “Worse than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice (1996) and Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black People in America from the Civil War to World War II (2008), as if their formulations do not contradict her critical framework and easy historical periodization. They come behind George Jackson’s work on “neo-slavery” in Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye in any case. The next section in Alexander’s chapter is entitled “The Death of Jim Crow,” although this titling contradicts the core argument of The New Jim Crow. The final section, “The Birth of Mass Incarceration” begins with the late 1950s and concentrates on “the Civil Rights Movement” before suddenly and very strangely leaping into the 1980’s of Ronald Reagan and the U.S government’s so-called “War on Drugs.” Nothing noteworthy is supposed to happen in the interim, such as the Black Power Movement (which marked the radical limitations of this “Civil Rights Movement,” of course) and all of the other radical movements of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Magically disappeared are the Black Panther Party (BPP), George Jackson and the prison-based movement he led which burst into the Attica Rebellion as well as various and sundry international and trans-racial solidarities of world historical significance. This is not simply a “forgetting,” to be certain. From this first chapter on forwards, their literature on prison and from prison (systems of racial and social “control,” in Alexander’s parlance) is written out of The New Jim Crow’s rewriting of history as well – U.S. history, the only official history imaginable here, a self-contained or isolationist U.S. history disconnected from the history of the Western and non-Western world.
The stage is set for this popular “study” to be completed within the trap of settler nationalist thought, early 1950s style; the settler nationalist thinking of elite cries for liberal legal reform; the settler nationalism that is white nationalism “by another name,” or the throwback integrationist’s white “majoritarian,” white-supremacist nationalism of U.S. colonialism and imperialism – all slavery, “Jim Crow” apartheid and neo-slavery aside.
For this “Americanism,” as Malcolm X classically and crucially framed it, Alexander cites everything but traditions of Black political and even academic radicalism in The New Jim Crow. Bibliographically, she may be most fond of making reference to Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project and wily French sociologist Loïc Wacquant. Michael Omi and Howard Winant are safe, in passing, despite their indebtedness to more radical social movements, which they deflect for North American sociology themselves. Alexander can quote Iris Marion Young academically and, for a second, Marilyn Frye insofar as she is not introduced as a white radical lesbian feminist. As hallmarks of electoral or U.S. Constitutional liberalism, Derrick Bell as well as Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier find a place in The New Jim Crow, too. So do, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and some early-iconic W.E.B. Du Bois, all quite predictably. And then there is Glenn Loury, the ex-conservative economist and former Reagan-appointee who was “born again” as a “progressive” (liberal) after public and legal charges of battery and drug addiction led to his resignation from Harvard University and the arch-conservative spotlight. He is far from off limits in The New Jim Crow, but all Black radicalism is completely out of bounds. Totally silenced and more “invisible” for her text than even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), it’s farther out than “Mars.”
There is no Malcolm X in Alexander’s history here, either, even though he exists before Alexander employs her narrative time machine to leap from the mid-1960s to Reagan’s 1980s over the later, radical 1960s and early 1970s. How could she speak of the man who told his audience, famously: “Don’t be shocked when I say that I was in prison. You’re still in prison. That’s what America means: prison,” in the face of her audience? What kind of history of “Civil Rights” can be written without him, his own emergence from prison and his spectacular critical commentary on “Civil Rights” without “Human Rights” or Pan-Africanism?
Just a few moments of his classic oratory would undermine the entire voice of The New Jim Crow. His “Message to the Grassroots” (1963) speaks to the grassroots, fearlessly, not about them. What Alexander praises as the “March on Washington,” Malcolm famously demystifies as the “Farce on Washington” in his critical expose of the “white power structure” and its Negro elite “civil rights establishment” – the “big guns” of “Negro leaders” used against the “Black revolution.” There is, further, “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964) on what Alexander repeatedly bemoans as “second-class citizenship: “What do you call second-class citizenship? Why that’s colonization. Second-class citizenship is nothing but 20th century slavery. How are you going to tell me you’re a second-class citizen? They don’t have second-class citizenship in any other government on this earth. They just have slaves and people who are free.” This is why he could decode both “segregation” (or “Jim Crow”) and “integration” as both systems white racist power and control. And whereas Alexander recites the words “our nation” countless times throughout The New Jim Crow, ad nauseam, melodramatizing total emotional allegiance to the U.S. government despite this gargantuan “racial caste system,” Malcolm in “Message to the Grassroots” would respond in advance: “I’m a field Negro. The masses are the field Negroes. When they see this man’s house on fire, you don’t hear these little Negroes talking about, ‘our government is in trouble.’ They say, ‘The government is in trouble.’ Imagine a Negro: ‘Our government’! I even heard one say ‘our astronauts.’ They won’t even let him near the plant – and ‘our astronauts’! ‘Our Navy’ – that’s a Negro that’s out of his mind. That’s a Negro that’s out of his mind!”
