The Birth of Jim Crow and Imprisonment as Social Control

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Quoted from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander:

The backlash against the gains of African Americans in the Reconstruction Era was swift and severe. As African Americans obtained political power and began the long march toward greater social and economic equality, whites reacted with panic and outrage. Southern conservatives vowed to reverse Reconstruction and sought the “abolition of the Freedmen’s Bureau and all political instrumentalities designed to secure Negro supremacy.” Their campaign to “redeem” the South was reinforced by a resurgent Ku Klux Klan, which fought a terrorist campaign against Reconstruction governments and local leaders, complete with bombings, lynchings, and mob violence.

The terrorist campaign proved highly successful. “Redemption” resulted in the withdrawal of federal troops from the South and the effective abandonment of African Americans and all those who had fought for or supported an egalitarian racial order. The federal government no longer made any effort to enforce federal civil rights legislation, and funding for the Freedmen’s Bureau was slashed to such a degree that the agency became virtually defunct.

Once again, vagrancy laws and other laws defining activities such as “mischief” and “insulting gestures” as crimes were enforced vigorously against blacks. The aggressive enforcement of these criminal offenses opened up an enormous market for convict leasing, in which prisoners were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder. Douglas Blackmon, in Slavery by Another Name, describes how tens of thousands of African Americans were arbitrarily arrested during this period, many of them hit with court costs and fines, which had to be worked off in order to secure their release. With no means to pay off their “debts,” prisoners were sold as forced laborers to lumber camps, brickyards, railroads, farms, plantations, and dozens of corporations throughout the South. Death rates were shockingly high, for the private contractors had no interest in the health and well-being of their laborers, unlike the earlier slave-owners who needed their slaves, at a minimum, to be healthy enough to survive hard labor. Laborers were subject to almost continual lashing by long horse whips, and those who collapsed due to injuries or exhaustion were often left to die.

Convicts had no meaningful legal rights at this time and no effective redress. They were understood, quite literally, to be slaves of the state. The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had abolished slavery but allowed one major exception: slavery remained appropriate as punishment for a crime.

Alexander, Michelle (2012-01-16). The New Jim Crow (pp. 30-31). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

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The Birth of Slavery in the U.S.

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From The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander:

The concept of race is a relatively recent development. Only in the past few centuries, owing largely to European imperialism, have the world’s people been classified along racial lines. Here, in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery— as well as the extermination of American Indians— with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.

In the early colonial period, when settlements remained relatively small, indentured servitude was the dominant means of securing cheap labor. Under this system, whites and blacks struggled to survive against a common enemy, what historian Lerone Bennett Jr. describes as “the big planter apparatus and a social system that legalized terror against black and white bondsmen.” Initially, blacks brought to this country were not all enslaved; many were treated as indentured servants. As plantation farming expanded, particularly tobacco and cotton farming, demand increased greatly for both labor and land.

The demand for land was met by invading and conquering larger and larger swaths of territory. American Indians became a growing impediment to white European “progress,” and during this period, the images of American Indians promoted in books, newspapers, and magazines became increasingly negative. As sociologists Keith Kilty and Eric Swank have observed, eliminating “savages” is less of a moral problem than eliminating human beings, and therefore American Indians came to be understood as a lesser race— uncivilized savages— thus providing a justification for the extermination of the native peoples.

The growing demand for labor on plantations was met through slavery. American Indians were considered unsuitable as slaves, largely because native tribes were clearly in a position to fight back. The fear of raids by Indian tribes led plantation owners to grasp for an alternative source of free labor. European immigrants were also deemed poor candidates for slavery, not because of their race, but rather because they were in short supply and enslavement would, quite naturally, interfere with voluntary immigration to the new colonies. Plantation owners thus viewed Africans, who were relatively powerless, as the ideal slaves. The systematic enslavement of Africans, and the rearing of their children under bondage, emerged with all deliberate speed— quickened by events such as Bacon’s Rebellion.

