[Pnews] The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration’

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jan 20 11:24:41 EST 2020


  The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration’

By Michelle Alexander - January 17, 2020

 From mass incarceration to mass deportation, our nation remains in deep 

Protesters in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death 
in 2015. Mr. Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police 
Protesters in Baltimore in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in 
2015. Mr. Gray suffered a fatal spinal cord injury while in police 
custody.Credit...Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images

Ten years have passed since my book, “The New Jim Crow,” was published. 
I wrote it to challenge our nation to reckon with the recurring cycles 
of racial reform, retrenchment and rebirth of caste-like systems that 
have defined our racial history since slavery. It has been an 
astonishing decade. Everything and nothing has changed.

When I was researching and writing the book, Barack Obama had not yet 
been elected president of the United States. I was in disbelief that our 
country would actually elect a black man to be the leader of the 
so-called free world. As the election approached, I felt an odd sense of 
hope and dread. I hoped against all reason that we would actually do it. 
But I also knew that, if we did, there would be a price to pay.

Everything I knew through experience and study told me that we as a 
nation did not fully understand the nature of the moment we were in. We 
had recently birthed another caste system — a system of mass 
incarceration — that locked millions of poor people and people of color 
in literal and virtual cages.

Our nation’s prison and jail population had quintupled in 30 years, 
leaving us with the highest 
<https://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/wppl-8th_41.pdf> incarceration rate 
in the world. A third of black men had felony records 
<https://www.sentencingproject.org/news/5593/> — due in large part to a 
racially biased, brutal drug war — and were relegated to a permanent 
second-class status. Tens of millions of people in the United States had 
been stripped of basic civil and human rights, including the right to 
vote, the right to serve on juries and the right to be free of legal 
discrimination in employment, housing, education and basic public benefits.

Nevertheless, our nation remained in deep denial that a new caste system 
even existed, and most of us — even those who cared deeply about racial 
justice — did not seem to understand that powerful racial dynamics and 
political forces were at play that made much of our racial progress 
illusory. We had not faced our racial history and could not tell the 
truth about our racial present, yet growing numbers of Americans wanted 
to elect a black president and leap into a “colorblind” future.

I was right to worry about the aftermath of Obama’s election. After he 
was inaugurated, our nation was awash in “post-racialism.” Black History 
Month events revolved around “how far we’ve come.” Many in the black 
community and beyond felt that, if Obama could win the presidency, 
anything was possible. Few people wanted to hear the message I felt 
desperate to convey: Despite appearances, our nation remains trapped in 
a cycle of racial reform, backlash and re-formation of systems of racial 
and social control.

Things have changed since then. Donald Trump is president of the United 
States. For many, this feels like whiplash. After eight years of Barack 
Obama — a man who embraced the rhetoric (though not the politics) of the 
civil rights movement — we now have a president who embraces the 
rhetoric and the politics of white nationalism. This is a president who 
openly stokes racial animosity and even racial violence, who praises 
dictators (and likely aspires to be one), who behaves like a petulant 
toddler on Twitter, and who has a passionate, devoted following of 
millions of people who proudly say they want to “make America great 
again” by taking us back to a time that we’ve left behind.

We are now living in an era not of post-racialism but of unabashed 
racialism, a time when many white Americans feel free to speak openly of 
their nostalgia for an age when their cultural, political and economic 
dominance could be taken for granted — no apologies required. Racial 
bigotry, fearmongering and scapegoating are no longer subterranean in 
our political discourse; the dog whistles have been replaced by 
bullhorns. White nationalist movements are operating openly online and 
in many of our communities; they’re celebrating mass killings and 
recruiting thousands into their ranks.

White nationalism has been emboldened by our president, who routinely 
unleashes hostile tirades against black and brown people — calling 
Mexican migrants criminals, “rapists” and “bad people,” referring 
to developing African nations as “shithole countries” and smearing 
a district of the majority-black city of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat 
and rodent infested mess.” Millions of Americans are cheering, or at 
least tolerating, these racial hostilities.

Contrary to what many people would have us believe, what our nation is 
experiencing is not an “aberration.” The politics of “Trumpism” and 
“fake news” are not new; they are as old as the nation itself. The very 
same playbook has been used over and over in this country by those who 
seek to preserve racial hierarchy, or to exploit racial resentments and 
anxieties for political gain, each time with similar results.

Back in the 1980s and ’90s, Democratic and Republican politicians leaned 
heavily on the racial stereotypes of “crack heads,” “crack babies,” 
“superpredators” and “welfare queens” to mobilize public support for the 
War on Drugs, a get-tough movement and a prison-building boom — a 
political strategy that was traceable in large part to the desire to 
appeal to poor and working-class white voters who had defected from the 
Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights movement.

