Challenging the New Jim Crow, part 1

By Alan Bean

This post is the introduction to a keynote address I delivered at a Campaign to End the Death Penalty conference held recently on the campus of the University of Chicago.  Subsequent posts can be found here:

Sheriff Larry Stewart (Tulia, Texas)
DA J. Reed Walters (Jena, Louisiana)
 DA Doug Evans (Winona, Mississippi)
 Conclusion

Challenging the New Jim Crow  

I come bearing bad news.  Since the early 1980s, the fundamental structure of the American criminal justice system has changed.   It is less and less about preventing and punishing crime, and more and more about managing and controlling the surplus population.  Consider a few statistics:

  • The Texas prison population soared from 39,000 in 1988 to 151,000 in 1998—an increase of 387%.  Between 1980 and 2004, the prison population increased almost six-fold. 
  • Spending on corrections during this period increased by 1600 percent. 
  • Between 1980 and 2000, Texas spent seven times more on its prison system than on higher education.
  • In 1950 there was a 3% chance that an African American male born in Texas would do prison time; by 1996 there was a 29% chance.

Since we are in Chicago, let’s look at developments in the Windy City.

  • About 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense in Illinois are African American. 
  • The total population of black males in Chicago with a felony record (including both current and ex-felons) is equivalent to 55 percent of the black adult male population. 
  • Between 1985 and 2005, the number of Chicago residents annually sent to prison for drug crimes increased almost 2,000 percent.

Across the nation the picture is the same.  Here’s Michelle Alexander’s sober assessment:

Michelle Alexander

“Today, the political fanfare and the vehement, racialized rhetoric regarding crime and drugs are no longer necessary.  Mass incarceration has been normalized, and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now embraced (or at least internalized) by people of all colors, from all walks of life, and in every major political party.  We may wonder aloud ‘where have all the black men gone?’ but deep down we already know.  It is simply taken for granted that, in cities like Baltimore and Chicago, the vast majority of young black men are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded criminal for life.  This extraordinary circumstance—unheard of in the rest of the world—is treated here in America as a basic fact of life, as normal as separate water fountains were just a half century ago.”

Has the situation for people of color improved since the Jim Crow era?  It depends who we are talking about.  Educated members of the African American middle class have seen vast improvements in opportunity, status and family income.  Unfortunately, African American families clinging to the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder have been devastated by years of mass unemployment, disappearing jobs, abysmal schools and America’s war on drugs.

Once you have been convicted of a felony in America, you will never taste freedom again.  Not really.  Even if they give you probation, you are now branded as one of “them”.  Just try to get a job when the unemployment rate in your neighborhood is 40% and you are a convicted felon.  You know the life of a street hustler will put you back in the joint, but what are your options?

The old Jim Crow was created to control people of color; the new Jim Crow is designed to control a surplus population that is disproportionately black and brown.  Since the mid 1970’s America has struggled to ignore a dirty little secret: we don’t have real, grown-up jobs with decent pay and benefits for everybody who wants one.  You can blame out-sourcing or de-industrialization, post-industrialization,  neo-liberal economics or some combination of the above, it amounts to the same thing. 

To understand how radically our society has changed it is helpful to trace the life stories of the folks running the new Jim Crow machinery in small southern towns.  The stories you are about to hear are taken from cases investigated by Friends of Justice, but they are symptomatic of a national disease.

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