“More Black men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander stated to a large crowd at the Pasadena Main Library at one of her many public appearances. Michelle Alexander, law professor at Ohio State University, had started a heated discussion that has been avoided for far too long in her new bestseller The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. Many, including myself, were eager to read a book that was severely observing what has been going on in America for almost 200 years. The above quote is not only shocking, but questions the prison system that we, as a country, have allowed to flourish.
The racial bias in the criminal justice system is by far one of the greatest openly covered-up ideologies that this country (indirectly) accepts. This system dates back to around 1865 when slavery was officially abolished, but a system called ‘Black Codes’ were put in place. The Black Codes were laws that were put in place to limit, and in some cases take away, the civil rights and liberties of Blacks in this country. The Southern states used these laws to control the activity of newly freed slaves, giving them a sense of still be enslaved in many ways. These Black Codes merely affirmed the inferiority that slavery had placed on Blacks before it was abolished. They granted Blacks specific rights such as legal marriage, ownership of property and access to courts (with limitations). However, they also denied Blacks the right to vote, express legal concern publically, to serve in a jury, or testify against whites. With such legal doctrines already established in our country, Blacks were given very little chance to progress within a failed system.
Ten years later was the birth of Jim Crow, another set of state and local laws that gave Blacks the “separate but not equal” status to whites. Jim Crow, is a term that was first coined in 1832 from a song-and-dance caricature named “Jump Jim Crow”, used to satirize populist policies. By 1838, “Jim Crow” was the derogatory expression meaning “Negro”. These laws became the new caste system that mandated the segregation of public facilities such as schools, restrooms, restaurants, transportation, and the U.S. military. Jim Crow laws made it almost unbearable for People of Color (POC) to walk the streets. Much of the “separate but equal” left the Blacks with little funding and jobs to survive from day-to-day. Laws were passed for Blacks to always have identification and show proof of employment.
With the economy at a low after Reconstruction, jobs were scarce. Police officers took this as an opportunity to stop many Black men walking the streets and question them about their credentials. During this time many Blacks were jailed and sentenced for various periods of time. Many were put to physical work while serving their sentences. This, in retrospect, was an alternative to slavery; it was along the lines of “legal slavery”.
The trend of arresting in high urban areas continued into the 20th century through multiple presidencies. The “War on Drugs” campaign began during the Nixon presidency, which caused a stir in many communities. In a special message to Congress, President Nixon declared drug abuse as a “serious national threat”. Creating a dramatic jump in drug-related juvenile arrests and street crime between 1960-1967, Nixon called for a national anti-drug policy at the state and federal levels. Police were suddenly on high alert searching for hard drugs such as cocaine and heroine in the local ghettos. For decades it has been shown that Blacks are no more likely than whites to use or sell illegal drugs, however the “War on Drugs” was primarily targeting urban Blacks. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared an “official” War on Drugs when drug-related arrests were actually on the decline. He declared the drug war before, not after, crack became a media sensation. He turned a metaphor into a literal war, against the Black community. Nixon’s former chief of staff H.R. Haleman was quoted, “The whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is devise a system that recognizes this without appearing to.”
Staff was soon hired to feed to the media vivid stories of crack whores and crack babies so that the public would be outraged and back the funding that would be needed to take on this so-called war. Clinton also supported the “War on Drugs”, but took it much further than his predecessors. Clinton passed laws that denied federal financial aid for drug offenders for college, banned those with criminal convictions from public housing, and denied food stamps to those who arrested for possession.
Stop-and-frisk only escalated and in the past few years has been at an all-time high. To say RACE is the basis of most arrest is this country has become almost unacceptable, in an era that is so-called “post-racism”. Now, the target has been young POC and 4 out of 5 drug arrests are for the possession of marijuana, a drug that has shown to have more positive qualities than alcohol or tobacco that are both completely legal. Black men are being sentenced time much more frequently than whites and other minorities in this country. In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated there were over 846,000 Black men in prison, making up 40.2% of all inmates in the system at large. The stop-and-frisk policy is much too common in the state of New York. Just on Friday, Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker was frisked at a store in NYC after an employee accused him of stealing. The Black man will always be criminalized in this country, no matter the background. Michelle Alexander asked a prominent question, “…what if Obama, who has admitted to violating our nations drug laws, had been treated like a common criminal – what if he hadn’t been insulated by growing up in Hawaii and attending a predominantly white university – where would he be now?”
The essence of Jim Crow has left this country with a broken system that creates many financial issues for POC. With this system, we are at a loss, but we also have a lot to gain. The quote that I began with, in the passed two years, has become untrue. In fact there are more blacks in college than there are in our prison system. In 2011, 1,445,194 black males enrolled into college, more than 752,150 that enrolled in 2001 as stated by Professor Ivory Toldson at Howard University. The Black community is making many strides to change what is set in place, but much more time will be needed to fix what has already been done.
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