As any New Yorker can tell you, a defining feature of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program is its focus on young men of color. Acclaimed civil rights lawyer and scholar Michelle Alexander zeroed in on this disparity when she spoke at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in January. She argued that stop-and-frisk, along with the equally discriminatory focus of the so-called War on Drugs, has contributed to the creation of a vast new disenfranchised racial underclass in an astonishingly short period of time: a “New Jim Crow.”
Alexander didn’t always make this comparison. More than a decade ago she was on her way to her new job as director of the Racial Justice Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California when she saw a flyer proclaiming: “The Drug War is the New Jim Crow.” She dismissed it as hyperbole. “Yes, the criminal justice system is racist in a lot of ways,” she told herself. “But it doesn’t help to make such absurd comparisons to Jim Crow. People will just think you’re crazy.” Since then, she has come to agree with the activists who posted the flyer.
In order for Alexander to truly understand the impact of mass incarceration, she said she had to overcome the illusion that we live a post-racial society, especially in the age of Obama. “Many of us, myself included, have slept through a revolution, actually a counter-revolution that has blown back much of the progress that Dr. King and so many other freedom fighters gave their lives for,” she told her audience in one of Harlem’s preeminent black churches. “This counter-revolution occurred with barely a whimper of protest, and yet it has successfully relegated millions of poor people, overwhelmingly people of color, to a permanent second-class status.”
It was impossible to hear Alexander’s talk without connecting the dots: If you oppose the old racial caste system, then you should oppose the one that is alive and well today in the form of programs such as stop-and-frisk, which feeds a redesigned system of social control.
Black and Latino males ages 14 to 24 make up less than 5 percent of New York City’s population, but according to the NYPD’s own records they accounted for almost 42 percent of those stopped and interrogated in 2011. Most of the people stopped are innocent, and those arrested and charged are often found guilty of minor drug offenses. Few have any history of violence or selling drugs. Now they are marked as criminals.
“The criminal label is essential, for forms of explicit racial exclusion are not only prohibited but widely condemned,” Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness. “Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow.”
Just as in the past, young black men don’t have to be convicted felons to be suspected of criminal behavior. In a recent interview Alexander analyzed George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. “Today, hundreds of thousands of black and brown young men are subjected to the very kinds of interrogations that Zimmerman was trying to carry out, because of stop-and-frisk policies,” she told In These Times. “But we treat these policies as the price that black men must pay for the security of others.”
Now that Alexander has provided the context we needed to make sense of this human rights disaster, the challenge is for New Yorkers to refuse the argument put forth by biased police, prosecutors and judges that stop-and-frisk is a fair way to target crime. “If we are successful,” Alexander writes, “the new public consensus will be rooted in compassion, fairness and dignity for all — a radical departure from the overwhelming punitiveness aimed at the nation’s most vulnerable populations.”
Renée Feltz was a 2010 Soros Justice Media Fellow. She currently works as a producer at Democracy Now!.