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The affirmative’s colorblind economic approach supports the right policy for all the wrong reasons – these differences matter and re-entrench institutional racism


Alexander 14

[03/10/14, Michelle Alexander, is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer Interviewed by Phillip Smith, “"The New Jim Crow" Author Michelle Alexander Talks Race and Drug War”, http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_tal]


Michelle Alexander: The landscape absolutely has changed in profound ways. When writing this book, I was feeling incredibly frustrated by the failure of many civil rights organizations and leaders to make the war on drugs a critical priority in their organization and also by the failure of many of my progressive friends and allies to awaken to the magnitude of the harm caused by the war on drugs and mass incarceration. At the same time, not so long ago, I didn't understand the horror of the drug war myself, I failed to connect the dots and understand the ways these systems of racial and social control are born and reborn. But over last few years, I couldn't be more pleased with reception. Many people warned me that civil rights organizations could be defensive or angered by criticisms in the book, but they've done nothing but respond with enthusiasm and some real self-reflection. There is absolutely an awakening taking place. It's important to understand that this didn't start with my book -- Angela Davis coined the term "prison industrial complex" years ago; Mumia Abu-Jamal was writing from prison about mass incarceration and our racialized prison state. Many, many advocates have been doing this work and connecting the dots for far longer than I have. I wanted to lend more credibility and support for the work that so many have been doing for some, but that has been marginalized. I am optimistic, but at the same time, I see real reasons for concern. There are important victories in legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington, in Holder speaking out against mandatory minimums and felon disenfranchisement, in politicians across the country raising concerns about the size of the prison state for the first time in 40 years, but much of the dialog is still driven by fiscal concerns rather than genuine concern for the people and communities most impacted, the families destroyed. We haven't yet really had the kind of conversation we must have as a nation if we are going to do more than tinker with the machine and break our habit of creating mass incarceration in America. Asha Bandele: Obama has his My Brother's Keeper initiative directed at black boys falling behind. A lot of this is driven by having families and communities disrupted by the drug war. Obama nodded at the structural racism that dismembers communities, but he said it was a moral failing. He's addressed race the least of any modern American president. Your thoughts? Michelle Alexander: I'm glad that Obama is shining a spotlight on the real crisis facing black communities today, in particular black boys and young men, and he's right to draw attention to it and elevate it, but I worry that the initiative is based more in rhetoric than in a meaningful commitment to addressing the structures and institutions that have created these conditions in our communities. There is a commitment to studying the problem and identifying programs that work to keep black kids in school and out of jail, and there is an aspect that seeks to engage foundations and corporations, but there is nothing in the initiative that offers any kind of policy change from the government or any government funding of any kind to support these desperately needed programs. There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we're waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. The initiative itself reflects this common narrative that suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom -- bad schools, poverty, broken homes. And if we encourage people to stay in school and get and stay married, then the whole problem of mass incarceration will no longer be of any real concern. But I've come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we've declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them -- and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status. We've done this in the communities most in need our support and economic investment. Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said "What is wrong with them?" The more pressing question is "What is wrong with us?" Asha Bandele: During the Great Depression, FDR had the New Deal, but now it seem like there is no social commitment at the highest levels of government. And we see things like Eric Holder and Rand Paul standing together to end mandatory minimums. Is this an unholy alliance? Michelle Alexander: We have to be very clear that so much of the progress being made on drug policy reflects the fact that we are at a time when politicians are highly motivated to downsize prisons because we can't afford the massive prison state without raising taxes on the predominantly white middle class. This is the first time in 40 years we've been willing to have a serious conversation about prison downsizing. But I'm deeply concerned about us doing the right things for the wrong reasons. This movement to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs is about breaking the habit of forming caste-like systems and creating a new ethic of care and concern for each of us, this idea that each of us has basic human rights. That is the ultimate goal of this movement. The real issue that lies at the core of every caste system ever created is the devaluing of human beings. If we're going to do this just to save some cash, we haven't woken up to the magnitude of the harm. If we are not willing to have a searching conversation about how we got to this place, how we are able to lock up millions of people, we will find ourselves either still having a slightly downsized mass incarceration system or some new system of racial control because we will have not learned the core lesson our racial history is trying to teach us. We have to learn to care for them, the Other, the ghetto dwellers we demonize. Temporary, fleeting political alliances with politicians who may have no real interest in communities of color is problematic. We need to stay focused on doing the right things for the right reasons, and not count as victories battles won when the real lessons have not been learned. Asha Bandele: Portugal decriminalized all drugs and drug use has remained flat, overdoses been cut by a third, HIV cut by two-thirds. What can we learn from taking a public health approach and its fundamental rejection of stigma? Michelle Alexander: Portugal is an excellent example of how it is possible to reduce addiction and abuse and drug related crime in a non-punitive manner without filling prisons and jails. Supposedly, we criminalize drugs because we are so concerned about the harm they cause people, but we wind up inflicting far more pain and suffering than the substances themselves. What are we doing really when we criminalize drugs is not criminalizing substances, but people. I support a wholesale shift to a public health model for dealing with drug addiction and abuse. How would we treat people abusing if we really cared about them? Would we put them in a cage, saddle them with criminal records that will force them into legal discrimination the rest of their lives? I support the decriminalization of all drugs for personal use. If you possess a substance, we should help you get education and support, not demonize, shame, and punish you for the rest of your life. I'm thrilled that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana and DC has decriminalized it -- these are critically important steps in shifting from a purely punitive approach. But there are warning flags. I flick on the news, and I see images of people using marijuana and trying to run legitimate businesses, and they're almost all white. When we thought of them as black or brown, we had a purely punitive approach. Also, it seems like its exclusively white men being interviewed as wanting to start marijuana businesses and make a lot of money selling marijuana. I have to say the image doesn't sit right. Here are white men poised to run big marijuana businesses after 40 years of impoverished black kids getting prison time for doing the same thing. As we talk about legalization, we have to also be willing to talk about reparations for the war on drugs, as in how do we repair the harm caused. With regard to Iraq, Colin Powell said "If you break it, you own it," but we haven't learned that basic lesson from our own racial history. We set the slaves free with nothing, and after Reconstruction, a new caste system arose, Jim Crow. A movement arose and we stopped Jim Crow, but we got no reparations after the waging of a brutal war on poor communities of color that decimated families and fanned the violence it was supposed to address. Do we simply say "We're done now, let's move on" and white men can make money? This time, we have to get it right; we have to tell the whole truth, we have to repair the harm done. It's not enough to just stop. Enormous harm had been done; we have to repair those communities.

