Monday, September 12, 2011

How a formally civil rights state locks up a social caste of black and brown people and a large number of whites

Desmond King of Oxford and Rogers Smith of Penn, who have written very forcefully on the issue of racism in America, published an op-ed piece in the Times last weekend, breaking a political – bipartisan – and media conspiracy about racism. The Democrats, including Obama, speak only of “the middle class.” Even the poor, let alone a mention of blacks or chicanos, is beyond their rhetoric. The Republicans live off disenfranchising blacks, the poor, students and the elderly, have passed restrictions on voting in 20 states where Republicans came to power in 2010. They affect to admire Martin Luther King and speak of color-blindness. But as Desmond King and Smith say, unemployment statistics for blacks are twice those of whites (and of Chicanos 33% higher than whites). The wealth statistics, cited from Pew, are equally disturbing. “The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.” The Pew study also indicates that blacks have 1% of the total wealth in the US, Chicanos 2%... King’s and Smith’s op-ed is especially important because the silence of corporate politicians and the corporate media about racism and these differentials is so striking. That the Times printed this piece is also a hopeful sign about trying to at least name America’s problems and begin to address them.

But what one can say in the Times at its best is but the tip of an iceberg. As I have written about here and here, Michelle Alexander has a striking book, The New Jim Crow, which identifies how many poor people, black, latin and white, are involved with the prison system and has spoken widely with high school students, in law schools and churches about what the problem is and how to fight it. This year at the American Political Science Association, the magnitude of the problem was beginning to draw the attention of many political scientists. Note also that the issue of mass incarceration is beginning to surface among serious conservatives and libertarians (see the Economist's review of Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons here and Scott Horton’s post on Bernard Harcourt here).

From 300,000 prisoners in all American prisons in the early 1970s, Alexander shows, there are now 2.3 million. This eightfold increase has been triggered by the so-called war on drugs, enforced especially heavily in black communities (lots of people banished into the prison system never to get out for victimless crimes) and by the “tough on crime,” lengthy sentences advocated by Republicans and some Democrats and now mandated by law. As Alexander emphasizes, these sentences are not just for a particular crime – do your time and be made whole, a full citizen again. Instead, drug felons, particularly black ones, are often denied the right to vote afterwards. They are not able, with a jail record, to get jobs in the outside world (they have to survive through family and personal connections). They cannot live in public housing and are subject to fear and discrimination by private landlords. They are continually supervised in the parole system and thus, much more likely to be returned to jail if for example, depressed, they miss a meeting…

For the system of parole - a life sentence - sweeps up another 5.1 million. In 2008, the total number trapped in this system is some 7.4 million human beings (Alexander, 92). More people were returned to prison in 2000 for parole violations than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980:

"The extraordinary increase in prison admissions due to parole and probation violations is due almost entirely to the war on drugs. With respect to parole, in 1980 only percent of all prison admissions were parole violators. Twenty years later, more than one third (35 percent) of prison admissions resulted from parole violations. To put the matter more starkly: About as many people were returned to prison for parole violations in 2000 as were admitted to prison in 1980 for all reasons. Of all parole violators returned to prison in 2000, only one-third were returned for a new conviction: two-thirds were returned for a technical violation such as missing appointments with a parole officer, failing to maintain employment, or failing a drug test. In this system of control, failing to cope well with one's exile status is treated like a crime. If you fail, after being released from prison with a criminal record - your personal badge of inferiority - to remain drug free, or if you fail to get a job against all the odds, or if you get depressed and miss an appointment with your parole officer (or if you cannot afford the bus fare to take you there), you can be sent right back to prison - where society apparently thinks millions of Americans belong." (Alexander, 93)

Black, latin and perhaps native american men are most swept up in this cruel system. But women are also affected. Given the abdication of state responsibilities for the welfare of citizens, the American government, as Anna Marie Smith, a professor at Cornell emphasizes, targets "deadbeat dads". Criminalizing the fathers, they make any voluntary or continuing relationship – something which is probably a possibility in many cases – out of the question by state fiat. Here the state seems to be working on a meticulous – one might say in Foucault’s sense disciplinary – form of divide and rule. In any case, it wantonly destroys the lives and wellbeing of the people it affects. Further, attempting to squeeze those who often have little income, it does not provide adequately for children. Comparisons with Europe are highly relevant here. In Scandinavia in 2000, according to an OECD report, there were the largest percentage of single parent households in the world - 47% - and the lowest occurrence of child poverty - 3%. Quite a contrast with American misery imposed especially on blacks and latins and on poor whites as well.

