Today is my birthday. The passage of time has me reflecting a lot on the years behind me, especially as I’m looking down the barrel of 50.
Among the most frustrating yet inspiring experiences I’ve had over the years was the time I spent working on criminal justice reform. During those years I spent a lot of time in juvenile detention facilities, jails, prisons, and courtrooms. From that perch, the racism of the system seemed so plain as to be indisputable. Just as plain was the amazing resiliency of people caught up in the system, many of them non-violent drug offenders whose convictions as “criminals” erased their status as parents, siblings, sons and daughters.
But as close to it as I was, I always struggled for the language to describe the racism of our criminal justice system in ways that got more than a “yeah, that sucks” reaction. Now Michelle Alexander has written a book that’s changed that for me. If my birthday wish comes true, all of you will read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It’s just that powerful.
In just 261 six by nine inch pages, excluding end notes and index (both of which are very useful), the current paperback edition of The New Jim Crow relates the history of the drug war starting with it’s origins in the Nixon years all the way through the present.
In the present, one in 10 black males between the ages of 25 and 29 are in prison or jail, and the majority in the same age group bear the stigma of past convictions. That means they are limited in their ability to contribute financially to their families. Many are unable to live in public housing and may be separated from family members who do. Parolees are in constant jeopardy of being incarcerated again because of parole violations that include not associating with others who have been incarcerated which, I repeat for emphasis, includes an overwhelming number of their peers.Today, a black child is less likely to be raised by both parents than a child born in the age of slavery.
According to a 1998 report by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 13% of black males lost their right to vote to felony disenfranchisement laws. In some states, as many as one in three lost their voting rights. The report predicted that if the trend continued, 40% of black men would lose their right to vote in states that disenfranchise felons.
In 2000, felony disenfranchisement in Florida very likely cost Al Gore the presidential election.
Here’s an excerpt from the book:
“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
The shame of this reality should be enough to cause a society-wide revolt. Alexander helps us to understand why we have remained largely silent by describing the way racial caste manages to morph over generations, creating a “new normal” of civility that accommodates continued racism and the structural exclusion of African Americans from democratic decision-making.
Make my birthday wish come true. Read this book. Share what you learn. Don’t let yourself be part of the “new normal” that stands in the way of true democracy for all of us.