Monday, October 14, 2019


Article Index

VI. Obscuring Class

In the previous Part, I argued that one of Jim Crow's defining characteristics was that it treated similarly situated blacks and whites differently, and that the New Jim Crow writers are forced by the pressure of the analogy to find modern-day parallels. This leads them to overlook violent crime by limiting their inquiry to the War on Drugs. Jim Crow has another distinctive characteristic that threatens to lead us astray when contemplating mass incarceration. Just as Jim Crow treated similarly situated blacks and whites differently, it treated differently situated blacks similarly. An essential quality of Jim Crow was its uniform and demeaning treatment of all blacks. Jim Crow was designed to ensure the separation, disenfranchisement, and political and economic subordination of all black Americans--young or old, rich or poor, educated or illiterate.

Indeed, one of the central motivations of Jim Crow was to render class distinctions within the black community irrelevant, at least as far as whites were concerned. For this reason, it was essential to subject blacks of all classes to Jim Crow's subordination and humiliation. That's why Mississippi registrars prohibited blacks with Ph.Ds from voting, why lunch counters refused to serve well-dressed college students from upstanding Negro families, and why, as Martin Luther King, Jr. recounts in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, even the most famous black American of his time was not permitted to take his six-year-old daughter to the whites-only amusement park she had just seen advertised on television.

Analogizing mass incarceration to Jim Crow tends to suggest that something similar is at work today. This may explain why many--but not all --of the New Jim Crow writers overlook the fact that mass incarceration does not impact middle- and upper-class educated African Americans in the same way that it impacts lower-income African Americans. This is an unfortunate oversight, because one of mass incarceration's defining features is that, unlike Jim Crow, its reach is largely confined to the poorest, least-educated segments of the African American community. High school dropouts account for most of the rise in African American incarceration rates. I noted earlier that a black man born in the 1960s is more likely to go to prison in his lifetime than was a black man born in the 1940s. But this is not true for all African American men; those with college degrees have been spared. As Bruce Western's research reveals, for an African American man with some college education, the lifetime chance of going to prison actually decreased slightly between 1979 and 1999 (from 6% to 5%). A black man born in the late 1960s who dropped out of high school has a 59% chance of going to prison in his lifetime whereas a black man who attended college has only a 5% chance. Although we have too little reliable data about the class backgrounds of prisoners, what we do know suggests that class, educational attainment, and economic status are powerful indicators for other races as well. Western estimates that for white men born in the late 1960s, the lifetime risk of imprisonment is more than ten times higher for those who dropped out of high school than for those who attended some amount of college.

Government statistics confirm how few college graduates end up in prison. For example, a 1997 federal survey--the most recent available--found that college graduates comprised 2.4% of state prisoners throughout the country. By contrast, college graduates comprised 22% of the population as a whole. In Massachusetts--the only state that routinely reports the educational backgrounds of its prisoners--only 1% of state prisoners have college degrees. Income data reveal a similar skew--the majority of prisoners in state facilities earned less than $10,000 in the year before entering prison.

Class differences have always existed within the black community--but never on anything approaching today's scale. Large segments of the black community are in extreme distress. Unemployment rates for young black men are high by any measure, even more so if we factor in incarceration rates. In some respects, blacks are no better off than they were in the 1960s, and in others (e.g., proportion of children born to unmarried women) they are much worse off. Yet the black middle class has expanded dramatically--and to be clear, I am not talking about the handful of black super-elites. Too many discussions of class differences within the black community adopt a posture of Obama and Oprah on the one hand, the rest of us on the other.But that overlooks a crucial part of the story: the substantial growth of the true middle class.

Consider that in 1967 only 2% of black households earned more than $100,000; today, 10% of black families earn that amount. Going down the income scale from upper middle class to middle class, we also see robust growth. Since 1967, the percentage of black households earning more than $75,000 a year has more than tripled, from 5% to 18% today. The percentage earning $50,000 or more a year has doubled--from 17% in 1967 to 33% today. But the percentages alone do not tell the whole story; it is important to appreciate the sheer numbers of African Americans who have earned the perks of middle-class American existence. By 2009, there were 2.65 million African American households in the upper end of the middle-class range--i.e., earning more than $75,000 a year. The educational attainment numbers reveal a similar pattern. In 1967, 4% of the black population over the age of twenty five had a four-year college degree; today, 20% do.

Changes of this magnitude require us to modify how we discuss race. Historically, racial justice advocates have been reluctant to acknowledge how class privilege mitigates racial disadvantage. This reluctance is partly a byproduct of the structure of the affirmative action argument. One of the most potent arguments against race-based preferences is the claim that wealthier blacks do not deserve them. Affirmative action's defenders often respond by pointing out the various ways in which even privileged blacks suffer racial discrimination. At the same time, racial profiling reinforces the notion that class differences within the black community matter little. After all, racial profiling is the area in which skin color routinely trumps one's bank account or accumulated graduate degrees. As David Harris argues, driving while black is not only an experience of the young black male, or those blacks at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. All blacks confront the issue directly, regardless of age, dress, occupation or social station.

But as I have shown, Harris's argument does not apply with equal force to incarceration. Here, increased income and educational attainment can bring a measure of protection against some of the criminal justice system's historic anti-black tendencies. Accordingly, in considering mass incarceration, any suggestion that blacks across classes are similarly situated in the face of American racism should be abandoned. Malcolm X's assertion that a black man with a Ph.D. is still a nigger made sense in the context of Jim Crow. So did its equivalent in the legal literature. As Mari Matsuda argued, [v]ictims necessarily think of themselves as a group, because they are treated and survive as a group. The wealthy black person still comes up against the color line. The educated Japanese still comes up against the assumption of Asian inferiority. In support of her claim, Matsuda pointed out that Japanese Americans across classes all shared a similar fate in internment camps during World War II. But prisons, as we have seen, are precisely the opposite of internment camps in this regard. Scholars concerned with race cannot explore the significance of this reversal until they first acknowledge it--and many still do not.

For the most part, Alexander avoids this trap. In The New Jim Crow, she reminds us that the primary targets of mass incarceration are poor, uneducated blacks. Moreover, she assails the civil rights establishment for focusing its energies on policies that advance the interests of middle-class blacks--such as affirmative action--while overlooking the crisis that mass incarceration represents for the urban poor. Yet, despite her awareness, Alexander sometimes allows the analogy, and the attendant pressure to find continuity while denying the reality of change, to obscure this insight. For example, Alexander suggests that perhaps the most important parallel between mass incarceration and Jim Crow is that both have served to define the meaning and significance of race in America. Specifically, she says, Slavery defined what it meant to be black (a slave), and Jim Crow defined what it meant to be black (a second-class citizen). Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals. That is what it means to be black.

This claim reflects the limitations of the Jim Crow analogy. Today nothing defines the meaning of blackness in America.In Mississippi in 1950, the totalizing nature of Jim Crow ensured that to be black meant to be second class; there were no blacks free of its strictures. But mass incarceration is much less totalizing. In 2011, no institution can define what it means to be black in the way that Jim Crow or slavery once did.