In the tenth of a series entitled U.S. Election Notebook, Athabasca University professor Paul Kellogg explores Michelle Alexander’s important reframing of contemporary U.S. politics. In the ninth in the series, Kellogg looked at mass incarceration and its implications for U.S. electoral politics.
Trigger warning – article discusses racialized and sexualized violence.
Michelle Alexander – referring in part to felony disenfranchisement and racialized mass incarceration – uses the term “the new Jim Crow” to characterize the current era in the United States. Jim Crow is the term used to describe the social system created at the end of the Civil War to – without recourse to the institution of chattel slavery – enforce subordination of the African-American population in the states of the former Confederacy.
The Civil War did end formal slavery, but it did not by any means end conscious, elite-driven, political repression. In the old confederacy: “Once the Union Army left, the South maintained one-party Democratic rule in part by keeping those least likely to support the Democrats (poor whites and especially blacks) from registering to vote.” Among the tools used were poll taxes and literacy tests.
All poll taxes required some payment in order to register, and the tax often accumulated over time. Literacy tests required potential voters to demonstrate either reading or writing skills. … Blacks and poor whites were the main groups disenfranchised by poll taxes and literacy tests.
States of violence
Poll taxes in federal elections were only outlawed with the passing of the 24th Amendment to the constitution, ratified in 1964. These barriers to the vote were part of the Jim Crow apparatus of racist control. There were others. The Jim Crow system was one of state-organized terror with African-Americans as its targets. The most visible form of this violence was the horrific institution called “lynching”.
Through several years of research we have identified 2,805 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten southern states … the vast majority – almost 2,5000 – of lynch victims were African-American. Of these black victims, 94 percent died in the hands of white lynch mobs. The scale of this carnage means that, on average, a black man, woman or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.
This probably understates the scale of the violence. Lawyer Bryan Stevenson says that: “White southerners through violence blocked black people from voting … From 1877 to 1950, we’ve documented over 4,000 lynchings in the states of the American South.”
The victims of lynching were mostly African-American men. Women in the African-American community, were also victims of violence. Typically, it took the form of rape. New scholarship is now telling the story of the “Jim Crow decades” where:
White men often sexually attacked black women, and usually with impunity. Black Americans endured violence at the hands of white men that was not only racialized but also sexualized and gendered. Yet, today, this dramatic societal reality is typically unremarked or ignored, including by almost all white historical analysts and media commentators.
According to Stevenson, the violence “was so devastating that millions of African-Americans fled the South.”
And so you can’t understand what’s going on in Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit or Los Angeles or Oakland without recognizing that the black people who went to those communities in the first half of the 20th century went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South.
Stevenson is the co-founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. In a recent interview, CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti, asked him about one aspect of the U.S. justice system – the widespread use of the death penalty. Stevenson argued that this institution had been “sustained and created by our history of racial inequality and these narratives of racial difference that we’ve allowed to justify abuse of other people who are different.” From 1976 to 2016, African-Americans share of the U.S. population rose from 11.5% and 13.2%. In that same period, 1437 people were executed in the U.S. – and 495 of them were African-American – 34.5% of the total, fully three times their share of the overall population.
Stevenson’s analysis exactly matches Alexander’s concept of “The New Jim Crow”. The Civil Rights uprising destroyed Jim Crow’s most visible, and horrifying, institution – the lynching. In response, many states “essentially moved the lynchings indoors and that’s when you see a great increase in the number of death sentences being imposed … and so there is … this very clear line between our history of lynching and the modern death penalty.”
The New Jim Crow shapes the context in which the current election between Trump and Clinton is playing out. But here’s the problem. Understanding this New Jim Crow era does not only indict the political positions of Donald Trump. It also indicts the political practices of the Democratic Party. If the era of mass incarceration, ushered in by the so-called “war on drugs”, is the defining feature of the New Jim Crow, then Bill Clinton, president in the 1990s for eight years, had a perfect chance to end it. He did the opposite. Alexander makes this very clear.
Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history. Clinton did not declare the War on Crime or the War on Drugs … but he escalated it beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible.
Hillary Clinton is trying to partially distance herself from Bill Clinton’s record. She has “put forth a plan to ban racial profiling, eliminate the sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine, and abolish private prisons.” But these are small steps in the face of decades of Democratic Party rule which, as much as the Republican Party, allowed racialized mass incarceration to grow. The last word goes to Alexander.
It is difficult to overstate the damage that’s been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons.
In the next post, entitled Not a dime’s worth of difference, Paul Kellogg examines arguments which equate the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
U.S. Election Notebook #1: Grief of the Parents
U.S. Election Notebook #2: Memories of Goldwater
U.S. Election Notebook #3: Calculus of ‘misspeaking’
U.S. Election Notebook #4: Birther origins
U.S. Election Notebook #5: Memories of George Wallace
U.S. Election Notebook #6: The Colour Line
U.S. Election Notebook #7: Glass ceilings & backlash
U.S. Election Notebook #8: Slaves in the White House
U.S. Election Notebook #9: Locking up the vote
U.S. Election Notebook #10: The New Jim Crow
U.S. Election Notebook #11: Not a dime’s worth of difference?
U.S. Election Notebook #12: ‘A sort of public and psychological wage’
U.S. Election Notebook #13: Political futures
Paul Kellogg (Ph.D. Queen’s, M.A. York) is an Associate Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Master of Arts – Integrated Studies Program, Athabasca University. Among his courses at Athabasca is POLI 345, “American Government and Politics”. He is the author of Escape from the Staple Trap: Canadian Political Economy After Left-Nationalism (University of Toronto Press, 2015). His teaching and research interests are political economy, social movements and global governance.