Several months ago, Rightly Considered began the task of reviewing one of the sacred texts of contemporary leftism, The New Jim Crow. We have returned during this Lenten season to chastise ourselves by reading and reviewing Chapter 1: The Rebirth of Caste.
Alexander’s first chapter waffles between two goals, both of which are seemingly intertwined: (1) to present a brief catalog of black subjugation at the hands of slavers in the antebellum United States, the transition to other modes of domination during and after the Reconstruction era, the development (and ultimate demise) of the Jim Crow system of political/social segregation resulting in the Civil Rights Movement, and finally, the attempt (and success, if Alexander is right) of whites in power to perpetuate the racial caste system by way of mass incarceration of primarily persons of color. The historical sketch is meant not merely to inform but in some sense to secure the second goal, which is (2) to demonstrate that efforts toward social control of the lower castes has driven history forward and lingers still today–that is, the shadowy presence of white domination continues to rear its ugly head at opportune moments. And perhaps Alexander is to some extent correct about this. However, her emphasis on (2) casts some amount of scholarly suspicion on her account of (1). At least, the reader is left to wonder: has Alexander’s historical sketch really offered evidence leading to the “social control” thesis, or was there instead a rather liberal dose of historical cherry-picking on the offing in order to substantiate a thesis already held? Theories are supposed to mesh with or track the facts – but is this a case of emphasizing certain facts (or “facts”?) which fit the theory while ignoring others? Neither of us, admittedly, are historians. And so we are unsure. But then again, neither is Alexander (she is, according to the book’s blurb, “a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar”). So the rampant psychologizing of the past, along with intimations of conspiracy theory-like machinations by “the elite” behind the scenes, continues here as in the Introduction. By way of example, “Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion – transition – in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined” (21).
Again, take note: we are not historians, nor do we pretend to be. Cursory attention to the text reveals that Alexander, for one, wants to be taken seriously as a scholar. And so, to the lazy reader, it will be noted that there are endnotes (!), and so the tacit assumption is that this author clearly knows what she’s talking about. Yet there is no bibliography attached, and so the conscientious reader must scrupulously attend to the notes themselves. Yet, even to neophyte historians such as ourselves they are rather unimpressive. We shall do our own cherry-picking here from the chapter and notes (though we think the cherries we pick are good evidence that the tree is ill).
First, the reader is treated to a short narrative of slave history in the United States. The endnotes are rather sparse, and when they do arise, the sources are somewhat peculiar. For instance, no mention is ever made of Eugene Genovese or David Brion Davis, two most well known and respected scholars of slavery in the antebellum period. Edmund Morgan is cited once, and interestingly, this is in reference to perhaps one of his more controversial theses, itself more sociological than historical. The idea is that, during the antebellum era, the “planter elite” manipulated poor whites in such a way that the latter experienced a new “personal stake in the existence of race-based slavery,” resulting in the self-interested collective observation that, though matters social and economic for poor whites could be improved, “at least they were not slaves” (25).
Alexander’s source of constitutional history is Jerry Fresia’s Toward an American Revolution (South End Press, 1988), a book halfway between radical (and we mean radical) Marxist-inspired revisionist history of the framer’s intentions on the one hand, and insistence on conspiratorial 20th Century political machinations on the other (apparently the U.S. has a “secret police” that protects the business interests of the “political elite” against true democratic reform). Once we reach the era of Reconstruction, C. Vann Woodward makes an appearance. His The Strange Career of Jim Crow (OUP, 1955) is undoubtedly a classic, and certainly a considerable resource for the post-Civil War years era which upends various myths about racial segregation that were being trumpeted mid-century. What is left out of Alexander’s narrative, however, is the fact that one of the myths which Woodward successfully handles is that segregation and racial animosity was primarily a feature of Southern life, rather than a feature endemic to the United States as a whole, both North and South. Alexander appears unaware of this, focusing her animus entirely at “Southern white society,” a well-worn trope in the narrative of race relations. Perhaps she simply disagrees, since apparently, “as numerous historians have shown, the development of a new racial order became [after Reconstruction] the consuming passion for most white Southerners” (28). We would have been happy to call attention to a few of these “numerous historians” in this review; unfortunately, there is no citation at all. Perhaps it is obvious (a priori?) that evidence for such a thesis is unnecessary in our enlightened times. But “most white Southerners”? In an era wherein the Southern economy was virtually non-existent, when much of the white labor force had been exterminated in war, when the last two decades of the 19th century saw a devastating depression visited upon Southern agrarian life? Were most of these persons not simply attempting to survive, but were embroiled with a consuming passion to get the upper hand on their black brethren? Maybe we’re mistaken. But it’s here that a serious scholar might back up the thesis with a reference of some sort. Oh well. Perhaps an endnote at that particular place would have interrupted the narrative as it unfolds.