To be Black and “out of one’s mind” here is a political as well as psycho-pathological matter and a profound geo-psychiatric evaluation reminiscent of the popular and academic-intellectual work of one Frantz Fanon – from Black Skin, White Masks (1952) to The Wretched of the Earth (1961) and Toward the African Revolution (1964).
Many unwitting consumers of The New Jim Crow who could only find themselves erased and rendered “crazy” or “absurd” and “unreasonable” by its rhetoric would also be supporters of Sundiata Acoli, the comrade of Assata Shakur; a present-day political prisoner in his seventies; and the author of an influential article online, “A Brief History of the New African Prison Struggle” (1992). He writes: “This article was first written at the request of the New Afrikan Peoples Organization (NAPO). Its original title was ‘The Rise and Development of the New Afrikan Liberation Struggle Behind the Walls’.” The first section of this extensive two-part history, “The 16th Century to the Civil War” begins by looking back further beyond U.S. settler-colonial nationalist historiography: “The Afrikan prison struggle began on the shores of Afrika behind the walls of medieval pens that held captives for ships bound west into slavery. It continues today behind the walls of modern U.S. penitentiaries where all prisoners are held as legal slaves – a blatant violation of international law.”
This makes all such prisoners, again, “political prisoners” of some sort.
However, there is no such thing as “political prisoners” – on any definition, broad or narrow – in Alexander’s writing, not in her “Preface,” “Acknowledgements,” “Introduction” or six chapters of The New Jim Crow.
There is no “international law” in Alexander’s legal realm or legal analysis. There is not even a Mumia Abu-Jamal, the world’s most famous political prisoner at this point in time, arguably, and the author of a small library of widely translated books on the politics of prison himself. And “forget” about Assata Shakur politically exiled in Cuba with a $1 million bounty on her head, a “reward” which could be raised to $5 million if the new Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, Jeffery S. Chiesa, has his way with the FBI. If this “nation” (which is not a nation) were “ours,” then no refugee of COINTELPRO (the FBI’s infamous Counter INTELligence PROgram) could be “ours” too. The former “Joanne Chesimard” renames herself “a 20th century escaped slave” and “a Maroon woman,” but there is little to no slavery and no criminal FBI war on Black revolutionaries in The New Jim Crow.
How is this vicious and violent state repression of political “activists” somehow not a part of “The New Jim Crow,” or “America,” for Alexander?
The contrast between Sundiata Acoli’s writing of history and Alexander’s filtering of history is instructive. He proceeds in sections entitled “Post-Civil War to the 20th Century,” “The 20th Century through World War II,” “Post-World War II to the Civil Rights Era,” “The Emergence of Afrikan Nations,” “Origins of the Civil Rights Movement” and “Civil Rights through the Black Power Era,” for example. She truncates history so as to efface or erase “Black Power” in favor of “Civil Rights,” censoring “Black Power” in effect. He, like others, inserts Pan-African Black internationalism into North American historiography and specifies this “Black Power Era’ and a “Black Liberation Era.” He details “Civil Rights Struggles in Prison” and “Religious Struggles in Prison,” “Origins of the New World Nation of Islam” and “Origins of the Five Percenters” as well as how “Black Panthers Usher in the Black Liberation Movement.” Not excluded are “The New Afrikan Independence Movement,” “COINTELPRO Attacks,” “The Rise of Prison Struggles” and “The Black Liberation Army.” His article ultimately closes with a decade-by-decade analysis: “The End of the 70’s,” “The Decade of the 80’s,” and “The 90’s and Beyond.” In short, he does not reduce history after the “Civil Rights Movement” to Ronald Reagan and the U.S. government’s so-called “War on Drugs.”
