I’m reading an article right now called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. In it, the author argues that the mass-incarceration of the nation’s black populace is a new means of racial control similar to slavery in the 1800s and the Jim Crow laws in the 1900s. Although blacks commit the same number of crimes as whites do, they are prosecuted for them far more often and far more harshly (e.g. while many white repeat offenders will be given misdemeanors, first-time black offenders will often be given felonies for the same crimes), and as a result, “crime” has become almost synonymous with “black.” Even once they serve their time, criminals face a lifetime of legal discrimination, from a refusal to hire them for work to a loss of their voting privileges (to the point where 1 in 7 black men cannot vote).

Many people have no problem understanding why slavery and Jim Crow’s second-class treatment of blacks was wrong, but they don’t see the racial discrimination inherent in our legal processes. While a person would never choose slavery or second-class treatment, they consider people to “choose” to do crime, so it therefore follows that they deserve the consequences of their actions.

If blacks were arrested as often as whites for the same crimes, perhaps this would be true. The problem is that though both blacks and whites commit the same crimes at the same rates, police are far more likely to raid black houses looking for drugs, stop a car with a black driver in it, or otherwise seek to arrest a black wrong-doer far more often than a white one. In court, a difference in treatment also pervades. Blacks are often encouraged to plead guilty even if they’re innocent, and sentencing is far harsher. Upon release, they are often considered felons, or if given parole, constrained not to interact with felons. Because blacks with a criminal record often have no recourse except to return home, in ghetto neighborhoods “it is hard for a parolee to walk to the corner store to get a carton of milk without being subject to a parole violation [for interacting with felons].”

Furthermore, 60% of all black convictions are due to drug offenses, a crime whites match in equal (if not greater) numbers, yet are prosecuted for far less.

I bring up this article because until recently, I thought criminals got arrested when they did wrong and blacks were arrested just as often as whites. If there were more blacks in our nation’s prisons, it was because more of them had committed crimes. It wasn’t until I read this article that I realized that the number of criminals was the same, it was just that effort is really only being made to catch those that are black.

The article makes an interesting point. If I were to say, “We really need to do something about white crime,” your response would probably be “What?” or else a laugh. Yet to say “We really need to do something about black crime” seems almost instinctive, because black has become synonymous with crime.

I can see this in my own fears about the region where I will be teaching. It has a black population of about 40% (my current abode has 1.4%) and a crime rate over 360% greater than where I now live. When I visualize the face of my fears, it takes on a very specific hue. Yet in light of this article, I wonder — how many more crimes simply go unprosecuted in my area because the criminals are white? There is a pot farm down the road. I’ve heard of people selling marijuana in front of police officers. They ignore it because they have “more important things to do.” Would those things still be more important if this were a black neighborhood?

What do you think?