Now the vast majority of drug users in the US (and a huge part of the prison and paroled population) are white (Alexander, 131). According to Alexander,

"Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 -an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began. Nothing has contributed to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the war on drugs....

In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession and only one of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity." (Alexander, 59)

Though purportedly “color blind” – ours is formally a civil rights state - and seemingly utterly different from the earlier segregated state, the police have unspoken prejudices and, with Supreme Court license (61-65), concentrate on blacks and latins. Unless the plaintiff can provide racist words as the motive, the Court has eliminated every appeal based on patterns of racial discrimination, even in situations where there is so vast a percentage of blacks (and latins) that one must be a stone racist not to notice. (ch. 2) If everyone who ever inhaled (and even Bill Clinton who “didn’t”) ended up jail, most of the population (the entire middle class, and every President since at least HW Bush), would be behind bars or on parole.

It is easy to joke about the hypocrisy of it all, but this system, as Alexander says, is, shockingly, in result, a kind of new Jim Crow. It repeats and feeds off the creation of a racial caste. Such fierce treatment of blacks, however, is also linked to special oppression toward Chicanos – a second component of the racial caste - and poor whites (with the continuing depression – roughly 1 in 5 unemployed and many others at minimum wage jobs – see the op-ed last Tuesday by Paul Osterman on Texas here - this is an increasing segment of whites, the middle class thinning out). According to the Justice Department, 1 in 3 black male children born in 2001 can expect to be involved with this prison system, 1 in 6 Chicanoes, 1 in 17 whites…

The magnitude of this system – what needs to be named this American police state – is startling. 2.3 million prisoners is 25% of all the prisoners in the world (add in the unique probation state, 3 times as large, 7.4 million, and the American stigmatization of a subpopulation as criminal exceeds the combined prison population of perhaps 3/4 of the world). America holds directly a much larger number of prisoners in jail than China, and the gap grows with the difference in population (i.e. as a ratio in the population; in the US it’s approximately 1 in 100 in prison, 3 in 100 in the prison/parole system). The American government imprisons more people than China, Russia and all the prisoners in the tyrannies of the Middle East combined (throw in Egypt which has hardly yet freed the prisoners from Mubarak as well).

Obama is the President and the issue of race moves the Tea Party (those who believe he lacks a birth certificate) – some 26% of the electorate in current, though probably exaggerated toward the Right polling. But the bipartisan silence about race combined with the Obama Presidency leads to the comforting illusion that racism no longer plays a central role in the American life (more aptly, the American system of divide and rule). The month after Obama was elected, the New York Times ran an editorial on December 22, 2008 which mentioned that 4 in 100 poor black teenagers in New York find work. That’s an unemployment rate of 96%.

At a second panel I attended, it turned out that even the imperial military is only an escape for blacks who have no record and some college. For those who have only high school, 5 in 100 make it out through joining the military (Amy Lerman, Princeton, “Civil Rights, the State and Black Mass Incarceration," APSA, 2011). Taking in this figure for the one, integrated institution (below sergeant) in this society made me want to cry…

These two panels at the American Political Science association, one centered around Alexander’s book, the other on the creation of a civil rights state, a state which does not enforce segregation law and yet produces horrendous and racist results (i.e. that 49% of people on death row are black), were striking. This is a problem that Alexander, a subtle analyst of how this system affects all, deals with well in chapter 3 of The New Jim Crow.

But several panelists, notably Cathy Cohen of the University of Chicago and Desmond King, raised important questions about whether calling the system the New Jim Crow doesn’t limit our concern to the black caste – or in her book, a caste of color, black and brown - in the prisons with the implication also that this might be politically isolating. And the idea of a new jim Crow being practiced de facto by a civil rights state – the very point that made her initially disbelieve the thought as she eloquently describes – is paradoxical, hard if you have little contact with the prison system, aren’t staring at the people in it, to take in. Yet if one does look at the prison population, a Jim Crow with wider ramifications – segregation in the South also led to impoverishment for most whites as well - is obvious.

Marie Gottschalk, in political science at the University of Pennsylvania who often speaks to criminologists as well as political scientists, made the important point that concentration on the differential of blacks and whites in sentencing has led scholars to neglect the more important point. It is the long sentences required by legislative mandate which is the even deeper oppression. This was also Alexander’s central point in her The New Jim Crow; that segregationist Democrats switched to the Republican Party and fought for long and predetermined sentences, “law and order,” and with much Democratic acquiescence or embrace, helped recreate the conditions of segregation for the prison/probation population. In America, it is unwise to look too far from straight-out racism in the explanation of why so many black and brown people are, disproportionally, in the prison/probation system even if many, many whites are also dragged down. Alexander also makes the startling point that a murderer in other societies will often get a lesser sentence than a drug offender, sometimes, even a first time drug offender, in the United States.

As an indiction of how the prison system has worsened, in the mid-1970s, I was arrested for “jaywalking” in a demonstration of 50 people in downtown Los Angeles. When I went to the court, there were 50 black people, 49 chicanoes, and me…in the 1970s, the LA courthouse was the second biggest in the world. The biggest – I often ask my students to guess – was in Johannesburg. Sadly, there is no comparison today between South Africa and the United States. In South Africa, apartheid is gone; despite enormous poverty, that regime has healed to a considerable extent. But the United States is, as the statistics above reveal, startlingly – 8 times - worse in the number of prisoners, not even counting the 5.1 million on parole. Though formally a democracy, the United States is also the biggest (racist) police state in the world…

In any case, Alexander’s response that it is after all a caste pulling down everyone else with it is sensible. Another point that she makes in her book about the Supreme Court particularly underlines this. The fourth amendment protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures. It was the heart of the Bill of Rights, directed against British tyranny. But since drug “crimes” are between consenting participants – buyers and sellers – there is no one who experiences being beaten or robbed, no obvious victim or family to report the crimes. Only an increasingly institutionized police state can crack down on drug "crimes," especially those concerning marijuana (ones which are doubtfully crimes). Case by case, an authoritarian Supreme Court – often by a 5-4 margin - has reversed lower courts and permitted, for example, traffic stops to be used for random searches of cars for drugs (some 7 in every hundred searches turn up something). There is plainly prejudice in who gets searched (the police do not do this in Boulder or Scarsdale).

The danger of political isolation in naming this, however, is, as the critics point out, real. This gigantic police system is sometimes called a “prison-industrial complex” except that this misses the broader aspect of probation, of corporate media stigmatization of blacks as “likely criminals,” and the like. Like the war complex (the military-industrial-congressional-think tank/academic-corporate media-intelligence-foreign militaries with large scale American aid and so forth complex), this police state complex is far broader, more institutionalized, more subject to a private profit motive (police often appropriate the money and estates from drug confiscations, prisons are increasingly privatized, and the like) and thus harder to change despite its grotesquely irrational, cruel and wasteful aspects than people usually imagine. Further, as we saw in the case of Abu Ghraib where Sergeant Charles Graner had learned torture techniques practicing on blacks in Florida prisons even before he got orders from Donald Rumsfeld (and Bush and Cheney) to practice them on Iraqi prisoners, there is a mutual interplay between prisons abroad and prisons at home (see my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? for a broader analysis of this dynamic). To undo this complex, movements from below, for instance, to legalize marijuana and repeal the rigid federal sentences and three strikes and your out state laws (California), are needed. We need apt words to gather a movement. Both Cathy Cohen and Desmond King, who rightly admire and have learned from Alexander’s book, have raised a deep question about whether the new Jim Crow is the right term.

