The New Jim Crow

Over the next few months I plan to take a personal journey. I invite you to consider joining me along the way, particularly if you are a part of Redemption Hill Church. Please take the time to see the motivation and reading list

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander’s purpose in The New Jim Crow is to show that “mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system” (11). So, there is a clear goal and perspective at work. The goal is to motivate the reader to action. My fear for those you reading this response is that Alexander’s willingness to be so open will allow too many to write off her work as merely an agenda and ignore her call to listen and respond.

“Racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference” (14).

he New Jim Crow is a powerful look at the history of race in the United States. Alexander pulls no punches when it comes to partisan politics. Instead, she shows clearly and sharply how the development of the identity politics we see today were formed and the long-term impact of racialized issues and rhetoric that are inescapable today, and she exposes how both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have contributed to the mess our nation finds itself in.

There are series of disturbing statistics that need attention, too. From 1980 to 2001 the prison population in the US increased from 350,000 to 2.3 million (93). As of 2008 there were 2.3 million people in prisons and jails, and a staggering 5.1 million under correction supervision. The larger scale problem Alexander identifies, though, is that “Once a person is labeled a felon, he or she is ushered into a parallel universe in which discrimination, stigma, and exclusion are perfectly legal, and privileges of citizenship such as voting and jury service are off-limits. It does not matter whether you have actually spent time in prison; your second-class citizenship begins the moment you are branded a felon. Most people branded felons, in fact, are not sentenced to prison” (94).

The immediate internal reaction that I felt is that justice is color-blind. Maybe you felt that too as you read those statistics. There are right consequences for doing wrong deeds. But, Alexander makes clear that the problem is that there is a distinct racialized slant in the application of justice that simply can’t be ignored. The language of “Law and Order” politics has always had racial ties. This shouldn’t be hard for us to grasp or understand, even if it is uncomfortable. We can’t forget that The Constitution of the United States managed to avoid direct mention of African-American people while still declaring that representation would be calculated by counting “three fifths of other persons.” Racially sanitized language to accomplish racialized ends is ingrained into the American system, and has been from the start.

“The fact that some African Americans have experienced great success in recent years does not mean that something akin to a racial caste system no longer exists. No caste system in the United States has ever governed all black people; there have always been ‘free blacks’ and black success stories, even during slavery and Jim Crow. The superlative nature of individual black achievement today in formerly white domains is a good indicator that the old Jim Crow is dead, but it does not necessarily mean the end of racial caste. If history is any guide, it may have simply taken a different form. Any candid observer of American racial history must acknowledge that racism is highly adaptable” (21).

Alexander goes to great lengths to show the pervasive impact of the ongoing caste system. It doesn’t just impact the African American population. “Poor and working-class whites (not white elites) were the ones who had their world rocked by desegregation” (257). The hope represented in the book is to spur more honest dialogue. “The topic of conversation should be how us can come to include all of us. Accomplishing this degree of unity may mean giving up fierce defense of policies and strategies that exacerbate racial tensions and produce for racially defined groups primarily psychological or cosmetic racial benefits” (257).

It struck me as I read that Alexander’s book was published in 2010. The politicized polarization and posturing she described were on full display in the recent election. We can’t count on partisan politics to spur honest, constructive conversation and solutions, though, because fear is too effective a tool in turning out voters.

As Christians we are called to lay ourselves down for the flourishing of others, just as Jesus did (Philippians 2). It’s a thoroughly anti-individualist ideal that is incomprehensible in American public life. Let’s face it, one of the most sure ways to secure our own place is to ensure the lower place of others. For Christians, the ultimate allegiance is to Jesus as our King. Even as we live as citizens of this nation it is as sojourners and exiles. Real, open, honest dialogue to gain perspective on another person’s experience should be a no-brainer for every Christian to pursue.

If we believe that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26), and that all people bear God’s image and likeness, then the least we can do is to actually listen. As we do, we will better be able to see through the dehumanizing rhetoric and systemic problems in our society. It’s depressing when SNL can engage these conversations better than most Christians.

Last summer I had the privilege to listen to a panel of African American pastors talk about their experiences. It was one of the most challenging discussions I had ever experienced, and it’s worth the time to listen. It is what inspired this re-education for me. I had to break through my own biases, fears, and discomfort, but being a citizen of Christ’s kingdom frees us to do just that. Michelle Alexander’s book continued to stretch and shape my perspective, and I’m grateful for her thorough and thoughtful work.


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