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In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander traces the history of racialized control in the US – from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration – pointing out the similarities and differences, particularly between the Jim Crow of the early and mid-20th century and the mass incarceration of African-American and Latino men in the present day.
Jim Crow – which had replaced slavery as the method of reinforcing white supremacy in the US – was a system of laws and practices that made black people into second class citizens unable to vote, to serve on juries, to live in white neighborhoods, to go to school with white children, to use the same bathrooms as white people, or to participate in white society in a myriad of other ways. When it began to crumble in the face of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, there was a period of relative hope for racial equality for African-Americans that included more decent-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and more.
The time of promise was short-lived. Alexander argues that the War on Drugs is the mechanism that was and is used to replace Jim Crow by imprisoning of huge numbers of men of color and reinforcing what she calls the “caste system” in the United States. The War on Drugs was initiated by President Reagan in 1982 despite the fact that at the time “less than 2 percent of the American public viewed drugs as the most important issue facing the nation.” Money for drug enforcement skyrocketed. “Department of Defense antidrug allocations increased from $33 million in 1981 to $1,042 million in 1991. During that same period, DEA antidrug spending grew from $86 to $1,206 million, and FBI antidrug allocations grew from $38 to 181 million.”
Because “police can stop, interrogate, and search anyone they choose for drug investigations, provided they get ‘consent,’” racial biases have free rein. In fact, police are allowed to rely on race as a factor in selection whom they stop and search (even though people of color are no more likely to be guilty of drug crimes than whites) – effectively guaranteeing that those who are swept into the system are primarily black and brown.
“Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African-Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” In that same year, African-Americans were admitted to prison at a level “more than twenty-six times the level in 1983. The number of 2000 drug admissions for Latinos was twenty-two times the number of 1983 admissions.” (Emphasis in the original.) By comparison, “the number of white drug admissions was eight times the number admitted in 1983.”
After arrest, prosecutors can overwhelm defendants with extra charges for which they have no evidence in an often successful attempt to get them to accept a lesser, but still felonious conviction. Because of harsh sentencing laws, “drug offenders in the United States more time under the criminal justice system’s formal control – in jail or prison, on probation or parole – than drug offenders anywhere else in the world.”
Predictably, the prison population exploded: “In 1972, fewer than 350,000 people were being held in prisons and jails nationwide, compared with more than 2 million today .” They are disproportionately black and Latino. “One in every 14 black men was behind bars in 2006, compared with 1 in 106 white men. For young black men, the statistics are even worse. One in 9 black men between the ages of twenty and thirty-five was behind bars in 2006, and far more were under some form of penal control – such as probation or parole.”
This despite the fact that crime rates in the US remained flat or even fell during this time. Moreover, study after study show that crime rates are roughly equal across racial groups. It is not that black and Latino men are more likely to commit crime. It is that they are more likely to be targeted for arrest, more likely to be convicted, and tend to have longer sentences when convicted.
Once convicted, discrimination that is remarkably similar to Jim Crow segregation is legal and encouraged. A system of laws and practices denies felons the right to participate in society, even though they have “paid their debt.” “The vast majority of convicted offenders will never integrate into mainstream, white society. They will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives – denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits.” Felons cannot vote or serve on juries. Felons cannot apply for federal low-income housing. They are not eligible for most financial aid for college. It is legal in almost all states to deny jobs to the formerly-incarcerated, and they are barred from obtaining many licenses to open businesses of their own. Even in states where convicted felons are eligible for some of these right, they are shackled by legal fees and paperwork requirements that make exercising those rights all but impossible.
Alexander is clear and thorough and thoughtful. The statistics she cites are useful and compelling. Her arguments are logical and compassionate. If at times I felt overwhelmed by the book, it speaks only to its power.
Her goal is not to propose remedies, though she does begin to discuss them at the book’s end. Instead, I think her goal is to show how the system of mass incarceration is one of the biggest, if not the biggest civil rights issue of our time. In this, I think she succeeds.
When she does discuss remedies, she brings in the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called for a shift from civil rights to human rights. Alexander, in turn, suggests that we unify across racial lines, not by ignoring our differences or pretending that we don’t see the color of each other’s skins, but by recognizing and acknowledging the humanness that we all possess. We can no longer accept the “racial bribes” we are often given, the crumbs that put most whites, even if they live in abject poverty, above most people of color. Some people of color benefit, too, but at the expense of everyone else. Alexander argues that a more just and better world could exist if we reject those bribes and form a coalition that recognizes the common human needs we share and are systematically denied. Together we could be more powerful and build a society that benefits all the people, rather than just a few.
