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Jim Crow 2.0: Disenfranchised by Design

Supporters of Troy Davis react after learning the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider his execution in Jackson, Ga., Sept. 21, 2011. Davis was executed at 11:08 p.m., after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to grant a stay after four hours of deliberation. (Photo: Grant Blankenship / The New York Times). Troy Davis is dead – snuffed out by the American judicial system. Why? According to President Jimmy Carter, who described the killing as “unjust and outdated,” the reasons behind the execution of Davis are a tragedy.

Troy Davis is dead – snuffed out by the American judicial system. Why?

According to President Jimmy Carter, who described the killing as “unjust and outdated,” the reasons behind the execution of Davis are a tragedy.

Carter hopes this tragedy “will spur us as a nation toward the total rejection of capital punishment.

Davis, who was executed by lethal injection on September 21, 2011, had been on death row since 1989 for a crime he consistently said he did not commit. Davis had even gone so far as to request he be given a polygraph test to prove his innocence, but the court would not permit that as evidence, nor would they grant him a new trial, even in light of the fact that, in the United States, since 1973, more than 130 people have been exonerated from death row because further evidence, including DNA testing, found them to be innocent.

Is this logical? And if not, how can it be considered fair?

President Obama has chosen to remain silent on the death penalty question, making no comment on the Davis decision. Yet for decades, advocates around the world have been pressing America to swear off the death penalty forever. And now that the nation finds itself at a truly grim crossroads, resonating outrage and disgust at America's distorted sense of equality and justice, Michelle Alexander – attorney, legal scholar and author – continues her quest urging us as a nation to examine why the Davis killing and other institutional injustices in the US continue to go on, sanctioned by the state and unfettered.
In her groundbreaking book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Alexander writes:

Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton's family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises … Cotton's great-great-grand father could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

To this, Alexander says that the United States has redesigned an apartheid system that it was supposed to have left behind, thus creating a post-Jim Crow America that exists within the structures of a caste-like system based on race, class and economy.

Is all this by accident, or by centuries of government and corporate design?

Others may have wavering views on the root to this problem, but not Alexander, who says that the Cotton family's centuries-old legacy of being denied basic human rights in America illustrates an old adage that, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

In his gripping new book, “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America,” Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad – director of the Schomburg Center – writes about how America formulated its contemporary justice system. Muhammad's book is well researched and scholarly, but he minces no words in its subject matter. An excerpt reads

This book tells an unsettling coming-of-age-story … a biography of the idea of black criminality in the making of modern urban America. The US prison population is larger than at any time in the history of the penitentiary anywhere in the world. Nearly half of the more than two million Americans behind bars are African-Americans, and an unprecedented number of black men will likely go to prison during the course of their lives. These grim statistics are well known and frequently cited by white and black Americans; indeed for many they define black humanity. In all manner of conversations about race – from debates about parenting to education to urban life; black crime statistics are ubiquitous. By the same token, white crime statistics are virtually invisible….

At the dawn of the twentieth century, in a rapidly industrializing, urbanizing and demographically shifting America, blackness was refashioned through crime statistics. It became a more stable racial category in opposition to whiteness through racial criminalization. Consequently, white criminality gradually lost its fearsomeness … how did European immigrants – the Irish and Italians and the Polish, for example – gradually shed their criminal identities while blacks did not? In other words, how did criminality go from plural to singular?

US Senator Jim Webb (D-Virginia) is the author of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Of America's justice system, Webb said, “Fixing our system will require us to reexamine who goes to prison, for how long, and how we address the long-term consequences of their incarceration. Our failure to address these problems cuts against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.”

Deliberate bigotry has many faces and manifestations. On matters of discrimination in this nation, the resulting social impact of legacy inequity is what mostly gets discussed most in public discourse. However, what is equally serious – and, some might argue, more serious – in its consequence are the economic repercussions that arise from having an institutional master enjoying the spoils of someone else's toil. Two words describe this easily and best: free labor. And it has translated into profane amounts of profits for America's ruling class.

President Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation began the process of ending the gross enslavement of Africans in the United States, and legalized slavery officially ended two years thereafter, in 1865. Despite being liberated, as it were, those freed were not given citizenship, which – among other things – meant the Africans in America had to pay taxes but could not vote. On top of this injustice, Jim Crow laws were soon enacted, on a state-by-state basis, from 1876 to 1965. These were laws assuring nearly all the former slaves and their dependents a life of menial labor and poorly compensated servitude, making the Jim Crow era something that could be described in its essence as a kindler, gentler captivity and exploitation.

“The enslavement of African peoples established the African presence in the United States as well as the formative development of the American national economy,” wrote venerated African-American elder and former director at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Howard Dodson. Dodson wrote this as the opening statement of a paper he penned, entitled, “What Price Slavery? What Price Freedom?”

