The New, New Jim Crow

For me, the three most important books I've read in the past few years are The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed. I won't say they are the best books I've read, though the Coates book may qualify. He's arguably our country's most influential public intellectual as well as a brilliant stylist, and this short book brought him to the attention of an audience beyond the readers of his magazine articles. I call them the most important books for me because they shook me out of my complacency about racial progress.

I'm an old white guy who lived through the Civil Rights Movement in the 50's and 60's and believed I had seen a gradual but significant improvement in the lives of African Americans since then. I mean, look at the increase in the number of prominent black professionals over the past few decades, who are prevalent enough they are thought of more as "professionals who are black" than people for whom "black" is the defining adjective. And Obama? What better proof of how far we've come as a country! But the history traced by these three books from the early days of our nation to the Obama presidency — and with Coates' latest article, The First White President, the early days of the Trump presidency — helped me understand that while it's increasingly possible for exceptional black men and women to reach the social level of less exceptional whites by working three times as hard, social and economic progress has not made its way to the rest of the black population. There are plenty of explanations ranging from reasonable to racist, but one which deserves more prominence than it receives is, simply, the white power structure stood in the way of black advancement.

As I began reading The New Jim Crow, my initial reaction was to think its basic thesis was overstated. But when the author, a lawyer who is the former director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU of Northern California, admitted in her introduction that she too would have scoffed at the validity of her argument if she had heard it before she began her own research, I decided to give the book a careful read. I'm glad I did. Her basic thesis, which has become more accepted and widespread since she wrote the book, is that after civil rights legislation undermined the foundation of segregationist Jim Crow laws, which were a racist response to the progress made during the post-Civil War Reconstruction, new laws and enforcement practices were put in place which disproportionately target blacks, disrupting communities and disenfranchising thousands of individuals. She refers specifically to the War on Drugs which began a few years after the passage of civil rights legislation, law enforcement which targeted blacks for drug and other legal offenses more forcefully than others, and a legal system with its outsized penalties for minor offenses, all of which led to mass incarceration, affecting black people and communities more negatively than any other group. That is what she refers to as "the new Jim Crow."

The book, published in 2010, helped form the basis of lots of current thinking on the subject, including mine. I apologize for the weakness of my summary of the book's argument. It's not easily condensed into a few words. If you find Alexander's thesis overstated but don't dismiss it outright, I recommend you read the book for a more complete discussion. It's a compelling read.

Obama's presidency should have been a watershed moment for civil rights in the country. Not just should have been. It was a watershed moment. Just as civil rights legislation was supposed to change everything for the better, so was the election and reelection of a black president. But civil rights legislation was followed by the new Jim Crow as a reaction to what looked like inevitable progress toward greater racial equality, and Obama's presidency engendered an explosion of racial animus as a response to some people's fears of a more inclusive America. Call it the new, new Jim Crow. Our current president is arguably a white supremacist. If that term is too strong for some, at the very least he's an apologist for supremacists. The KKK is back in vogue. Nazis proudly parade down the streets chanting "You won't replace us," referring generally to all non-whites they feel threatened by (followed by the modified chant, "Jews won't replace us," to bring the marchers back to their Nazi roots). The president joined in the chorus of racist voices which proclaimed that Confederate flags and monuments are not a shameful reminder of the south's traitorous decision to split off from the union rather than abolish slavery. Instead, they are a reminder of a proud tradition. The list goes on.

Coates' recent Atlantic article, The First White President, is about the backlash to the Obama presidency which led to Trump's election. The article's in-your-face title seems ridiculous — all presidents have been white except Obama — but like The New Jim Crow,  the incisiveness of the argument comes clear with the reading.

Tuesday's Star brought a clearer statement on the subject than I've been able to put together in this post, in an op ed by E.R. Shipp, Roy Moores of the world are wreaking havoc as their time runs out. Her column isn't about Moore the sexual predator. It's about Moore the old school racist who said recently, “They started to create new rights in 1965, and today we've got a problem.” He's referring, of course, to the civil rights laws. Shipp continues,
The arc of history led to the election of President Barack Obama, a black man. We are now well into a post-Obama backlash and purging reminiscent of what followed Reconstruction, that decade after the Civil War when blacks made great strides in civil society, in politics, in business. The earlier backlash gave us Jim Crow laws, separate-but-equal and the Ku Klux Klan — a situation that the activism of the 1950s and 1960s began to reverse.

Mr. Moore wants a return to the 1950s or maybe even the 1850s, when, he might say, women, blacks, Native Americans and Mexicans knew their place.
We live in troubled times. The arc of history may bend toward justice as Martin Luther King said it will, or it could twist and tangle its way toward increasing injustice and inequality. I hope for justice, but I fear for the direction our country may be heading.

A Note about renewed hatred of other minority groups: It would be a mistake of omission to leave Hispanics and Muslims off the list of targeted groups in the Trump era. Shipp included women, Native Americans and Mexicans at the end of the excerpt above, and only left out Muslims because they weren't considered much of an issue in the 1950s, let alone the 1850s. Trump based much of his campaign on The Wall to keep out Mexicans and The Ban to keep out Muslims. But as a historical phenomenon spanning the time from the pre-Revolution colonies to the present, the treatment of African Americans is the nation's original sin by which all our other sins against minority groups within our society can be understood and measured.