Today, the rhetoric has changed, but the game remains the same. Public 
enemy No. 1 in the 2016 election was a brown-skinned immigrant, an 
“illegal,” a “terrorist” or an influx of people who want to take your 
job or rape your daughter. As Trump put it 
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re 
sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those 
problems. … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re 

He promised to solve this imaginary crisis through mass deportation and 
building a wall between the United States and Mexico. He also insisted 
that his political opponent, Hillary Clinton, wanted “millions of 
illegal immigrants to come in and take everybody’s jobs.” And he blamed 
domestic terroristic attacks in New Jersey and New York on “our 
extremely open immigration system,” which, he argued, allows Muslim 
terrorists into our country.

The fact that Trump’s claims were demonstrably false did not impede his 
rise, just as facts were largely irrelevant at the outset of the War on 
Drugs. It didn’t matter back then that studies consistently found that 
whites were equally likely, if not more 
likely, than people of color to use and sell illegal drugs. Black people 
were still labeled the enemy. Nor did it matter, when the drug war was 
taking off, that nearly all of the sensationalized claims that crack 
cocaine was some kind of “demon drug,” drastically more harmful than 
powder cocaine, were false or misleading. Black people charged with 
possession of crack in inner cities were still punished far more harshly 
than white people in possession of powder cocaine in the suburbs. And it 
didn’t matter that African-Americans weren’t actually taking white 
people’s jobs or college educations in significant numbers through 
affirmative action programs.

Getting tough on “them” — the racially defined “others” who could easily 
be used as scapegoats and cast as the enemy — was all that mattered. 
Facts were treated as largely irrelevant then. As they are now.

Fortunately, a growing number of scholars and activists have begun to 
connect the dots between mass incarceration and mass deportation in our 
nation’s history and current politics. The historian Kelly Lytle 
Hernández, in her essay “Amnesty or Abolition 
Felons, Illegals, and the Case for a New Abolition Movement,” chronicles 
how these systems have emerged as interlocking forms of social control 
that relegate “aliens” and “felons” to a racialized caste of outsiders. 
In recent decades, the system of mass incarceration has stripped away 
from millions of U.S. citizens basic civil and human rights until their 
status mirrors (or dips below) that of noncitizen immigrants within the 
United States. This development has coincided with the criminalization 
of immigration in the United States, resulting in a new class of 
“illegal immigrants” and “aliens” who are viewed and treated like 
“felons” or “criminals.” Immigration violations that were once treated 
as minor civil infractions are now crimes. And minor legal infractions, 
ranging from shoplifting to marijuana possession to traffic violations, 
now routinely prompt one of the nation’s most devastating sanctions — 

The story of how our “nation of immigrants” came to deport and 
incarcerate so many for so little, Hernández explains, is a story of 
race and unfreedom reaching back to the era of emancipation. If we fail 
to understand the historical relationship between these systems, 
especially the racial politics that enabled them, we will be unable to 
build a truly united front that will prevent the continual re-formation 
of systems of racial and social control.

In my experience, those who argue that the systems of mass incarceration 
and mass deportation simply reflect sincere (but misguided) efforts to 
address the real harms caused by crime, or the real challenges created 
by surges in immigration, tend to underestimate the corrupting influence 
of white supremacy whenever black and brown people are perceived to be 
the problem. “Between me and the other world, there is ever an unasked 
question,” W.E.B. Du Bois famously said 
back in 1897: “How does it feel to be a problem?” White people are 
generally allowed to have problems, and they’ve historically been 
granted the power to define and respond to them. But people of color — 
in this “land of the free” forged through slavery and genocide — are 
regularly viewed and treated as the problem.

This distinction has made all the difference. Once human beings are 
defined as the problem in the public consciousness, their elimination 
through deportation, incarceration or even genocide becomes nearly 

White nationalism, at its core, reflects a belief that our nation’s 
problems would be solved if only people of color could somehow be gotten 
rid of, or at least better controlled. In short, mass incarceration and 
mass deportation have less to do with crime and immigration than the 
ways we’ve chosen to respond to those issues when black and brown people 
are framed as the problem.

As Khalil Gibran Muhammad points out in “The Condemnation of Blackness,” 
throughout our nation’s history, when crime and immigration have been 
perceived as white, our nation’s response has been radically different 
from when those phenomena have been defined as black or brown. The 
systems of mass incarceration and mass deportation may seem entirely 
unrelated at first glance, but they are both deeply rooted in our racial 
history, and they both have expanded in part because of the enormous 
to be made in controlling, exploiting and eliminating vulnerable human 

It is tempting to imagine that electing a Democratic president or more 
Democratic politicians will fix the crises in our justice systems and 
our democracy. To be clear, removing Trump from office is necessary and 
urgent; but simply electing more Democrats to office is no guarantee 
that our nation will break its habit of birthing enormous systems of 
racial and social control. Indeed, one of the lessons of recent decades 
is these systems can grow and thrive even when our elected leaders claim 
to be progressive and espouse the rhetoric of equality, inclusion and 
civil rights.

