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In her book titled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Ages of Colorblindness, Michel Alexander draws a parallel between the modern racially-oriented mass incarceration tactics and the Jim Crow era. The author argues that “callous colorblindness” associated with modern society has been instrumental in the emergence of the United States as a country that “incarcerates an astonishing percentage of its racial or ethnic minorities” (Alexander 9). Alexander supports her arguments with historical evidence and derives her conclusions from solid statistical data. The aim of this paper is to discuss a closing passage from James Baldwin in which the novelist mentions innocence as a basis of crime. It will be argued that Baldwin refers to the unwillingness of the American society to face the truth of mass incarceration that has destroyed countless lives of African Americans, as well as its indifference in respect to the underlying problem of racial injustice.
The idea of racial caste has acquired new social momentum in the post-emancipation era, which has led to the emergence of Jim Crow. According to Forman, convicted individuals are denied public housing, food stamps, certain types of loans, and employment opportunities, among others (107). After a moment’s consideration, it becomes clear that the analogy of Jim Crow used by Alexander for the description of a new framework of racialized social control deserves the merit of being discussed in detail. Indeed, the effects of criminal convictions regularly dispensed with innocent indifference are strikingly similar to the racial ostracism that marred the twentieth century (Alexander 24). The consequences of incarceration for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds are both terrible and far-reaching (Drucker 21). By depriving offenders of student loans, housing, and gainful employment, modern American society turns those convicted of crimes into a stigmatized caste.
The creation of the racial caste system was the process that presented racial discrimination under a new guise of the war on drugs. As the result of the government’s attempt to curb the spread of crack cocaine, the population of the American prisons grew from less than 300 000 to 2 million (Alexander 8). If one were to forsake innocence so poignantly condemned by Baldwin and explore the racial dimension, they would quickly discover that the racial undertone of the war cannot be attributed to actual disparities in drug crime.
While there is no surprise that racially-oriented incarceration is used as an instrument of social control, it is not clear why so-called post-racial America is not capable of recognizing that its judicial process has become a bludgeon in the racial war. There is ample evidence suggesting that the police are more likely to kill a black individual than a white individual even though “white people commit crimes at roughly the same rate” (Hooper 143). It means that institutional racism rests on the shoulders of a social system comprised of individuals whose bigotry prevents them from opening their eyes to the truth.
Following Baldwin’s line of reasoning, it can be argued that palpable racial injustice afflicting the American society is only a symptom of a disease—innocence. This type of innocence is especially pernicious. According to Plaff, despite the incarceration disparities, whites are more likely to become drug offenders than people of color (18). Such facts show that unlike white supremacism, the disease of indifference resides much deeper in the collective psyche of the country, which prevents it from being exposed to sunlight of public denunciation. Far from the radical expressions of racism, this innocent indifference seethes under the surface of the American social institutions resulting in people turning a blind eye to substantial prison term disparities, high incarceration rates, and other implications of structural racism (Alexander 34; Erickson 1425). Many seemingly racially neutral laws that disproportionally affect African-American youth reveal that it is far too early to celebrate a triumph over race.
The excerpt from Baldwin’s letter fits nicely along the lines of Alexander’s social purpose. History, indeed, moves inexorably in the direction of justice; therefore, new generations of civil rights organizations and social activists cannot help but become great doctors of our time. Racial justice advocacy is a pill that, if regularly and properly dispensed, will help to cure the American society of the intractable disease of innocence. There is no doubt that social change is a product of much struggle that requires “greater vision, courage, and determination” (Alexander 261). However, one must not be afraid of struggle in the attempt to dismantle an outdated paradigm at this critical juncture in time. A social movement of such significance would help to build solidarity and gain awareness that are important prerequisites for charging guilty parties with a dire crime of indifference.
The paper has helped to better understand the role of the war on drugs as an instrument for social control. It has been argued that Baldwin refers to the unwillingness of the American society to face the truth of mass incarceration that has destroyed countless lives of African Americans, as well as its indifference in respect to the underlying problem of racial injustice.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012.
Drucker, Ernest. A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. New Press, 2013.
Erickson, Jessica. “Racial Impact Statements: Considering the Consequences of Racial Disproportionalities in the Criminal Justice System.” Washington Law Review, vol. 89, no. 4, 2014, pp. 1425-1465.
Forman, James. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow.” Racial Critiques, vol. 26, no. 1, 2012, pp. 101-146.
Hooper, Deona. “Ferguson Proves the United States Justice System is not Broken, but Working Perfectly as Designed.” Critical and Radical Social Work, vol. 3, no. 1, 2015, pp. 141-148.
Plaff, John. Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. Hachette, 2017.