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Invisible Black America

Charles Ommanney/Contact Press Images
Inmates at the state prison in Sugar Land, Texas, 2005

Maybe the point is that no black person should have to stomach any bigotry, but the resentment Ogletree’s men—a number of them Harvard graduates—express at having been taken for a servant or menial by whites could make one wonder if their parents ever told them that they themselves ought not to judge a black man by the work he was able to find. That racism can make race trump class and cancel out individual accomplishment has long been a theme of black literature, a sort of group truth that gets restated with each generation. Hip-hop’s cynicism helped young black men to get over any cultural ambivalence about material ambitions that the militant black generation of the 1960s had denounced.

In fact, success itself became a form of militancy: the last place that “they” want “us” is in the boardroom, so get there or form your own Wu Tang Clan. But in the confrontations with police described in Ogletree’s book, the black man is, in effect, being told that his success, his being a part of the system, doesn’t purchase what it gets a white man: protection of the law. He is reduced to a stereotype, reminded of his group’s impotence, thrown back into history, placed in the white man’s power.

Ogletree is saying that Gates’s case is not some freak event. However, by concentrating only on successful black men, Ogletree isolates them as a class from the rest of black America and the larger setting he asks us to keep in mind; as a result he somewhat misspends his own “teachable moment.” For a cogent history of racial profiling and its social consequences, one can turn to a study such as David A. Harris’s admirable Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work (2002).

Harris explains that racial profiling came from criminal profiling, a police technique whereby a set of characteristics associated with a certain crime are used to identify the type of person likely to commit it. For example, in 1969, when thirty-three of forty attempts to hijack US planes were successful, federal authorities reasoned that hijackers had to be stopped on the ground and they developed a hijackers’ profile to be used in screening passengers. But it didn’t work, as Harris dryly notes, and in 1973 the FAA adopted mandatory electronic screening of all passengers.

Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, Harris relates, federal agents believed they could predict which air passengers might carry drugs and in 1989, in US v. Sokolow, the Supreme Court upheld the use of profiles in the detention of drug-trafficking suspects at airports. By that time a Florida state trooper had made a national reputation from the number of major narcotics arrests he chalked up on his stretch of highway. He is credited with being the first to apply profiling to “everyday citizens in their cars.” From the arrests, the trooper identified what he called “cumulative similarities” that could make him regard a driver as suspicious and worth a closer look. He got around legal objections to his operating on mere hunches by claiming that he first stopped the suspects for traffic violations and the “cumulative similarities” came into play afterward.

Harris says that the DEA enthusiastically took up the trooper’s method, and in its training videos, suspects were black or had Hispanic last names. Early on, the Supreme Court tended to support “high-discretion police tactics” in pedestrian stop-and-frisk cases as well. Harris points out that blacks are not the only targets of racial profiling: the police also focus on Latinos, Asians, and Arabs, depending on the type of crime that police associate with these groups and their neighborhoods. There have been legislative and judicial attempts to curb the use of racial profiling as more and more data reveal that it is ineffective in stopping crime. Racial profiling, Harris argues, puts the legitimacy of the entire justice system at risk.

Some conservative writers contend that the legal system is race-neutral for the most part and that the high number of blacks in prisons confirms the harsh reality that blacks tend to commit the violent crimes for which people are put behind bars, just as illegal weapons possession and drug trafficking are offenses associated with inner cities, which means the police have due cause to use racial profiling. However, the contributors to Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (2003), an exhaustive analysis of the continued significance of race, counter that the research that such conservatives rely on is out of date, and that more valid and recent studies show that, since the 1990s, “paramilitary responses” by SWAT teams and other heavily armed police units “to gangs and drugs in the cities” have only intensified the use of stereotypical conceptions of race in order to prosecute offenses.

To concentrate on the sources of crime, and society’s responsibility for them, is now often dismissed as an irrelevant, old-fashioned liberal approach to a thorny social question, just as explorations of deep-rooted “disadvantages” in black life, the part that the legacy of racism plays in invisible discrimination today, are viewed by some whites as the continued special pleading of blacks. We are far from Ramsey Clark’s Crime in America (1970) in which he argued that the crimes of the poor enraged and frightened the more comfortable majority of Americans because riots, robbery, and rape were so foreign to the experience of middle-class people that such crimes were incomprehensible. Clark argued that the poor would not resort to these crimes if their opportunities had been better and more genuine. In this view, the irrational conditions that the poor had to cope with were among the causes of violent offenses. By the time of the Reagan reaction, however, Clark’s respect for black rage was no longer acceptable to most white voters as a reasonable approach to policy.

