“Felony is the New ‘N-Word”: Michelle Alexander on Mass Incarceration as “The New Jim Crow” in the Age of Obama
by Paul Street
“Once you’re branded as a felon, all the “old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal.”
Early in her courageous and important new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010), Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander offers a painful and poignant memory from the evening of November 4, 2008:
“As an African American woman, with three young children who will never know a world in which a black man could not be president of the United States, I was beyond thrilled on election night. Yet when I walked out of the election night party, full of hope and enthusiasm, I was immediately reminded of the harsh realities of the New Jim Crow. A black man was on his knees in the gutter, hands cuffed behind his back, as several polices officers stood around talking, joking, and ignoring his human existence. People poured out of the building: many stared for a moment at the black man cowering in the street, and then averted their gaze. What did the election of Barack Obama means for him?”
The Race to Incarcerate
What did Obama’s ascendancy really signify for the African American man waiting to be hauled off to the nation’s disproportionately black jails and prisons? That’s a good question. Consider the following cold facts from the officially “colorblind” United States, self-proclaimed homeland and headquarters of global “freedom”:
* Between 1980 and 2000, thanks primarily to the bipartisan U.S. War on Drugs, the number of people confined in U.S. prisons and jails rose spectacularly, from 300,000 to more than 2 million. Drug incarcerations accounted for the majority of that remarkable increase.
* By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans (1 in 31 adults) were under the supervision of the criminal justice system: behind bars or on probation or parole.
* The U.S. has by far and away the world’s highest incarceration rate (750 per 100,000, compared to 93 per 100,000 in, for example, Germany), “dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country” and “surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran” (Michelle Alexander).
* Most of the spectacular number of Americans behind bars are incarcerated for non-violent offenses – drug crimes primarily – that most other nations do not view as remotely prison-worthy.
“The per capital incarceration rate for drug offenses in the U.S. rose by 930 percent between 1980 and 1996.”
* Illegal drug use is the single leading offense for which U.S. prisoners are doing time.
* Thirty years ago, there were less than 300 arrests for drug crimes for every 100,000 adults in the U.S. There were 2 prison admissions for every 100 drug admissions. By 1996, the drug arrest rate more than doubled to nearly 700 arrests per 100,000 adults and there were 8 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. The per capital incarceration rate for drug offenses in the U.S. rose by 930 percent between 1980 and 1996.
It gets much worse when you factor in skin color. The people incarcerated and marked by prison histories and criminal records in the world’s leading penal state (the U.S.) are very disproportionately black and male:
* 1 in every 14 black U.S. black man was imprisoned in 2001, compared to 1 in 106 white men
* 1 in 9 black men between the ages of 20 and 35 was behind bars in 2006 and a much larger percentage was under parole, probation or some other form of penal control.
* The U.S. incarcerates a larger share of its black population than did South Africa at the pinnacle of apartheid.
* In Washington D.C., home to the nation’s first black president, 75 percent of young black men can expect to serve time in prisons.In the city’s poorest neighborhoods and across the many highly segregated black urban ghettoes that persist across (not-so) “post-racial” America, similar incarceration rates and expectations prevail and time behind bars has become “normative” for young black males.
* In seven states black Americans make up 80 to 90 percent all drug prisoners. In more than fifteen states, blacks are sent to prison on drug convictions at rates from 20 to 57 times greater than those of white men.
* Three fourths of all Americans behind bars for drug crimes are black or Latino.
* On any given day, nearly a third (30 percent) of black males ages 20 to 29 is under some form of correctional supervision.
* Blacks make up 12 percent of the overall U.S. population but account for more than 45 percent of the nation’s prisoners.
* One in three black U.S. adult males carries the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record .
“Felony is the New ‘N-Word’”
This last problem – felony marking – is no small problem for social and racial justice in America. The prison experience itself is only the tip of the many-sided mass incarceration iceberg, whose chilling impact on black opportunity spreads across the societal terrain. A black minister in Waterloo, Mississippi argues: “Felony is the new ‘N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon…today’s lynching is a felony charge…A felony is a modern way of saying, ‘I’m going to hang you up and burn you.’ Once you get that F, you’re on fire.”[1A]
There’s reason for the preacher’s strong language. In the fourth chapter (titled “The Cruel Hand”) of The New Jim Crow, Alexander shows how once you’re branded as a felon, all the “old forms of discrimination – employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service – are suddenly legal. As a criminal,” Alexander observes, “you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”