The New Jim Crow

Alexandria Iwanenko

Opinion Contributor

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting each year just like they have been in the past because of slavery and the Jim Crow South. It is no longer socially acceptable to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, so we don’t. Instead, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in the same practices that we have in the past, continuing the legacy of slavery. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow explains that “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 [during the early 20th century].” Today, it is legal to discriminate against criminals in many of the same ways used to discriminate against Africans Americans. The prison population leaped so high in such a short period due to changes in law and policies, not changes in crime rates. After release from prison, these “criminals” are locked out of mainstream society and the economy, making them far more likely to return to prison or parole. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination are acceptable. In each generation, new tactics have been used for achieving the same goals, no voting rights as a slave, being beat to death by the Ku Klux Klan to attempting to vote during the Jim Crow South, poll taxes and literacy tests, and now being labeled a felon and being on parole. Hundreds of years later, and the United States is still not an egalitarian democracy. Black men are subject to “legalized discrimination from employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were.” No wonder labeled felons find their way back into prison.
Rates for incarcerated whites are less than ten times the rate of blacks. Studies have shown that people of all races are using drugs at the same rate, so how does such a disparity exist? Some surveys even suggest that white youth are more likely to engage in drug crime before people of color, but no one would ever expect that the way our nation’s prisons and jails are overflowing with black offenders. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” Apartheid, the system of racial segregation in South Africa enforced through legislation, and the US imprisons more blacks that the apartheid system. That is astounding. Personal stories tell the story better than any facts or statistics can since we are dealing with human tragedies of the Drug War. Weldon Angelos will spend the rest of his life in prison for three marijuana sales. The judge was obligated to impose a fifty-five year minimum sentence because Angelos possessed a weapon at the time of his arrest, a weapon that he did not use or threaten to use at all during the sales. The judge openly stated “The Court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” Some federal judges have even quit their jobs in protest of the drug laws. Judge Lawrence Irving noted “If I remain on the bench, I have no choice but to follow the law. I just can’t, in good conscience, continue to do this.”
Young, black males are not given the chance for success because they are locked up and labeled as a felon before they are even given a chance to make something of themselves in life. A faulted system is to blame. The United States prides itself as exceptional, yet the same systems have been in place to discriminate and dehumanize a particular group of people since slavery. If we want to see progress and change in our nation we need to focus our efforts on the criminal justice system by providing programs that offer success for those individuals who have done something as harmless as drug possession.


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