The story becomes much more thought-provoking once we reach the Jim Crow era. Alexander details many of the hardships and cruelties endured by black Americans at the hands of an oftentimes corrupt judicial system. Drawing on the work of Douglas Blackmon, she notes how in the decades following Reconstruction, many blacks were arrested for trumped up crimes (like “vagrancy” and “insulting gestures”), arrests which commonly resulted in fines that could not be paid, except by “working off” the debt as little more than “slaves of the state” (31). Details such as these are gruesome, and if as widespread as Alexander claims, are well worth the reader’s attention. Alexander then more or less reproduces C. Vann Woodward’s thesis concerning the ideological options for those, in the 1890s and 1910s, concerned with the politics of race relations: a liberal egalitarianism toward races which never took root in the South, a conservative position which emphasized noblesse oblige and a paternalistic attitude toward the inferior negro, and finally a radical variety of populism calling for a racial alliance between blacks and poor whites. While the latter of the three was found most appealing among blacks, the conservative reaction to a potentially politically powerful coalition of blacks and poor whites was to preach the virtues of white supremacy, a tactic intended to sever the partnership by appeal to white pride. This tactic succeeded, heralding the arrival of Jim Crow.
More intriguing still is Alexander’s discussion of the “death” of Jim Crow, arguing that, though Brown vs. Board of Education was decisive in its death (as is commonly supposed), the sickness leading to death began much earlier (as is commonly not supposed). While the power of the NAACP was growing, as was the political bloc of black voters in the North, Alexander recognizes WWII as something like a decisive turning point. In her words, there appeared to the minds of many to be a “blatant contradiction between the country’s opposition to the crimes of the Third Reich against European Jews and the continued existence of a racial caste system in the United States…” (36). Once hostilities had ended, the Supreme Court decided a series of cases (pre-Brown) which attempted to curb discrimination against black Americans; such cases in the mid-to-late 1940s foreshadowed the Brown desegregation decision in 1954. As is well-known, this decision led (a) to serious backlash by the opposition, and (b) to the flowering of the Civil Rights Movement, details of which Alexander briefly canvases.
Of course, the historical narrative has nothing like a happy ending in the 1960s. No, upon the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, “Conservative whites began, once again, to search for a new racial order that would conform to the needs and constraints of the time” (40). And what was the result of their search? “A new race-neutral language was developed for appealing to old racist sentiments…by demanding ‘law and order’ rather than ‘segregation forever’” (40). Did this race-neutral language emerge intentionally as a new devious scheme on the parts of racist whites? Was it a natural result of the change of language over time? A result of the ever pervasive “structural racism” rooted in our racist DNA? She does not say. What she does say is that it lead to a shift from focusing on segregation to crime and eventually to the birth of mass incarceration.
Citing FBI reports, Alexander notes that crime rates began rising in the 1960’s. She mentions nothing about the significant changes in ideology sweeping the nation as a contributing cause, but instead focuses on two other fundamental causes: the rise in young men due to the baby boomer generation (certainly plausible since we know that men–especially young–are more prone to commit crimes) and the unemployment of young blacks. She leaves unexplored the extent to which unemployment (and poverty more generally) contributes to crime (by our lights, sometimes a contributing cause but a fairly insignificant one) and, just as importantly, the causes of black unemployment in the 1960’s.
Such rising crime rates, she says, were used by conservatives as “an excuse to crack down on impoverished black communities,” which some black activists also supported, leading to “a penal system unprecedented in world history” (42). But Alexander gives no citation that such conservatives were hellbent on using this as an excuse (her word) rather than simply desiring to see crime reduced and criminals punished, as a majority of law abiding blacks desired as well. Once more without citation, she adds that conservatives could point to black support as “proof” (scare-quotes) that “race had nothing to do with their ‘law and order’ agenda,” insinuating of course that their motives were racist. A cynic might protest that Alexander herself seems to employ racism-neutral language, never explicitly labeling certain whites racist, while at the same time framing her narrative in such a way that her audience will draw the proper politically correct conclusions.
