By Barbara J. Miner
"More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began." — Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
The Derek Williams homicide is no longer front-page news. But that doesn’t mean that all-important issues have disappeared about the role of the police and our criminal justice system in communities of color.
Those concerns need to be discussed, even as the federal investigations continue of Williams’ death and possible patterns of civil rights violations.
The police serve an undeniable and all-important function: to serve the community and to protect citizens from crime. But it would be naïve to ignore problems in our criminal justice system that beset not just Milwaukee but urban areas across the country.
What does it mean that more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War?
Has our criminal justice system, particularly in urban areas, become a sophisticated form of control rather than protection? To what extent might our criminal justice system contribute to, rather than ameliorate, neighborhood dysfunction in poor communities of color?
These are uncomfortable and disturbing realities, and go far beyond the behavior of any single police office or police chief, or indeed of any one city. They involve much deeper and broader policy decisions at the federal, state and local level.
A national discussion is needed, but one that also reaches into every neighborhood of every city. Including Milwaukee.
JIM CROW AND MASS INCARCERATION
If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read Michelle Alexander’s book: The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Whether you agree with her or not, her perspective cannot be ignored.
As Alexander notes in her introduction:
What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination — employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of foot stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service — are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.
Among other things, Alexander’s book dissects the repercussions of the painfully misnamed War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s — a war that fueled a rise in imprisonment unmatched in human history. By the 21st Century, it became impossible to ignore that the War on Drugs had also morphed into a war on urban communities of color.
By 2005, the United States held roughly 25 percent of the world’s inmates, with an incarceration rate that dwarfed all other country. As Alexander notes in her book, most of the drug users and dealers in the United States are white. Yet roughly two-thirds of those imprisoned for drug offenses have been Black or Latino.
A year ago, former President Jimmy Carter called for an end to the global drug war. In a New York Times opinion, he noted that just before he left office in 1980, there 500,000 people incarcerated in America. “At the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million,” he wrote.
Milwaukee has not been immune to these national realities, and has become a leader in Black incarceration. In 2005, for instance, Wisconsin had the second highest rate of Black incarceration in the country, fueled by Milwaukee statistics. The rate was more than ten times the rate for whites.
The rise of mass incarceration has significantly impacted Milwaukee’s most-impoverished families and neighborhoods. A 2009 report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute notes that most of the jailed adults in Milwaukee County are in their 20s and 30s — prime working years. African American males particularly affected.
“The absence of many males of prime workforce age and the numbers of men incarcerated and released from state correctional facilities each year have tremendous impact on the earnings and stability of families,” the report states.
The non-profit, non-partisan Sentencing Project notes that changes in sentencing law and policy, not increases in crime rates, explain most of the increase in the prison population in recent decades.
The realities of our criminal justice system “raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid,” argues Glenn C. Loury, a professor of social sciences at Brown University, in his book Race, Incarceration, and American Values. “…We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens — even those who break our laws?”
Regardless of what happens in the Derek Williams case, such questions won’t go away
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.