“WAR” & “DRUGS”
The true subject of The New Jim Crow and each of its chapters is practically this and this alone. The rhetoric of a “War on Drugs” does not share space in Alexander with other language that is basic to other, prior political analyses of Black imprisonment or “mass incarceration.” There is no critical language of “capitalism” or “class” or “exploitation” in The New Jim Crow. A few hesitant references to “financial incentive” or “the profit motive in drug law enforcement” may be found, infrequently, in their place. Not even the often very chic language of a “Prison Industrial Complex” has any presence at all. “Forget” James Boggs’s far more preferable language of a “military-economic-police bloc” in his American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook (1963). The language of “race” and to a lesser extent “racism” is present, but the conceptualization of “race and racism” is in any event weak, narrow, anemic – i.e., liberal. The subtitle of The New Jim Crow is, after all, “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” The state rhetoric of a “War on Drugs” is thus centrally entertained by Alexander without entertaining it as a rhetorical disguise of capitalism, exploitation, militarism, mass/state murder, imperialism or a cultural and “political economy” of white, anti-Black “racism.”
It may be true that “there are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980.” However, no other “reasons” or pretexts for imprisonment warrant any substantial attention in The New Jim Crow. Alexander concludes: “Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs” (Alexander 2012, 60). She would take Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” rhetoric seriously and lauds his “Economic Opportunities Bill of 1964” (39); and, although she must note more than once that this alleged “War on Drugs” does not target “kingpins,” let alone what we could call narco-trafficking, she still takes this federal rhetoric seriously on its own status-quo terms. Her contemporary interpretation of incarceration and criminalization is then disconnected from the long history of Black criminalization by Anglo-North America which predates the U.S. state formation and includes the white criminalization of enslaved African communities on plantations under official chattel slavery as well as nominally “free” Black communities both in the North and the South in addition to the white criminalization of Black/African-Diasporic communities under de jure or “Jim Crow” segregation or U.S. national apartheid. If, en masse, Black people have more critically catalogued everything from “Driving While Black” to “Breathing While Black” as social “crimes” in this country, historically, the essential, white-defined “crime” of “Being Black” cannot be reduced to a recent, “color-blind” side-effect of the selective prosecution of “drug offenses” at the lowest socio-economic level.
Richard Becker of the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) writes in “The Real Drug Kingpins Are on Wall Street: Tackle the Drug Problem by Seizing the Banks” (2012): “For brazen criminality, no one tops the bankers. But a banker in jail is as rare as a honest senator.” He reports on the criminal history of Wachovia Bank before its takeover by Wells Fargo with the assistance of billions of dollars in federal funding. That bank was found guilty of “having laundered at least $378 billion … in drug money from 2004-07 for Mexican drug cartels.” To buy planes for the transport of cocaine, these cartels also funneled through Bank of America, which is described as “notorious” for the practice of face-lifting money-laundering with a posture of “legitimacy.” “So, the Wachovia executives, who admitted their guilt, must have gotten really long sentences for their $378 billion drug business, right?” Becker cuts to the chase: “Not one Wachovia executive spent a night or even an hour in jail, although the value of their crime was 1 billion times greater than the average street dealer.” His point is that “while the government rules over the people under capitalism, the banks rule over the government and the entire system. This will only change when the people take power and put an end to a system of, by and for the super rich.” Nothing like this is accomplished by the liberalism of The New Jim Crow, which never thinks to challenge the establishment definition of “crime” or “criminality.”
Over and again, Alexander can statistically dispute the notion that Black people commit more “crimes” than white people, yet only in the context of her own unexamined notion of “crime,” “guilt” and “innocence.” She cannot question government or governmental “law.” She categorically states (in “The Lockdown”): “Court cases involving drug-law enforcement almost always involve guilty people. Police usually release the innocent on the street – often without a ticket, citation, or even an apology” (Alexander 2012, 69). So how does she or they determine or manufacture “guilt” versus “innocence” here, except outside the “law” itself which is no doubt an instrument of the powerful and one not normally deployed against “kingpins” or corporations or government? The trial is a formality; her legal system, suddenly, supposedly, infallible. This statement concerning “guilt” is quickly contradicted chapter after chapter by ample evidence of police corruption, racism and profiteering, apart from the legal politics of “snitching” and “plea-bargaining.” At any rate, Alexander’s conventional conception of “crime,” “guilt” and “innocence” as well as “law” and “government” remain essentially undisturbed despite the radical “injustice” of the “racial caste system” that would be “The New Jim Crow.”
