Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Read It, and Weep
Last Sunday evening, on the first truly spring day of the year, I found myself sitting amid a circle of auditors on folding chairs on the Albert E. Hinds Memorial Plaza just outside the remarkably busy town library of Princeton, New Jersey. We listened to (among others) a gospel singer, a professor of elocution, a prison chaplain, and a poet as they sang, read, spoke, or recited from a makeshift dais in the center of the square. The crowd was—well, diverse is the word that comes to mind. There were well-scrubbed suburban ladies, young black kids, a sprinkling of clerical collars. I even saw some seriously long hair, also cool hats. The best in that category was atop an imam who had come all the way down from Newark for the event. I might describe the vibe as counter-cultural, could I any longer identify a common culture worth countering. In any event it was by no means my usual scene. I prefer classical music concerts, indoors.
But every now and then one stumbles upon some great unpleasantness that one has up until then been able actually to ignore, or to keep so far on the periphery of meaningful consciousness as to be insulated from its implications. Unfortunately once having stumbled upon it—bumped into it on the street, so to speak—further complaisance is impossible. It seems rather unfair to me that I must add to the significant number of things I already have to worry about a new one: the implications of the huge incarceration rate among young black men. But I must.
A book is the catalyst of my distress. It’s called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, a lawyer-professor who teaches at Ohio State. It is not unlikely that you have heard of it, as it has sold very well and been widely reviewed, but it was forced upon my attention by my wife.
Professor Alexander’s subject is the mass incarceration of youth of color in the United States, a phenomenon directly related to the “War on Drugs” so vigorously pursued for the better part of a generation now. Her title reflects her thesis that the actual social effects of the mass incarceration of young black men is to impose upon the community crippling disabilities not entirely unlike those that obtained under the legal discrimination of the old “Jim Crow” regime in the south.
I am a law-and-order kind of guy. I also believe in, and preach, individual responsibility. I favor neither the dismantling of the criminal justice system nor a general amnesty for criminal offenders. Naturally I am leading up to a “but…” What has overwhelmed me about The New Jim Crow is not its legal or political arguments but its mind-boggling statistical information. A good deal of this information has been printed on one side of a card bookmark, two inches by five, that some kids were handing out among the crowd on Hinds Plaza. Item, the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has a quarter of the world’s prisoners. There are considerably more than two and a half million inmates in American prisons! Item, the average annual cost for the maintenance of an American inmate is $60,000. There may now be some college or university with a higher annual comprehensive fee, but if there is I don’t know about it. In 2012 the median family income in the United States was $45,000. Whether looked at in terms of human capital or simply those of the efficient use of financial resources, there is here a shaming extravagance of waste.
Deborah Ford, Director of Music at Trinity Cathedral, Trenton
The racial sociology of American prisons, which is of course the focus of the book, is extraordinary. A white male child born in 2001 faces a 1:17 chance of eventual incarceration. When I hear a number like that, my literal mind tends to form a picture of some concrete cohort—a classroom, a subway car, a church congregation, the swimming pool when it gets crowded. One in seventeen seems shocking enough to me, but it practically melts into insignificance when one considered the statistical odds for Latino and black boys. For Latinos it’s 1:6 and for blacks 1:3!
I surely cannot be alone in finding that these and other facts border on the incredible, while the complexity and intractability of the whys behind them seem to invite paralysis. That is why my wife Joan joined with a group of local citizens, mostly women, to come up with the idea of a week-long “New Jim Crow Read Out”. Ours is a college town with lots people who read books. The courtyard in front of the public library has a lot of people moving through it. So from five to six each evening this week there is a simple public program that features a reading from The New Jim Crow, a thematically related musical presentation, and a mini-lecture or testimonial from a speaker with personal knowledge of some aspect of the prison system. The program concludes with poetry, mostly composed by inmates, and a few minutes to browse the petitions on the display tables.