Monday, February 11, 2013

The New Jim Crow

Last night I watched a televised lecture given by Michelle Alexander at the University of Tennessee. Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Alexander is an accomplished civil rights attorney and advocate on a mission to radically change the way we think about the criminal justice system. Her website states, “Today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights—including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits.” Alexander posits that the “war on drugs” has disproportionately and unjustly affected young men of color and that the criminal justice system “functions more like a caste system than a system of crime prevention or control.”

When Alexander speaks about a system that has marginalized some as not worthy of basic human consideration I have to say, it sounds good. It sounds real good. And when I read that one in every fifteen African American men versus one in every one-hundred-and-six white men is incarcerated, I’m open to being persuaded that something systemic is amiss.

But then Alexander said, “We’re all criminals,” as evidence of why the system is unfair, and I’m sorry, but she lost me right there.

She lost at least one member of the audience, too, a young black man who said he’d be remiss if he didn’t discuss his “cognitive dissonance” surrounding this topic, which he said caused “a lot of internal conflict” while listening to Alexander. What this young man wanted to know is—where does personal accountability fit within this movement? He continued  “… I have a lot of family members and friends who know better and continue to not do better.” And I realized this was my problem, too (not the family member part, per se), but the whole idea that somebody other than the individual engaging in the criminal activity is responsible for the result. So I thought, “Great question! Maybe Alexander can win me back with her response,” because you see, I really wanted to be won over, but she’d lost me, and I feared I wasn’t coming back.

And I was more or less correct about that.

Alexander thanked the audience member for his question and responded by saying—

“You know, I think personal accountability plays a role in it for all of us …We all have to take responsibility for the choices that we make in our lives. But we also have to take … responsibility for the choices that we make collectively. And … it seems to me that we have been willing to heap an enormous amount of shame and blame on the poorest, the most vulnerable in our society and accept no responsibility collectively, for having set people up to fail and then keeping them trapped. So, yes, yes, of course everyone has got to take responsibility for their own actions … there is absolutely a role for personal accountability in the conversation. But I think we’ve got to expand the conversation beyond personal accountability, and ask the question, ‘Okay, so you’ve made a mistake. Now what?’”

Well, that’s a fine question to ask, but I can’t help feeling that she pulled a fast one with the response. Personal accountability is important, but it’s not important? Heaping shame and blame on the most vulnerable … what? The criminals are the victims, and the rest of us are their oppressors? What the heck? Okay, maybe there is a segment of the prison population that we’ve inhumanely tossed aside, people who could be rehabilitated or should never have been imprisoned in the first place, but you can’t convince me of that with this argument.

And then it got worse, when she offered Barack Obama as an example of what’s wrong, since he smoked weed and admitted to “experimenting” with cocaine and here he is President because he was raised by his white relatives in Hawaii while someone else is rotting in jail for a relatively minor first-time drug offense … and I don’t know, it just sounded like Alexander is a big old softie, and a little irrational. Are we supposed to believe that the prison system is overcrowded with recreational marijuana users? But Alexander is so well-spoken and so learned, and the NAACP awarded her book an image award, so clearly it’s me, and I’m just ill-informed and mean.

Listen, I’m no stranger to racism or bias, and there’s no reason for me to think that these bugaboos—which infect every other facet of society, as far as I can tell—don’t affect the criminal justice system. But, something in Alexander’s message didn’t translate for me. Sure, let’s examine the system. Sure, let’s demonstrate compassion and devise real ways to help people walk upright again after they stumble. But, goodness, Alexander makes it sound like nobody in jail actually deserves to be there, because “we’re all criminals,” and even President Obama smoked weed. And, sorry, but I’m not buying it.

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