Police violence in the USA is only a shore of a whole continent of racial oppression and marginalisation, so Michelle Alexander argues in her 2010 book, now a “classic”, The New Jim Crow.
Alexander is a civil rights lawyer by trade. Chunks of the book are lawyerly, dissecting a string of Supreme Court rulings. She says herself that she wouldn’t have got to a “fancy law school” without affirmative action rules.
Her punchline, though, is that racial oppression is knitted into a larger system of social inequality, and measures which create a bigger black middle class aren’t enough. “Piecemeal, top-down policy reform on criminal justice issues… will not get us out of our nation’s racial quagmire...
“We must join hands with people of all colours who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none”. She calls for an “expansive vision [that] could open the door to meaningful alliances between poor and working-class people of all colours [to achieve] a society in which human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security”. The left in the 1970s got rolled over in the Reagan-and-after backlash for lack of “finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition”.
The Jim Crow system of segregation and subordination which dominated the Southern states of the USA from the 1880s-90s to 1965 represented, argues Alexander, a reconfiguration and adaptation of racial oppression after the abolition of slavery (in 1865). The mass criminalisation of young African-American men geared round the “War on Drugs” over the last 40 or 50 years represents a new adaptation after the civil rights victories of the 1960s.
Since the 1970s there has been a huge increase in the US prison population, previously stable and proportionately no bigger than other countries’. It has been driven mainly by increased sentences and more police operations which go out to find people to arrest, even though violent and property crimes have been decreasing since the 1980s. The increase in prisoners, in turn, is only, so to speak, the coastal strip of the “New Jim Crow” continent. People classified as “felons”, even if put on probation rather than jailed, are drawn into a vortex of social disadvantage.
• Jobs and welfare. As international capitalist competition sharpened from the late 1960s, US industry restructured dramatically. The gap between better-off and more secure workers, and the low-paid and insecure, grew. Many of the big-city manufacturing jobs which African-Americans had gained over previous decades moved away. Even in 2010, after general unemployment had fallen sharply, one young African-American man in three was unemployed.
Lack of jobs and increasing lack of welfare provision drives people towards crime. And criminalisation drives people to unemployment. Forever after once being found guilty of (or, most probably, having plea-bargained for) a “felony”, even if it’s only possession of a little marijuana, and even if not jailed, people have to state that record on job application forms. Mostly, they don’t get the jobs. And they’re excluded from what welfare there is.
• Housing and homelessness. US cities are de facto segregated. African-American areas have underfunded schools, “more like prisons”. Cops trawl for drug arrests mostly in minority districts, and get their lucrative higher arrest figures there, although drug use is as high or higher among white Americans.
Ex-prisoners are mostly destitute on release. “Felons” and even their associates are barred from publicly-funded housing. They may have their driver’s licence suspended (for a petty drug offence) so be unable to commute to jobs. Many become homeless. And then the police are after them again.
• Mental health is heavily dealt with as a police problem. Many mentally unwell people end up in prison. And then prison makes them more unwell.
• Politics and law: in the USA, “felons” generally lose the right to vote and to serve on juries, and in sufficient numbers to substantially skew outcomes.
Poverty and economic insecurity generate crime. And, in the USA to an exceptional degree, criminalisation generates poverty.
This system is racist although “colourblind”. And even decriminalisation of drugs won’t be enough to break the malign feedbacks.
Established politicians, Bill Clinton maybe even more than the Republican presidents, have constructed their story about building a secure society for the majority, in a hypercapitalist world of huge insecurity, around the repression of criminals. The story has been “colourblind” but racist “objectively”, as well as allowing maximum effect to the substantial remnants of explicit or implicit racism in individuals.
On the level of individual reactions racism has been beaten back a long way in the USA. That is vital background for building a new movement.
It won’t be easy. Alexander records that Joe Biden has been “one of the Senate’s most strident drug warriors”.
Yet Alexander wrote that in the protests after the killing of George Floyd, “I’ve glimpsed... a beautiful, courageous nation struggling to be born…”, and the potential to “move beyond civil rights to human rights and democratic socialism”.