just like exploitative civil rights lawyers, the aff’s professionalized approach disembodies the possibility of an anti-racist legalization movement—we should keep the center of gravity out of Washington and in localized spaces


Alexander 10, Associate Professor of Law

[2010, Michelle Alexander, is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer. “New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” ProQuest ebrary, pp. 213-215]


A bit of civil rights history may be helpful here. Civil rights advocacy has not always looked the way it does today. Throughout most of our nation’s history— from the days of the abolitionist movement through the Civil Rights Movement— racial justice advocacy has generally revolved around grassroots organizing and the strategic mobilization of public opinion. In recent years, however, a bit of mythology has sprung up regarding the centrality of litigation to racial justice struggles. The success of the brilliant legal crusade that led to Brown v. Board of Education has created a widespread perception that civil rights lawyers are the most important players in racial justice advocacy. This image was enhanced following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965, when civil rights lawyers became embroiled in highly visible and controversial efforts to end hiring discrimination, create affirmative action plans, and enforce school desegregation orders. As public attention shifted from the streets to the courtroom, the extraordinary grassroots movement that made civil rights legislation possible faded from public view. The lawyers took over. With all deliberate speed, civil rights organizations became “professionalized” and increasingly disconnected from the communities they claimed to represent. Legal scholar and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Derrick Bell was among the first to critique this phenomenon, arguing in a 1976 Yale Law Journal article that civil rights lawyers were pursuing their own agendas in school desegregation cases even when they conflicted with their clients’ expressed desires. 3 Two decades later, former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer and current Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier published a memoir in which she acknowledged that, “by the early 1990s, [civil rights] litigators like me had become like the Washington insiders we were so suspicious of. . . . We reflexively distanced ourselves from the very people on whose behalf we brought the cases in the first place.” 4 This shift, she noted, had profound consequences for the future of racial justice advocacy; in fact, it was debilitating to the movement. Instead of a moral crusade, the movement became an almost purely legal crusade. Civil rights advocates pursued their own agendas as unelected representatives of communities defined by race and displayed considerable skill navigating courtrooms and halls of power across America. The law became what the lawyers and lobbyists said it was, with little or no input from the people whose fate hung in the balance. Guinier continued: In charge, we channeled a passion for change into legal negotiations and lawsuits. We defined the issues in terms of developing legal doctrine and establishing legal precedent; our clients became important, but secondary, players in a formal arena that required lawyers to translate lay claims into technical speech. We then disembodied plaintiffs’ claims in judicially manageable or judicially enforceable terms, unenforceable without more lawyers. Simultaneously, the movement’s center of gravity shifted to Washington, D.C. As lawyers and national pundits became more prominent than clients and citizens, we isolated ourselves from the people who were our anchor and on whose behalf we had labored. We not only left people behind; we also lost touch with the moral force at the heart of the movement itself. 5 Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and as civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve— i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem. Widespread preoccupation with litigation, however, is not the only— or even the main— reason civil rights groups have shied away from challenging the new caste system. Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation— when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South— NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence. 6 The major exception was anti– death penalty advocacy. Over the years, civil rights lawyers have made heroic efforts to save the lives of condemned criminals. But outside of the death penalty arena, civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to leap to the defense of accused criminals. Advocates have found they are most successful when they draw attention to certain types of black people (those who are easily understood by mainstream whites as “good” and “respectable”) and tell certain types of stories about them. Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites.

A discussion that centers race is a critical component of movement building—their aff views marijuana prohibition as a failure of the criminal justice system—this ignores that the purpose of the criminal justice system was for racial oppression—marijuana prohibition reflects its success


Alexander 10, Associate Professor of Law

[2010, Michelle Alexander, is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer. “New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” ProQuest ebrary, pp. 221-224]


So how should we go about building this movement to end mass incarceration? What should be the core philosophy, the guiding principles? Another book could be written on this subject, but a few key principles stand out that can be briefly explored here. These principles are rooted in an understanding that any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control. This is not to say crime is unimportant; it is very important. We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is. This system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals. It is not uncommon, however, to hear people claim that the mere fact that we have the lowest crime rates, at the same time that we have the highest incarceration rates, is all the proof needed that this system works well to control crime. But if you believe this system effectively controls crime, consider this: standard estimates of the amount of crime reduction that can be attributable to mass incarceration range from 3 to 25 percent. 27 Some scholars believe we have long since passed a tipping point where the declining marginal return on imprisonment has dipped below zero. Imprisonment, they say, now creates far more crime than it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables. 28 Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment, this research suggests that the War on Drugs is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime today. But even assuming 25 percent is the right figure, it still means that the overwhelming majority of incarceration— 75 percent— has had absolutely no impact on crime, despite costing nearly $200 billion annually. As a crime reduction strategy, mass incarceration is an abysmal failure. It is largely ineffective and extraordinarily expensive. Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense, though, only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control— specifically, racial control— then the system is a fantastic success. 29 In less than two decades, the prison population quadrupled, and large majorities of poor people of color in urban areas throughout the United States were placed under the control of the criminal justice system or saddled with criminal records for life. Almost overnight, huge segments of ghetto communities were permanently relegated to a second-class status, disenfranchised, and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies. One could argue this result is a tragic, unforeseeable mistake, and that the goal was always crime control, not the creation of a racial undercaste. But judging by the political rhetoric and the legal rules employed in the War on Drugs, this result is no freak accident. In order to make this point, we need to talk about race openly and honestly. We must stop debating crime policy as though it were purely about crime. People must come to understand the racial history and origins of mass incarcerationthe many ways our conscious and unconscious biases have distorted our judgments over the years about what is fair, appropriate, and constructive when responding to drug use and drug crime. We must come to see, too, how our economic insecurities and racial resentments have been exploited for political gain, and how this manipulation has caused suffering for people of all colors. Finally, we must admit, out loud, that it was because of race that we didn’t care much what happened to “those people” and imagined the worst possible things about them. The fact that our lack of care and concern may have been, at times, unintentional or unconscious does not mitigate our crime— if we refuse, when given the chance, to make amends.

