Books for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapter One
Reading Michelle Alexander's volume on racism and mass incarceration
Hi all. Thanks for joining in on this collective read of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. The conversation will take place in comments below. You can tackle any angle as long as you've done the reading. That last part bears some emphasis—this conversation is for people who are reading The New Jim Crow. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting. Please respect the space of people who've actually put in the hours.
I'd like to start off the discussion with some brief thoughts on Chapter 1 and the Introduction. I can't remember a book that's brought more attention to a particular societal injustice in recent years. This is a credit to the intellectual courage of Michelle Alexander. Alexander is direct and frank about the influence of white supremacy in our history and in our society, and refuses to hem and haw in the name of an empty "moderation." I suspect it's that direct and frank approach that has attracted so many readers to her case. Should any sanity enter our sentencing laws over the next few years, some portion of the credit will likely belong to The New Jim Crow.
Activists and writers have long argued that there are "racist elements" or "racist injustices" embedded in our current crisis of mass incarceration. Alexander would have us push this claim much further, arguing that mass incarceration is "a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow." She disarms the popular notion that it is somehow wrong to discuss a modern Jim Crow in the age of Barack Obama, noting that "no other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a a larger percentage of its black population then South Africa did at the height of apartheid." In Alexander's rendering Jim Crow didn't die so much as it mutated.
The trickiness of white supremacy is a major theme in the first chapter. Alexander pulls from the current Morganite historical consensus, which holds that there was nothing particular in the way that Africans looked or acted that necessitated race-war. On the contrary, racism was created by a series of policies meant to achieve particular ends. In Alexander's view, those ends were continued profits for the nascent American planter class:
Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.
This theme continues through much of Alexander's first chapter—just when it seems that poor whites and blacks are about to unite, a powerful interest bribes poor whites with skin privilege and the grand alliance is sundered. So it was after Bacon's Rebellion. So it was after Reconstruction. So it was after the populist movement. And so it was after the civil-rights movement. In each case, Alexander finds an interest cleaving poor and working whites apart. The New Jim Crow is only the latest machination.
Alexander sees the first rumblings of this in the Nixon presidency:
H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisers, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” Similarly, John Ehrlichman, special counsel to the president, explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists.” In Ehrlichman’s view, “that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
Crime, Alexander argues, was one of the key issues Republicans used to send that "subliminal appeal." But the use of crime did not end with Republicans. It quickly spread to Democrats. And thus we behold Bill Clinton endorsing "three strikes and you're out" laws, funding a massive prison buildup, and promoting a "One Strike and You're Out" initiative that "made it easier for federally assisted public housing projects to exclude anyone with a criminal history."
And despite claims of shrinking government and kicking the poor off the dole, mass incarceration effectively meant a new sprawling bureaucracy. Prisons, it turns out, are expensive. "The reality is that the government was not reducing the amount of money devoted to management of the urban poor," Alexander writes. "It was radically altering what the funds would be used for. The dramatic shift toward punitiveness resulted in a massive reallocation for public resources. By 1996, the penal budget doubled the amount that had been allocated to AFDC or food stamps."
There's a lot to like in these first two chapters. Connecting mass incarceration to the larger story of white supremacy is important work. As is moving from abstract terms like "mass incarceration" to actual actors and actual policies. Ensuring that progressives remember the damage done by one of their modern presidents is equally important. I am in broad sympathy with Alexander's basic thesis: that caste did not disappear from America in 1968.
But I was also somewhat frustrated by a few (perhaps minor) historical problems. Alexander claims the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves. In fact, it immediately freed thousands of slaves in rebellious states under Union control. ("Never before had so large a number of slaves been declared free," writes historian Eric Foner.) Later Alexander uses Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report "The Case for National Action" as an example of a new consensus that sought to ignore structural racism and indict black culture. It's true that conservatives used the Moynihan report for those purposes, but I don't think Alexander's rendering is as nuanced as could be. Unlike most conservatives, Moynihan was never confused about the root causes of black poverty:
That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary—a lesser people might simply have died out, as indeed others have. That the Negro community has not only survived, but in this political generation has entered national affairs as a moderate, humane, and constructive national force is the highest testament to the healing powers of the democratic ideal and the creative vitality of the Negro people. But it may not be supposed that the Negro American community has not paid a fearful price for the incredible mistreatment to which it has been subjected over the past three centuries.
Moynihan believed that part of that price was "culture." I obviously disagree with this, but I think it's important to fairly represent the debate. Moreover Moynihan, unlike most conservatives, did not think the answer to the "tangle of pathologies" was to wag one's finger at black people. Moynihan believed in full employment—"government as the employer of last resort." He authored Lyndon Johnson's famous address at Howard University—arguably the best speech ever given by an American president on racism and white supremacy.
Peter-Christian Aigner gets it right here:
Scholars have shown that the 1950s nuclear family was an outlier in history, not the rule. But Americans shaped by the postwar "cult of domesticity" did not know that, and it is important to note that Moynihan was not ringing the alarm as a social conservative. He believed that poverty was concentrated among large families, white and black, and that these conditions were leading to break-up and potential social dysfunction. Years of research have confirmed his suspicion: break-up can indeed be a trigger for poverty, although it is most often a correlate, not a cause. More typically, as he suggested, the relationship is the other way around: Money problems exacerbate the difficulties of marriage and child rearing. Conservatives have often reversed this part of his message, or ignored it.
Perhaps more importantly, I am less than convinced by Alexander's rendition of white supremacy as a means of cleaving poor whites away from blacks. My view on this is that white supremacy is an interest in and of itself. It's not clear to me where the politics ends and the bribe begins. I generally think that the left tells itself this story in order to evade the political complications of dealing with white supremacy as a sensible, if deeply immoral, choice, as opposed to a con played on gullible white people.
Maybe in the final analysis none of this matters. And I think the broad outlines of Alexander's thesis are correct and evidenced by data. But I found her rendition of history to be a little too pat and would have liked to see her push a bit more on the finer points.
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