There is no state or governmental crime here in The New Jim Crow because the book uses and consolidates the state’s definition or conceptualization of “crime” without question.
This is why she writes of the CIA: “It bears emphasis that the CIA never admitted (nor has any evidence been revealed to support the claim) that it intentionally sought the destruction of the black community by allowing illegal drugs to be smuggled into the United States. Nonetheless, conspiracy theorists surely must be forgiven for their bold accusation of genocide” (6). In her evaluation of evidence for a target audience that is presumed or expected to know nothing of these matters, there is no discussion of Ollie North’s “Iran-Contra” scandal. There is no mention of Pulitzer-Prize winner Gary Webb or his San Jose Mercury News investigative journalism, or his alleged death by suicide after these exposés effectively ended his career in the corporate-establishment media complex. There is no memory or recall of any other “intentional” state assaults on Black bodies, such as the forty-year Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment (not to mention its more recently exposed analogue in Guatemala) and many others showcased in Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid (2006) – before, during and after “Jim Crow” segregation. Nor is there any memory of the whole history of Black movements charging Alexander’s “nation” with genocide before the United Nations. So must William Patterson, Paul Robeson, Claudia Jones, Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. and even the eminently quotable W.E.B. Du Bois be “forgiven,” too, as signatories to We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government against the Negro People (1951)? And, again, there is no discussion or acknowledgment of the FBI in The New Jim Crow or its “intentional” COINTELPRO “destruction” of Black community “activists,” dissidents, leaders, organizations, etc.
“RACISM” vs. “COLOR-BLINDNESS”
What feeble criticism of racism is possible in this framework? The subtitle of The New Jim Crow is not only strange, it ushers a colossal contradiction, many of which abound page after page, section after section, repetitive chapter after chapter: “Mass Incarceration in the Age Colorblindness” could theoretically make sense in a discussion of “racial caste” or “control,” if by “colorblindness” it was meant “colorblindness” as rhetoric or rationale rather than “colorblindness” as an actual, factual ‘reality’ in North America. But Alexander accepts and affirms her audience’s claim to not ‘see race’ or color; to not be racist; to ‘no longer’ champion a system that can or should be categorized as unambiguously racist in the world-famous tradition of white American racism. Having made this truly strange concession, she must find some way to account for the contemporary existence of “racial caste,” “racial control” or “The New Jim Crow.” The argument could not possibly succeed – for those in Alexander’s target audience who champion “colorblindness” as a ‘reality’ would never speak the language of “racial caste” and those outside her target audience (i.e., “everybody” else) who know the reality of this racial condition could not possibly believe the “United States of America” to be a “colorblind society” or “nation.”
In “The Color of Justice,” her third chapter, Alexander writes as if she wonders: “What, then, does explain the extraordinary racial disparities in our criminal justice system? Old-fashioned racism seems out of the question” (Alexander 2012, 103). She assumes a downright silly dichotomy between racism ‘of old’ and something new that is “racial” but not necessarily “racist,” and this “old-fashioned” racism is supposed to be simple or always straightforward and not misconstrued and underestimated by a simple-minded approach to it.
She construes “racism” as by definition “old” on a rather “old-fashioned” sociological model which construes racism as merely overt, explicit prejudice – a racism that is not guarded or denied, ever. She terms this “the work of a bigot” (103). But ‘bigotry’ is not racism’s contemporary vocabulary; and her racism ‘of old’ was itself often and variously covert or codified and implicit with regard to social-institutional structures as well as individual “prejudices” and “attitudes.” Patriotically, Alexander continues: “Politicians and law enforcement officials today rarely endorse racially biased practices and most of them fiercely condemn racial discrimination of any kind.” Seriously? They may not endorse or expose what they think to be or recognize as their white racism in public, on camera…. Do they “fiercely” condemn racism of any kind – say, against “young Black males” in “hoodies” or Arabs of any kind, anywhere, during their “War on Terror” subterfuges? (Is U.S. imperialism “colorblind,” too, ‘now,’ abroad?) The very thought is an insult to intelligence. Still, Alexander describes “forms of race discrimination that were open and notorious for centuries” as the only form of racism; as “something un-American” now; and as “an affront to our newly conceived ethic of colorblindness.” To hear her tell it, there is a national “anti-discrimination principle” and there has been “a profound shift in racial attitudes” (100). There is no “old” or “new-fashioned” racism in Alexander’s writing, either, even though there is this “mass incarceration” of Black people or “The New Jim Crow.”
