Chapter 6: "The Fire This Time" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322

In 2007, thousands of protestors, including black celebrities and political figures, gathered in a small town in Louisiana, criticizing the local district attorney for charging six black teenagers with felony attempted murder after a fight at school that left their white classmate badly beaten. Despite claims that the protests marked the beginning of a new civil rights movement, the activism fizzled once the media attention dwindled.

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Alexander indicates that the protests focused too heavily on the alleged hanging of nooses on school grounds prior to the fight, which she argues are a relic of the old racial caste system. Because Americans almost universally agree that overt racism, as represented by the noose, is unacceptable, organizers must concentrate on the subtleties by which the new system operates if they want to dismantle that system.

As a civil rights lawyer herself, Alexander reveals why current civil rights advocacy largely ignores mass incarceration, arguing that an increasingly litigious approach following the success of high profile laws in the 1950s and 1960s is not the best way to dissemble mass incarceration. Many civil rights figures are reluctant to advocate on behalf of criminals, fearing that the white public would be unreceptive to civil rights improvements on behalf of “bad” black people. Instead, many civil rights advocates concentrate on finding irreproachable black victims, from whose stories they can craft a narrative in support of universally-good reforms like improved education.

Another part of the difficulty of dismantling the system of mass incarceration is that this system has produced a multibillion dollar industry that employs thousands of workers, both inside prisons and in penal bureaucracy; generates exorbitant profits for private corporations; and funnels untold sums into local police departments. Some local economies in rural America actually rely on the system of mass incarceration to stay afloat. This practical reality means that the system could not be dismantled instantly without fierce, immediate backlash.

The reform must begin with the end of the War on Drugs, which Alexander asserts can not be accomplished via simple legislative maneuvers. Instead, Alexander urges social justice reformers to engage in mass demonstrations, like the ones used during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander believes it is necessary to alter the public opinion that gave rise to the drug war in the first place. Without this change in attitude, Alexander says any reforms will be unlikely to completely demolish the system. To support her claim, Alexander notes how the victory of Brown v. Board of Education did not single-handedly dismantle Jim Crow or even educational discrimination, its primary target.

Shifting focus to how these mass demonstrations should operate, Alexander argues that reformers must resist a colorblind approach. Contrary to popular opinion, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration actually increases crime and poverty within communities of color, indicating that the system has little impact on crime reduction. Consequently, one can infer that mass incarceration is a form of social control designed to oppress people of color. Even if addressing race makes white people uncomfortable, Alexander says it is necessary to acknowledge that race is the reason why the system of mass incarceration has been able to flourish. Alexander argues that colorblindness should be replaced with color consciousness. This term refers to the open acknowledgment of racial differences while caring about one another despite such differences. While many African Americans and well-meaning whites adopt a colorblind philosophy, Alexander argues that ignoring race does not solve racial...

(The entire section contains 1322 words.)

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