We began the February book club discussing the premise of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Ms. Alexander asserts that mass incarceration, in large part due to the war on drugs, is the latest form of a racial caste system (a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom). She discusses how slavery morphed into the creation of Jim Crow laws, which has now evolved into over-policing and mass incarceration.
Ms. Alexander begins by providing a historical look at slavery and how the racial caste system began. The CWBA Book Club had recently read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz so this historical look provided further insights on how people in power frame the narrative to suit their purpose and to continue to maintain power. As post-Civil War history demonstrates, this framing through fear, portrayed all Black men as aggressive predators out to attack and rape women.
Fast forward to when enslaved persons are free, but lack land or property. White people, those in power, seek to manage these “unruly, lazy, unskilled” people. So they create vagrancy laws and jail Black men who don’t have jobs. During this time, states are free to enact legislation preventing Black people from exercising newly granted civil rights, or rights that were really only effective on paper and not in practice. Black men were arrested and fined, but were often unable to pay those fines. Without payment, those same Black men were jailed and made to work off their fines through hard labor under conditions that left many dead. Many of these Jim Crow, or segregation, laws were also used to bribe poor whites to turn in Black counterparts, in essence to keep up the façade of superiority over Blacks.
Jim Crow laws “died” around World War II. It was difficult for those in power in the United States to condemn Germany’s treatment of Jews when our treatment of Black people was suspect. A Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, further chipped away at the South’s efforts to continue segregation. Peaceful protests, demonstrations, and thousands of arrests later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 formally dismantled the Jim Crow system of discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 pledged to review voting laws to ensure they weren’t designed to discriminately restrict voting access. Concerns about the socioeconomic inequity persisted as Black people continued live in poverty.
Finally, we reach the latest iteration of the racial caste system, “law and order” or mass incarceration. According to Ms. Alexander, President Reagan’s war on drug contained a racist agenda without using racially charged words. Funding for law enforcement programs was increased at the same time that funding for treatment and anti-drug education programs were decreased. Ms. Alexander reminds the reader that that law enforcement began as slave patrols to control enslaved Blacks and capture those who attempted escape.
By 1996, the federal penal budget was double the amount allocated to food stamps or aid for dependent children. Law enforcement now had a financial incentive to track “progress” on the war on drugs. The federal government not only provided direct funding to law enforcement and free military gear, but sought asset forfeiture on charged individuals.
During this same time frame, federal housing funding was decreased and “race neutral” regulations were put in place to prevent felons from receiving aid, including food stamps and housing. Some states also restricted the rights of felons to vote. Those states require felons pay taxes but do not provide felons a voice in how those dollars are spent.
Our book club conversation addressed the criminal justice system. Specifically, we talked about how the system is represented in the media and on television. Typically, law enforcement officers are portrayed as the “good guys” and “truth seekers.” Conversely, the majority of suspects are depicted as people of color. Participants noted that unconscious bias plays into this real world depiction. We also acknowledged that the media glorifies these grey areas to make an “ends justify the means” argument.
Ms. Alexander talks about case law chipping away at protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Book club participants discussed the book’s imagery of “stop and frisks” of young Black men who immediately get into a prone position.
We discussed the real impact on persons convicted of felony offenses, specifically the lack of employment and housing opportunities. Ms. Alexander opined that “mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.”
Additional resources and reflections on Black History Month can be found in the IRL Forums, under Book Club Discussion. Please join us there to continue the discussion of this, and other book club selections.
The June book club selection is The Making of An Asian America by Erika Lee. In honor of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage month, we encourage our members to join us in the discussions next week. I hope you can join us on Thursday June 3rd at 5:30pm to discuss. Register today!
Amy Petri Beard is currently employed with the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office as a Senior Deputy District Attorney. She is assigned to the Broomfield office and prosecutes adult felony and juvenile matters. She is a 2016 COBALT graduate, on the Colorado Bar Association High School Mock Trial Committee, is a member of the Colorado Women's Bar Association, and is one of the Adams / Broomfield Bar Association’s representatives for the Colorado Bar Association Board of Governors. She previously served on the Adams / Broomfield Bar Association Executive Board, was the Adams / Broomfield Regional Mock Trial Coordinator, and has served on the Broomfield Library Board. In her spare time, you’ll find her working out, reading, or spending time with her family (especially her grandson). She also enjoys volunteering as a tutor with Reading Partners Colorado, an organization devoted to assist students in low-income schools master basic reading skills.