Jim Crow lives on in America’s prisons (column)
Special to the Daily
War is hell. Post-Civil War, Reconstruction was hellish.
In a beauty contest, however, Reconstruction was in a dead heat with the Redemption for ugliness. The Redemption is what the former Confederacy called the era post-Reconstruction.
The difference had to do with the losers in both. In the former, it was Dixie. In the latter, it was people with black skin.
I invested a very large chunk of my life in the South but had no idea what the Redemption was. Then I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
No longer under the control of carpetbaggers during the Redemption, the South found ways to re-oppress former slaves. It did so, writes Alexander, in large measure by imprisoning them.
So-called black laws did that. It became a crime to loiter where a Negro shouldn’t. Black people were thrown behind bars for “mischief,” “insulting gestures” and many other pretexts.
The South had a utilitarian reason for this. With slavery prohibited, it needed farm workers and lackeys. So emerged the labor-supply concept of convict leasing.
From behind bars, countless African-Americans ended up where they were before emancipation.
Prisons no longer are seen as a means to that end, but as Alexander asserts, they have become “a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”
Whether that is true or not, according to the Sentencing Project, almost one in three young black males right now is under the control of the criminal justice system — incarcerated, on parole or on probation.
You may say that this is no one’s fault but the offenders. But as a vast portion of these incarcerations are due to drug offenses, one would be blind to not see the fault that is shared by poverty.
President Obama sees this and is not content to accept it. It was most encouraging recently when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. So doing, he called for the reversal of destructive policies like mandatory minimum sentencing and our penal approach to drugs.
Speaking to the press during that visit, he referred to young people “who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made.”
Keeping more than 2 million Americans behind bars costs taxpayers $80 billion a year.
While black people amount to 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are almost half of the prison population. For one, blame the outrageous disparity between sentencing for crack and for cocaine. Blame even more the likelihood that well-off drug offenders will get probation, and poor blacks will get flushed.
Alexander points to studies showing that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. Indeed, “They suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.”
She convincingly asserts that much of what has helped frame our sentencing laws and helped pack our prisons was the result of “tough on crime” posturing from politicians seeking to win white voters’ favor. And it was bipartisan. Indeed. Bill Clinton signed the 1994 Federal Crime Bill that put prison construction on hyper-speed with enhanced, runaway sentencing laws.
Today, you hear conservatives blame the black family structure and education for the problems that Alexander cites. If conservatives truly wanted healthier black families, they would call for a re-examination of drug laws and a new look at criminal policies that tear so many families asunder.
Fat chance. Today, as in the Redemption, no political capital is to be had addressing injustices visited on those without any capital.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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