Moreover, the image of black youth in the media had changed. Where black students had been a symbol of good in the civil rights movement, once black militants repudiated nonviolence, the popular image of black youth darkened. By the 1980s, young black males were depicted as urban marauders, and many did in fact prey on the weakest in the ghetto. Even Rosa Parks got mugged in Detroit (her neighbors found the culprits and subjected them to harsh punishment, but others had no such protectors).

Around this time black youths in cities across the country were entering the underground economy of the cocaine trade in troubling numbers as they failed to secure meaningful employment in the mainstream world. The first Bush administration inaugurated the Violence Initiative, a series of studies that sought to determine whether black youth were prone to violence because of behavioral or biological factors. In 1994 the Clinton administration passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which extended the death penalty, approved a billion-dollar budget for new prisons, ended higher education programs in prisons, called for juveniles to be tried as adults in certain cases, and made life imprisonment mandatory after three or more federal convictions for violent felonies or drug-trafficking crimes.

Bakari Kitwana, executive editor of The Source, a rap music magazine, observes in The Hip Hop Generation (2002) that gang culture evolved along with the war on drugs almost as a business enterprise. By 1998, Kitwana notes, federal authorities judged that gang activity took place in every state, in both urban and rural locations. Local measures against gangs, he contends, became anti-youth laws. In 1992, Chicago had an ordinance in place that prohibited two or more young people from gathering in public places. Law enforcement agencies in Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles developed databases from gang profiles. Kitwana claimed that the Los Angeles sheriff’s department database held at least 140,000 names, including those of black and Latino youth who did no more than dress in the hip-hop manner or were into grafitti. Kitwana makes the point that white people constitute the great proportion of the nation’s drug users and white youth buy more rap music than black youth.

The literature on race and the criminal justice system is extensive2; the film documentaries about the problem tell us things we need to know; the jails keep filling with black and brown people. Now and then a book comes along that might in time touch the public and educate social commentators, policymakers, and politicians about a glaring wrong that we have been living with that we also somehow don’t know how to face. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander is such a work. A former director of the Racial Justice Project at the Northern California ACLU, now a professor at the Ohio State University law school, Alexander considers the evidence and concludes that our prison system is a unique form of social control, much like slavery and Jim Crow, the systems it has replaced.

Alexander is not the first to offer this bitter analysis, but The New Jim Crow is striking in the intelligence of her ideas, her powers of summary, and the force of her writing. Her tone is disarming throughout; she speaks as a concerned citizen, not as an expert, though she is one. She can make the abstract concrete, as J. Saunders Redding once said in praise of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Alexander deserves to be compared to Du Bois in her ability to distill and lay out as mighty human drama a complex argument and history.

Laws prohibiting the use and sale of drugs are facially race neutral,” she writes, “but they are enforced in a highly discriminatory fashion.” To cite just one example of such discrimination, whites who use powder cocaine are often dealt with mildly. Blacks who use crack cocaine are often subject to many years in prison:

The decision to wage the drug war primarily in black and brown communities rather than white ones and to target African Americans but not whites on freeways and train stations has had precisely the same effect as the literacy and poll taxes of an earlier era. A facially race-neutral system of laws has operated to create a racial caste system.

Alexander argues that racial profiling is a gateway into this system of “racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization.” To have been in prison excludes many people of color permanently from the mainstream economy, because former prisoners are trapped in an “underworld of legalized discrimination.” The “racial isolation” of the ghetto poor makes them vulnerable in the futile war on drugs. Alexander cites a 2002 study conducted in Seattle that found that the police ignored the open-air activities of white drug dealers and went after black crack dealers in one area instead.

Even though Seattle’s drug war tactics might be in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Supreme Court has made it nearly impossible to challenge race discrimination in the criminal justice system. “The barriers” to effective lawsuits are so high, Alexander writes, that few “are even filed, notwithstanding shocking and indefensible racial disparities.”

  1. 2

    See for example Angela Davis’s excellent Are Prisons Obsolete? (Seven Stories Press, 2003). 

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