Friday, September 27, 2013
September 27, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: The New Jim Crow
[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the broadest, and most disheartening, context for race and justice in 21st century America.
I’ve written before in this space about the way that wars, even those with the most noble or necessary purposes, tend to draw out and feature the very worst in human behavior. I’ve also used that dark reality to make my case for why the phrase and concept “the war on terror” has been the worst outcome from the September 11th terrorist attacks (and, fortunately, one that seems to be waning in our national conversations). And I’ve likewise argued for the striking wrong-headedness of the “war on drugs,” a conflict that has produced just as many dark effects as and is just as impossible to imagine “winning” as the war on terror, and one directed even more overtly at those who are already victims (at least if you believe, as I do, that the war on drugs is much more consistently a war on drug users and drug addicts than on dealers or other criminals).
Given all of that, I can’t imagine a more trenchant and timely book, nor a more thoroughly depressing and horrifying one, than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Moreover, while Alexander’s work focuses first and foremost on the drug war and related realities of our horrifically distorted justice system, her title indicates the book’s broader and crucial historical sweep: her connection of these contemporary realities to the histories of racism and discrimination that have (as I hope this week’s series has illustrated) so long been intertwined with law and justice in America. Quite simply, the book is like The Wire in public scholarly form, only without the wonderful performances and moments of humor and occasional happy endings and Omar Little-y goodness (show spoilers in that video) to distract us from the crushing weight of all the wrongs that both the show and book document and deconstruct.
So how on earth do we—we public scholars, we Americans, we people period—respond to such realities? Other than by weeping softly, anyway, which I’m pretty much doing right now. It’s not a magic bullet by any means, but I think one important step is simply to read Alexander’s book, and thus to raise our communal awareness of all these interconnected histories and current events, issues and themes. I’m proud to say that my own institution, Fitchburg State University, has chosen The New Jim Crow as its first Common Community Read; over the next couple of years I’ll get some direct evidence for what such communal reading and engagement might mean, and will keep you posted for sure. Awareness and engagement are of course only the first steps, and can’t themselves solve—or even necessarily address—any of the root causes or problems that contribute to this dark national reality. But if we’re going to fight this war—to fight against this war, that is—they’re a pretty important ground from which to do so.
September Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think?