Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Michelle Alexander: Mass Incarceration and the American Dream

Not everybody -- Black or White -- is convinced that incarceration is a problem in the United States. Expensive? Yes. But to many, more of a solution than a problem.

I've known this since the early 1970s, when a reporter dismissed my frantic attempts to generate public concern for prisoners by telling me in no uncertain terms that most people do not and will not care about anybody that winds up in jail. I have since found that to be, by and large, disheartingly true.

Here, lawyer and activist Michelle Alexander explains why she decided to write her award-winning book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and what she thinks we need to understand about the effects of mass incarceration on the Black American community.


veganelder said...

Michelle Alexander's book was one of the first books I read when I began to consider that maybe I was "under-informed" regarding the current situation in the U.S. regarding race and racism.

I read that book a couple of years ago and I still remember being stunned (that's not an overstatement either) not only by the notion that "criminal justice" is often essentially operating as a way of controlling groups of stigmatized and less powerful people but...my biggest source of shock...was that the author pretty much used to agree with how this society operates. By that I mean she apparently grew up buying into the notion that all you had to do was work hard and follow the rules and society would reward those efforts with good jobs and status, etc. And...she also believed the police and the justice system operated fairly and folks that were locked up had been fairly identified as lawbreakers and fairly punished.

That realization...that there were (are) cultural narratives so powerful (but erroneous) that members of denigrated groups would buy into and believe those narratives even when they could look around and see that members of their racial group were deeply harmed by how society operated.

It is...to me anyway...terrifying to consider the potency of cultural memes that can distort our perceptions so thoroughly that even if we belong to groups targeted for harm...we can be brought to believe in and uphold the "justifications" for that harm. We can be brought to believe, even if we're treated unfairly and unjustly, that such wrongful treatment is what we deserve.

I felt many things when I read her book...but one of the most salient of those feelings was my sadness that she had been conned into believing in the truthfulness of the flim-flam that is the "criminal justice system".

In my extended family there are 4 people who are police officers or probation officers. Of the 4, only 1 of them has the judgement and the temperament that would make me think they could function as a legitimate "protector" of the peace. In truth, the other 3 are deeply flawed in serious ways and I've long been frightened by the fact that society has somehow managed to deem them worthy of carrying deadly weapons and authorized them to use those weapons as well as to make arrests.

The "justice" system is seriously screwed-up...and...it is made up of many (not all, but way too many) people who shouldn't be entrusted with power over others.

We white people have much to answer for.

changeseeker said...

Sociologists call the condition you describe "internalized oppression." Steve Biko's famous assessment of it was, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed." When I lectured on race in a class at 9:30 yesterday morning and then had some of the Black students from that class show up to listen to the same lecture at 12:30, I knew I was watching consciousness develop right in front of me. It's very exciting. But, as you point out, those who "enforce" the White Supremacist norms can be dangerous. Still, as Margaret Bourke-White once said, "I want to be alive when I die." Consciousness introduces that option. Otherwise, we are not fully alive.