Are laws to blame for criminal behavior and poverty in the black population, relegating them to a life of poverty and disenfranchisement? A few black civil rights attorneys assert that laws prohibiting drug possession or use have not only caused the mass incarceration of black males, but also discriminate against the black population in general.One attorney, Michelle Alexander, has written a book on the topic: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an age of Color Blindness,” published this year.
She appeared with Bryan Stevenson on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS April 2. Moyers revisited the topic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effort to bring equality to blacks in the ‘60s, before he was assassinated in 1968, 42 years ago at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis. Weeks before his killing, King called for economic justice for black trash haulers, who were protesting their rate of pay to the City of Memphis. King championed the end to Jim Crow, the separate treatment of blacks, and was largely responsible for President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1968.Alexander sees a link between poverty or economic disparity and justice like that experienced by blacks in Memphis, though decades ago.
For Alexander, a more just or legally color blind society would help raise the income level of blacks and decrease the crime rate for them as well. While Alexander certainly demonstrates empathy for blacks who are being incarcerated in U.S. prisons, there are many problems with her theory: one is that there is not always a direct connection between one’s income level and the propensity to commit fewer crimes.
Alexander’s formula would be difficult to prove or support by changing the law alone: that blacks who would have been charged for drug offenses will turn their lives around and not commit the same or related offenses. One could even claim that it is racist to believe that one race, in this case, blacks, are more prone to committing certain offenses than other races. There are many factors related to the propensity to commit crime; one is whether a child is raised in a stable two-parent family.
Alexander also seems to confuse social and economic opportunity with criminal activity. She somehow views laws prohibiting equal treatment similar to laws that restrict illegal activity. As Jim Crow discrimination diminished in the South and elsewhere in the U.S., blacks were gradually treated more fairly, as they should be, as equal citizens. The unwritten regulations of Jim Crow were certainly cruel, mean and unjust. But where is the connection between Jim Crow and current anti-drug policy?
During the program, Stevenson said: "And this culture of despair is a function of this so-called war on drugs, that is also like Jim Crow, because it has actually diminished the aspirations and hopes of people of color in ways that actually contribute to these cycles of violence and destruction. And hopelessness." Jim Crow, as it relates to economic opportunity, treated blacks as second class citizens. But did doing cause the black population to commit crime now? Much of black crime is perpetrated against other blacks in the inner city. Is this also the result of Jim Crow laws decades past?
Stevenson attempts to make a link between Jim Crow then, and police treatment now that attempts to combat crime in the inner city. An example of this, he says, is police setting up perimeter fences around public housing projects before SWAT operations to target crime. For Stevenson, this kind of treatment by police can unfairly label blacks as felons for decades and targets them unfairly. But the link between Jim Crow laws then and treatment of blacks now simply is not there. Blacks being "ruled" by Jim Crow laws were usually not committing serious crime against themselves. Now, the black population has another reason to fear; other blacks in the inner cities who run amok, killing whoever they care to. During the era of Jim Crow, blacks had good reason to fear the police in the South, as well as clans of white people bent on spewing hate. Now, many in the inner city fear freewheeling black youths with guns more than police.
It may be true that harsh sentences for drug possession offenses have filled our nation’s prisons with nonviolent offenders. But drug possession, as a crime, is associated with other crimes, including assault, armed robbery, theft and murder, as well as the associated activities of making and distributing drugs. Should those accused of harsher crimes be given lighter sentences for those offenses as well? Alexander also said that the rate of drug use is similar among whites and blacks, but more blacks are charged and sentenced for drug crimes. The use of illegal drugs by white and blacks may be the same, but is the rate of violent crime similar for both races as well? Probably not. Does it matter? Yes. Because laws are designed to protect law abiding citizens from violence and those who commit it. They are not designed to simply keep a certain population out of jail. The problem with this example is that it does not address many of the other issues that plague many black communities. Black leaders like Alexander and Stevenson seem to have given up on the idea of reforming the character of the black population, and instead are resorting to an artificial means of making life better for their people. It is essentially a flawed solution to a complex problem, one that will probably require a much broader range of solutions.
© 2010 Larry Ingram
Based in St Louis,
Larry Ingram writes about the news media, movies and culture, as well as on topics like race, privilege, Christianity, religious expression and tolerance.
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