Dr. Charles Kiker responds to Michelle Alexander

Charles Kiker

Several weeks ago I read Leonard Pitts’ column regarding The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in The Amarillo Globe-News, a very conservative newspaper in a very conservative area. The AGN regularly gets letters to the editor demanding that the paper stop carrying the columns of Mr. Pitts, calling him a black racist, among other vile names. Thankfully, the AGN editorial board has not succumbed to those demands. After reading the Pitts column, I thought to myself, “I’ve got to read that book.”

Then on August 2, Dr. Alan Bean posted a review of the book on this website. Dr. Bean’s opening sentence said, “Michelle Alexander has produced the best book ever written on mass incarceration and the war on drugs.” He concluded his review with this bit of advice, “If you can only afford to buy one book this year, make it The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

I had already bought—and read—more books this year than I can really afford, but I immediately went on line and purchased this one. I was not disappointed. I don’t know whether this is the best book ever written on the subject, but it is the best I have ever read.

I’m calling this a response rather than a review. I do not wish to review this book again, in the sense of a detailed discussion and/or critique of its contents, although I will at this point present a brief power point summary of Ms. Alexander’s position, as I understand it:

  • There is in this country a population control system, a new racial caste system, a new Jim Crow, replacing the old racial caste systems of slavery and the old Jim Crow.
  • This caste system’s chief method of control is mass incarceration, a disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and other people of color. This new caste system is officially color blind.
  • The primary empowering engine of this new system is the war on drugs. While people of color do not use, abuse, or engage in illegal trafficking of drugs at significantly higher rates than whites, African Americans and other people of color are disproportionately charged with and convicted of drug crimes, and receive and serve longer sentences than white people.
  • The judicial system, including the Supreme Court, has issued a series of rulings that make it possible for law enforcement to indulge in racial profiling in their enforcement of drug laws. Given the racial biases, implicit and sometimes explicit, that many/most of us white folks carry around with us, it is inevitable that law enforcement will look to people of color for their catch.
  • The US government, through Byrne grants and other financial incentives, encourages the criminal justice system to arrest, convict, and imprison as many as possible.
  • The result has been mass incarceration, with the prison population exploding from around 300,000 at the beginning of the war on drugs to more than 2,000,000, with the U. S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world.
  • The victims of this new caste system are “locked up and locked out,” that is, once they are officially felons—whether or not they are incarcerated—they wear the felon stigma virtually locking them out of participating fully as productive citizens.

And this is not just stuff that Ms. Alexander has made up. She documents it with statistics, case citations, and numerous studies.

 My response to the book is my own, but it is made in light of my participation in and identification with Friends of Justice, and in the hope that our organization can have a significant role in dismantling the new Jim Crow.

First I would like to give attention to how Friends of Justice fits into the audience for whom this book is intended as set forth in the Preface. We do care deeply about racial justice, and we do understand the magnitude of mass incarceration. And we do see persuading the population that something is seriously askew in America’s criminal justice system as a major part of our organizational task. We recognized early in our institutional existence that there is a new Jim Crow afoot in the land and that the war on drugs is in reality a war on people, especially poor people, and more especially poor people of color. We came together as an institution in response to the infamous Tulia Drug Sting of 1999, a sting in which 46 people were charged with drug dealing, primarily powder cocaine, in the little West Texas town of Tulia, population approximately 5,000. Of these 46 people,  39 were African American. The few white people caught up in the sting had conjugal ties to the African American community. Those caught up in the sting comprised fully 16% of Tulia’s African American population, over 50% of the adult male African Americans, and 63% of African Americans males still living in Tulia who graduated high school after 1960. All of this was on the uncorroborated testimony of an undercover rogue cop who was simply “not credible under oath”—in the words of a judge who presided over evidentiary hearings in the aftermath of the sting. Tulia was a microcosm of the New Jim Crow and mass incarceration in a time of official colorblindness.

Law enforcement supervisors and the prosecuting attorney vehemently proclaimed their colorblindness, without using the term. Explaining how it was that African Americans bore the brunt of the sting, one local law enforcement officer reportedly commented, “I know white people in Tulia use drugs, but they do it in the privacy of their homes. Black people do it right out on the streets.”  

The sting might never have come undone if the rogue undercover agent had practiced the colorblind code instead of using the n-word so profusely. Colorblindness is a thin veneer. It does not work its way far down the socio-economic chain in this part of the county. Farmers, ranchers, and cowhands frequently indulge in crude and cruel racial jokes, and are not averse to the use of ethnic epithets.

Friends of Justice has witnessed and sometimes participated in piecemeal approaches: litigation, legislation, advocacy for particular individuals. Some of us have come to realize, with Ms. Alexander, that while these approaches may alleviate some of the symptoms of the New Jim Crow, ultimately they will not change the system of mass incarceration. There must be recognition of the reality of the New Jim Crow on the part of the American public, and consensus on the part of the American public of its injustice, just as the consensus of the injustice of the old Jim Crow in the 1960s led to its demise. The big question is how to build such a consensus.

Friends of Justice was organized as, and continues to be, a faith based organization. People of faith were instrumental in the defeat of the old Jim Crow. The defeat of the New Jim Crow will require the mobilization of churches and synagogues and faith-based organizations to build a new consensus for justice.

It will not be easy, and it may take a long time as we count long. But let’s remember what Dr. Martin Luther King said about the coming of justice. “How long [will it take]? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Let us not grow weary in well doing. Let us believe it and act on it. Because the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

6 thoughts on “Dr. Charles Kiker responds to Michelle Alexander

  1. I’ve been working on the problems for over two years. The result of my labors is a new book entitled “Prison & Slavery – A Surprising Comparison.” It ought to be for sale in about 6 weeks and contains the only practical faith-based, market-oriented solutions.

    John Dewar Gleissner, Author

  2. I clicked the link to your post re: Australian wedge politics. Very interesting. Politicians will be politicians, whether in the delusional down under or elsewhere. Thanks for the plug for FOJ.

  3. Always glad to give FOJ a plug. FOJ articles are relevant to all nations not just the USA. Nowhere are justice systems very good at reining discrimination in, everywhere it acts as an efficient channel for it.

    I don’t think Australia is a bad as the US yet, but I am sure that I can find many Australian examples just as grotesque as thos described in Friends of Justice’s archives.

  4. It is now available through Amazon.com’s Kindle, and the paperback version should be for sale on Amazon soon. I will also release it through iPad.

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