Dodson and the researchers whom he cites in the paper on the matter of Jim Crow economics say that “the white benefits from labor market discrimination against blacks from 1929 to 1969” can be calculated at $16.3 trillion. Itemized details are given to support this number, and it's a price tag that Dodson considers a modest estimate.

So, although generally treated as separate, each of these issues – capital punishment, mass incarceration, economic hijacking and other forms of unjust legal normalcy – are intertwined from the point of view of Dodson and his colleagues.

Unsurprisingly, they are not alone. Many civil and human rights organizations connect the dots on a regular basis, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which issued a report on sociopolitical injustice and its economic detriment earlier this year. The 57-page document, “Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate,” reads in part:

Over the last four decades, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million. The United States is home to about 5 percent of the world's population but has 25 percent of the world's prisoners. We have won the dubious distinction of having the world's largest prison system and the highest incarceration rate in the world (754 per 100,000 people). This overreliance on incarceration is costly: Nearly $70 billion is spent each year to incarcerate people in prisons and jails, to imprison young people in detention centers and “youth prisons,” and to keep 7.3 million people under watch on parole and probation in our communities.

The approach of our nation's criminal justice system, which includes warehousing people with mental health and drug problems, is not only costly but contributes to a destabilization of our communities, rendering them less safe. Largely as a result of the War on Drugs – which includes police stops, arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences – more than half of all prison and jail inmates – including 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of local jail inmates – are now those with mental health or drug problems.

Racial disparities in arrests, sentencing, and incarceration continue to challenge the integrity of our criminal justice system. The well-documented disparities in enforcement of our drug laws reveal that current drug policies impact some communities more than others. While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts.

Echoing the NAACP, on November 2, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) issued a similar report on the prison system, entitled “Banking On Bondage: Private Prisons and Mass Incarceration.” A paragraph in the executive summary reads:

The imprisonment of human beings at record levels is both a moral failure and an economic one – especially at a time when more and more Americans are struggling to make ends meet and when state governments confront enormous fiscal crises. This report finds, however, that mass incarceration provides a gigantic windfall for one special interest group – the private prison industry – even as current incarceration levels harm the country as a whole. While the nation's unprecedented rate of imprisonment deprives individuals of freedom, wrests loved ones from their families, and drains the resources of governments, communities, and taxpayers, the private prison industry reaps lucrative rewards. As the public good suffers from mass incarceration, private prison companies obtain more and more government dollars, and private prison executives at the leading companies rake in enormous compensation packages, in some cases totaling millions of dollars.

The 1964 Voting Rights Act may have spelled an official end to the Jim Crow era, but evidence of current judicial trends demonstrate a proverbial good-ole-boy system that's firmly in place.

“I think that the conventional wisdom that poor people and people of color – particularly black folks – are locked in ghettos and cycling in and out of prisons simply due to poverty and bad schools and poor culture has got to be challenged,” comments Alexander, who added that that was the reason she titled her book “The New Jim Crow.” Alexander shared further insight about her book and also talked in a phone conversation about the Occupy Wall Street movement in the following interview:

Max Eternity: Michelle, why did you decide to write this book, and how did you go about choosing its title?

Michelle Alexander:
I was inspired to write the book by my experiences at the Racial Justice Project, representing victims of police brutality and other injustices. And in the reentry process – people leaving prison going into a society that didn't seem to have much for them in the first place – I had an experience that I call my awaking, where I saw a system more like a system of racial and social control than of crime prevention control.

Increasingly, I became alarmed by the failure by civil rights advocates to view mass incarceration as something of social and racial concern.

I titled the book “The New Jim Crow” to sound an alarm, to get people to recognize that we as a nation have recreated a caste-like system where young African-American men are swept in, often before they are able to vote. This is for the same crimes that would occur on college campuses and middle-class white neighborhoods. Not having the privilege of good legal counsel, these African-American men are branded as felons for life, being denied the very rights they were affirmed by the civil rights bill.

All the things we supposedly left behind are now legal … redesigned.

ME: In the beginning of the book, you tell about the Jarvious Cotton Story. What struck you about the Cotton family's legacy of sociopolitical disenfranchisement – being denied the right to vote – and what does the Cotton story tell us about equality in America?

The Cotton story just tells how illusory so much of racial progress has been in the US. We have all these symbols of racial progress, not the least of which is Barack Obama, with black people who are wealthy, in leadership and in powerful in corporations. This gives us the illusion of racial progress, but when we scratch the surface of it, there are millions of poor people of color who are stripped of basic civil and human rights, not the least of which is the right to vote – fundamental to any democratic society. Our excuse this time around is that they are criminals and felons, ignoring the fact that so many of them have been branded for criminal offenses for the same things that others have gotten away with on the other side of town. In this way, we have created a system of racial control that was claimed to be left behind.