Nathaniel Bacon was a white property owner in Jamestown, Virginia, who managed to unite slaves, indentured servants, and poor whites in a revolutionary effort to overthrow the planter elite. Although slaves clearly occupied the lowest position in the social hierarchy and suffered the most under the plantation system, the condition of indentured whites was barely better, and the majority of free whites lived in extreme poverty. As explained by historian Edmund Morgan, in colonies like Virginia, the planter elite, with huge land grants, occupied a vastly superior position to workers of all colors. Southern colonies did not hesitate to invent ways to extend the terms of servitude, and the planter class accumulated uncultivated lands to restrict the options of free workers. The simmering resentment against the planter class created conditions that were ripe for revolt.

Varying accounts of Bacon’s rebellion abound, but the basic facts are these: Bacon developed plans in 1675 to seize Native American lands in order to acquire more property for himself and others and nullify the threat of Indian raids. When the planter elite in Virginia refused to provide militia support for his scheme, Bacon retaliated, leading an attack on the elite, their homes, and their property. He openly condemned the rich for their oppression of the poor and inspired an alliance of white and black bond laborers, as well as slaves, who demanded an end to their servitude. The attempted revolution was ended by force and false promises of amnesty. A number of the people who participated in the revolt were hanged. The events in Jamestown were alarming to the planter elite, who were deeply fearful of the multiracial alliance of bond workers and slaves. Word of Bacon’s Rebellion spread far and wide, and several more uprisings of a similar type followed.

In an effort to protect their superior status and economic position, the planters shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance. They abandoned their heavy reliance on indentured servants in favor of the importation of more black slaves. Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the West Indies, who were more likely to be familiar with European language and culture, many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.

Fearful that such measures might not be sufficient to protect their interests, the planter class took an additional precautionary step, a step that would later come to be known as a “racial bribe.” Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery. Their own plight had not improved by much, but at least they were not slaves. Once the planter elite split the labor force, poor whites responded to the logic of their situation and sought ways to expand their racially privileged position.

By the mid-1770s, the system of bond labor had been thoroughly transformed into a racial caste system predicated on slavery. The degraded status of Africans was justified on the ground that Negros, like the Indians, were an uncivilized lesser race, perhaps even more lacking in intelligence and laudable human qualities than the red-skinned natives. The notion of white supremacy rationalized the enslavement of Africans, even as whites endeavored to form a new nation based on the ideals of equality, liberty, and justice for all. Before democracy, chattel slavery in America was born.

It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society. The structure and content of the original Constitution was based largely on the effort to preserve a racial caste system—slavery—while at the same time affording political and economic rights to whites, especially propertied whites.

Alexander, Michelle (2012-01-16). The New Jim Crow (pp. 23-25). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Racism in the Absence of Hatred

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“Many will wonder how a nation that just elected its first black president could possibly have a racial caste system. It’s a fair question. But as discussed in chapter 6, there is no inconsistency whatsoever between the election of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land and the existence of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. The current system of control depends on black exceptionalism; it is not disproved or undermined by it. Others may wonder how a racial caste system could exist when most Americans—of all colors—oppose race discrimination and endorse colorblindness. Yet as we shall see in the pages that follow, racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty-five years ago.”

Alexander, Michelle (2012-01-16). The New Jim Crow (Kindle Locations 457-463). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

The New Jim Crow

“In fact, the War on Drugs began at a time when illegal drug use was on the decline.  During this same time period, however, a war was declared, causing arrests and convictions for drug offenses to skyrocket, especially among people of color.

“The impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase. The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of nearly every developed country, even surpassing those in highly repressive regimes like Russia, China, and Iran. In Germany, 93 people are in prison for every 100,000 adults and children. In the United States, the rate is roughly eight times that, or 750 per 100,000.

“The racial dimension of mass incarceration is its most striking feature. No other country in the world imprisons so many of its racial or ethnic minorities. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison. Similar rates of incarceration can be found in black communities across America.

