We are lucky enough, here in Cincinnati, to have the Mercantile Library, founded in 1835, where Harriet Beecher Stowe actually spoke about the writing of her world-changing book, Uncle Tom?s Cabin. And this year, we were lucky to be able to hear Michelle Alexander, author of another world changing book, in conversation with the Library?s President, Paul De Marco, after he presented her with the inaugural Harriet Beecher Stowe Freedom Writer Award.
The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is that world changing book, written and published in 2010 and 2011, by young lawyer Michelle Alexander. It is a magnificent achievement in laying out exactly what is going on in our culture ? why the number of those in prison has grown by 5 fold in less than 30 years time, why most of those prisoners are in for non-violent drug crimes ? and why most of them are black and brown.
Here are the most shocking things I learned: the size of the prison industry, and the amount of money that supports it ? when we purport not to have dollars for pre-school and excellent education. The stories of single moms and many others snatched from their homes and lives, when they cannot make bail or pay court costs or tickets. (My reaction – in reality, they are held in debtors? prisons, which have been illegal since the time of Charles Dickens.) Or ? a new industry having sprung up ? collections agencies buy these debts from courts, and thus those who have paid their debt to society are made to pay high interest for years, and almost never get out of it. The truth about what a felony record does to your entire life ? once you have to check that box on an employment form. The shame and the despair from being randomly selected by the police for a pat down. (My reaction ? which really becomes a shakedown, worse than a lightning bolt in its effect.) How many of our police departments and jails are supported by these policies? Ferguson, MO is not the only place to run on money supplied by the poorest among us.
Michelle is amazingly able to tell us this story straight, without mind-numbing statistics, and in a coherent, follow-the-trail of what is really happening here way. During slavery, the South needed the labor of the slaves. After the Civil War, the need was for control ? using fear and terror to control the lowest paid workers, who really never had a chance, even when they moved North. (My reaction – and now our culture does not believe it needs the labor of this rung of the ladder, but have found another way to monetize black and brown men, while destroying communities and ruining the lives of children.)
Those of us who are white can drive with a broken taillight. Those of us who are black or brown may have their lives destroyed by attracting the attention of the authorities this way, as one domino follows another. Don?t pay the ticket, the cost doubles. Found guilty of a broken tail light, can?t pay the court costs. Can?t make bail, stay in jail. Lose your job, maybe lose your kids. And if you live in the wrong state and marijuana is involved, the entire mess becomes a felony, meaning a life-long sentence as far as having a normal healthy American life is concerned. This is what we put poor people through.
It does not make sense at the macro or micro level. Our appetite for punishment seems to be enormous. Our appetite for compassion often seems non-existent. Mercy and justice should work together, be partners. But mostly not, so far in 21st century America.