Prison Abolishment and Finishing the New Jim Crow

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Recommended next readings:

Oluo’s “So We Talk About Race,”

Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth,”

Or short week next – Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time

Chapter 4 Discussion Point

In an effort to address the rampant joblessness among black men labeled criminals, a growing number of advocates in recent years have launched Ban the Box campaigns. These campaigns have been successful in cities like San Francisco, where All of Us or None, a nonprofit grassroots organization dedicated to eliminating discrimination against ex-offenders, persuaded the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to approve a resolution designed to eliminate hiring discrimination against people with criminal records. San Francisco’s new policy (which took effect in June 2006) seeks to prevent discrimination on the basis of a criminal record by removing the criminal-history box from the initial application. An individual’s past convictions will still be considered, but not until later in the hiring process, when the applicant has been identified as a serious candidate for the position. The only exception is for those jobs for which state or local laws expressly bar people with certain specific convictions from employment. These applicants will still be required to submit conviction-history information at the beginning of the hiring process. However, unlike a similar ordinance adopted in Boston, San Francisco’s policy applies only to public employment, not to private vendors that do business with the city or county of San Francisco.

While these grassroots initiatives and policy proposals are major achievements, they raise questions about how best to address the complex and interlocking forms of discrimination experienced by black ex-offenders. Some scholars believe, based on the available data, that black males may suffer more discrimination—not less—when specific criminal history information is not available. Because the association of race and criminality is so pervasive, employers may use less accurate and discriminatory methods to screen out those perceived to be likely criminals. Popular but misguided proxies for criminality—such as race, receipt of public assistance, low educational attainment, and gaps in work history—could be used by employers when no box is available on the application form to identify criminals.

The Black Box
  1. Have you interacted with any grassroots initiatives to empower inmates previously? Have you known anyone who has?
  2. How do you feel about both perspectives of this – that removing the information should benefit, but at times racial bias is so prevalent that discrimination occurs more often when not presented with any direct counterstatements (are places where, without the black box, an employee would simply not hire a black man, a place where black men would even feel comfortable being employed?)
  3. Do any of you feel particularly strongly about the prospect of job creation / employment assistance for previously incarcerated individuals?
  4. Have you looked into companies that are abusing prison labor for cheap products?

Chapter 5 Discussion Point

Claims that mass incarceration is analogous to Jim Crow will fall on deaf ears and alienate potential allies if advocates fail to make clear that the claim is not meant to suggest or imply that supporters of the current system are racist in the way Americans have come to understand that term. Race plays a major role—indeed, a defining role—in the current system, but not because of what is commonly understood as old-fashioned, hostile bigotry. This system of control depends far more on racial indifference (defined as a lack of compassion and caring about race and racial groups) than racial hostility—a feature it actually shares with its predecessors.

The Limits of the Analogy

Clearly a much better set of options could be provided to African Americans—and poor people of all colors—today. As historian Lerone Bennett Jr. eloquently reminds us, “a nation is a choice.” We could choose to be a nation that extends care, compassion, and concern to those who are locked up and locked out or headed for prison before they are old enough to vote. We could seek for them the same opportunities we seek for our own children; we could treat them like one of “us.” We could do that. Or we can choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.

The Limits of the Analogy
  1. While, granted, this book is not that old, it is still old enough that public discourse has shifted greatly since its written. How do you feel about the state of racial indifference or public discourse on racial hostility in current climates? Do you think that a more ‘woke’ public discourse regarding race enables the ‘nation of caring?’
  2. On what channels of public media and consumption do you think is an improved relationship with racial discourse most beneficial for the integrity and state of our nation?
  3. How do you think you go about enacting greater change with regard to media, news, and portrayals of racial bias? What are the typical racial attitudes of the local news outlets / stations in the different spaces you’ve resided and have they changed in recent years?
  4. When was the first time you saw a black person as a news informant?
  5. Do you think there are more or less racist people as a percentage of the population in our generation versus older/younger generations?

“How it Works” chapter is a GREAT, quick summary point for sending to ‘learning’ family

Chapter 6 Discussion Point

If we hope to end this system of control, we cannot be satisfied with a handful of reforms. All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt. And that’s just for starters.

