In a recent article about Michelle Alexander’s phenomenal The New Jim Crow, a book on the impact of the war on drugs on Black men and women, James Forman, Jr. of Yale Law School raised a criticism or two, including that he feels the book “ignores the violent crime wave of the 1970s and minimizes the support among many African-Americans for get-tough measures,” according to the article.
James Forman, Jr. is a brilliant scholar and comes from solid civil rights pedigree. His critique (soon to be released in the Yale Law Review) is not simply designed to swipe at the book in order to gain attention or diminish a colleague. While I might disagree with some of his analysis, the one thing that rubs me the wrong way is this: that African-American support for get-tough measures functions as a stand-alone argument.
When Nixon ramped up fear of criminality as part of his presidential campaign strategy, talking about the Silent Majority who were afraid of the uptick in violence and crime in America, there was certainly some code embedded in it: good upstanding White people should be taken seriously when they express fear of (Black) crime and criminals. And it’s how he won the election.
However, Black people heard the same rhetoric as White people, and they had the same response: We shouldn’t have to live in fear. Getting tough on crime will make us safer. Criminals should pay.
The interesting twist on this issue is that as crime has declined over the past two decades, fear of crime has continued to increase, and the ratcheting up of punishment has increased. (I know–it makes one ask the question, “Then didn’t getting tough on crime work?” The correlation isn’t to punishment; it’s to the economy. Crime and poverty are pretty strongly linked. Unless you’re talking about rich people who are statistically more likely to break small laws and steal candy from children. Really.)
African Americans are Americans. They are exposed to the same rhetoric, the same sense of pervasive fear as other Americans. So of course they’re in favor of get-tough measures on crime. That’s what we’ve been taught works.
Except that it doesn’t always. I’m going to get in trouble in a later post for seeming TOO tough on crime (because I LOVE Operation Ceasefire when it’s done in its entirety, Scared Straight intervention stuff and all). But for now, I want to name that just because people of color support something doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt people of color. It just means that people of color, just like everyone else, are capable of thinking in “us and them” terms. If I don’t have anyone in my family in prison, and I fear that my house will get broken into, I don’t pause to think about the ramifications of systemic racism in targeting my community for incarceration at a higher rate and often for illegitimate reasons with disproportionate sentencing. I think, “Stop bad people from breaking into my house.” (And that does happen. I’ve experienced it. It is scary.) Even if my cousin Supreet IS in jail, I might feel like he brought it on himself–I’m not more likely to look at the prison industrial complex’s injustices so much as look at Supreet and say, “Maybe we should be locking folks like him up; maybe it’ll teach him a lesson.” (Sorry to my real friend Supreet–although he is a little shady.)
Michelle Alexander’s point (or one of them) is that crime is decreasing, and yet sentences are increasing, and they are increasing disproportionately for Black men and women–meaning, they’ll get longer sentences for the same crime. She’s not saying our prison system is racist because people of color are opposed to it. And when we use that argument, we use it with the intention to disarm our opponent. And it’s not a sound or helpful argument, even when it’s effective.
Racism doesn’t exist because people of color say it exists. Racism exists because we can see patterns of discrimination that privilege one group and harm another. We can see patterns where rhetoric determines policy instead of facts. We can see patterns of communities that are biologically wired the same as other people who are failing out of school at higher rates, being pushed out of school at higher rates, and ending up in prison at higher rates, even though they come into this world the same as everyone else–no smarter or dumber, more or less gifted, more or less innately capable than any other group.
Professor Forman makes some helpful critiques, and he is clear that The New Jim Crow is a helpful and necessary contribution to our discussion about a broken system. I just invite you to be wary of anyone arguing “But my friend Gayatri doesn’t mind increased security measures, so you can’t be right about unfair discrimination against Arabs and South Asians in a post 9/11 world.” But that’s probably a different blog post.