- Mass Incarceration Is the New Racism
by Michelle Alexander
New Press , 2010
This is a book about how it is that the United States has transferred the old Jim Crow (defined as the racist structure of the white society of the South) into the new Jim Crow through the mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders who are from brown and black communities. It is relevant to Indian Country in general and South Dakota in particular because it intimates a parallel but largely unspoken Native history of why it is that our jails in this part of the country are made up of 60 to 80 percent Indian when the overall Native population in the state is 10 percent. (You may quibble about the numbers here but the imbalance is well-known by most observers.)
Since the American Indian Movement (AIM) days of thirty years ago, the jailing of nonviolent Natives here has reached an all-time high: DUIs, domestic disturbances, and petty drug use. Even poverty has become a crime. This trend in statistics (though not widely circulated) gives credibility to Alexander’s point that mass incarceration has become the latest tool used by White America to fortify the historical white supremacy that has been ongoing since early days.
As you probably know, Jim Crow was not a real person. He was a symbol used by African Americans to represent the white notion of black inferiority... something like how Uncle Sam has been used for the opposite reason, that is, as a symbol for the white man’s superior status, a right/might fantasy, and “the American Dream.” These historical symbols have been powerful tools used as a means of control in a largely white world called “America,” says Alexander. Her point is that they still are being used this way. In Pennington County and elsewhere, this phenomenon has been responsible for a ubiquitous racial stigma, which is very simply the largely successful effort to define Indians negatively. Young Native men and women are persecuted and incarcerated at a much higher rate here than non-Natives as a means to ensure that the vast majority of these offenders will never be integrated into the mainstream. Nor will they be functioning citizens of their own tribal nations. They will have “felon” following their names in a climate of law and order rhetoric, lending institutions will banish them, and they will not be able to get jobs, rent apartments, or go to college. It is a way of genocide in the deliberate targeting of present and future generations. [End Page 95]
As Alexander’s narrative suggests, many people have wanted to deny racial hostility on the part of whites in this awful history, so they say that most whites did not support these patterns of discrimination because they had a sadistic desire to harm blacks or Indians. Rather, they simply wanted to get rich. And they did. Thus, the denial of racial hatred on the part of whites is often not a part of the discussion.
While some historians also want to say that Jim Crow disappeared after the Civil War and Reconstruction (and after the treaties were signed), Alexander says Jim Crow is just masquerading under other names, such as “law and order.” Her research shows that law and order codes of the past decades now lay out a new kind of tool used by White America to campaign for continued white supremacy. It is called Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Does this sound familiar?
I reviewed some of my thinking on these matters a couple of years ago as I attended what are called “the AIM Trials” in our federal and state courts. I recognized that American Indians who protested cruel and oppressive law enforcement during the thirty years of the AIM era were being stigmatized and vilified by the media. A hostile white community sought to shame them, and society in general, into believing that “dissent” was a dirty word. It is not. Indeed, it is a crucial component for the existence of just and humane societies across the world.
But the unfortunate...