Book for the Horde: The New Jim Crow, Chapters 4 and 5

What does it mean to be a black woman and consider tying yourself to a black man living in contemporary America?

The Bronx's Soundview projects (Dan DeLuca/Flickr)

Hi all. This is our third week of reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. As usual, the conversation will take place in comments below. You're welcome to join in, as long as you've done the reading. If you haven't done the reading for the week, please refrain from commenting.

At this point in the book, I feel like I have a good sense of the strengths and weakness of The New Jim Crow, both of which are on display in these two chapters. My sense is that Alexander excels at explaining how allegedly "color-blind" law really is about as "color-blind" as the poll tax. In Chapter Four she returns to the impact of the drug war on people who live in public housing:

In 1996, President Clinton, in an effort to bolster his “tough on crime” credentials, declared that public housing agencies should exercise no discretion when a tenant or guest engages in criminal activity, particularly if it is drug-related. In his 1996 State of the Union address, he proposed “One Strike and You’re Out” legislation, which strengthened eviction rules and strongly urged that drug offenders be automatically excluded from public housing based on their criminal records. He later declared, “If you break the law, you no longer have a home in public housing, one strike and you’re out. That should be the law everywhere in America.”

In its final form, the act, together with the Quality Housing and Work Responsibility Act of 1998, not only authorized public housing agencies to exclude automatically (and evict) drug offenders and other felons; it also allowed agencies to bar applicants believed to be using illegal drugs or abusing alcohol—whether or not they had been convicted of a crime ...

The [Supreme] Court ruled in 2002 that, under federal law, public housing tenants can be evicted regardless of whether they had knowledge of or participated in alleged criminal activity. According to the Court, William Lee and Barbara Hill were rightfully evicted after their grandsons were charged with smoking marijuana in a parking lot near their apartments. Herman Walker was properly evicted as well, after police found cocaine on his caregiver. And Perlie Rucker was rightly evicted following the arrest of her daughter for possession of cocaine a few blocks from home. The Court ruled these tenants could be held civilly liable for the nonviolent behavior of their children and caregivers. They could be tossed out of public housing due to no fault of their own.

Reading this I kept thinking about how any talk about racism in America ultimately turns to the marriage rates among black women. (Making conversations about racism into conversations about black sexuality is old.) I don't think very many people have thought much about what it means to be a black woman and consider tying yourself to a man living under the system Alexander outlines. As she notes, an appalling number of black men are in the hands of the state.

Those who push marriage are basically saying, "You should really consider hitching your life to a man who has higher chance of giving you HIV, who might return to jail, and who might render you homeless because he wants to smoke a joint." Alexander brings this up explicitly when discussing Obama's upbraiding on the lack of black fathers: "The media did not ask—and Obama did not tell—where the missing fathers might be found."

In general, I feel that when Alexander is talking about the law she's at her best. When she strays, I can feel it. Her discussion of "gangsta rap," for instance, felt hamfisted and dated. She repeats the trope that hip-hop was unconcerned with violence in its early days (anyone who's seen Wild Style knows this not to be true) and used to be characterized by happier music like "My Adidas" (which was preceded a year earlier by Schoolly D's ode to the "Park Side Killers"). More importantly, none of what is problematic in hip-hop—its exaggerated violence, its terror of female sexuality—is really unique to hip-hop so much as its unique to media that target young men; comic books and video games sprout to mind. I found this portion unfortunate, because the natural soundtrack to The New Jim Crow is some of the music she regards as the New Minstrel Show ("Bird in Hand," "Everyday Struggle," "Memory Lane," "One Love, "MAAD City.")

I can continue to feel like the writing here is rushed, and could have used more time. Enough from me, though. Let's go to comments.