What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we say we left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it once was legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you are a felon, the old forms of discrimination –employment, housing, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service –are suddenly legal. The author claims that we have not ended racial caste in American, we have merely redesigned it.
Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates. Whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color. Drug crime was declining, not rising, when the drug war was declared. The lack of correlation between crime and punishment is nothing new. Governments decide how much punishment they want, and these decisions are in no way related to crime rates. Although crime rates in the United States has not been markedly higher than those of other Western countries, incarceration has soared in the United States while it has remained stable or declined in other countries.
The American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history. The primary targets of its control can be defined largely by race. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which issued a recommendation in 1973 that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed. This recommendation was based on their finding that “the prison, the reformatory and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it.” The attention of civil rights advocates has been largely devoted to other issues, such as affirmative action. The struggle to preserve affirmative action in higher education, and maintain diversity in the nations most elite colleges and universities, has consumed much of the attention and resources of the civil rights community and dominated racial justice discourse in the mainstream media, leading the general public to believe that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S race relations –even as our prisons fill with black and brown men.
Far from fading away, it appears that prisons are here to stay. And despite the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the African American community, the civil rights community is oddly quiet. One in three young African American men is currently under the control of the criminal justice system –in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole –yet mass incarceration tends to be categorized as a criminal justice issue as opposed to a racial issue or civil rights issue.
What is key to understanding Americas understanding of class is the persistent belief –despite all evidence to the contrary –that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self image is that the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one’s character. By extension, the failure of a race or ethnic group to move up reflects very poorly on the group as a whole. The recent decisions by some state legislatures, most notably New York’s, to repeal or reduce mandatory drug sentencing laws have led some to believe that the system of racial control is fading away. This is not true. Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for busting states budgets in a time of economic recession.
This book is intended to stimulate a much needed conversation about the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetrating racial hierarchy in the United States. The fate of millions of people –indeed the future of the black community itself –may depend on the willingness of those who care about racial justice to re-examine their basic assumptions about the role of the criminal justice system in our society.