Imagine living in Jim Crow America. You are born to a single mother who is one of the ten million black people in poverty. On the television, in casual talk or music you learn by age five that black equals negative and white, positive. Subconsciously you see your skin as a weight, a burden. You go to an urban school with a daily gauntlet of metal detectors, bag searches and pat downs. You hear stories of family relatives jailed for drugs, who you never met just being released. As you grow up, you talk on the street corner but police stop and frisk you all the time. The feeling of their hands on your body linger long after they’ve left. You never feel safe. Your idols are people who look like you in videos rapping on how to kill, steal, and buy. You don’t talk like the wealthy. You know where to buy drugs.
You graduate but there are no jobs. You hang out, smoke and drink. Everything is falling apart. You try to make a drug deal, quick cash you think, nothing serious but you’re sweating. And you get busted, cop a plea and now have a record. You get busted again and again until you are living inside a cell. The walls squeeze your soul and you want to scream but instead you sleep a lot and fight, years later you get out. No one will hire you. No one can let you stay at their apartment, it’s against the rules. You beg on the train sometimes, but run in shame when you bump into a relative.
One day you’re walking with your child, who is having trouble at school. Teachers say they’re throwing tantrums in class and is going be labeled retarded. Later, you are going to a friend’s building and see your child not in school but on the corner, it’s the same corner you stood on years ago, and a strange roaring sound fills your head. You begin yelling — you want your child to run from the corner, run from this life, run from everything you’ve become.
Jim Crow — the name calls up antiquated imagery of “whites only” signs, “colored” waiting rooms and, at worst, a grinning white mob gloating over the charred body of a Black man. These images disgust and horrify us, but it also comforts us to view them as evidence of a past that has receded in the rearview mirror of history. Ahead of us, the rising sun logo of the Obama campaign welcomes us to a post-racial America.
“We’re sort of in that la-la land of believing we’re in this post-racial place. It’s not just a modern phenomenon,” anti-racism scholar Tim Wise said in a 2009 interview with the Open Society Institute. “White folks, going back 40 to 50 years, did not, even in the early ’60s, think that racism was really a big deal worth focusing very much attention on. A small minority did realize that, but the vast majority said at that time that people of color had equal opportunity with white folks.”
“Rearview racism” describes the view that bigotry is visible only as a relic of the past and not as a real, lived and present reality. This view assumes that we live in an equal nation in which radical change is not needed. It amplifies the internalized racism of the oppressed, as seen, for example, in a 2007 Pew Research Center survey in which middle-class Blacks said there was a “widening” gulf of values between themselves and poor Blacks.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness shatters the “rearview mirror” by forcing readers to see how, with new words and methods, our nation reproduces racial caste. The book focuses on the criminal justice system — a central conduit that transforms citizens into domestic aliens. In the name of the war on drugs, she writes, police patrol, stop, frisk and arrest poor people in ghettos. This practice has left 80 percent of Black men in most major cities with criminal records. Once released from incarceration, she explains, they enter a “hidden underworld of legalized discrimination” where ex-felons can’t vote, can’t get jobs, can’t find housing and can’t escape the stigma of having a record.
People of color of every class experience some degree of discrimination, but the Black poor are the true target of the new Jim Crow. The Black poor, once a part of a cross-class alliance with the Black middle and upper classes, were abandoned after the legal victories of the civil rights movement. Left behind in the coffin of the inner cities, poor Black families have been living the continuous nightmare of Jim Crow since the end of the Reconstruction era.
The Old Jim Crow
When the smoke of civil war cleared in 1865, African-Americans staggered onto the roads and searched for those who had been sold into slavery. Names were carried by memory for miles across the war-blasted land in hopes of finding lost kin. Sometimes they were dead. But even when newly emancipated people found their parents or children alive, their joyful embraces were mixed with pain as their hands felt scars on their loved ones’ backs.