Her conclusion will be that racial “indifference and blindness – far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems” (242). You might wonder what other caste systems are studied here, comparatively: none. Or, what impossible explanation is offered to clarify how any country “blind” to race or color could construct a “racial caste system” in the first place, without creating and “seeing” race and color in order to institute it and police it with guns as opposed to “indifference.” You might ask what happens in “all racial caste systems” when the “lower” caste refuses to stay in its designated place (physically, economically, symbolically; individually or collectively) and threatens to upset the hierarchical system of race and caste? Nothing? No. The racist “upper” caste responds as usual with more or other modes of “hostility” and unmitigated violence – which is no doubt the very definition of racism and caste virtually everywhere except in Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Besides defining U.S. racism in terms of “a morbid fear of both Blacks and revolutions,” psycho-socially, George Jackson outlined three different categories of white racism or white racists: the “overt, self-satisfied racist,” the “self-interdicting racist” and the “unconscious racist.” The first in this formulation doesn’t “attempt to hide” his or her antipathy, their hostility. The second “harbors or nurtures racism in spite [their] best efforts.” The third has often little or “no awareness of [their] racist preconceptions” (Jackson 1990, 111). And this analytical grid offered in Blood in My Eye was focused on a consideration of white Leftists – in “Towards a United Front.” What of Alexander’s preferred audience of anti-Communist “Americans” and their morbid fears of Blacks and revolutions?
Her book turns away from a long tradition and a wide range of anti-racist critical frameworks, ones which zero in on “institutionalized racism” and “the political economy of racism” as well as Blood in My Eye’s “overt,” “self-interdicting” and “unconscious” racisms, in the plural. These are precisely the traditions and critical frameworks silently and systematically renounced by Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which like the U.S. corporate media will only see racism when it is overt, “conscious,” “obvious” and, at bottom, publically avowed or confessed. Her “American” racism must always be uniform, static and undisguised – in other words, utterly ridiculous … in retrospect.
One decade and a half before Alexander, David Oshinsky could recall in “Worse than Slavery”: “Racial caste and custom also pervaded the legal system. There were four kinds of law in Mississippi, whites like to say: statute law, plantation law, lynch law, and Negro law. According to S.F. Davis, a prominent Delta attorney and self-described scholar: ‘The judges, lawyers, and jurors all know that some of our laws are to be enforced only against the white people, and others … only against the Negroes, and they are enforced accordingly’” (Oshinsky 1996, 124). Be that as it may, Alexander never ceases to uphold “the law” – in The New Jim Crow – as an abstraction, a “formally colorblind criminal justice system” (Alexander 2012, 103), within which she must find some way to weakly protest the “mass incarceration” of Black people, “nationwide” and on an unprecedented scale.
She has to ‘resolve’ her needless conundrums with crude contradiction. The title chapter of The New Jim Crow counts as many differences between this “new” system and that “old” system as similarities, while at the same time cataloguing as differences what could very easily amount to similarities themselves (191-217). Moreover, having dismissed “racism” and “racial hostility” as historical relics, Alexander explains the “racially discriminatory results” of the present system as emerging from a two-stage process: “The first step is to grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion regarding whom to stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein.” This is cop racism, “old-fashioned” police racism and racial fascism under white racist “caste.” However, Alexander shirks from calling racism what it is both before and after this or that statement which labels racism “un-American” and white “America” as “colorblind” or currently incapable of racism or “racial hostility.” “Then, the damning step,” she adds: “Close the courthouse doors to all claims by defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in a racially discriminatory fashion” (103). Subtly, dishonestly, “racially discriminatory” comes to replace “racism” in her rhetoric as if they were not synonymous; and, soon enough, she must concede: “The dirty little secret of policing is that the Supreme Court has actually granted the police license to discriminate” (130). “The Court” licenses the police to practice “racial discrimination” (or persecution and prosecution and imprisonment). The judges of this “Supreme Court” in their own racism license this police racism – although racism no longer exists and is “old-fashioned” according to Alexander. This “dirty little secret” is not “overt” – its targets know it inside out, but its practitioners do not admit it “openly,” so it won’t be recognized as racism or Alexander will offend her target audience. Central contradictions abounding, she must substitute impotent, pathetic euphemisms instead.