Challenging institutional racism is a prior ethical question— it makes violence structurally inevitable and foundationally negates morality making their utilitarianism arguments incoherent—


Albert Memmi 2k, Professor Emeritus of Sociology @ U of Paris, Naiteire, Racism, Translated by Steve Martinot, p. 163-165
The struggle against racism will be long, difficult, without intermission, without remission, probably never achieved. Yet, for this very reason, it is a struggle to be undertaken without surcease and without concessions. One cannot be indulgent toward racism; one must not even let the monster in the house, especially not in a mask. To give it merely a foothold means to augment the bestial part in us and in other people, which is to diminish what is human. To accept the racist universe to the slightest degree is to endorse fear, injustice, and violence. It is to accept the persistence of the dark history in which we still largely live. it is to agree that the outsider will always be a possible victim (and which man is not himself an outsider relative to someone else?. Racism illustrates, in sum, the inevitable negativity of the condition of the dominated that is, it illuminates in a certain sense the entire human condition. The anti-racist struggle, difficult though it is, and always in question, is nevertheless one of the prologues to the ultimate passage from animosity to humanity. In that sense, we cannot fail to rise to the racist challenge. However, it remains true that one’s moral conduit only emerges from a choice: one has to want it. It is a choice among other choices, and always debatable in its foundations and its consequences. Let us say, broadly speaking, that the choice to conduct oneself morally is the condition for the establishment of a human order, for which racism is the very negation. This is almost a redundancy. One cannot found a moral order, let alone a legislative order, on racism, because racism signifies the exclusion of the other, and his or her subjection to violence and domination. From an ethical point of view, if one can deploy a little religious language, racism is ‘the truly capital sin. It is not an accident that almost all of humanity’s spiritual traditions counsels respect for the weak, for orphans, widows, or strangers. It is not just a question of theoretical morality and disinterested commandments. Such unanimity in the safeguarding of the other suggests the real utility of such sentiments. All things considered, we have an interest in banishing injustice, because injustice engenders violence and death. Of course, this is debatable. There are those who think that if one is strong enough, the assault on and oppression of others is permissible. Bur no one is ever sure of remaining the strongest. One day, perhaps, the roles will be reversed. All unjust society contains within itself the seeds of its own death. It is probably smarter to treat others with respect so that they treat you with respect. “Recall.” says the Bible, “that you were once a stranger in Egypt,” which means both that you ought to respect the stranger because you were a stranger yourself and that you risk becoming one again someday. It is an ethical and a practical appeal—indeed, it is a contract, however implicit it might be. In short, the refusal of racism is the condition for all theoretical and practical morality because, in the end, the ethical choice commands the political choice, a just society must be a society accepted by all. If this contractual principle is not accepted, then only conflict, violence, and destruction will be our lot. If it is accepted, we can hope someday to live in peace. True, it is a wager, but the stakes are irresistible.

The alternative is a grassroots strategy of decarceration—our centering of race establishes a radically oriented strategy that moves us towards ending the carceral regime and ultimately abolishing the prison system—reform can be useful but our grassroots race centered vision is the only way to ensure it doesn’t re-establish racist ideology


Berger 13

[2013, Dan Berger is an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Bothell, “Social Movements and Mass Incarceration: What is To Be Done?”, Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society, Volume 15, Issue 1-2, 2013, pages 3-18]