In her book Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves, author Sana Butler interviewed the last, dying offspring of slaves. She asked them what happened in the years after the Civil War. An elderly woman named Jenny told her, “Our parents no longer lived for themselves. Their mindset was — I no longer have a life. I am living for the future.” Jenny’s parents didn’t tell her the details of slavery because “they didn’t want me to be angry. They wanted me to come up with my own reality.”
Slowly, in the wake of war, life restarted. Five million Black people had left slavery and become citizens. They were dirt poor. They were trapped in the South. In order to provide for them, the Radical Republicans in Congress created the Federal Freedmen’s Bureau, which oversaw the labor contracts of former slaves, opened schools and distributed food and medicine. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant vowed to protect Black people’s right to vote; two years later, Black politicians were elected to state offices across the South.
And then the terror began. White militias shot Black voters, stuffed ballot boxes and paraded in the streets. They called themselves the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and the Red Shirts — groups whose names burned fear into the mind. In the wake of the elections of 1876, conservative President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew federal soldiers from Southern capitals and abandoned Blacks to the rage of their former owners.
New laws came down like an iron curtain between Black people and freedom. Poll taxes and literacy tests were followed by the physical separation of public space. Life shrank inside paranoia. If whites were on the sidewalk, you jumped off. When whites talked, you lowered your head and voice until your whole being fit into the shuffling, smiling caricature of Jim Crow: a buffoonish “coon” image that let whites imagine Blacks as nonthreatening servants. If Blacks pushed for rights, whites projected more threatening imagery onto them, such as the rapist Black male “brute” or lascivious “Jezebel,” and then hung, raped or burned Black people alive.
Segregation deepened into a chasm. In 1890, Louisiana politicians passed the Separate Car Act dividing trains into white and “colored.” When it was challenged, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” was legal. Racists were free to force Black children into separate schools and to grow up in separate neighborhoods and work in separate jobs. Black citizens could be arrested, tried and sentenced in all-white courts. It was a cultural cycle that, like a boa constrictor, choked those trapped inside — and it continues today.
“Show me the smart child,” the tester said to a Black girl. They were in a classroom looking at a cartoon series of identical girls whose skin went from white to brown. The Black girl pointed to the image of the white girl. When asked why, she said, “Because she’s white.” The tester asked, “Show me the dumb child.” Hesitating, the Black girl pointed to an image of the Black girl.
On April 2, CNN aired an Anderson Cooper 360 series that investigated the effect of racism on children. It recreated the “Doll Tests,” made famous by Kenneth Clark in 1940, in which he gave two identical dolls, one brown, the other white, to Black children, then asked which was prettiest. They overwhelmingly chose the white doll.
Racism pours into the minds of children and warps their self-image. Cooper described it as a “deluge” of messages from the surrounding adult culture. In the test, when asked which skin color looked worst, 70 percent of older Black children and 61 percent of the youngest picked the darkest shade.
Out of 40 million African-Americans, 10 million live in suffocating poverty — and they are being joined by the new poor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 the poverty rate was around 13 percent — nearly 40 million people. Three years after the 2008 Wall Street crash, in 2011, the rate had swelled by nearly three million. These Americans once lived in the middle class but lost their jobs, lost their homes and wept in shock as their furniture was thrown on their front lawns.
Poverty recreates poverty. Looking at Jim Crow America and at the Black poor, we can see the effect of generational scarcity. Families are broken by the stress of hopelessness— they work too hard for too long, earn too little and become estranged or get caught in a downward spiral of drugs and jail. The Children’s Defense Fund, in a 2011 report entitled Portrait of Inequality: Black Children in America, found that 40 percent of Black children live in poverty, and that half of Black children live only with their mother. Black children are seven times more likely to have at least one parent (usually the father) in prison.
The stress of poverty follows children into the schools. Portrait of Inequality notes that “at nine months Black babies score lower on measures of cognitive development than white babies.” At 24 months, the gap triples. By age four, Black children are on a slippery slope of worsening test scores.