Critically, we are returned to George Jackson’s discourse of “masking” or “disguise”: Soledad Brother and Blood in My Eye’s anti-capitalist examination of racism, neo-slavery and fascism – “updated to disguise” – exceeding narrow periodization or world historical timelines. He wrote to “rip off” the masks. With great timidity, Alexander will briefly refer to her audience’s tendency of “denial” (223). Later, she recalls a study which found that “whites are so loath to talk about race and so fearful of violating racial etiquette that they indicate a preference for avoiding all contact with black people” (238). Translation, for a different audience (that is, for “everyone” else): “…so fearful of having their whiteness and their anti-Black racism exposed, unmasked, and the world as they wish to know it put to an end.” Wearing the proverbial “masks” of Paul Laurence Dunbar in the worst way, Alexander denies the existence and ferocity of white racism as such as much as these whites do. Fearful of violating racist political “etiquette” herself, she covers for them as they yearn for a “colorblind” world which means a world of white power without Black people or Black power. Repressing slavery, neo-slavery and anyone who theorizes it, she never dares to think fascism with “racial caste” or her “racial caste” itself without restraint. On the contrary, she helps disguise racism in a fashion that consolidates it under the cover of “colorblindness” – a way of not seeing which she eventually sees as political liability while still casting it as an actual contemporary reality in North America as opposed to a rhetoric or rationale of white racism itself.
CONCLUSON: COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY “LOVE”
The ultimate expression of law is not order – it’s prison…. Anglo-Saxon bourgeois law is tied firmly into economics…. Bourgeois law protects property relations and not social relationships…. The law and everything that interlocks with it was constructed for poor, desperate people like me.
– George L. Jackson, “American Justice” / Blood in My Eye (1972)
It should be no surprise that the political action proposed in The New Jim Crow is pitched as a plea for “love,” Christian love, and of course “forgiveness.” In closing, “crazy” and “absurd” “activists” in the distance, this law professor comes to speak the language of “movement,” but only to ask for a “new civil rights movement” (223), in spite of the gross limitations of such liberal reformism and her unrelenting avoidance of every other kind of movement in recent history, nationally and internationally. This is the classic sado-masochistic attachment to white racist Americanism of the Negro or “African-American” elite, the Black “lumpen-bourgeoisie.” The absence of any critical class analysis in Alexander is a reflection of this uncritical paradigm of “civil-rights” reformism, a class-specific liberalism of U.S. settler nationalism in a scorch-and-burn age of U.S. imperialism worldwide.
Her last chapter is entitled “The Fire This Time.” The only James Baldwin in The New Jim Crow is the one attached to the old “civil rights movement.” It is never the one who said the term “civil rights movement” is “an American phrase which … upon examination means nothing at all”; or the one who wrote No Name in the Street (1972) and The Evidence of Things Not Seen (1985); or the one who said in the midst of the Black Power Movement that he had formerly been “the Great Black Hope of the Great White Father.” As an ‘exile’ or ‘expatriate,’ he represented hard and long for George Lester Jackson and the Black Panther Party at large. Nonetheless, politically selective and cliché, Alexander’s reach for The Fire Next Time (1963) cannot envision “revolutionary love” – as a counter-revolutionary love discourse begins and climaxes The New Jim Crow in lieu of any radical political action, or “activism,” of course.
When Alexander writes “Gangsta Love,” a small section of an earlier chapter, “The Cruel Hand,” she makes her second, wildly generalizing reference to “rap” and “black youth.” The first would quote their reference to police “occupation” of “ghetto communities” without recognizing this as a graphic reference to white colonialism or imperialism (123-26). The second apologizes for “gangsta rap” to her white and middle-class audience of peers, or skeptics. ‘Hip-Hop’ is not in her vocabulary; and she shows no knowledge whatsoever of even ‘Hip-Hop Studies.’ In true middle-class fashion, she claims that “gangsta rap” is a case of “black youth” “embracing criminality” and “embracing their stigma” (171). It could not be that there are any values other than white and middle-class values or that “black youth” are embracing instead their cultural rejection of white and middle class values as well as white and middle class conceptions of “crime” or “criminality” quite in the tradition of many revolutionary movements uniformly repressed by The New Jim Crow.