“These stark racial disparities cannot be explained by rates of drug crime. Studies show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates. If there are significant differences in the surveys to be found, they frequently suggest that whites, particularly white youth, are more likely to engage in drug crime than people of color.”

Alexander, Michelle (2012-01-16). The New Jim Crow (Kindle Locations 312-327). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Happiness in Buddhism

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“When we seek happiness through accumulation, either outside of ourselves–from other people, relationships, or material goods–or from our own self-development, we are missing the essential point. In either case we are trying to find completion. But according to Buddhism, such a strategy is doomed. Completion comes not from adding another piece to ourselves but from surrendering our ideas of perfection.”

-Mark Epstein, Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart, p. xviii.

What’s Wrong With Anger in the Breast Cancer Movement?

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“If we look back through history, from anti-colonial movements to the civil rights movement to the feminist movement, people were able to quite nicely combine anger with pride and optimism. What has happened with the mainstream breast cancer organizations is that they have tied themselves so closely with corporations that they have to sell the disease in a particular way, and they feel that if they don’t do that, that they’ll alienate customers, or their potential audience.

-Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons Inc., in Pink Ribbons Inc. (the film)

Racist, Classist Undertones of the Pink Ribbon Industry

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One of the things that we’ve seen with the emergence of the pink ribbon industry is the construction of breast cancer as a disease that primarily affects middle-class, ultra-feminine white women. And this of course has to do with the fact that corporations are trying to sell products, they’re trying to sell products to a particular and preferred demographic, and this is the kind of image that they think will move those products.”

-Samantha King, author of Pink Ribbons Inc., in Pink Ribbons Inc. (the film)

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The Problems with Early Detection as the Message of the Breast Cancer Movement

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There are many people to this day who believe that if they get a mammogram, they won’t get breast cancer. They end up with breast cancer and they say, ‘But I got my mammograms! How can I have breast cancer?’ That’s because we gave them the wrong message. It’s the wrong message. That simple.

“So then it became, ‘Early detection is your best protection.’ Against what? Early detection, put simply, works for some. You find some cancers early enough, they’re treatable, they get their treatments, they live a long life. For some people, early detection just means we’re finding something that will never be life-threatening, we treat them anyway, and they get sick from treatment. And for some people, early detection means you have a kind of cancer that is so aggressive that our currently available treatments cannot help you, and it doesn’t matter when we find it. 

“That’s not hard to understand, but people don’t like that message. Everybody wants to think they’re in the first group.”

-Barbara Brenner, former Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Slash, Burn, & Poison: Treating Breast Cancer

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“I stopped working as a surgeon in about 1998. I did it for twenty years, and I found that we really hadn’t made that much progress. We were still doing surgery, radiation, chemotherapy — maybe slightly different: We weren’t doing as much surgery and maybe we were doing more chemotherapy than when I started, but really we were still doing the same things — what I’ve been known to call ‘Slash, burn, and poison,’ which are very crude ways of dealing with a disease. That’s what you do when you don’t understand it. And I really felt like I needed to get more involved in figuring out how to stop it.”

-Dr. Susan Love, MD, on breast cancer, Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pinkwashing – The Race to Profit off Breast Cancer

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“There are a lot of people I’ve heard, many people say, ‘Well anger [is] not helpful.’ Actually anger is helpful, depending on what you do with it. And I think if people actually knew what was happening, they would be really pissed off. They should be.”

Cause marketing is a phenomenon unique, I think, to capitalism, where a company decides that if they just associate with a cause people care about, that buyers care about, they will increase their sales. That’s about the bottom line. Now, I think that [there are] within those companies people who care deeply about what the issue is, but breast cancer is the poster child for cause marketing. There is more of it for breast cancer than any other disease, and I think it’s partly because it’s about breast cancer and women make most of the buying decisions, and we get to say ‘breast’ out loud on public television.”

-Barbara A. Brenner, Executive Director of Breast Cancer Action, Pink Ribbons, Inc.