The strategy of decarceration combines radical critique, direct action, and tangible goals for reducing the reach of the carceral state. It is a coalitional strategy that works to shrink the prison system through a combination of pragmatic demands and far-reaching, open-ended critique. It is reform in pursuit of abolition. Indeed, decarceration allows a strategic launch pad for the politics of abolition, providing what has been an exciting but abstract framework with a course of action. 32 Rather than juxtapose pragmatism and radicalism, as has so often happened in the realm of radical activism, the strategy of decarceration seeks to hold them in creative tension. It is a strategy in the best tradition of the black freedom struggle. It is a strategy that seeks to take advantage of political conditions without sacrificing its political vision. Today we are in a moment where it is possible, in the words of an organizer whose work successfully closed Illinois's infamous supermax prison Tamms in January 2013, to confront prisons as both an economic and a moral necessity. 33 Prisons bring together diverse forms of oppression across race, class, gender, sexuality, citizenship status, HIV status and beyond. The movements against them, therefore, will need to bring together diverse communities of resistance. They will need to unite people across a range of issues, identities, and sectors. That is the coalition underlying groups such as Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), the Nation Inside initiative, and Decarcerate PA. The fight against prisons is both a targeted campaign and a broad-based struggle for social justice. These movements must include the leadership by those directly affected while at the same work to understand that prisons affect us all. This message is the legacy of prison rebellions from Attica in 1971 to Pelican Bay in 2012. The challenge is to maintain the aspirational elements of that message while at the same time translating it into a political program. Decarceration, therefore, works not only to shrink the prison system but to expand community cohesion and maximize what can only be called freedom. Political repression and mass incarceration are joined at the hip. The struggles against austerity, carcerality, and social oppression, the struggles for restorative and transformative justice, for grassroots empowerment and social justice must be equally interconnected. For it is only when the movement against prisons is as interwoven in the social fabric of popular resistance as the expansion of prisons has been stitched into the wider framework of society that we might hope to supplant the carceral state. There are many obstacles on the path toward decarceration; the existence of a strategy hardly guarantees its success. Until now, I have focused largely on the challenges internal to the movement, but there are even taller hurdles to jump in encountering (much less transforming) the deeply entrenched carceral state. Perhaps the biggest challenge, paradoxically, comes from the growing consensus, rooted in the collective fiscal troubles of individual states, that there is a need for prison reform. In that context, a range of politicians, think tanks, and nonprofit organizations—from Right on Crime to the Council on State Governments and the Pew Charitable Trusts—have offered a spate of neoliberal reforms that trumpet free market solutions, privatization, or shifting the emphasis away from prisons but still within the power of the carceral state. Examples include the “Justice Reinvestment” processes utilized by states such as Texas and Pennsylvania that have called for greater funding to police and conservative victim's rights advocates while leaving untouched some of the worst elements of excessive punishment. These neoliberal reforms can also be found in the sudden burst of attention paid to “reentry services” that are not community-led and may be operated by private, conservative entities. 34 Perhaps the grandest example can be found in California, where a Supreme Court ruling that overcrowding in the state's prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment has been met with a proposal for “realignment,” that shifts the burden from state prisons to county jails. 35 A combination of institutional intransigence and ideological commitment to punish makes the road ahead steep. Even as many states move to shrink their prison populations, they have done so in ways that have left in place the deepest markings of the carceral state, such as the use of life sentences and solitary confinement, and the criminalization of immigrants. Social movements will need to confront the underlying ideologies that hold that there is an “acceptable” level of widespread imprisonment, that there is a specter of villainy out there—be they “illegal immigrants,” “cop killers,” “sex criminals”—waiting in the wings to destroy the American way of life. 36 There is a risk, inherent in the sordid history of prison reform, that the current reform impulse will be bifurcated along poorly defined notions of “deservingness” that will continue to uphold the carceral logic that separates “good people” from “bad people” and which decides that no fate is too harsh for those deemed unworthy of social inclusion. This, then, is a movement that needs to make nuanced yet straightforward arguments that take seriously questions of accountability while showing that more cops and more (whether bigger or smaller) cages only takes us further from that goal. 37 At stake is the kind of world we want to live in, and the terms could not be more clear: the choice, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, is either carceral chaos or liberatory community. The framework of community—as expressed Decarcerate PA slogan “build communities not prisons” and the CURB “budget for humanity” campaign—allows for a robust imagination of the institutions and mechanisms that foster community versus those that weaken it. It focuses our attention on activities, slogans, programs, and demands that maximize communities. In short, it allows for unity. If the state wants to crush dissent through isolation, our movements must rely on togetherness to win. Solidarity is the difference between life and death. State repression expands in the absence of solidarity. Solidarity is a lifeline against the logic of criminalization and its devastating consequences. For the most successful challenges to imprisonment come from intergenerational movements: movements where people raise each other's consciousness and raise each other's children, movements that fight for the future because they know their history. Here, in this pragmatic but militant radicalism, is a chance to end mass incarceration and begin the process of shrinking the carceral state out of existence.

