CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Michelle Alexander, law professor at the Ohio State University, presents scholarly in-depth research on mass incarceration of non-violent offenders in her provocative book "The New Jim Crow".
Alexander makes a compelling case that the mass incarceration of blacks in America has a similar negative impact as the Jim Crow system of racial and social oppression had on blacks from 1877 to 1965. One could make the argument that in some ways, mass incarceration is worse than Jim Crow.
Jim Crow was a system of racial apartheid against blacks embedded in state and local laws. Jim Crow began after reconstruction ended in 1877 and continued until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Jim Crow denied blacks certain constitutional rights such as voting, the right to serve as jurors, and equal protection under the law. It deprived blacks of economic and social opportunities such as access to quality education, employment opportunities, fair housing and public accommodations. The goal of Jim Crow was to keep blacks as subservient second-class citizens. It was finally struck down with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voter's Rights Act of 1965.
The use of incarceration to control, manage and exploit black labor is nothing new. In fact, it is as American as baseball, basketball and apple pie. The major underpinning of the Jim Crow system was that many Southern states passed laws that made it legal to arrest and incarcerate blacks for offenses as minor as vagrancy. Once arrested, blacks could be forced into state-run labor camps or hired out to private companies in a system called convict leasing.
There are striking similarities between the Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration systems. The Jim Crow system involved Southern states passing state laws that allowed them to legally deny blacks constitutional rights, educational and social opportunities. Mass incarceration is driven by the supposed war on drugs that has been codified in federal and state laws and that creates lifetime convicted felons out of many non-violent offenders. Their felony status results in a temporary or permanent loss of the right to vote, depending on the state where they live. Convicted drug felons are stripped of other opportunities among them the opportunity to participate in certain federally funded job training programs, access to public housing, access to many employment opportunities, participation in the military, etc. The net effect of being a convicted felon is banishment to second-class citizenship and the permanent underclass. The same outcomes as the Jim Crow system.
There are also several striking contrasts between Jim Crow and Mass Incarceration. Jim Crow was regional, contained primarily in the South; whereas, mass incarceration is Pan-American. The clutches of Jim Crow could be escaped by leaving the South. The stigma of being a convicted felon associated with mass incarceration follows one all over the nation. Jim Crow affected only blacks, whereas mass incarceration grips poor whites and Latinos as well.
The Jim Crow system though designed to keep blacks subservient still needed black labor to drive the economy in the agrarian and heavy labor-intensive economy of the Jim Crow era. But in this era of mass incarceration in a quasi post-manufacturing, service, information and high technology economy there is less need for manual labor. Mass incarceration in essence denies individuals the right to work in most instances and is therefore the worst type of oppressive system. Therefore, mass incarceration in some ways is worse than Jim Crow.
Watts is senior pastor at Grace Bible Church in Charleston.