This patronizing, ‘pop-psyche’ treatment of love should call to mind Alexander’s “Acknowledgements,” which your average consumer-reader might very well ignore. There she testifies: “My husband, Carter Stewart, has been my rock…. As a federal prosecutor, he does not share my views about the criminal justice system, but his different worldview has not, even for a moment, compromised his ability to support me, lovingly…. I made the best decision of my life when I married him” (xvi). Is this not “Gangster Love,” alas? That would be the love of a federal prosecutor under the “new” “racial caste system” or “racialized system of control” – especially since Alexander will write that “no one has more power in the criminal justice system than prosecutors” (115), not even judges, some of whom no matter how “conservative” have resigned from the bench rather than collaborate with the grotesque prison politics of mandatory sentencing for the poor and Black or the non-rich and non-white (92-93)? The ruthless gangsterism of the establishment is no less a theme in Hip-Hop, or “rap.” The ‘love of her life’ prosecutes for “The New Jim Crow” and has “read and reread drafts” of her book manuscript (xvi). What is the “Old Jim Crow” equivalent of being wedded or married to a federal prosecutor, while stigmatizing Hip-Hop or “gangsta rap” as a “Minstrel Show” (173-75), in one of the precious few representations of grassroots anything in The New Jim Crow?
Intellectually, it is not just a question of what Michelle Alexander does or does not know here, on the whole. She cites a lot of some scholars (or “people”) and kinds of work. What she doesn’t seem to know may be a great deal, but what she doesn’t want to know and what she doesn’t want her audience to know is much greater. Original insight or info is in reality scarce in The New Jim Crow. Its hides from consumer view other work, “activists” and scholars more insightful and more radical or fearless. For anyone who could read across a range of relatively recent writings alone, like Elaine Brown’s The Condemnation of Little B: New Age Racism in America (2003); Katheryn K. Russell’s The Color of Crime (1998); Colin Dayan’s Story of the Cruel and Unusual (2004); Mumia Abu-Jamal or Dhoruba Bin Wahad’s contributions to Still Black, Still Strong: Survivors of the War against Black Revolutionaries (1993), just for example; beyond Angela Y. Davis’s much-touted if ill-conceived Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003), all of which are meticulously ignored by Alexander with current radical “activism” and all of the Black and non-Black radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s, there is literally next to nothing to be learned from The New Jim Crow. “This book is not for everyone,” indeed. Yet a lot of this “everyone” has been buying and supporting it, none the wiser, without raising adequate questions from the perspective of “everyone,” whose lives surely depend on raising questions under this cultural, political economic order of things. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is not for “everyone” because from cover to cover “everyone” except advocates of white and middle-class liberalism – in the imperial context of U.S. settler nationalism – are placed totally and completely beyond the pale. The soundtrack of Richard Wright’s old protest, White Man, Listen! (1957), a virtual parody half a century ago, scratches pitifully in the background.
Greg Thomas is an Associate Professor of Global Black Studies in the English Department at SU. He obtained a Ph.D from the Rhetoric Department at UC-Berkeley and an M.A. from the “Philosophy, Interpretation & Culture” Program at SUNY-Binghamton. Thomas is founder and editor of PROUD FLESH , an e-journal published by African Resource Center. He is also author of The Sexual Demon of Colonial Power: Pan-African Embodiment and Erotic Schemes of Empire (Indiana UP, 2007) as well as Hip-Hop Revolution in the Flesh: Power, Knowledge and Pleasure in Lil’ Kim’s Lyricism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Currently, he is at work on a study of the intellectual politics of George L. Jackson, “The Dragon.”
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
STUDY GUIDE / 10 Critical Questions:
1. Who is the target audience for The New Jim Crow in truth? How might everyone else read this book as a result?
2. What is the contemporary status of racism, according to the argument? How in the world could it be possible to have a society of “racial caste” and “racial control” without racism or “racial hostility” in fact? Why is the language of whiteness, white racism or white-supremacy never used beyond the ostensibly ‘race-neutral’ language of “racial caste” and “racial control” specifically?
3. How is slavery treated, not treated or under-treated in this book? Does the author pay any or adequate attention to penal slavery, for example, or the 13th Amendment’s legalization of slavery “as punishment for a crime” in the U.S. Constitution? Why are various slaveries neglected in this “evolutionary” approach to slavery, “Jim Crow” segregation and “mass incarceration,” so to speak?
4. How does the author’s conception of “crime” (or criminality) differ in any way from the ruling class establishment’s conception of “crime” (or “criminality”)? Does she ever dare to question the fundamental function of law, the government or the state, outside its own ideological terms?
