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by Lawrence Bush Anti-racist consciousness seems to be stirring anew in our country, reawakened, at least in part, by the best-selling success of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by civil rights attorney and law professor Michelle Alexander (The New Press, 2012). The New Jim Crow has been talked about all over the media, and is being studied in activist circles in several states. The San Francisco Chronicle has described it as “the bible of a social movement.” (See Cheryl Greenberg’s review of the book.) Alexander argues, with tons of data to back her, that the War on Drugs launched by President Richard Nixon more than forty years ago has targeted and decimated black and Hispanic communities, even though illegal drug use actually occurs at the same frequency across racial and ethnic lines. With non-whites arrested and convicted for drug crimes at much higher rates than whites, Alexander observes, some 60 percent of the world-record 2.3 million people in prison today are non-white — out of a U.S. population that is about 13 percent African-American and nearly 17 percent Hispanic. The result, Alexander says, is a justice system that is more about social control of people of color than about protecting society from crime. After all, in many states, “once you’re labeled a felon,” she writes,
the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunities, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.Alexander’s impassioned, authoritative voice has been reinforced by filmmaker Eugene Jarecki, whose 2012 documentary about the War on Drugs, The House I Live In, features her among its interviewees. Jarecki’s excellent film is tightly edited to permit an exhaustive amount of information and perspective. There is a particularly memorable section about how racism helped drive the criminalization of drugs in the early 20th century, and people at every level of the justice system take their turn in front of his camera. The House I Live In begins with a moving meditation on his own socially conscious Jewish identity, as the son of a father who fled Nazi Germany and a mother whose family earlier fled the pogrom-ridden Tsarist empire. “[M]y brothers and I,” says Jarecki in a voice-over set against family movies, “were taught that we were the lucky ones who made it out, but with that luck came a responsibility. ‘Never again’ didn’t just mean that people like us shouldn’t suffer; it meant others shouldn’t suffer either.” America’s best-known historical documentarian, Ken Burns, has also weighed in on the issue of racism and criminal justice with Central Park Five, a new film directed with his daughter Sarah Burns, who wrote a book about the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case of 1989. In that rape-and-attempted-murder case, confessions from five naïve black and Hispanic teenagers, ages 14 to 16, obtained after up to thirty hours of interrogation by New York police, were used to send them to prison for between seven and a dozen years. DNA and fingerprint evidence pointed elsewhere, yet both police and prosecutors, prodded by a frenzied media and politicians, put on blinders and pursued what Harlem’s Reverend Calvin Butts likens in the film to a lynching. The youths were described as “animals,” a “wolf pack” engaged in a “wilding.” This is the kind of language, Sarah Burns has commented, “used to describe the Scottsboro Boys” in Alabama, 1931, “only this was happening right here in New York City in 1989.” In 2002, the actual rapist, already serving a life sentence for other crimes, voluntarily confessed to the Central Park assault after meeting one of the wrongly incarcerated men in jail. New York Attorney General Robert Morgenthau then had the convictions of the Central Park Five vacated — but no apology was ever given to the young men, media attention was scant, and their civil suit for wrongful conviction has been pending for over a decade. Veteran readers of Jewish Currents will likely be well aware of the intertwining of racism and criminal justice, for they remember how it worked in the South during segregation and the civil rights movement. Our magazine’s former editor, Morris U. Schappes, experienced it first-hand during his own thirteen-month prison term in the late 1940s (for perjuring himself before an anti-Communist state investigative body). For me, the awareness is rooted in my brief stint teaching in prison when I first moved, thirty years ago, to New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley — an area north of New York City that hosts many prisons, including Eastern, Fishkill, Sing-Sing, Woodbourne, Bedford Hills (a facility for women), and more. I taught a college-level course in public speaking at Downstate, a maximum-security facility that serves as the first stop for all new inmates entering the state prison system, and the preponderance of black prisoners in that place was striking — as was the crude racism of some of the white prisoners and the obvious racial polarization among all of the men. This, along with a few other experiences visiting prisons, has made it clear to me that people of color, and especially young black men, are filling those gothic buildings way out of proportion to their population numbers. I always attributed this imbalance to the overarching racism of the American System and the poverty it has produced, especially among blacks and Hispanics, but I never recognized the prison numbers as compelling evidence of the more near-at-hand racism of the criminal justice system itself. Judging from my several experiences of being mugged and robbed during the 1970s and ’80s in New York City, I figured that young black and brown men simply committed more crimes than anyone else — at least, the kind of crimes that get you arrested and sent up the river. The Burns documentary reminded me, however, about how readily and fearfully white people (including me) associate criminality with young men of color. Michelle Alexander cites studies that show that “punitiveness and hostility almost always increase when people are primed — even subliminally — with images or verbal cues associated with African Americans.” Beyond matters of psychological bias, however, the facts in Alexander’s book have disabused me altogether of the notion that the mass incarceration of blacks and Hispanics is a punishment-to-fit-the-crime. Fact: The majority of illegal drug users and dealers, nationwide, are white, but three-fourths of those sent to prison for drug offenses are black or Hispanic. Fact: The FBI reports that there were 100,000 more arrests for marijuana than for violent crime in the U.S. in 2011. Fact: U.S. crime rates have “dipped below the international norm,” Alexander writes, yet the U.S. “boasts an incarceration rate that is six to ten times greater than that of other industrialized nations — a development directly traceable to the drug war.” Fact: When Reagan built Nixon’s War on Drugs into a well-funded machine in the early 1980s, “inner-city communities were suffering from economic collapse,” she observes. “The blue-collar factory jobs that had been plentiful in urban areas . . . had suddenly disappeared,” and “the industrial employment of black men had plummeted to 28 percent.” Mass incarceration thus became the alternative to the kind of reparatory economic development and educational uplift that has always been denied to our once-enslaved African-Americans brothers and sisters. There is now a good deal of preliminary organizing going on about this issue, for The New Jim Crow is as much a manifesto for action as it is a well-documented case statement. In New York, Communities for Police Reform has been joined by the ever-feisty Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in a campaign to deter the stop-and-frisk machine, and the American Friends Service Committee has dedicated staff time to the issue of mass incarceration. In Poughkeepsie and Kingston, New York, the End to the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) is running study groups about the New Jim Crow, and in Albany, the Center for Law and Justice (CLJ) is conducting an upstate campaign. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation in January sponsored a “Raising Jewish Consciousness about the New Jim Crow” event for which I prepared an informative video that you can see below. That video ends with a passage from the Prophet Isaiah that commands Jews to rescue “prisoners from confinement, from the dungeon those who sit in darkness . . .” More importantly, it reminds viewers of the history of Jewish mass incarceration — and of the role Jews played in the formation of the NAACP and the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights, and in Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964. Clearly, it’s time to get active again.