Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

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“Onward We March” to Racism

There’s been a recent controversy in Trumbull, CT over a painting in the Trumbull Library which depicted Mother Theresa standing alongside other female activists, including Margaret Sanger, who holds a Planned Parenthood sign. Catholic officials are deeply offended and say that the painting slanders Mother Theresa’s image. The painting has since been taken down.

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However, the real controversy–the one no one is talking about–has nothing to do with religion and everything to do with race. Look at this painting. Women unite under the banner “Onward We March” and yet there are no women of color. Nowhere.

Imagery like this perpetuates the stereotype that feminism and any push for women’s rights is a white woman’s movement, specifically a cisgender heterosexual middle class white woman’s movement. Where are the Audre Lourdes? the Bell Hooks? the Dolores Huertas?

Where are the women of color and more important, why is no one raising the alarm that Trumbull’s attempt at feminism is severely whitewashed. Feminism is for everyone, and the issue with this painting should be about exclusion and erasure rather than issues of Catholicism and slander against Mother Theresa.

I’ve been meaning to write on the Trayvon Martin case since the final verdict of the Zimmerman trial was announced. I haven’t yet written though because I didn’t know what to say that hadn’t already been said. Even now I don’t think I can speak about the trial itself, but I can speak about my own experience.

Although I was born and raised in Connecticut, a state which claims to be very democratic, liberal and open minded, my home town was full of racism. We were-and still are if I were to go back-a place of hypocrisy. Most of my home town voted for Obama and therefore they feel they are free of racial bias. It doesn’t matter that out of 5,000 students in my high school barely ten percent (maybe) were people of color. No one noticed or thought to question that the upper level AP and honors level classes were only filled with white students. This was the natural order of things, we told ourselves. Of course, we never bothered to analyze our privilege at all.

White privilege was not a concept because it was a lifestyle. It was everything I grew up surrounded by. My brother filled my head with football statistics of how white players are discriminated against for being white, how more black men are in jail than in college and commenting on the lower intelligence of black men as evidenced by some test to get into the NFL. I never bothered to check his facts and I half heartedly debated him because I knew there was something wrong with his logic, but could never put my finger on it. Or I was too afraid to call him out as being racist when I was just as guilty. We never thought to question why the world appeared to us through such a white lens.

My mother never spoke of race. It was somehow known to me that I shouldn’t have black friends, watch black tv shows like the Proud Family for instance, or listen to music by black artists. It was never outright stated, but if I didn’t get it from my mom then I got as if through osmosis by living in a majority white and insulated town.

Is it so difficult to believe then that even though I attend an open minded liberal arts college where a primary focus is diversity and tolerance, that I packed my bigoted views in my suitcase along with my clothes?

When Trayvon was first shot, I had the opportunity to attend a student held event by the Black Student Association on our campus discussing Trayvon’s murder and it’s racial implications. I was on the staff of the newspaper and was given the option to cover this campus event and I declined. I didn’t even go to the event. My excuses were many: I didn’t know enough about the issue, it was an event for black students I wouldn’t be accepted, it was an event for black students why should I care?

At the top of my list though was the most brutally honest and terrible reason: I didn’t care. All I knew was that a black teenager had been shot. Everything I grew up knowing screamed at me that this was a common occurrence because black people get shot every day living their hoodlum gang lifestyles. Trayvon’s death was therefore not only natural, but expected. It would be somehow immoral of me to attend an event when I already knew what side I stood on: the white side.

A year and a half later though and I’m able to see that there isn’t a white side and a black side. There is a racist and bigoted side and there is the side of equality. Perhaps this simplifies things too much, but from where I stand right now you are either pro-human rights or against them. I do not see how there can be a middle ground. If I am going to have the courage to stand up and say that women should be equal in all ways to men, then I better have the courage to look at my own privilege as a white woman.

Oppression is oppression is oppression. I know that I will never need to deal with racism in the same way people of color do and I do not claim that my experience fighting for feminism can ever give me the insight to speak on racial oppression as someone who experiences it first hand. But I do see my privilege and I know that it is wrong for me to be treated better by the color of my skin. I know that things will only change if we rid our minds of white vs colored and focus on opening up our minds to look at ourselves and what we can accomplish.

I know that I can’t do anything for Trayvon. I know that I can’t say anything here which will make up for his death or for the white privilege America prescribes to which allows his murderer to walk free. But I also know that I can look back on my past and see my mistakes and know how to change them so I can fight on the side of human rights. I know where I stand now.