The New Face of Jim Crow

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by Lyndon Jones

NewJimCrow

America has been asleep. And while it was sleeping, a permanent underclass that is overwhelmingly poor and Black was created.

The nation slept while mostly poor Black defendants in crack cases faced harsher sentences than those tried and convicted in cases involving powder cocaine.

It pressed the snooze button while being Black while driving practically became a criminal offense. Right here in the New Orleans area, who could forget not all that long ago when the late Sheriff Harry Lee announced that he would make routinely stopping rinky-dink cars driven by Black males in certain Jefferson Parish neighborhoods an official part of his crime fighting plan.

Again, in this category, Louisiana outpaces the nation with more than 10 percent of its prison population serving life sentences without the benefit of parole—more than any other state. And states like Louisiana, Texas and California – with habitual offender laws that heap hefty sentences on repeat offenders – often dole out decades-long or even life sentences for crimes that may not necessarily warrant the terms if judged alone.

While America slept, millions of its citizens have had the protection that citizenship affords all ripped away because of a criminal justice system that some say has unfairly and unevenly targeted African-Americans.

Perhaps, New Orleans has been in the deepest sleep of all. If being a poor Black male in what is one of our nation’s most violent and poorest cities isn’t problematic enough, one in every seven Black males in the city has either been placed in prison, on probation or is on parole. That means 22 percent of the city’s Black male population will now find it even harder to get jobs, care for their families, find suitable housing, further their education or contribute to society in the most meaningful ways.

The reality is indeed bleak, but has the sleeping giant finally awaken?

Maybe.

Under President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, crack-sentencing guidelines have been brought in line with those of other drug convictions.

Serious attention has been paid lately to stop-and-frisk laws like the one operating in New York City that many believe unfairly targets young Black and Latino men for no other reason than the color of their skin.

In New Orleans, organizations like VOTE or Voice of the Ex-offender, founded and run by formerly incarcerated individuals to end the disenfranchisement and discrimination against them, has been on the ground here and throughout the state for about 10 years working to educate formerly incarcerated people about their rights and registering them to vote.

In Kentucky, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recently launched a campaign aimed at ending civil disenfranchisement there.

The NAACP’s involvement is fueled by the fact that impact of Kentucky’s felony disenfranchisement laws is felt disproportionately across demographics. Although the number of people disenfranchised by these laws only amount to seven percent of Kentucky’s voting eligible residents, Kentucky’s disenfranchised African American population represents 22 percent of the state’s total eligible voting Black residents.

The reality is that Kentucky is not the only state in the nation that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for convicted felons to reenter society with their voting rights intact. And for many convicted felons, voting is just one of the rights stripped away because of their conviction. Laws, policies and practices enacted in states and cities across the country keep ex-offenders from voting, finding a suitable place to live or a decent job, receiving financial aid for college in some cases or getting government assistance. Couple the legal sanctions that accompany a felony conviction with the unspoken assumptions, biases and prejudices, and as civil rights attorney and author Michelle Alexander puts it in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness a former felon has “scarcely more rights and arguably less respect than a Black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”

“Obama won’t mention it. The Tea Party won’t mention it. Media pundits would rather talk about anything else. The members of the under caste are largely invisible. Many of us have been lulled to sleep by the appearance of great racial progress and the rhetoric of colorblindness—a deep sleep from which many people are only just beginning to awake,” she says.

And more often than not, the practice of disenfranchising convicted felons hits minority communities hardest. Consider this:

• African Americans now constitute nearly one-third of the total incarcerated population.
• African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
• Closer to home, Louisiana’s incarceration is the highest in the nation and the world. And again, the impact is disparate across racial lines. While African-Americans make up about 33 percent of the state’s population, they comprise more than three-fourths of the prison population.

And life after incarceration, parole or probation for the former felon of color is often akin to being dropped smack in the middle of some Deep South locale 60 years ago when racism was an overt way of life and Jim Crow was king, at least that is what Alexander, who recently delivered a profound hour-long lecture inside Dillard University’s Georges Auditorium of the Professional Schools and Sciences Building, says.

In her book, Alexander attacks the notion that racism and segregation are dead. Instead, she contends that they have only been refashioned and are aimed squarely at the most vulnerable African-American population. While it would be illegal to use race to bar a person from housing or jobs or federal aid, it is perfectly okay to use a person’s criminal background to do just that. And because African-Americans, especially those who are among the poorest, disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system, the victims of these deleterious practices remain almost identical to who they were in 1953.

“What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the structure of our society than the language we use to justify it,” Alexander says, quoting a passage from her book. Employment discrimination, voter suppression, housing discrimination and jury denial are “suddenly made legal. We have not ended the racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.”

What’s more is that Alexander suggests that all of this is no accident, but intentional.

At the peak of her address, Alexander made a bold proclamation that the war against drugs instituted by Ronald Reagan in 1982 and intentionally targeted at Blacks.

