A Reading Note

Why hatred isn’t a necessary precondition for maintaining a racial caste:

Of all the reasons that we fail to know the truth about mass incarceration, though, one stands out: a profound misunderstanding regarding how racial oppression actually works. If someone were to visit the United States from another country (or another planet) and ask: Is the U.S. criminal justice system some kind of tool of racial control? Most Americans would swiftly deny it. Numerous reasons would leap to mind why that could not possibly be the case. The visitor would be told that crime rates, black culture, or bad schools were to blame. “The system is not run by a bunch of racists,” the apologist would explain. “It’s run by people who are trying to fight crime.” That response is predictable, because most people assume that racism, and racial systems generally, are fundamentally a function of attitudes. Because mass incarceration is officially colorblind, it seems inconceivable that the system could function much like a racial caste system. The widespread and mistaken belief that racial animus is necessary for the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of social control is the most important reason that we, as a nation, have remained in deep denial.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 183

Alexander goes on to note that the contrast between today’s system of racial control and the Jim-Crow-era “whites only” signs and lynchings make for an easy (and I would add lazy) kind of denial.

Our understanding of racism is therefore shaped by the most extreme expressions of indvidual bigotry, not by the way in which it functions naturally, almost invisibly (and sometimes with genuinely benign intent), when it is embedded in the structure of a social system.

Alexander, The New Jim Crow, page 183

It’s not hard to spot parallels with sexism here: much outright misogyny is no longer tolerated, or even legal, while a more subtle (but still destructive) sexism remains a systemic problem. Rejection of obvious sexism and racism serves as cover for more insidious manifestations. We have to look past the superficial color- and gender-blindness to see that the outcomes are neither.

Related books

The New Jim Crow

Michelle Alexander

“We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it,” writes Michelle Alexander, in her damning history of mass incarceration.