Throughout reading Michelle Alexander's A New Jim Crow, I found myself wishing I had picked it up years ago. Over six chapters, Alexander explores mass incarceration as instrumental in establishing America's latest racial caste system, repeatedly reminding us that the colorblind language of lawyers, legislators, political leaders, and everyone involved in the so-called "war on drugs" shrouds the subjugation of Black Americans beneath the illusion of promoting and protecting peace. Though we might not consider the book exhaustive, it certainly provides more than enough evidence to put down any claim that America's carceral system is not racially driven.
At the end of her book, Alexander reflects on the future of civil rights advocacy and states that only a major social movement can dismantle the new caste system. But she admits that the journey there will require advocates to evolve new strategies. Among her arguments is that we must commit to advocating on behalf of criminals, and more generally, people who do not fit our image of success or excellence. She explains how two Black women Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith, who were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on segregated buses months before Rosa Parks, were rejected by civil rights advocates as plaintiffs because Colvin, a teenager, was pregnant and Smith's father was allegedly an alcoholic. Meanwhile, Parks, a civic and religious worker, was the ideal symbol of the movement to integrate public transportation because, according to Martin Luther King Jr. himself, "her character was impeccable" and she was "one of the most respected people in the Negro community."
We continue to see analogues in our behavior today, whether intentional or not. Consider the NYC bird watcher, Harvard graduate, and Marvel comic book writer Christian Cooper who was threatened with police in Central Park late May by a white woman. Last week, the Manhattan district attorney initiated her prosecution "for falsely reporting an incident in the third degree," which appears to be the first time a white person in America may face such a consequence according to NYT, despite the fact that countless such altercations have been recorded in NYC and elsewhere.
This discussion of our biases and aversion to standing up for those labeled criminals leads Alexander to consider whether our current affirmative action and other diversity initiatives may do more harm than good for victims of the new caste system. She writes that we must reconsider our approach to affirmative action because:
(a) [It] has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a "trickle-down theory of racial justice"; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations.
We can extend similar criticisms towards most diversity and inclusion initiatives, especially if we look closely at our efforts at representation. For example, my alma mater Amherst College proudly considers itself one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges (already a low bar) in the United States with 45% of its students identifying as people of color, but as campus protests and the new Black at Amherst College Instagram have revealed through student and alumni testimonies, the faculty and administration have repeatedly failed to provide adequate support for students and staff of color. Even POC faculty suffer as they become de facto counselors or members of a diversity task force, virtually holding two or three jobs at once while competing against white colleagues for the same tenured position. Diversity means little if it simply makes our racial hierarchies more local.
But while prestigious private colleges and universities across the country have faced calls for greater accountability by their students since May's protests, public universities like the City University of New York (CUNY) – which not only has one of the most diverse student bodies in higher education, but has also become known as a vehicle of social mobility for working class immigrants and POC – continue to suffer as budget cuts lead to thousands of faculty and staff layoffs while students must pay hundreds or thousands more. And yet, only Harvard makes national news.
Alexander observes that the "us" that civil rights advocates fight for often excludes lower-class whites who, throughout history, have been persuaded by the white elite "to choose their racial status interests over their common economic interests with blacks." While Martin Luther King, Jr. sought such inclusion through his transition from civil rights to human rights during the Poor People's Movement of 1968, just before his assassination, Alexander remarks that over 50 years later we still haven't made this step ourselves. She writes, "we have been tempted too often by the opportunity for people of color to be included within the political and economic structure as-is, even if it means alienating those who are necessary allies." I would emphasize that this alienation not only takes place between poor whites and POC, but also between poor and privileged POC. As we continue to demand that elite institutions properly provide support for its Black, Indigenous and POC students, faculty, and staff, we should ask ourselves whom we are fighting for: is it really all of us, or just those who grace the steps of these former monuments to white power?