MLK Day: What I Didn’t Learn About Jim Crow in School

Today on the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., I would like to recommend two books that helped me view his work in a larger context.  The first is Slavery By Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, and the second is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  The former taught me a lot about the economic basis of the Jim Crow legal system that Dr. King fought to uproot.  The latter taught me a more current lesson about how mass incarceration and the War on Drugs have surreptitiously replaced the caste system this holiday is supposed to celebrate the end of.  My sister calls the phenomenon of mass incarceration today “the new slavery,” but not many people I know would understand why she refers to it that way.

Until I read Slavery By Another Name, I didn’t realize that the Jim Crow laws that King worked to overturn were originally imposed as a way of perpetuating the South’s addiction to free black labor in the wake of the Civil War.  The following is a summary of the book from the website,

“The Age of Neo-Slavery

In this groundbreaking historical expose, Douglas A. Blackmon brings to light one of the most shameful chapters in American history—when a cynical new form of slavery was resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War and re-imposed on hundreds of thousands of African-Americans until the dawn of World War II.

Under laws enacted specifically to intimidate blacks, tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested, hit with outrageous fines, and charged for the costs of their own arrests. With no means to pay these ostensible “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to coal mines, lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, quarries and farm plantations. Thousands of other African Americans were simply seized by southern landowners and compelled into years of involuntary servitude. Government officials leased falsely imprisoned blacks to small-town entrepreneurs, provincial farmers, and dozens of corporations—including U.S. Steel Corp.—looking for cheap and abundant labor. Armies of “free” black men labored without compensation, were repeatedly bought and sold, and were forced through beatings and physical torture to do the bidding of white masters for decades after the official abolition of American slavery.

The neoslavery system exploited legal loopholes and federal policies which discouraged prosecution of whites for continuing to hold black workers against their wills. As it poured millions of dollars into southern government treasuries, the new slavery also became a key instrument in the terrorization of African Americans seeking full participation in the U.S. political system.

Based on a vast record of original documents and personal narratives, SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME unearths the lost stories of slaves and their descendants who journeyed into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation and then back into the shadow of involuntary servitude. It also reveals the stories of those who fought unsuccessfully against the re-emergence of human labor trafficking, the modern companies that profited most from neoslavery, and the system’s final demise in the 1940s, partly due to fears of enemy propaganda about American racial abuse at the beginning of World War II.”

After the gains of the civil rights movement, this country eventually reinvented another pretext for carrying out a similar policy in better disguise.  It’s called the War on Drugs, whose laws are disproportionately targeted against people of color who go to prison while whites go to rehab.  The prison system is a booming business, much of which is now privatized.  Rural white areas count the largely black populations of the prions they house as part of their census population statistics in order to gain federally allocated funds that should be going to the neighborhoods these people were taken from.  The prison business is now the number one industry in the state of Texas.  You can watch a movie like Monster’s Ball, which supposedly deals with this topic, and still not understand the legal and economic fundamentals about how this system works.  (Much as you can watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Cool Hand Luke and misunderstand completely the chain gang system.)  The following is a statement about the book from the books website, which I provide a link to on this site’s blogroll:

“The New Jim Crow is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in the United States, one that has resulted in millions of African Americans locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status—denied the very rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement. Since its publication in 2010, the book has been dubbed the “secular bible of a new social movement” by numerous commentators, including Cornel West, and has led to consciousness-raising efforts in universities, churches, community centers, re-entry centers and prisons nationwide. The New Jim Crow tells a truth our nation has been reluctant to face.

As the United States celebrates its “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of black men in major urban areas are under correctional control or saddled with criminal records for life. Jim Crow laws were wiped off the books decades ago, but today an extraordinary percentage of the African American community is warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights— including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries, and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits. Today, it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Yet as civil rights lawyer-turned-legal scholar Michelle Alexander demonstrates, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against convicted criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once labeled a felon, even for a minor drug crime, the old forms of discrimination are suddenly legal again. In her words, “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

Alexander shows that, by targeting black men through the War on Drugs and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of colorblindness.

The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community—and all of us—to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.”

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