President Bill Clinton, who publicly aligned himself with the black 
community and black leaders, escalated a racially discriminatory drug 
war in part to avoid 
being cast by conservatives as “soft on crime.” Similarly, President 
Obama publicly preached values of inclusion and compassion toward 
immigrants, yet he escalated the mass detention and deportation of 

Obama claimed 
that his administration was focused on deporting: “Felons, not families. 
Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to 
provide for her kids.” However, reports by The New York Times 
and the Marshall Project 
revealed that, despite Obama’s rhetoric, a clear majority of immigrants 
detained and deported during his administration had no criminal records, 
except minor infractions, including traffic violations, and posed no threat.

Equally important is the reality that “felons” have families. And 
“criminals” are often children or teenagers. The notion that, if you’ve 
ever committed a crime, you’re permanently disposable is the very idea 
that has rationalized mass incarceration in the United States.

None of this is to minimize the real progress that has occurred on many 
issues of race and criminal justice during the past decade. Today, there 
is bipartisan support for some prison downsizing, and hundreds of 
millions of philanthropic dollars have begun to flow toward criminal 
justice reform. A vibrant movement led by formerly incarcerated and 
convicted people is on the rise — a movement that has challenged or 
repealed disenfranchisement laws in several states, mobilized support of 
sentencing reform and successfully organized to “ban the box” on 
employment applications that discriminate against those with criminal 
records by asking the dreaded question: “Have you ever been convicted of 
a felony?”

Activism challenging police violence has swept the nation — inspired by 
the courageous uprisings in Ferguson, Mo., the viral videos of police 
killings of unarmed black people, and #BlackLivesMatter. Promising 
movements for restorative and transformative justice have taken hold in 
numerous cities. Campaigns against cash bail have gained steam. 
Marijuana legalization has sped across the nation, with more than 25 
having partly or fully decriminalized cannabis since 2012.

And “The New Jim Crow,” which some predicted would never get an 
audience, wound up spending nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times 
best-seller list and has been used widely by faith groups, activists, 
educators and people directly affected by mass incarceration inside and 
outside prisons. Over the past 10 years, I’ve received thousands of 
letters — and tens of thousands of emails — from people in all walks of 
life who have written to share how the book changed their lives or how 
they have used it to support consciousness-raising or activism in 
countless ways.

Everything has changed. And yet nothing has.

The politics of white supremacy, which defined our original 
constitution, have continued unabated — repeatedly and predictably 
engendering new systems of racial and social control. Just a few decades 
ago, politicians vowed to build more prison walls. Today, they promise 
border walls.

The political strategy of divide, demonize and conquer has worked for 
centuries in the United States — since the days of slavery — to keep 
poor and working people angry at (and fearful of) one another rather 
than uniting to challenge unjust political and economic systems. At 
times, the tactics of white supremacy have led to open warfare. Other 
times, the divisions and conflicts are less visible, lurking beneath the 

The stakes now are as high as they’ve ever been. Nearly everyone seems 
aware that our democracy is in crisis, yet few seem prepared to reckon 
with the reality that removing Trump from office will not rid our nation 
of the social and political dynamics that made his election possible. No 
issue has proved more vexing to this nation than the issue of race, and 
yet no question is more pressing than how to overcome the politics of 
white supremacy — a form of politics that not only led to an actual 
civil war but that threatens our ability ever to create a truly fair, 
just and inclusive democracy.

We find ourselves in this dangerous place not because something 
radically different has occurred in our nation’s politics, but because 
so much has remained the same.

The inconvenient truth is that racial progress in this country is always 
more complex and frequently more illusory than it appears at first 
glance. The past 10 years has been a case in point. Our nation has swung 
sharply from what Marc Mauer memorably termed “a race to incarcerate” — 
propelled by bipartisan wars on “drugs” and “crime” — to a bipartisan 
commitment to criminal justice reform, particularly in the area of drug 
policy. And yet, it must be acknowledged that much of the progress 
occurred not because of newfound concern for people of color who have 
been the primary targets of the drug war, but because drug addiction, 
due to the opioid crisis, became perceived as a white problem, and 
wealthy white investors became interested in profiting from the emerging 
legal cannabis industry.