As I read this book, I repeatedly thought that a similar analysis needs to be done of many of our institutions so that we can understand and deconstruct the ways that all our institutions disadvantage people of color, women, and others. I thought particularly of the ways that higher education pushes out people of color and poor folks, sending them the message that they don’t belong there. Perhaps someone is already working on these books. I hope they are, because I believe that knowing and understanding these issues can help us create a more just society.
About a year ago, a friend of mine told me he wondered why he had bothered to get an education. He felt that the job prospects and earning potential he had did not balance against the time and money he had invested in getting his Ph.D. He speculated more broadly that college degrees were becoming less and less valuable in our country and asked why we should continue to place such a high priority on college as a nation.
My friend’s thinking, plus the fact that I teach at a California community college, got me paying attention to some of the conversation that our society having about college degrees. In particular, over the last year I’ve been noticing more and more people questioning the value of a college degree. The script for these articles, videos, rants, complaints goes something like: 1) college costs a lot of money and finishing requires taking on significant debt, including some statistics on the amount of debt taken on by college students; and, 2) a college degree doesn’t guarantee a good job like it did in the “good old days,” followed by an anecdote about a college graduate’s job search and maybe some questionable statistics.
A recent (6/13/11) Time magazine article (“Now What? Mortarboards and diplomas don’t get you as far as they used to. These new graduates are in for a bumpy ride.”) is a good example. Along with anecdotal evidence, the author cites a Rutgers University study finding that 30% of college graduates from 2006 to 2010 didn’t find employment within six months of finishing school (there’s no comparison with unemployment for folks without a college degree during the same time). Further, a Twentysomething Inc. poll found that 85% of “graduates are taking shelter under Mom and Dad’s roof.” (The timeline for this statistic is not clear—is it within one year of graduation? Or two years? Certainly, it doesn’t mean that 85% of all college grads are still living at home for the rest of our lives.) These two stats exhaust the quantitative data supporting the article’s title and it concludes that, although science and engineering majors are more likely to find jobs than their colleagues in liberal arts (U.S. Labor Department data), the nationally high unemployment numbers are promoting choosy employers.
Belying the faux-profound conclusion, the tone of the article is decidedly alarmist, ignoring that fact that people with a college degree continue to enjoy higher employment percentages than people without degrees; more education still promotes greater employment, in general, and graduates know it—the same Rutgers study found that 62% of those with a Bachelor’s degree believe that more education is needed to be “successful.” In addition, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more education tends to increase your income.
More thoughtful approaches to what a college degree means today include Sherry Linkon, at the Center for Working-Class Studies, who discusses the value of getting an education for people headed toward professions such as accounting, education, communications, and social work, for whom getting a college degree is a crucial step on the way to being certified to do the work. At the same time, Linkon points out that colleges force these essentially vocational students into general education classes that don’t seem to have anything to do with their chosen field of work. Importantly, she also discusses the knowledge that working class folks bring to these (and all) professions, much of which is not taught in school.
Then there is a New Yorker article by a college professor who tries to answer his students’ question: “Why do we have to read this book?” He believes that college should exist to educate citizens for democracy, but he’s not sure that’s how our society still uses higher education.
One could legitimately ask if we ever did use it that way. Indeed, self-improvement blogger Brian Kim writes:
Back in the day, everything that was said about getting a degree was true. If you had a degree, you separated yourself from the pack. Not many people were able to get degrees because not many people were able to afford college. It was normally reserved for the rich or upper middle class. And that’s precisely why the degree was so valued . . . because it was scarce. Scarcity creates value.
Like Kim, I think our society has always used college to reinforce the status quo elite, but I also think that in at least the last 50 or so years we’ve also used it for more democratic purposes. The facts are that in the last 50 years, our country has made a college education more available to women and people of color and they have taken advantage of it. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women outnumber men in college and in degrees earned. In addition, the number of people of color earning degrees is increasing for every group.
The blog posts and articles go on and on, including a paranoia-inducing video put out by the mysteriously obscure, apparent scam organization “National Inflation Association” telling us that our education system sucks and that we should buy gold and silver to survive the coming economic apocalypse.