The next post will continue this one.


OP-ED CONTRIBUTORS
On Race, the Silence Is Bipartisan
By DESMOND S. KING and ROGERS M. SMITH
Published: September 2, 2011


THE economic crisis in the United States is also a racial crisis. White Americans are hurting, but nonwhite Americans are hurting even more. Yet leaders in both political parties — for different reasons — continue to act as though race were anachronistic and irrelevant in a country where an African-American is the president.

In July, the unemployment rate was 8.2 percent for whites, but 16.8 percent for blacks and 11.3 percent for Latinos. The Pew Research Center estimates that in 2009, the median household net worth was $5,677 for blacks, $6,325 for Hispanics and $113,149 for whites — down from $12,124, $18,539 and $134,992, respectively, in 2005.

All groups have suffered from high unemployment, the mortgage meltdown and soaring health care costs, but African-Americans and Hispanics started far behind and continue to fall behind. In 2009, 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Latino households had zero or negative wealth, compared with 15 percent of white households.

Since the end of legal segregation in the 1960s, there have been two approaches to ameliorating racial inequality. Conservatives and most Republican politicians insist that laws be colorblind and that race-conscious measures like affirmative action should be ended. Liberals and most Democratic politicians favor such measures, mindful of the burdens of past and present discrimination.

For most of the nation’s history, the two major parties were internally divided over racial issues. But today, racial policy positions align almost perfectly with the party system. The two parties, which openly clashed over race from the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, have for the last decade pretty much agreed not to talk about race — a silence that impedes progress toward racial equality.

Democrats mention race as little as possible, even though minority voters are crucial constituents, because colorblind positions are far more politically popular. Affirmative action has been supported in every Democratic presidential platform since 1972, but since the Reagan era, Democrats speak of it less and less.

President Obama, for example, does not openly renounce affirmative action, but he pragmatically stresses universal social programs like health care. He manages to avoid appearing especially concerned about African-Americans.

This tack leaves modern Republicans with little to criticize, lest they appear to be race-baiting, so they too keep quiet.Advocates of both colorblind and race-conscious approaches to public policy now claim the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights agenda and his call for people to be judged by their character, not their skin. Though Republicans claim that free-market policies will lift all boats and Democrats hope that “universal” measures to combat economic inequality will benefit all groups, racial inequality has endured.

As studies of employment and real estate practices begun during the Reagan era have consistently shown, racial discrimination persists. And “race neutral” economic measures backed by Democrats, like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, have proved too limited to aid many poorer blacks and Hispanics.

Political leaders must openly recognize that we cannot progress either by ignoring race or focusing exclusively on it. It is not only legitimate, but also essential, to evaluate policy options partly on the basis of whether they are likely to reduce or increase racial inequalities.

Compromise policies — measures that are not explicitly race-targeted but are chosen partly because they will benefit nonwhites especially — should become the basis for policy debates.

For example, without using explicit racial classifications, we can devise districts and situate homes in ways that are more likely to produce integrated schools and neighborhoods.

We can adopt employment tests that are fair and inclusive and do a better job at predicting job performance than many Civil Service exams now do.

And we can do more to ensure that our criminal laws do not target crimes more typical of urban Hispanics and blacks, like crack cocaine use, more strongly than crimes typical of suburban whites, like powder cocaine use.

Both parties should accept that the question of whether policies help narrow the racial divide must be part of the discussion. After all, it was the Republican-led search for racial progress in the 1860s and the Democratic-led fight for civil rights in the 1960s — buttressed, of course, by African-Americans’ own freedom struggle — that allowed the election of a black president in 2008.

Desmond S. King, a professor of American government at Oxford University, and Rogers M. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, are the authors of “Still a House Divided: Race and Politics in Obama’s America.”

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