ME: Share some insight on the chapter in your book concerning the Jena 6 situation. How would you characterize the justice carried out there, its place in the historical Jim Crow narrative?

Certainly, what happened to the Jena 6 – the way in which they were railroaded, charged with murder, treated with Jim Crow justice – in many ways illustrates just how biased justice is today. But what I emphasize in the book is that what happened to those young men would not have made the news if it hadn't been for the noose that had been hanging from the tree. Without the symbol of overt old school racial bigotry, this incident would not have been interpreted by the mainstream media and the public-at-large as gross racial injustice.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is no news. Law enforcement officials and the rest of us know better than to use racial slurs and hang nooses. And if we're only going to rise up and take to the streets when old symbols show up, then this caste system is going to be in place for a long time. We have to wake up and see that this caste system functions without using nooses and racial slurs. We have got to deal with the ways in which it appears color blind but actually functions in a grossly discriminatory manner. We've got to be willing to pull back the curtain of this system.

ME: There is the true story of an African-American male, in his mid-twenties, who was falsely accused and arrested on the charge of vandalism. This individual could not afford a private attorney and was thus appointed an attorney by the court. Essentially five minutes after meeting his court-appointed attorney, without ever being asked if he was innocent or guilty, the attorney advised the young man to plead guilty because the person accusing him was a wealthy white woman. In your view, how often is this type of thing happening – what does this say?

MA: I don't think it's unusual at all. I think most people have this romantic idea of how our criminal system operates, perpetuated by shows like Law & Order.
What you just described is routine. People are arrested and often meet a few minutes with an attorney, waiving all their rights, pleading guilty to serious crimes. Supposedly good deals with only probation that will brand you for life as a felon make it impossible to find work afterwards.

It's easy to look at public defenders and say they should do this or that better, but they are so overwhelmed with so many cases that they are often doing the best they can do.

There is a case in the Supreme Court where there is an attorney decision over a failure to tell his client he could plea bargain. Not to be told that detail, is that constitutionally ineffective counsel? And our justice department is arguing that it is not … ever to even tell his client. That young man wound up spending years of his life behind bars. If that's not ineffective assistance of counsel – that would save you years of your life in prison – what good is having a lawyer in the first place?

The bar has been set so low that in many instances our system acts like a processing system, trying to get as many dockets cleared as possible in order to clear case loads. There are many people in jail who are innocent of the crimes accused. They have been forced into pleading guilty with the threat of harsh mandatory sentences. So yeah, it's a very, very sad scene of affairs.

I think it's very difficult to even estimate [the innocent] behind bars today, many who will never be free by DNA evidence, because of the type of crime accused. So, they are just sitting behind bars like a commodity being processed thought a factory.

ME: If you've been following the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has spread around the nation basically turning into Occupy Everywhere, you are aware that in recent weeks, Oakland has received much attention. At the former tent city in front of Oakland City Hall, there was a large, handwritten banner that said, “End Prisons – Abolish Capital … in Solidarity with CA Pri$son strike.” How would you say the Occupy Movement ties into prison reform?

MA: It's my great hope that the Occupy movement will begin to view [abolishing] mass incarceration and this caste-like system as among their chief goals and aims. There has been a lot written about the relatively few people of color who have been motivated by the protests. Around the country, there has been much discussion about why aren't more blacks participating. While they have certainly been more harmed by the greed and corruption of Wall Street, so many are struggling just to survive and avoid imprisonment.

I think if the Occupy movement focuses on police brutality and mass incarceration, they will see gains in the movements to come, as mass incarceration has touched the lives of most African-American families in the US.

What you described is very hopeful. It's important that we connect the dots between the skyrocketing of inequality and the skyrocketing of mass incarceration, born of racial politics and exclusion.

Once private industry became aware that profits could be made from imprisonment, it became like a gold rush. Some companies tailored in manufacturing. It simply became business to invest in mass incarceration.

Research shows that the countries that have the greatest economic inequality, there is the greatest imprisonment.

ME: Any last thoughts?

MA: I think that the conventional wisdom that poor people and people of color – particularly black folks – are locked in ghettos and cycling in and out of prisons simply due to poverty and bad schools and poor culture, has got to be challenged.

This is why I titled the book “The New Jim Crow.” It was, in part, to challenge the discourse of the so-called underclass; to see that there is actually a legal structure in place that locks people into an underclass system by law.

The millions locked up can't be explained by poverty and bad schools. We've turned back the clock in the US and instituted a new legal system that brands people with second-class status for life.