Back in 1963 I got a summer job in a Kentucky shingle mill and reported to the foreman of my shift, a redneck named Slim. And Slim assigned me to go around the plant helping out ‘that boy sittin’ over there.’ It turned out that the ‘boy’ was a Black man named Gladys Turner who was sixty years old. We became good friends, at one point I even bought a Browning Hi-Power pistol from Gladys, and we used to joke about how the Whites in the factory referred to him as a ‘boy.’
That was my first but certainly not my last experience regarding the issue of race and, in particular, the assumptions made by most Whites that Blacks were somehow not even with them. I’m not talking about legal equality; the Civil Rights bill was passed just a year after Gladys and I drove around the shingle factory picking up trash. I’m talking about something less objective but more powerful, namely, the culture of racial beliefs.
Which is why I finally got around to reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, which is an argument about how the War on Drugs has resulted in the mass incarceration of Blacks. Once they are in the penal system as prisoners, parolees or ex-cons, Blacks become a sub-caste denied de facto all the basic socio-economic amenities (employment, affordable housing, voting rights, etc.) that are basic for all.
Professor Alexander argues that over the thirty-year period beginning in the early 1970’s, the American incarcerated population increased from 300,000 to 2 million, that these convicts were disproportionately Black young men, and that most of them were in jail because of convictions related to drugs. In addition to the number of Black prisoners behind bars, there are another 5 million who are marginalized politically and economically because they are on parole or under some kind of supervision in lieu of being behind bars. For Professor Alexander, this is what creates what she refers to as the ‘new Jim Crow,’ because convictions and jail sentences for drug offenses among Blacks is seven times higher than convictions and sentences for Whites – even though there are little racial differences in the number of people who use or sell illegal drugs.
Now why would I write about this book when I usually write about guns? Because it’s when you get to the end of the book where the author discusses advocacy strategies for dealing with the new Jim Crow that what she says could equally apply to the strategies adopted by advocates who are fighting to reduce the violence caused by guns.
On pages 225 et. seq., Professor Alexander raises a difficult and challenging question, namely, why is the issue of mass incarceration largely absent from the discussions and priorities of the organizations that continue to push for civil rights? And while part of the answer, she believes, is that many civil rights organizations are more comfortable engaging in strategies based on challenging laws that deny equal status or opportunity based on race, she also claims that there is a generalized reluctance of the established civil rights coalition to demand legal protections for individuals who, because they have been convicted of a drug offense, are considered by the average person to be a criminal, regardless of their race.
The gun violence prevention (GVP) community faces the same problem, when all is said and done. Because of the 120,000+ fatal and non-fatal gun injuries suffered each year, at least 75,000 of these events also happen to be crimes. And like it or not, every time GVP advocates propose any kind of gun regulations, the other side immediately jumps up and yells, ‘We’re law-abiding gun owners. Want to end gun violence? Lock up all the thugs!’
Alexander’s book makes a convincing case that there’s really no connection between the size of the incarcerated population and the incidence of drug crime. Shouldn’t we say the same thing about Trump and Sessions’ plan to ‘get tough’ on gun crimes?