Monday, September 07, 2015
The New Jim Crow
I didn't have today off, actually, because I facilitated what they call a "first reading" seminar for incoming freshmen. This is something a lot of schools are doing nowadays. The admitted students are all given a book assignment and then they meet with a prof to talk about it before classes start. Partly it's just an ice breaker -- a way for people to meet, get a little bit comfortable with college level discourse before there starts to be competitiveness and grade pressure, and an introduction to how professors interact with students.
In this case, there was I think an additional agenda. Brown is trying hard not to be the bastion of privilege and finishing school for the ruling class that Ivy League universities have been. Most of the kids still do come from privileged backgrounds, and they maybe need some consciousness raising; and at the same time the university is more diverse than it once was and the community has experienced tensions of various kinds, meriting discussion about racial, ethnic and other kinds of diversity and attendant prejudice from jump street. So this year the assignment was The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
If you haven't read it, or heard about it, it's a solid argument with a few moving parts that essentially views the War on [some classes of people who use some] Drugs as a mechanism of racial oppression, pretty much the essential means by which the racial caste system in the U.S. has been maintained after the passage of civil rights legislation and the elimination of de jure segregation. The great virtue of it, for this purpose, is the appearance of color blindness. It's not about race, it's about crime.
If you aren't conversant with these issues, or don't believe it, I won't take the bytes here to try to explain the entire argument. I will point out, however, that a) most people in jail or otherwise under criminal justice supervision are drug offenders only, users or low-level dealer/users; b) the vast majority of them are Black or Latino; c) the vast majority of low-level drug dealers and users are white.
If Weston, Massachusetts were policed in the same way as Harlem, with the police randomly stopping and frisking young men and searching motorists' cars, and then charging the people with felonies if they found marijuana or other illicit drugs, a whole lot of rich white high school kids and many of their parents, for that matter, would be felons. And in case you didn't know it, felons are largely unemployable, ineligible for public benefits, can't serve on juries, and can't vote. In some states, all of that is true for the rest of their lives.
This is true and cannot be denied. And that is why Weston and Harlem are not policed in the same way. Furthermore white high school kids who smoke pot or use ecstasy are not perceived as criminals, and they aren't treated like criminals even if they do somehow have the misfortune to be caught. But Black kids the same age, doing the exact same things, are, thereby destroying their lives.