Challenging a Racial Caste System

A “racial caste system” is alive in America, says Michelle Alexander, whose book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, provides some shocking statistics. I heard her speak in Richmond last week.

More African Americans are under some form of correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. As of 2004, more black men were disenfranchised (i.e. unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870 when the

Fifteenth Amendment

prohibited laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. In a city like Chicago, more than eighty percent of working age black males are or have been involved with the criminal justice system. Eighty percent of African American children can expect to spend a significant portion of their childhood apart from their fathers.

Significantly, incarceration rates bear little relationship to crime rates.  In fact the “war on drugs” which has resulted in a vast increase in the prison population – overwhelmingly African American men – began at a time when drug crimes were on the decrease. The prison population exploded from 300,000 to over 2 million in two decades. There are more people now in prison for drug offenses (mostly for possession, not distribution) than for all other reasons in 1980.

Alexander says that although this trend started under Republican administrations, it continued under Democrats. All politicians compete to show they are tough on crime. It’s even possible for a first-time drug offender to receive a life sentence. 

Why does she call this the “moral equivalent of Jim Crow”? Poor whites, she says, felt “socially demoted” during the civil rights era and through affirmative action. They did not experience greater job opportunities or receive college scholarships. They were the ones bused to integrated schools while wealthier whites escaped to private institutions or moved to outer suburbs. Politicians saw their resentment as a potent political force to be exploited. It was no longer acceptable to appeal to race explicitly, but the criminal justice system, especially drug laws, could be designed in ways that effectively discriminate against minorities.

By branding people as criminals they become permanently unemployable. Barred from public housing, excluded from food stamps and from federal student aid, many have also accumulated child support debt while in prison and are thus ineligible to hold a drivers license. Most return to prison within a few months.    

 “Those of us in the civil rights movement have allowed a human rights nightmare,” said Alexander. She was speaking to a largely African American crowd and did not mention Hispanics who form an increasingly large percentage of the prison population.   

Alexander is a former law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun on the U.S. Supreme Court and a longtime civil rights activist and litigator. She holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University.

Hearing such appalling statistics can leave you depressed and hopeless. The brightest spot in the evening came from two participants in Boaz and Ruth, a faith–based Richmond non-profit that supports ex-felons by providing life skills and training in small businesses management, furniture repair, and house renovation.

“Rebuilding lives, rebuilding neighborhoods,” Boaz and Ruth was the vision of a white businesswoman whose church had participated in Hope in the Cities dialogues. The two program graduates told the audience with obvious pride: “I am now a tax payer…I have a job… I got my GED… I drive a car… I own my home that I will pay off in ten years.”

Boaz and Ruth demonstrate one strategy that Alexander advocates: We must provide safe and welcoming spaces for those returning from prison. Becoming aware of the facts and being willing to talk about them is another vital step. Beyond that, she says, we must build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic movement to advocate for change in the system.    

My biggest question after hearing Alexander’s talk was this: How to build the necessary alliances to effect policy change? Highlighting examples like Boaz and Ruth is important because it demonstrates that people can and do change. But we will need to work strategically to engage people on both sides of the political divide.

I recall a forum in 1996 where Paul Weyrich, a conservative icon, surprised his audience by an admission that for many years he had ignored cries from the black community about police brutality and bias. “My attitude was, ‘Well, this is just a bunch of criminals probably trying to evade their just dues.’ But I must tell you that one of the most profound events in my political life was the revelation of the comments made by the detective Mark Fuhrman during O. J. Simpson’s trial. I was astounded and outraged… And so I began to look more closely, and I’ve taken a particular interest in Philadelphia where certain bad white cops have targeted a lot of innocent black people to advance themselves by enhancing their record of arrest.”


He concluded: “I now find that in many cases these cries have a great basis of legitimacy, and they are cries that the conservative community…needs to take seriously… And because of our own view on the subject of government power, and the need to keep government in check, we conservatives should have a natural sympathy for these cries and be able to start a dialogue.”