Across the United States today, communities are commemorating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While many of those observations recount the history of King’s inspiration and leadership in the civil rights movement, many will – like the one here in Youngstown – urge us to be inspired by King’s legacy to fight the continuing problems of poverty and inequality. Some of that discussion will focus on race, but much of it will, rightly, recognize that race and class often work together.
I spent many hours thinking about that confluence this past summer and fall, as part of a community book group reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The strongest theme in our discussions was the persistence of racism. Across different races, ages, professional backgrounds, and personal histories, we shared a deep frustration that decades of conversation, activism, policy-making, and education had not eradicated racism. Instead, we agreed, as Alexander argues, it had become more indirect and therefore even harder to fight.
Alexander traces how the war on drugs established and legalized discriminatory practices that have permanently disenfranchised and economically marginalized tens of thousands of African-Americans, mostly men. According to Alexander, more black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850. They are targeted, mistreated by the “justice” system, sent to jail in disproportionate numbers, and legally discriminated against when they are released. She explains that it’s now practically impossible to appeal or challenge this discrimination, because the standard of proof is intentional, conscious behavior, and in a world where we’ve all learned that colorblindness is the ideal, most people are convinced that they are not racist.
Her critique of the war on drugs and the mass incarceration of black men is convincing in itself, and the book is well worth reading. (For a quick take, you can listen to my interview with Alexander on Lincoln Avenue). But as someone who studies social class, I’ve also been thinking about why the problems Alexander lays out are issues of economic justice as well as racial justice.
Both Alexander and Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who has been studying mass incarceration through the lens of the Attica uprising, point out that the war on drugs took aim at African Americans because Republicans were trying to garner support from southern white Democrats, including many in the working class. Going back as far as the Nixon administration, but especially under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush, conservatives used racial imagery to foster a culture of fear and blame, defining African-Americans as criminals (think Willie Horton) and setting more stringent sentencing guidelines for crack than for powder cocaine. As both Alexander and Thompson point out, urban areas and especially African Americans were targeted in the war on drugs even though clear evidence showed that they were not the ones most involved in drug trafficking. Sadly, this strategy worked politically in part because it tapped into the same white working-class racial resentments that Nixon had successfully leveraged in his presidential campaigns.
Though some white working-class voters thought they were protecting their interests by supporting the war on drugs, the effect was quite the opposite. Thompson argues that the mass incarceration of blacks contributed to the decline of the labor movement over the past four decades. She writes, “prisons have long been some of the most exploitative workplaces in America, and thus, the fate of American workers and the history of the American justice system are inexorably linked.” As incarceration rates rose, regulations limiting the use of prison labor were overturned in many states, allowing companies to hire prisoners for far less the minimum wage. So not only were prisoners exploited as workers, but jobs that might have yielded something close to a living wage in the community were moved into prisons. As Thompson claims, “There was clear evidence that free-world wages had been cut and jobs had been eliminated as a result of prison labor.”
The expansion of prisons did create some jobs, especially for white workers in the largely rural areas where the new prisons were built. Of course, those jobs were usually not unionized, nor did they pay well. In Youngstown, the escape of six prisoners from a medium-security Corrections Corporation of America prison on the edge of the city was tied, in part, to the low wages paid to guards, who were easily bribed to look the other way as a hole was cut in the fence. When guards at that prison organized a union, CCA temporarily shut it down. Certainly, the Youngstown story shows that the prison economy does not, in the long run, yield significant numbers of good jobs.
Of course, mass incarceration has the most direct, dramatic impact on economic conditions in African-American working-class communities. Blacks have the highest poverty rates in the U.S. – 27.4%, compared with 9.9% for whites, according to 2010 data from the Institute for Research on Poverty. High rates of imprisonment among African-American men, often for relatively minor offenses that would yield little or no prison time for whites, don’t just undercut household economies while someone is in prison. Being convicted of a felony creates long-term economic marginalization. Once labeled as a felon, an individual’s chances for employment of any kind are severely limited. Nor do most ex-convicts qualify for any form of public assistance, and in many cases, they cannot even return to their families, because public housing bans residents with criminal records. Alexander notes that with so few economic options, becoming more involved in the drug trade becomes the only reasonable option for many ex-convicts – an option that makes them vulnerable to a return to prison or a violent death.
As many in working-class studies have argued, though, class is not only a matter of economics. The working class has historically developed and relied upon strong communal ties that help individuals and families get through hard times and that create the conditions for collective action for social and economic change. Perhaps the most moving part of Alexander’s book is her discussion of how individuals, families, and communities struggle to deal with the shame of imprisonment. Families don’t speak openly about their relatives who are in prison, she writes, and those who have been in jail often break ties with old friends and relatives. Alexander writes that the stigma associated with criminality “has turned the black community against itself, destroyed networks of mutual support, and created a silence about the new caste system among many of the people most affected by it.”
Alexander closes The New Jim Crow with a call to action: we need a new civil rights movement, she writes, bringing together people of all races and classes, who will fight against mass incarceration on the basis of human rights and justice. Such a movement will not succeed, she argues, if it involves only African Americans, nor can it succeed if whites and others are encouraged to participate solely on the basis of their self-interest. Just as with the marches and voter registration drives across the South in the 1950s and 60s, the efforts we commemorate with this week’s MLK holiday, people of conscience must come together to fight injustice simply because it’s wrong.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies