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...
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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.
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 discrimination. The color conscious approach requires individuals to advocate across racial divides while understanding that race does impact one’s experiences. Only then, Alexander says, will the systems of racial oppression be broken.
Alexander then shifts the discussion to explore how racial diversity initiatives like affirmative action are related to mass incarceration. In her perspective, affirmative action has actually made mass incarceration more tolerable to the public, because it creates an illusion of diversity in public spaces. Alexander notes that absent affirmative action, college campuses across the country would experience between sixty-five and ninety percent reduction in the number of black students. This means that affirmative action is working but that all of the progress for which it is often lauded is artificial at best.
Affirmative action allows exceptional black individuals to achieve astronomical heights of success, which further enforces stereotypes that allow mass incarceration to thrive. If the stories of black success stories can be exalted, then the black men and women at the bottom can be blamed for not following in the footsteps of their betters. Alexander explicitly says this dichotomy allows those in power to blame incarceration and poverty on individual choices, avoiding altogether the structural factors responsible. In these ways, affirmative action supports the failed notion that the exclusive black elite will lift poor black people alongside them. Affirmative action, though it may actually be counterproductive, is often the primary focus of modern civil rights advocates. Alexander asserts that this narrow focus allows affirmative action to serve as a kind of racial “bribe” to appease and distract from the deeper roots of racial inequality.
To explain how affirmative action can function this way, Alexander discusses the predicament of black police officers engaged in the drug war. While their racial identity seems to blur the divide between the instigators and the victims of mass incarceration, black officers are just as likely to engage in racial profiling. Alexander maintains, however, that asking black officers to buck a system on which their livelihoods depend is unrealistic. In fact, Alexander claims that many black people are hesitant to criticize the few black individuals who hold positions of power or prestige, fearing that such criticism might diminish public opinion of black success. Barack Obama best typifies this reluctance. Despite Obama’s historic election and previous statements that seem to acknowledge the new racial caste system, the first black president’s track record in matters of criminal justice reflects that of his predecessors. Obama increased funding for the very programs created during the War on Drugs, including those that gave police departments money and equipment in exchange for tougher drug law enforcement. Alexander notes that incarceration rates dramatically increased during Obama’s presidency as a result. Regardless, those in the black community—even those who are aware that Obama’s policies have contributed to the system that imprisons millions of black and brown people—are hesitant to speak out against this injustice.
Alexander concludes her book with a call to action for both civil rights advocates and the common person. Referencing an Oakland, California grassroots organization called All of Us or None, Alexander suggests that the civil rights movement has lost its way. In the period just prior to his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. called for the reform movement he helmed to become a revolution based on universal human rights. King believed that society as a whole had to be restructured in order for true equality to thrive. Unfortunately, civil rights advocates continue to focus on activism that relies on an “outdated paradigm,” often alienating potential allies in the process.
Alexander reiterates that civil rights groups have asked poor and working class whites to shoulder the burden of transition, from school integration to affirmative action, in exchange for mere cosmetic equality. Alexander says this has deepened the racial divide, preventing one group from supporting the other, though poor whites and blacks actually share common goals. Alexander explains that a racial caste system will simply replace mass incarceration unless the unity of people across racial lines is achieved. To accomplish this, Alexander believes that people must be genuinely compassionate toward one another, in spite of their differences.
Alexander finishes the book with a passage from James Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time, which inspired the title of her final chapter. In the excerpt, Baldwin explains that the duty of the oppressed is to acknowledge the faults of his fellow man in order to lift him up.