The chaotic life of poverty and its toll on relationships often means that parents fight and split up. Family members come back from prison traumatized and unable to find jobs. Sickness kills relatives who don’t have healthcare, riddling the family with holes of despair. The book Black Children: Social, Educational and Parental Environments, edited by Harriet Pipes McAdoo, explores children’s coping mechanisms: when a father loses a job or a mother is sick, children alternate between self-isolation and “acting out” to demand love. In school this behavior can lead to punishment or interfere with learning. Portrait of Inequality found that a black child is “one and a half times more likely than a white child to be placed in a class for students with emotional disturbances” and twice as likely to be labeled mentally retarded.
Black youth are more likely to be suspended and expelled, forcing them to slip further backward. Nearly forty percent of Black children are trapped in “drop out factories.” Our education system works like a filter that lets few Black students into college —Black males ages 18 and up comprise only 5 percent of the U.S. college educated population, but nearly 40 percent of the prison population. And for the few who graduate from college, ready to perform the entry-level skilled work that used to be the ladder to the middle class, there is little work: such jobs account for 95 percent of the jobs destroyed by the 2008 Wall Street crash.
‘THE NEW N-WORD’
The prisons are filled with Black high school dropouts. In the academic journal Daedalus, sociologists Bruce Western and Betty Pettit noted that in 1980, roughly 10 percent of Black high school dropouts were in jail. Twenty-eight years later, 37 percent were imprisoned. If the trends hold, 68 percent of Black dropouts born from 1975 to 1979 will end up in jail.
And as Michelle Alexander points out in The New Jim Crow, whites and Blacks do drugs at roughly the same amount, but Blacks are arrested at much higher rates. She writes, “The U.S. penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority.” Of the 2.1 million men in prison, 42 percent are Black: nearly 900,000 men. Even when released, these men are barred from full participation in society.
One Black pastor quoted by Alexander said: “Felony is the new N-word. They don’t have to call you a nigger anymore. They just say you’re a felon. In every ghetto you see alarming numbers of young men with felony convictions. Once you have that felony stamp, your hope for employment, for any kind of integration into society, it begins to fade out. Today’s lynching is a felony charge.”
Felons can’t vote. And when voter suppression laws pass, neither can the poor. In a repeat of the poll tax, literacy tests and voter intimidation of the old Jim Crow era, today the right to vote is being re-segregated. In Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, Republican governors and lawmakers are enacting strict new voting laws. These range from purging voter rolls of “illegals” to demanding that voters show photo IDs, which poor people, who move often and don’t have money to get new IDs, often don’t have.
Ben Jealous, the president of the NAACP, recently said on Democracy Now!, “More states have passed more laws pushing more citizens in our country out of the ballot box in the past 12 months than in — you know, than since the rise of Jim Crow. You have to go back to the 1890s to find a year when we passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than we have seen in the past 12 months, five million people pushed out, disproportionately Black and brown.”
CYCLE OF LIFE
“I did thirteen years in prison,” Tony, my neighbor in Bed-Stuy, said as we sat on the stoop. “Even now it’s hard to get work.” We watched young men light a joint, eyeing the street for cops. Nearby, a young girl with pigtails chased a boy who was laughing so hard he hiccupped. I looked at them and wondered how long it would be before they dropped out of school and began smoking and fighting on the block. How long until their first arrests?
Here is the cycle of life in Third World New York: Black and Latino kids go to broken public schools from which nearly half don’t graduate, they enter a jobless economy, and they become racially profiled teens who are stopped and frisked and jailed, who return home unable to find work, housing or support, who become absent fathers or beleaguered mothers, who end up exhausted and old, helplessly watching from the stoop as their children go to the same broken schools to begin the cycle all over again.
And the rage twisting inside me is that they are the most vulnerable among us. They don’t have savings to pay lawyers or fines; they don’t have status to protect them or a social movement to trumpet their cause. They are the descendants of American slaves, and their lives have been cannon fodder for our schools and prisons. They and their families have lived through centuries of a racial nightmare that no one, not even our first Black president, wants to name.
Small towns in America love to post welcome signs. I wanted to walk to the end of my block and nail into the sidewalk one that reads: “Welcome to Jim Crow America.”