Mass incarceration–the new Jim Crow

I think it’s time to talk about an issue that isn’t glamorous or infamous, but it is so subtle and so completely off the radar, for a girl from the St. Louis suburbs, that my comprehension of it is still watery at best. But we cannot keep ignoring mass incarceration or what is often called the school to prison pipeline.

Mass incarceration has become a massive problem in this country in the aftermath of the war on drugs. And this problem disproportionately affects African American males. It has been argued that “mass” incarceration cannot possibly just affect black males, which is true, but because it is centered in a certain demographic area it is does disproportionately affect the urban poor. It is likely for this reason, that mass incarceration and the systematic imprisonment, and thereby the oppression of these individuals, isn’t at the forefront of the public’s mind for long.

Despite public outcry after the Trayvon Martin trial, we are still failing to address the monumental discrimination and criminalization of young blacks. I understand but refuse to accept the complacency, after all. for those of us outside of the neighborhoods in which this taking place and outside the barbed wire race walls, it doesn’t come up in conversation, it doesn’t affect our everyday lives, and many of us see the persecution of a people who are falsely accused of criminal behavior as inevitable. After all, “You can’t be too careful.” We tell ourselves these people had to have just slipped through the cracks, and that the law is simply going above and beyond by taking every necessary precaution. But from the other side of the bars, men and women suffer. They are innocent and will live their entire lives struggling with the burden of a police record.

As progressives, it has to be complacence and ignorance that keep us from action. My own battle was with ignorance, both of African-Americans’ systematic imprisonment itself and a lack of understanding of the urban culture’s intent. I didn’t understand that maybe sagging pants and graffiti were forms of expression, forms of resistance, a self- imposed identity created because the ones given to them are clad in orange jumpsuits. Which leads to that expressive and rebellious identity, to be tainted by the visage of our imposed impression of what ‘criminal’ looks like.

The sad truth is that police brutality in poor neighborhoods isn’t a fantasy nor is it an isolated event. It’s a real problem that happens to real people. Has the war on drugs really accomplished much more than sweeping drug busts that target one-time offenders in the poorest neighborhoods, while college students are getting high in their dorms? If it is socially acceptable for posh stores to sell t-shirts with marijuana leaves on them, then why do young black men have to watch how they act when wearing a hoodie.

A criminal record only continues the already endless and nearly inescapable cycle of poverty and for so many who are  influenced so young, don’t they deserve a second chance? Or is it written that they must be reconciled to a society that excludes them from their right to education, property and liberty? People’s human rights are being violated and trampled on. How can we say that isn’t the definition of being disenfranchised? Of being oppressed?

If you want to become further involved in the social movement against mass imprisonment, awareness is the first place to start. I recommend Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow a book that explains this phenomenon with depth and backs her findings with tremendous research and detail.