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The New Jim Crow, Reform, and Revolution


Yesterday, I offered up a positive review of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Now, I present some salient criticism on what the book failed to include.

In the course of researching more material for yesterday’s review, I came across an intriguing critical essay by Greg Thomas, an associate professor of Black Studies at Syracuse University. He asks the crucial question: why do some like The New Jim Crow so much? At first, I wasn’t sure I would be receptive to his criticism, but as I read through I was forced to admit he makes some excellent points.

I recommend reading Thomas’ critique, but I will attempt to offer a summary here. Essentially, Thomas argues that The New Jim Crow, while positioning itself as a relatively radical piece of writing that’s “not for everyone,” is instead pseudo-intellectual comfort food for middle- and upper-class white liberals who denounce racism in the abstract while shying away from more penetrating critiques of American racism and its origins. Thomas notes that Alexander tends toward quoting the most white-friendly representatives of black agitation, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. White historians and statisticians are also in abundance.

Despite the book’s focus on the phenomenon of mass incarceration, Alexander ignores the existence of essential black activists like Mumia Abu Jamal, Angela Davis, and Huey P. Newton. I must concede that these oversights, which Thomas points out, are inexcusable. Likewise, Alexander makes only passing references to radical movements like the Black Panther Party. It becomes evident that, at the same time she condemns narratives of perfect victims and perfect criminals, she is nevertheless skewing the narrative to ensure she doesn’t include controversial figures who might scare off her audience of book-consuming whites.

I am not convinced, however, that Alexander left out these aspects of the black struggle out of some malicious desire to deceive her readers. I suspect the answers lie in the final chapter of The New Jim Crow, where she freely admits that civil rights lawyers like herself have become out-of-touch, ensconcing themselves in the existing power structure rather than working to dismantle that structure. Does she avoid discussing black radicalism because she disagrees with it, because she considers it irrelevant, or both? The book does not say and there is not enough information upon which we could speculate.

But Alexander is a lawyer and can thus be expected to have a strong level of buy-in to the existing system. She clearly views it as something that can, with effort, be reformed such that it behaves in a non-racist or even anti-racist manner. Thomas, for his part, clearly believes otherwise.

At the core of this conflict is a question as old as society itself. What’s more effective for sociopolitical change: reform or revolution? As of this writing, the record is mixed, to say the least. The problem with revolutions is that their outcomes are so uncertain. While often well-intended in the beginning–imagine a popular uprising by the poor against the wealthy in order to feed and house the impoverished–by the time the dust settles, the status quo may be something altogether different from what the original revolutionaries intended. The French Revolution set the stage for Napoleon’s reign. Oliver Cromwell, who essentially overthrow King Charles I, is himself regarded as both a patriotic hero and a genocidal despot. The fall of imperial China gave rise to Mao Zedong, whose actions led to the deaths of tens of millions. The American Revolution, at least, more or less worked out–its architects ended up pretty much with the kind of outcome they desired. But that seems to be the exception, not the rule.

What about reform, though? Its record is not much better. The biggest problems with reform are that it either happens too slowly or doesn’t happen at all. Often times, mere promises of reform are enough to satisfy petitioners. Reforms often tend not to go far enough, as well. As much as the Civil Rights Movement is lauded for improving the situation of black Americans, the fact remains that they are not in a better position now than they were half a century ago, at the time the movement was racking up its greatest successes. If those reforms were so successful, why has so little changed? Part of it is that even modest reforms typically see a backlash, and that backlash can serve to roll back whatever positive progress the reforms made. When the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act a few years ago, there was a rush of states moving to enact effectively (sometimes blatantly) racist voting laws, to turn back the clock to the ‘50s. It takes time for courts to respond to these changes, whereas reactionaries often have the advantage of being able to act first. It’s far, far easier to pass a law than to see one invalidated by the courts.