5. Does The New Jim Crow have anything critical to say about capitalism, as such, or colonial/neo-colonial imperialism?
6. The author constantly, even manically refers to “our nation” in this narrative, patriotically. What are the political consequences of this settler nationalism – for Black people and, indeed, all subject peoples all over the world? In what ways does her super-patriotism or settler nationalism shape the form, content and perspective of this book?
7. Where are all the radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s in the author’s construction of history, not to mention her brand of socio-political analysis? Where is the Black Power movement or Black liberation movements in general? Where are prisoner movements, past and present? Why must they be effaced, “forgotten” or repressed by this particular approach to history and political analysis?
8. How are prisoners themselves represented in this book? Are they ever capable of movements, traditions, intellectualism, or must they always be “spoken for” by others? Can one imagine a George Jackson or an Attica Rebellion here; or a Mumia Abu-Jamal, Kevin Cooper, Kevin “Rashid” Johnson or Adisa Kamara a.k.a Steve Champion in The New Jim Crow? What about Claudia Jones or Assata Shakur? Or is this a kind of “social welfare” approach to prisons and prisoners?
9. What kinds of work by what kind of scholars get cited in this book? What kinds of work by what kind of writers or figures never get cited by this book, even though they so many of them cover so much of the same ground before it and much better? Where are Black radical traditions of political and intellectual inquiry, which have quite famously focused on issues of imprisonment for decades if not centuries?
10. Malcolm X once said that a “liberal” was the most dangerous creature in the Western Hemisphere. How might this statement be applied to the liberalism of Michelle Alexander’s book and its tremendous popularity in the corporate media or white capitalist marketplace?
Abu-Jamal, Mumia, Dhoruba Bin Wahad, and Assata Shakur. Still Black, Still Strong: Survivors of the War against Black Revolutionaries. New York: Semiotexte, 1993.
Acoli, Sundiata. “A Brief History of the New African Prison Struggle,” Parts 1 & 2 (1992): http://www.sundiataacoli.org/a-brief-history-of-the-new-afrikan-prison-struggle-parts-1- and-2-19
Alexander, Michelle.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: Free Press, 2012.
Baldwin, James  No Name in the Street. New York: Vintage Press, 2007.
——————-. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985.
Becker, Richard. “The Real Drug Kingpins Are on Wall Street: Tackle the Drug Problem by Seizing the Banks!” Liberation (April 13, 2012): http://www.pslweb.org/liberationnews/newspaper/vol-6-no-6/the-real-drug-king-pins.html
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Boggs, James.  American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook. New York: Monthly Review, 2009.
—————–. Pages from a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader. Ed. Stephen M. Ward. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2011.
Brown, Elaine.  The Condemnation of Little B: New Age Racism in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.
Cruse, Harold.  Rebellion or Revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Dayan, Colin. The Story of the Cruel & Unusual. Boston, MA: Boston Review. 2007.
Fanon, Frantz.  Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
—————–.  A Dying Colonialism. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Monthly Review, 1967.
—————–.  The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
—————–.  Toward the African Revolution. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Franklin, E. Franklin.  Black Bourgeoisie. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Freedom Archives. Prisons on Fire: George Jackson, Attica & Black Liberation [CD], 2002.
Jackson, George.  Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1994.
Jackson, George L.  Blood in My Eye. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1990.
Mickle, Paul. “New NJ AG: Get Chesimard by All Means Nece$$ary” The Trentonian (2/27/12): http://www.trentonian.com/article/20120227/NEWS/302279981/new-nj-ag-get-chesimard- by-all-means-nece-ary
Newton, Huey P. . To Die for the People. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers, 2009.
Oshinsky, David M.  “Worse than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Patterson, William L. (and the Civil Rights Congress). We Charge Genocide: The Historic Petition to the United Nations for Relief from the Crime of the United States Government against the Negro People. International Publishers, 1951.
Russell, Katheryn K.  The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Micro-Aggressions. New York: New York University Press, 2008.
Shakur, Assata.  Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001.
Washington, Harriet A. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006.
X, Malcolm.  Malcolm X Speaks. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1989.
————-. . By Any Means Necessary. Pathfinder Press, 1992.
————-. . February 1965: The Final Speeches. New York: Pathfinder Press, 2010.