Some of the reversals in political opinion have been striking. For 
example, John Boehner, a former Republican speaker of the House of 
Representatives, stated in 2011 that he was “unalterably opposed to 
decriminalizing marijuana,” but by the spring of 2018 he had joined the 
board of a cannabis company.

Growing sympathy for illegal drug users among whites and conservatives, 
and concern regarding the expense of mass imprisonment, helped to make 
possible a bipartisan consensus in support of the Trump administration’s 
First Step Act — leading to the early release of morethan 3,000 people 
from federal prisons for drug offenses. This development, which benefits 
people of color subject to harsh and biased drug sentencing laws, is 
difficult to characterize as major progress toward ending mass 
incarceration, given that Trump continued to unleash racially hostile 
tirades against communities of color and his administration vowed to 
the federal death penalty. He also rescinded a number of significant 
reforms adopted by Obama and expanded 
the use of private prisons.

Obama also has a complicated legacy with respect to criminal justice 
reform. Obama was the first 
sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility, the first 
to oversee a drop in the federal prison population in more than 30 
years, and he granted clemency to nearly 2,000 people behind bars — the 
total for any president since Harry Truman. His administration enacted 
significant policy changes, including legislation reducing 
sentencing disparities involving crack and powder cocaine, a phasing out 
of federal contracts with private prisons, and limitations 
on the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.

And yet it sometimes appeared that Obama was reluctant to acknowledge 
the depth and breadth of the structural changes required to address 
police violence and the prevailing systems of racial and social control.

For example, when black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was 
arrested in his own home for no reason, Obama responded to the national 
furor and media frenzy by inviting 
<https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/31/us/politics/31obama.html> Gates and 
the arresting officer to a “beer summit” at the White House to work 
things out over drinks and peanuts, as though racial profiling is little 
more than an interpersonal dispute that can be resolved through friendly 

Most troubling, the modest criminal justice reforms that were achieved 
during the Obama administration coincided with the expansion of the 
system of mass deportation. Although the administration agreed to phase 
out federal contracts for private prisons, it made enormous investments 
in private detention centers for immigrants, including the granting of a 
$1 billion contract 
to Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest prison 
company, to build a detention facility for women and children asylum 
seekers from Central America.

Immigrant detention centers were exempted from the phaseout plan for 
private prisons, which meant that only about a quarter of the population 
held in private facilities in the United States was affected by the 
plan. The caging of immigrants for profit was allowed to continue 
without restraint.

The reality is that, during both the Obama and Clinton years, highly 
racialized and punitive systems thrived under liberal presidents who 
were given the benefit of the doubt by those who might otherwise have 
been critics. Obama and Clinton’s public displays of affection for 
communities of color, the egalitarian values they preached and their 
liberal or progressive stances on other issues helped to shield these 
vast systems of control from close scrutiny.

Many of us saw these presidents as “good people” with our best interests 
at heart, doing what they could to navigate a political environment in 
which only limited justice is possible. All of these factors played a 
role, but one was key: These systems grew with relatively little 
political resistance because people of all colors were willing to 
tolerate the disposal of millions of individuals once they had been 
labeled criminals in the media and political discourse. This painful 
reality suggests that ending our nation’s habit of creating enormous 
systems of racial and social control requires us to expand our sphere of 
moral concern so widely that none of us, not even those branded 
criminals, can be viewed or treated as disposable.

If there is any silver lining to be found in the election of Donald 
Trump to the presidency, it is that millions of people have been 
inspired to demonstrate solidarity on a large scale across the lines of 
gender, race, religion and class in defense of those who have been 
demonized and targeted for elimination. Trump’s blatant racial demagogy 
has awakened many from their “colorblind” slumber and spurred collective 
action to oppose the Muslim ban and the border wall, and to create 
sanctuaries for immigrants in their places of worship and local communities.

Many who are engaged in this work are also deeply involved in, or 
supportive of, movements to end police violence and mass incarceration. 
Growing numbers of people are beginning to see how the politics of white 
supremacy have resurfaced again and again, leading to the creation and 
maintenance of new systems of racial and social control. A politics of 
deep solidarity is beginning to emerge — the only form of politics that 
holds any hope for our collective liberation.

The centuries-long struggle to birth a truly inclusive, egalitarian 
democracy — a nation in which every voice and every life truly matters — 
did not begin with us, and it will not end with us. The struggle is as 
old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say 
the least. My greatest hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful 
midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, 
what it must become.

Michelle Alexander is a civil rights lawyer and advocate, legal scholar 
and author of the 10th anniversary edition of “The New Jim Crow: Mass 
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness 
<https://thenewpress.com/books/new-jim-crow>,” from which this essay is 

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