Black History Month: “Me and the New Jim Crow”

In honor of Black History Month, VJN invited Ramon Mayo to review Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, is a tour de force in exposing a clear injustice in our society. It is a clear injustice that for many years has been kept in the dark. It has been so subtly hidden that even its victims have not known how powerfully mass incarceration has affected their communities.

Each and every chapter has enough evidence of injustice to indict government and law enforcement as culpable in devising a system where blacks and latinos are unfairly arrested, prosecuted, sentenced and labeled as felons with no hope of restoration to mainstream society. But that’s not where the book hit me the most.

See, I read the New Jim Crow as one who has lived in communities where I have seen its devastating effects. Growing up in the hood I saw many people get arrested. Many of my friends, loved ones, and family members have served time and have come out with the odds stacked against them. Some have achieved moderate success while others have resorted back to criminal activity due to being labeled felons and having no other options. That last part is the killer. Phil Strout, our National Director, stated that to be poor is to have no options and to be a felon in America defines what it means to be poor.

The problem is since the people in these situations are charged with crimes, they are seen by the wider society as guilty and their sentence as just. We see the incarceration statistics but shrug our heads and say “If you don’t want to be in prison don’t break the law. But what if the law is unjust. Augustine said it rightly: “an unjust law is no law at all.”

And even as a person who grew up in the hood: Compton, Lynwood, and South Central L.A. I had the same attitude. I chalked up the disparity to people’s criminality, but in the back of my mind, I questioned whether one race could inherently be more criminal than another. It was puzzling to me, even as a child, to see more black people portrayed as criminals in the media and locked up in real life. After a while you begin to ask: “Am I from a race that is genetically predisposed to commit crimes?” Deep inside I knew the answer, but growing up and seeing a lot of people who look like you and act like you either on their way to prison, in prison, or coming out of prison, can wear on your own self-esteem. So you either succumb to it, or you say something is wrong with the system. The system must be broken. Most of the time I wavered back and forth between these two extremes.

After a while you begin to ask: “Am I from a race that is genetically predisposed to commit crimes?”

At this point in my life, I believe that not only are we broken but the system is broken as well. I read the New Jim Crow as someone who, without the grace of God, would have been labeled a felon. Yes, me. A Fuller seminary grad, a former pastor, a future church planter was this close to being poor as Phil Strout defined it. I was this close to having no options. See, I was almost charged with grand larceny as a kid just barely out of high school. I would have been a prison number and a statistic. So, I speak of the “New Jim Crow” as someone who knows how easy it is to get trapped in the system. Many of my family and friends haven’t been so lucky.

And so as I read Michelle Alexander’s statistics and logic, I don’t read from a detached place, and I encourage you not to read from that place as well. I encourage you to read from a place where you connect with young men and women who have seen their communities and families decimated by this system.

Here are some quotes from the book:

“The genius of the current caste system, and what most distinguishes it from its predecessors, is that it appears voluntary. People choose to commit crimes, and that’s why they are locked up or locked out, we are told. This feature makes the politics of responsibility particularly tempting, as it appears the system can be avoided with good behavior. But herein lies the trap. All people make mistakes. All of us are sinners. All of us are criminals. All of us violate the law at some point in our lives. In fact, if the worst thing you have ever done is speed ten miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you have put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of his or her living room. Yet there are people in the United States serving life sentences for first-time drug offenses, something virtually unheard of anywhere else in the world.”

“Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”

“The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid. In Washington, D.C., our nation’s capitol, it is estimated that three out of four young black men (and nearly all those in the poorest neighborhoods) can expect to serve time in prison.”

“African-Americans are not significantly more likely to use or sell prohibited drugs than whites, but they are made criminals at drastically higher rates for precisely the same conduct.”

“Ninety percent of those admitted to prison for drug offenses in many states were black or Latino, yet the mass incarceration of communities of color was explained in race-neutral terms, an adaptation to the needs and demands of the current political climate. The New Jim Crow was born.”

“If we want to do more than just end mass incarceration—if we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America—we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.”

The New Jim Crow presents a challenge to all of us. Are we going to look at the world and the black and latino populations through the lens of racial caste or through the lens of the Kingdom. The lens of racial caste says there are some of us who deserve to be scapegoats, pariahs, and are undesirable. The lens of the Kingdom says “Accept all of us or none.”

Michelle Alexander’s book is a wake up call for pastors who are not familiar with the complexities of racial justice and privilege in America. Even more so it is a robust companion for anyone who wants to engage reconciliation and walk with people of color and real issues that affect their lives. If you are looking to pastor a diverse multi-ethnic church, then this is a book to have in your library.


About the Author:

ramon mayoAs a young kid Ramon Mayo grew up in South Central LA during the crack era of the late 80’s/early 90’s. He has been a hip hop artist, a pentecostal preacher, a missionary to Ethiopia, the pastor of a multiethnic Vineyard church, and now I am a writer/editor and speaker. Ramon lives with his wife Yvette and three wonderful children in Chicago, Illinois and attend the South Suburban Vineyard ChurchFollow Ramon on Twitter: @maytron.

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