“Studies have shown for decades that people of color are no more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than Whites,” she says. “Millions of people have been rounded up locked in cages and then stripped of the very rights supposedly won in the civil rights movement. It has become the moral equivalent to Jim Crow.”

And she provides a flurry of staggering statistics to support claims made in her book that new methods of disenfranchising poor blacks through unjust and impractical arrests and imprisonment are “nearly as effective as earlier systems of control once did.”

According to Alexander, the U.S. has gone in three decades from a prison population of about 300,000 to now over three million, yet crime rates have continued to rise.

The reality of mass incarceration has even caused some unlikely individuals to question the real reasons behind the nation’s criminal justice policies.

In an article published by the SocietyPages.com, La. state Rep. Joseph Lopinto (R-Metairie) says:

“The bottom line is, if locking everybody up and throwing away the key works, then we should have the lowest crime rate in the United States. We don’t. So then you have to really look at your policies. In my opinion, it’s strictly a fiscal issue.

And while it is true that the almighty dollar plays a huge rule in the American criminal justice system, it also seems that old-fashioned discrimination plays an equally extensive part.

Pointing to the racial disparities in arrests nation-wide, Alexander said “the New York Police Department stopped and frisked more than 600,000 people in one year alone,” adding “data shows that there were more stops and frisks of Black men in New York City than Black men residing there.”

What’s more is that Jim Crow treatment might actually be the lesser of two evils offered by the criminal justice system and America’s love affair with mass incarceration. For the many former felons who at least get to experience the difficulties of acclimating to life after serving their time, there are countless others that are simply lost forever to the prison pipeline. And again, in this category, Louisiana outpaces the nation with more than 10 percent of its prison population serving life sentences without the benefit of parole—more than any other state. And states like Louisiana, Texas and California – with habitual offender laws that heap hefty sentences on repeat offenders – often dole out decades-long or even life sentences for crimes that may not necessarily warrant the terms if judged alone.

In short, whether it results in marginalization upon reentry or the lifetime sentences with no chance of return to society, Blacks in America often suffer the most at the hands of the justice system.

Awakening

As passionate and intense as Alexander is now about sharing her philosophy on the impact of criminal justice system as a new way to marginalize and disenfranchise people of color, there was a time that even she was not so convinced that this was the case.

“I admit there was a time when I rejected this kind of talk,” Alexander says as she lectures at Dillard. The comparisons between mass incarceration and slavery or mass incarceration and Jim Crow were massive exaggerations and distortions. The stories of oppression and harassment felt by former felons were just that—anecdotal narratives.

“But what a difference a decade makes,” says Alexander, who worked for years as a civil rights lawyer and advocate representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality, and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in communities of color.”

“I had a series of experiences that I now call my ‘awakening’. I began to awaken to a racial reality that is just so obvious to me now. What’s seems truly odd in retrospect is that I had been blind to it for so long.”

She was involved in the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California. It was a campaign that advocated for victims of ‘driving while black.’ A hotline number was instituted for potential victims to call if they’d been victimized by the police.

“I spent my days interviewing one Black man after another” who’d been illegally searched and even brutalized by the police department. “One day a young man walks in carrying a thick stack of papers detailing nine months of harassment at the hands of police. He had dates of every encounter, names of witnesses, just an unbelievable amount of documentation about his stops and searches. I started to think ‘maybe he’s our dream plaintiff.’”

The stories he corroborated stories Alexander had heard from other citizens.

“But then he says something that made me pause.”

He told her he was a convicted felon who had taken a plea on a drug charge because of court pressure and the promise of a light sentence.

And although the young man tried to explain to Alexander that he had been set up by the police, as far as she was concerned, the interview was over.

“He starts telling me, but I’m thinking this isn’t going to work.” She told him that they wouldn’t be able to use him in the case.

“He told me ‘you’re no better than the police’ ” and stormed out of her office.

She later learned that the very officer the young man said framed him was arrested for harassing citizens and planting drugs on them.

“This forever changed, not only the way our criminal justice system, but how I viewed myself as a civil rights lawyer.

Alexander recounts an even more telling part of her awakening when she laments that the search for the perfect Black man to represent their claim—one without a felony record, but a history of being harassed by police—might be futile.

Post-Racial America

Still, it wasn’t even her experience with this young Black man that sent Alexander on the quest to understand how racial discrimination and the criminal justice system have intertwined to create a new and seemingly permanent underclass. Oddly enough, it was the election of President Barack Obama.

She offers that from a distance “things do look good.”

If you turn on the television you’ll see President Obama in the Rose Garden looking dignified. You’ll see Michelle digging in the same garden, “not as a maid” but as the First Lady. But then you drive a few blocks from the White House and you “discover there’s another America.”

And she is more troubled that the reality of the racial caste exists but is “rarely mentioned on the evening news.”

“Obama won’t mention it. The Tea Party won’t mention it. Media pundits would rather talk about anything else. The members of the under caste are largely invisible. Many of us have been lulled to sleep by the appearance of great racial progress and the rhetoric of colorblindness—a deep sleep from which many people are only just beginning to awake,” she says.