Returning to Thomas’ critique: while I am not very familiar with Thomas beyond his critique, I think I can fairly say his perspective is distinctly anti-capitalist, possibly Marxist (the latter being a guess on my part). I don’t necessarily consider this a negative, as capitalism is always ripe for criticism. American capitalism in particular, as Thomas rightly notes, is built on the systematic theft of black labor and black lives. Even now, that remains the case, even if the ways we describe and organize such exploitation have changed over time.

An anti-capitalist revolution would promise to turn that order upside-down. Those with capital would lose, while those without capital would win. In material terms, a positive outcome would be the poorest finally getting their due. Would that happen in an actual, bona fide revolution? It’s hard to say. As noted above, the historical record is quite mixed. But this is also a condemnation of the status quo: things should not be so bad that people want revolution, even crave it, because they feel they have so little to lose. Revolutions are commonly violent, but again–capitalism is also violent. Is one violence preferable to the other? Is a violence that upholds an unjust system ethically equivalent to violence bent on destroying that system? What about the bystanders who will inevitably be hurt or killed in the process? Do bystanders even exist in such a context? Aren’t we all participants in this system, and so we all have blood on our hands?

And I must be honest: I would certainly have much to lose in a revolution, and so my motives in being resistant are nothing if not self-centered. No doubt my life would change radically if something happened to our capitalist system–the lives of all Americans would be altered forever. Reform, by contrast, is easy. Other people can do the heavy lifting. Someone else will handle it. Change will come at a pace the white majority is comfortable with, secure in the knowledge that we can stop it and even roll it back any time we feel it’s gotten out of hand.

That sense of comfort is, perhaps, the biggest obstacle to real change. A sentiment I have encountered on feminist blogs is that feminism should not be about making men comfortable. To put it a bit more forcefully: any feminism with which most men can feel comfortable is not feminism at all, because feminism is radical. It should be uncomfortable, because it deigns to challenge everything we think and know and believe about gender.

Alexander’s approach to racial justice is not altogether different from Emma Watson’s views on feminism: “if only we, as the oppressed, can appeal to our oppressors in a way that lets them continue to feel comfortable, we will see the justice we deserve.” There is scant evidence that this approach works whatsoever–it is more likely to see earnest efforts at reform get compromised into oblivion such that nothing changes at all. It’s putting Band-Aids over gushing wounds.

If there is a lesson to learn from the past few decades of civil rights activity, it may well be that the government chose to compromise with relative moderates like Dr. King (though he was absolutely described as radical in his time) in order to quell the grassroots, and take the wind out of the sails of more radical elements. Certainly, the past few decades of “colorblind” rhetoric have whitewashed Dr. King as gentle man who nicely asked white people to just stop being so mean. But the real Dr. King was not a man white America considered “comfortable.” He was a firebrand that the FBI worked hard to discredit and ruin. His status as a hero revered by all Americans is revisionist.

In the end, though, it’s not for me to say whether reform or revolution are better. Indeed, they are impossible to answer on their own. What kind of reform? What kind of revolution? And couldn’t one man’s reformer be another man’s revolutionary? The point is that we have failed, utterly and miserably, to destroy or upend our racist system. Alexander’s narrative is that the system has gone astray, has developed a new regime of racial control almost by accident, when in fact the racist outcomes are by design.

Maybe that doesn’t mean that we must tear down capitalism and replace it with something else, but the role of capitalism cannot and should not be ignored, nor should the political persecution of black radicals go unnoticed. Ours is a country that resists change, often very violently, and when that is insufficient, we’ll settle for half-measures that don’t require white elites to give anything up. This form of liberalism isn’t working.

Alexander doesn’t know what will fix these problems. Truthfully, I don’t either. But we can’t even begin to address the scale of our injustices if we’re unwilling to question the fundamental premises of our system, and Thomas is exactly right to point this out. The New Jim Crow, while a useful source of statistics and a reasonable introduction to problems of racism in our justice system, only scratches the surface and only presents “respectable” black intellectuals to make its case. It is designed to raise concern in its white audience but never to cause us too much discomfort–never to make us feel personally targeted or personally responsible.

But we are responsible, and we should be uncomfortable, because our comfort isn’t free–people in this country die every day to uphold it.

Photo by Johnny Silvercloud