Tinkering Is for Mechanics, Not Racial-Justice Advocates

The notion that all of these reforms can be accomplished piecemeal—one at a time, through disconnected advocacy strategies—seems deeply misguided. All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained back in 1965, when describing why it was far more important to engage in mass mobilizations than file lawsuits, “We’re trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases. We have to make the case in the court of public opinion.” King certainly appreciated the contributions of civil rights lawyers (he relied on them to get him out of jail), but he opposed the tendency of civil rights lawyers to identify a handful of individuals who could make great plaintiffs in a court of law, then file isolated cases. He believed what was necessary was to mobilize thousands to make their case in the court of public opinion. In his view, it was a flawed public consensus—not merely flawed policy—that was at the root of racial oppression.

Tinkering Is for Mechanics, Not Racial-Justice Advocates

There is another, more sinister consequence of affirmative action: the carefully engineered appearance of great racial progress strengthens the “colorblind” public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life. In other words, affirmative action helps to make the emergence of a new racial caste system seem implausible. It creates an environment in which it is reasonable to ask, how can something akin to a racial caste system exist when people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama are capable of rising from next to nothing to the pinnacles of wealth and power? How could a caste system exist, in view of the black middle class?

The Racial Bribe — Let’s Give It Back
  1. What are some of the points of the prison industrial complex that are being addressed currently in the efforts to defund police, and what are some points that are not? Should they be?
  2. How much of public consensus is still racially flawed, and how do you think we go about changing that? This dovetails a bit on previous discussions in terms of the public discourse on racial bias.
  3. How do you feel about the need for an ‘Ideal Black person,’ or a, ‘poor, helpless Black person,’ in order to persuade public consensus? Obviously it’s fucked up, but do you think it’s still necessary? I know the book talks about Obama often; however, even now Obama is still referenced as like, ‘Ideal Black,’ material for most white people.
  4. How do you think these protests have shifted the idea of racial progress?
  5. Based on what you’ve learned about criminalization and post-imprisonment, we have spoke broadly about how you ‘defund the police and re-invest the funds to community efforts,’ – what are community efforts you think would most benefit with additional funding, aid, or attention?

Questions & Notes

  • Intersection of class divide as well as how these systems effect white people, too, in the long run as well as how the last chapter was clarifying the vision of martin luther king
  • The argument, ‘Because some Black people have been very successful, why aren’t they all like that?’ – the concept of extraordinary Black people making a show of faux-progress. The doctor/lawyer being stopped unfairly on the interstate vs. literally anyone else.
  • Found it disturbing that the people on the frontlines of defense are lawyers, but it’s at the point where lawyers are so far removed from the community that they can be acting against the interest of community members.
  • Somewhat hopeful that historically talking about where racism comes from is very much political in the sense that a long time ago black/white people worked alongside well with no problems; suddenly because of political reasons they were turned against each other; instead of Irish it was Germans, then got restructured to be White vs. Black, and now it’s sortof suburban folks vs Black folks, someone reasonable can probably turn to their advantage.
  • How the narratives of race and about race, how people talk about Black culture & poverty/urban/laziness — “racial baggage” — how recent and attributed that is to the drug war; how before this maybe the narratives weren’t necessarily there. The idea that they’re so young is reassuring.

Being strategic over nonviolence and promoting the right people were key in instrumenting change throughout districts. A lot of the peaceful protests in the 1960s were after or concurrent with violent protests and rioting. Tone policing & respectability vs effectiveness. Promoting violent protests as not a part of history to show they are ineffective.

Public discourse of Obama = Great // BLM = meh + protests = meh // riots = BAD. Is this indicative of good shifting of public discourse?

No this is people saying, ‘the system is fine; the system isn’t broken.’ “if you want something then you dress a certain way and speak a certain way and play your part,” difficult to see an alternative.

How do you go about saying respectability and codeswitching are bad while also acknowledging that they are necessary to reach a certain population?

Do you think calling out appropriated words or tiktok dances is helpful for shifting racial discourse / making racial privilege more aware? Unsure if it’s ever really worked, tremendously. The appropriation of black culture / vocabulary by white people to some extent could ‘help’ the social position of black people // cultural power for being producers of culture.

It’s about power – is the appropriative element granting or taking away some form of meaningful or tangible representative power?