At the same time, College Board blissfully continues to tell us that “one of the best things about getting a college education is that you have more careers to choose from” and produces lists of the “Hottest Careers for College Graduates — Experts Predict Where the Jobs Will Be in 2018”
Trying to make sense of this cacophony, I’ve begun to think that its purpose is two-fold: to complain about the loss of privilege for those who used to be “entitled” to good-paying jobs; and, to promote the impression that by continuing to democratize college degrees for more and more segments of our society we further devalue a college degree. It’s not a big leap to think college degrees are being devalued by white men precisely because more women and people of color have them.
But beyond the more or less explicit racist, classist, and sexist agenda, these arguments ignore the issue of what happens to degree earners when they enter the job market. It would be great if jobs were equally distributed across all demographics of the degree earners — that would imply that hiring practices had improved greatly and that race, class, gender, and other forms of oppression in our society have diminished — but I don’t believe that is the case. Instead, as we all know, in most jobs white men continue to be more likely to get hired and be promoted than other people.
That means that the crying over the uncertain job market for college grads is almost entirely a tactic to protect white male privilege and entitlement; that is, it’s the same old discrimination in play. And, the people questioning the value of their degrees — whether knowingly racist, classist, and sexist or not — at least all ignore the reality of the privilege that most of them have. As a white man from an middle-class background, my friend’s analysis of his degree may be accurate for him. But for everyone else, the statistics say that a college degree remains a viable path to a better job and economic improvement.
Tonight on Marketplace from American Public Media, they ran a story about a couple and their struggles to make it in the current depression/recession. Part of the dialog between the show’s host, Kai Ryssdal, and one of the guests, Caitlin Shetterley, illustrates people’s expectations about a college degree and the way that is changing:
Ryssdal: So there you are, first week of January 2009, you have a brand new baby, but your husband’s jobs have all been canceled; he’s getting no contracting, no freelancing. The whole country is literally thinking that this is it, because we’ve had the crash in the fall of the previous year. What was going through your mind?
Shetterley: What was going through my mind? I mean, I was angry. I think many of us, many people in my generation anyway — I can’t speak for say, my grandparents’ generation who went through the Depression — but we’ve grown up believing that if we work hard and strive for our dreams, they will come true. And I believed that.
Ryssdal: Past tense, you’re speaking in the past tense. “I believed that.”
Shetterly: Yeah, I did believe that. Now I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t know that just hard work makes it. I don’t know, I think a lot of luck makes it.
Shetterley is critiquing the myth of the United States as a meritocracy. Of course, her comments come in the context of an economic crisis, but I maintain that even in good times, luck, connections, skin privilege, and privilege of all kinds have almost always trumped merit in our society.
This blog post gives a sense of what people are feeling like on the ground. I’ve heard similar sentiments from several people, mostly white middle class folks. What it looks like to me is that as those people are increasingly competing in the work place with people with whom they didn’t used to have to compete. Makes them mad, because they feel entitled to a job — after all, they’ve been told all their lives that a college degree is the key to a good job. The result is a more or less deliberate devaluation of the college degree. That is, as some of us work to democratize a college education, others work to maintain the privilege they’ve enjoyed in the past.
This article is an example of the some of the ways that college degrees have been and continue to evolve. In the past, academia offered degrees in only traditional disciplines. More an more we have professional degrees designed for very specific fields and purposes, often by region (for example, you don’t usually have viticulture degrees outside of a wine-producing region). These trends point to an increased focus on the college degree as a job-producing tool for people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Historically, a college degree was much more a social class marker and a luxury of the leisure classes or the clergy.
An article from the San Francisco Guardian confirming my assertions about who is going to public school and who is not.
A little more research reveals that the 20,000 school age children not in San Francisco public schools are not all white. However, what I’m now hearing at least anecdotally (but apparently backed up by data I have yet to see) is that the children of middle and upper class parents are going mostly to private schools. And since income breaks down by race, with Whites and Asians topping the statistics in San Francisco, middle and upper class parents are paying to create a racially unequal society.
Furthermore and contrary to what I initially thought, people (mostly parents) are talking about this problem. (I’ve been insulated from this situation because I don’t have kids.) The problem is that voting patterns and political influence are also correlated to class status, with working class and poor parents being least likely to be politically engaged. And so the parents who are most likely to impact the public school systems are paying to remove their children from that system.
At least that’s part of the educational and racial justice story in San Francisco. Is it like this elsewhere? Is the same dynamic playing out in cities across the country?