Framework—the role of this debate should be about the development of movements to challenge institutional racism—whether or not marijuana legalization is good or bad is secondary to how reforms comes in to be


Alexander 10, Associate Professor of Law

[2010, Michelle Alexander, is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, a civil rights advocate and a writer. “New Jim Crow : Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” ProQuest ebrary, pp. 221-224]



The list could go on, of course, but the point has been made. The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control, or not? If we are, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. The notion that all of these reforms can be accomplished piecemeal— one at a time, through disconnected advocacy strategies— seems deeply misguided. All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained back in 1965, when describing why it was far more important to engage in mass mobilizations than file lawsuits, “We’re trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases. We have to make the case in the court of public opinion.” 21 King certainly appreciated the contributions of civil rights lawyers (he relied on them to get him out of jail), but he opposed the tendency of civil rights lawyers to identify a handful of individuals who could make great plaintiffs in a court of law, then file isolated cases. He believed what was necessary was to mobilize thousands to make their case in the court of public opinion. In his view, it was a flawed public consensusnot merely flawed policy— that was at the root of racial oppression. Today, no less than fifty years ago, a flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system. When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminalsat least not the way they would have cared if the criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world. Those who believe that advocacy challenging mass incarceration can be successful without overturning the public consensus that gave rise to it are engaging in fanciful thinking, a form of denial. Isolated victories can be won— even a string of victories— but in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow. Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant make a similar point in their book Racial Formation in the United States. They attribute the cyclical nature of racial progress to the “unstable equilibrium” that characterizes the United States’ racial order. 22 Under “normal” conditions, they argue, state institutions are able to normalize the organization and enforcement of the prevailing racial order, and the system functions relatively automatically. Challenges to the racial order during these periods are easily marginalized or suppressed, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identity, and ideology seems “natural.” These conditions clearly prevailed during slavery and Jim Crow. When the equilibrium is disrupted, however, as in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, the state initially resists, then attempts to absorb the challenge through a series of reforms “that are, if not entirely symbolic, at least not critical to the operation of the racial order.” In the ab-sence of a truly egalitarian racial consensus, these predictable cycles inevitably give rise to new, extraordinarily comprehensive systems of racialized social control. One example of the way in which a well established racial order easily absorbs legal challenges is the infamous aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. After the Supreme Court declared separate schools inherently unequal in 1954, segregation persisted unabated. One commentator notes: “The statistics from the Southern states are truly amazing. For ten years, 1954– 1964, virtually nothing happened.” 23 Not a single black child attended an integrated public grade school in South Carolina, Alabama, or Mississippi as of the 1962– 1963 school year. Across the South as a whole, a mere 1 percent of black school children were attending school with whites in 1964— a full decade after Brown was decided. 24 Brown did not end Jim Crow; a mass movement had to emerge firstone that aimed to create a new public consensus opposed to the evils of Jim Crow. This does not mean Brown v. Board was meaningless, as some commentators have claimed. 25 Brown gave critical legitimacy to the demands of civil rights activists who risked their lives to end Jim Crow, and it helped to inspire the movement (as well as a fierce backlash). 26 But standing alone, Brown accomplished for African Americans little more than Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine that far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration and build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflecting a compassionate rather than punitive impulse toward poor people of color fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and locked out of American society. The foregoing should not be read as a call for movement building to the exclusion of reform work. To the contrary, reform work is the work of movement building, provided that it is done consciously as movement-building work. If all the reforms mentioned above were actually adopted, a radical transformation in our society would have taken place. The relevant question is not whether to engage in reform work, but how. There is no shortage of worthy reform efforts and goals. Differences of opinion are inevitable about which reforms are most important and in what order of priority they should be pursued. These debates are worthwhile, but it is critical to keep in mind that the question of how we do reform work is even more important than the specific reforms we seek. If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium. Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it. We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.
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