In the late ’60’s and into the ’70’s conservatives then began to argue that poverty was caused “not by structural factors related to race and class but rather by culture–particularly black culture” (45). Supporting the view was what she refers to as the “now infamous report” of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Her gloss on the Moynihan Report is that it attributed black poverty to a black subculture, which was then transformed into a contention that character-failings primarily account for black poverty. Of the many historical distortions in the book, this was perhaps the most egregious. Anyone who has read or even glanced at the Moynihan Report will know that this complex and detailed report (76 pages) is, first and foremost, about the causes of the breakdown of the black family and not the causes of black poverty. Second, it canvasses an array of root problems of family breakdown which include slavery (of which the report states was “the most awful the world has ever known” (15)), Reconstruction (including Jim Crow), an abrupt transition to urbanization, unemployment and poverty, and the wage system which discriminates against families in favor of individuals. In light of such obstacles, the report notes, “That the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary–a lesser people might have simply died out, as indeed others have” (29). (Nor is such praise of American blacks an isolated aberration in the text.) What these conditions have done is, it adds, forced blacks into a single-mother matriarchy where youth increasingly do not have fathers, lead to families not having second incomes (where this would be beneficial), escalated crime rates, and increased alienation in black communities. Of course, the reason why the left hates the report so much (why it is “infamous”) is not because it squarely lays the blame on blacks for black poverty; instead, it is because the report implies that the breakdown of black families is to a significant extent the result of progressive social ideology and policies stemming from the 60’s onward–and it does so with power while having compassion for blacks. For more, see here.
The chapter moves on to the Reagan era where Reagan is portrayed as mastering the “excision of the language of race from conservative public discourse” and instead cleverly using “implicit racial appeals” (48). Assumed is that racism has to be there somewhere, even if it’s not explicit. Reagan, of course, firmly denied that he or his policies were racist, “forcing liberals into a position that would soon become familiar–arguing that something is racist but finding it impossible to prove in the absence of explicitly racist language” (48). Well, that’s one way to put it. We will leave it to the reader to think of alternatives. Reagan’s War on Drugs, she adds, “had little to do with the public concern about drugs and much to do with the public concern about race” (49). Once again, no citation is given. The U.S. House of Representatives, Alexander goes on to say, allocated $2 billion to this anti-drug effort (serving as a masquerade, of course, for an anti-black effort), but no mention is given that both the House and Senate during the Reagan era were controlled by Democratic majorities. Such efforts, “cloaked in race-neutral language, offered whites opposed to racial reform a unique opportunity to express their hostility toward blacks and black progress, without being exposed to the charge of racism” (54). What is the evidence offered that underlying the whites’ desire to be tough on drugs was implicit racism? None is given. The only evidence leading up to Alexander’s loaded assertion are citations claiming that, statistically, whites (a) were generally more in favor of punishment than blacks, (b) tended to oppose “racial reform” (it is unclear what this means) while (c) also expressing a high degree of concern for crime.
In fairness to Alexander, she rounds out the chapter by moving up through the Bill Clinton administration and does not entirely let Democrats off the hook, “Clinton–more than any other president–created the current racial undercaste” (57). Clinton, it will be recalled, had one of his many moral failings (perhaps giving in to his whiteness rather than his Democratic instincts?) in trying not to let Republicans appear to be tougher on crime than he. Perhaps his greatest sin in this area was when he “chose to fly home to Arkansas to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked for the dessert from his last meal to be saved for him until the morning” (56). This sounds cruel and unusual, right? It does until you discover (as Alexander, apparently, did not) that Ricky Rector murdered an innocent man and wounded two others. He did so because he was irritated at a friend who refused to pay Rector’s three dollar cover charge to enter a dance hall. Rector fled the scene. When his sister eventually convinced him to turn himself in to an officer he grew up with and had known as a child, Robert Martin–Rector greeted Martin, then subsequently pulled out a gun as Martin turned around to talk to Mrs. Martin and shot him in the neck, killing him. His “mental impairment” only arose after he then tried to kill himself (vicious murderer and coward that he was) by shooting himself in the head. Thus, he was legally, and rightfully, executed. Not even the poorly reasoned ruling of Atkins v. Virginia would–or should–have saved him.
And so, as the chapter ends, “The New Jim crow was born.” After decades, “[t]he law and order perspective, first introduced during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement by rabid segregationists, had become nearly hegemonic…” (57). Because, as we all know, it’s not an authentically leftwing essay without mentioning some “hegemony” or other.
Stay tuned, dear reader…we will make an effort toward Chapter Two at some point in the near future…Such, at least, is our current aim.
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