In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s argument that Mass Incarceration is, metaphorically, the new Jim Crow is extremely useful because it sheds light on the difficult problem a system of racial and social control that is prevalent in the United States today. Although I agree with Alexander generally, I cannot accept her overriding assumption that Mass Incarceration is the only system of oppression contributing to the new system of oppression that has been emerging since the so-called end of the Jim Crow Era.
I believe that the topic of Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination is of equal importance to the issue of systematic racism as Mass Incarceration. While the Legal Segregation has been abolished, Racial Housing Segregation still exists today and is used to describe the racial divide in a populated area which confines black poor to ghetto communities, stripping them of political power and making targets of arrests.
This racist system of discrimination was mentioned in Alexander’s books as the system that excludes minorities, specifically African Americans, from the whole and forces them into a state of destitution with no way out. As an egalitarian, I am compelled to expose the comparable importance of Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination to Mass Incarceration so that we can attack the issue of social control cultivated and on all fronts. First and foremost, the longevity of Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination in the United States is much greater than that of mass incarceration. Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination federal policies date back to the Reconstruction Era in the American South and continues to endure.
In a scholarly article of The American Journal of Sociology, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, sociologist and professor of Sociology at Princeton University Douglas Massey provides some explanation for this phenomenon. Increases in poverty concentration are, in turn, associated with other changes in the socioeconomic character of neighborhoods, transforming them into physically deteriorated areas of high crime, poor schools, and excessive mortality where welfaredependent, female-headed families are the norm. Thus, policies to solve the socioeconomic problems of minorities will fail unless they are accompanied by measures for overcoming the disadvantages caused by racial discrimination and prejudice in the housing market” (329).
Massey is arguing that racial segregation is critical to explaining social control and the origination of the urban underclass (members of society who are commonly extremely poor, disproportionately African Americans, and confined to a depressed urban areas). This concept is a salient because Massey, while in agreement on the existence of racist social control and urban underclass, believes the root cause to be racial segregation and not Alexander’s cause of mass incarceration.
While Alexander cites Massey in The New Jim Crow, she does not agree that racial segregation is part of the main system of social control, “Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken, racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity (124). Alexander is right that the War on Drugs has intensified in the racially segregated housing areas, but she seems more dubious ground when she claims that it is a more important form of social control than racial housing segregation.
By the same token, the relationship between racial housing segregation and incarceration could be explained as a destructive, continuous cycle. For example: A colored citizen forced to live in an area of racial housing segregation becomes a felon, only to be released from jail and further marginalized into areas of racial housing segregation. Areas of racial housing segregation have the highest incarceration rates. In a special report from the Boston Indicators Project in Partnership with
MassINC and the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition titled, “The Geography of Incarceration”, researchers investigated the geography of incarceration in Boston as part of a federally funded experiment. An interesting aspect of their findings is: “Many people of color live in Boston neighborhoods with such highly concentrated rates of incarceration that nearly every street-in some cases every other building, contains a resident who has been incarcerated” (Foreman et al, 5). This means that the colored racially segregated neighborhoods in Boston hold immensely high rates of incarceration compared to their non-colored counterparts.
These findings demonstrate that the government has enough evidence to prove that their systems of mass incarceration are using discrimination for unjust targeting, yet they have not altered their policies to rectify these issues. Michelle Alexander even comments on the vicious cycle, stating, “Youth of color who might have escaped their ghetto communities-or helped to transform them-if they had been given a fair shot in life and not been labeled felons, instead find themselves trapped in a closed circuit of perpetual marginality, circulating between ghetto and prison” (Alexander 196).
While I completely agree with Alexander’s viewpoint, I would argue that due to the obvious cause-and-effect relationship between racial housing segregation and mass incarceration, the system of racial housing segregation is equally as damaging form of social control as mass incarceration. Lastly, it is important to discuss racial housing segregation alongside mass incarceration because prisons are, arguably, a form of racial housing segregation.
In other words, prisons are predominately made up of people of color and, like ghettos, are made to ensure exclusion of minorities from society. Sociologist and Research Associate at the Earl Warren Legal Institute, Loic Wacquant, explains the likeness best in the scholarly article Deadly symbiosis When ghetto and prison meet and mesh as: “Specifying the workings of the ghetto as mechanism of ethnoracial closure and control makes readily visible its tructural and functional kinship with the prison: the ghetto is a manner of’ethnoracial prison’ in that it encloses a stigmatized population which evolves within it its distinctive organizations and culture, while the prison functions as a “judicial ghetto relegating individuals disgraced by criminal conviction to a secluded space harboring the parallel social relations and cultural norms that make up the ‘society of captives”(Wacquant 103). In essence, Wacquant is arguing that there is a resulting symbiosis between ghettos and prisons that has been made to further the separation of Black Americans from society.
Wacquant’s idea of a close relationship between ghettos and prisons is worth mentioning due because it fuses the important roles that Mass Incarceration and Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination play in part of racial separation, and gives reason to why they are tantamount. While Alexander agrees with Wacquant, she goes on to add, “He [Wacquant] emphasizes that the one thing that makes the current penal apparatus strikingly different from previous racial caste systems is that ‘it does not carry out the positive economic mission of recruitment and disciplining of the workforce. 86 Instead it serves only to warehouse poor black and brown people for increasingly lengthy periods of time, often until old age (219).
Though I concede with Alexander and Wacquant on the current existence of a racial caste system and striking differences between the current and that of the slavery and Jim Crow eras, I still insist that Alexander does not give enough acknowledgment to the almost interchangeable definitions of prisons and ghettos and the role of racial housing segregation in the new caste system.
In summary,the system of Racial Housing Segregation and Discrimination is as equally important as the system of Mass Incarceration to the conversation of social control in the United States. In fact, with the research I have found on this topic, 1 have come to believe the idea that they are not two completely separate systems, but work together as a never-ending cycle to keep minorities locked out of society. Furthermore, the accurate cycle analogy depicts the combination of the two systems in such a way to suggest there are limited differences between a prison and living in a ghetto community.
This finding is significant because in order dismantle the systemic racism in this country, we need to know what the problems are that cause it. Solely targeting the issue of mass incarceration will allow the government to continue to enforce the housing segregation, which leaves most minorities in poverty. The ultimate goal of this research is to gain a better understanding with how the social control of minorities works in our country in order to potentially use this knowledge to end systematic oppression.