The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

I have always considered myself non-racist, and over time came to consider myself anti-racist. But it is one thing to call yourself anti-racist, and another thing to actually live an anti-racist life. As a white person born and raised in America, it has only been with time and conscious effort that I have begun unlearning my own implicit bias. Looking back on my early, clumsy attempts to be anti-racist, I am amazed at my own lack of understanding and naivete. I went through all the stages "good" white folks go through-being colorblind, thinking that knowing black pop culture somehow made me culturally competent, feeling defensive when the white supremacist history of the US was pointed out to me. I've had to unlearn the messages I internalized about things like "personal responsibility" and what it means when someone describes something as "ghetto". I've had to process the ways in which I have unthinkingly caused harm, and change the way I speak about things like "proper" English and "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps". But, as the wise and wonderful Maya Angelou said, "When you know better, do better".

If you are someone who follows me on social media, you know that over the last year or so I have posted a LOT of articles and videos about white supremacy and white fragility. While it is systemic racism that functions to uphold white supremacy in America, individual attitudes towards race and the way we as white folks participate in those systems will determine whether they will continue to function as a way to continue a racial caste system that has existed in the United States in one form or another since the first white colonizers traveled here from Europe. The research will tell you that most white folks see themselves as non-racist, and believe that the choices they make about where to live, who to hire, who their friends are, and what types of activities their children participate in are race-neutral. Despite this, all of us who are called white are acting at least in part in response to the unconscious biases ingrained in our psyche through years of social conditioning. The only way to effectively dismantle white supremacy as a system is to recognize and unlearn those biases.

Michelle Alexander provides a strong case for how the racial caste system in America has morphed from literal enslavement and Jim Crow to the current era of mass incarceration. She traces the history of the racial caste system in America, and describes in great detail how the War on Drugs and the criminalization of black people, especially black men, has created a justice system that is anything but just. Unlike the period of chattel slavery and the era of Jim Crow, Alexander argues that the current weaponization of the criminal justice system against poor black and brown people is permitted and supported by the very policies and legislation that were meant to end the oppression of people of color in American society. Because the laws and policies LOOK race-neutral, they are perceived as being race-neutral, even though they are applied in racist ways that uphold the system of white supremacy that has been a feature of American institutions since before the Revolutionary War. Lacking overtly racist motives, the courts have routinely said that the unequal rates of incarceration for black and brown people cannot be challenged on the basis of racial discrimination, despite the fact that even a cursory study of the effects of things like three-strikes laws, racial profiling, and probation and parole practices disproportionally affect black and brown people, keeping them under the control of the state, and allowing for legal discrimination in voting, housing, and employment.

Alexander's book is a stunning condemnation of the prison-industrial complex, and a rebuke to those people who think that we are somehow living in a post-racial America. She also takes to task those in the black community who continue to emphasize respectability politics in the search for racial justice, pointing out that even within the black community there are those who have internalized the idea that the overwhelming numbers of black and brown people currently incarcerated are a result of personal choices on the part of those who are imprisoned, rather than on a system that is specifically designed towards exactly this outcome.

When people ask me why I focus so much on calling out the toxic effects of whiteness, I often say, "You can't change what you can't name." White folks who really care about being not just non-racist, but actively anti-racist, MUST educate themselves about the ways white supremacy is baked into the very fabric of American society. Once you see how systems of oppression work, it is impossible to stop seeing. I suspect this is what keeps some well-meaning white folks from doing the work; they are operating under the "ignorance is bliss" principle. But willful ignorance will not protect us from the corrosive effects of systemic racism on our society. White supremacy is a sickness in the soul of white culture, and until it is rooted out and excised like the cancer it is, it will continue to harm not just black and brown people, but white people as well.


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