This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.
Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.
Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”
“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”
Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.
My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.
Life After Parole is a Frontline documentary about a Connecticut program seeking to reduce mass incarceration rates and prison costs by granting low risk offenders early parole. The film follows four new parolees over a 1 1/2 year period. In each case, it’s clear their risk of re-offending directly relates to the quality of their relationship with their parole officer.
It’s clear from this documentary the effectiveness of this experiment depends largely on the ability of parole officers to shift roles. Instead of mainly monitoring parolees for infractions of their parole conditions, they must learn to play a supportive role in helping former inmates build a new life for themselves. At the moment, they are expected to play both roles simultaneously, and criminologists question whether this is even possible.
Of the four offenders, the sole female is the only one to stay out of prison on the first try. I suspect this relates partly to the nature of her offense (the three men, all imprisoned for drug-related crimes, violate their condition of parole by relapsing), partly to strong motivation to be re-united with her son and partly to a strong relationship with a highly skilled parole officer. The woman, who is African American, has been in prison for ten years for slashing another women with a knife. The length of this sentence for an assault and battery charge is ludicrous. It speaks volumes to the blatant racism of the US criminal justice system.
This documentary traces the rise of the “white rights” movement that elected Donald Trump. This movement, of mainly white blue collar males, promotes the distorted image of white people as a disenfranchised minority. According to the filmmakers, it has its roots in Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. By heavily emphasizing “states rights,” Goldwater successfully exploited the anxieties of Southerners over forced integration by the federal government. It would be the first time Southern states had voted Republican since the Civil War.
Nixon’s Southern Strategy
In 1968, the Nixon campaign built on Goldwater’s success by implementing a formal “southern strategy.” By reaching out to the “silent majority,” and emphasizing law and order in the face of race riots and anti-war protests, his campaign sought to win the votes of northern blue collar voters. In subsequent elections, Democratic Party strategists would seek to win back blue collar voters by recruiting two conservative governors to run for president (Carter and Clinton).
As the Watergate scandal undermined all Americans’ confidence in government, corporate oligarchs would build on growing anti-government sentiment by massively funding right wing think tanks, lobbying and conservative talk radio. This, in turn would lay the groundwork for Reagan’s 1980 massive deregulation and tax and public service cuts.
Corporate Giveaways By Clinton and Obama
When Clinton was elected in 1992, he quickly surpassed Reagan’s record of corporate giveaways, with his total deregulation of Wall Street, his Three Strikes and Omnibus Crime Bill (leading to mass incarceration of minorities) and his creation of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These free trade treaties resulted in the wholesale export of rust belt industries to Mexico and China, effectively ending any incentive for working class males to vote Democratic.
Obama, elected on the back of the 2008 financial collapse, would prove even more pro-corporate than Clinton or Bush. Instead of prosecuting the banks who caused the 2008 economic crash, he granted them massive bailouts, while ignoring the plight of millions of homeowners who lost their homes when these banks foreclosed on them. He also significantly increasing mass surveillance and aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers. He also effectively repealed posse comitatus* and habeus corpus.**
The Rise of Occupy and the Tea Party
Obama’s pro-corporate policies led to the rise of both left wing (Occupy Wall Street) and right wing (Tea Party) popular movements. The latter received major corporate backing (largely from the Koch brothers), enabling Tea Party Republicans to shift the blame for the loss of good paying industrial jobs from Wall Street to minorities, immigrants and women.
Is the US Moving to the Right?
For me, the highlight of the documentary is commentary by former Black Panther Party president Elaine Brown, the only activist featured. Brown, who is highly critical of the left’s failure to acknowledge the problems of poor white people, is the only commentator to dispute that the US is “moving to the right.” She points out that prior Republican campaigns used coded language (such as “state rights,” “law and order”) to target racist fears of blue collar whites. Trump, in contrast, openly caters to these sentiments. Brown reports that some blacks welcome the end of political hypocrisy and greater openness about the pervasiveness of white racism.
She believes this new openness offers a good opportunity to build a genuine multiracial working class movement. She gives the example of successful collaboration in Chicago between black activists and the Young Patriots (a white separatist group) against corrupt landlords.
*The Posse Comitatus Act, enacted in 1878, prohibited the use of federal troops to enforce domestic policies within the US.
**The right of Habeus Corpus, guaranteed under Article I of the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, prevents government from illegal detaining US citizens without charging them.
Locked Up Warriors is an Al Jazeera documentary about New Zealand’s mass incarceration of its indigenous people.
New Zealand is second only to the US in its rate of mass incarceration. Although New Zealand’s indigenous Māori make up only 15% of New Zealand, they represent half its prison population. This relates largely to political pressure for longer sentences – despite a host of studies showing long sentences significantly increase re-offending.
For me the most interesting section of the film concerns New Zealand’s gang culture and the longstanding rivalry between our two largest gangs – the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. It’s not uncommon for Māori offenders to be third generation gang members.
In laying out the sordid history of the US prison industrial complex, Exile Nation helps us understand how the US came to have the largest prison population in the world, far exceeding that of China, which has over four times as many people.
A significant proportion of US inmates are African Americans and Hispanics locked up for “victimless” drug offenses. At present 500,000 of American’s 2.3 million prison population is inside for using heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. Thirty thousand are there for cannabis possession.
The documentary intersperses commentary by “experts” (cops, judges, sociologists, psychiatrists, defense attorneys, jail monitors, medical marijuana activists and prison rights advocates) with those of ex-offenders.
The US Invents Mass Incarceration
Crime rates in the US first reached a high point in 1830, largely due to high levels of alcohol abuse. The US would be the first country in the modern era to introduce mass incarceration as punishment for law breaking. The Pennsylvania Quakers believed that locking people up would force them to “repent” – the origin of the word penitentiary. The experiment failed. Studies consistently show that imprisoning convicts neither rehabilitates them nor discourages them from re-offending.
Nixon’s War on Drugs
Nineteenth century crime rates slowly declined, plateauing during the Civil War era. From then on, they remained constant until the 1970s, when Nixon declared the first war on drugs. His primary target was the immense social movements of the late sixties and early seventies. Nixon couldn’t constitutionally punish hippies for opposing the Vietnam War nor African Americans for demanding the right to vote. Instead he targeted their behavior, ie the widespread use of marijuana, LSD and cocaine that accompanied these movements.
In doing so, Nixon deliberately ignored the recommendation of a 1972 bipartisan commission that recommended that marijuana use be criminalized.
Reagan’s War on Drugs
The prison industrial complex received a second major boost in 1984, when Reagan declared a second war on drugs. Unlike Nixon, who envisioned drug arrests as a form of social control, Reagan used the drug war (particularly against crack, a new bargain basement form of cocaine) to demonize African Americans and win votes from white blue collar workers.
The Mainstream Media Revolts
The media turned against the drug war and prison industrial complex in the 1990s, with Ted Koppel producing several excellent documentaries highlighting the drawbacks of mass incarceration. The resulting shift in public opinion would lead the federal government and many states to begin downsizing their prison populations. Sadly 9-11 and the War on Terror interrupted this process.
A high point for me were the interviews with medical marijuana activists describing the history of their movement (leading to the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes in 23 states sates).
I also really liked the sections on the medical use of MDMA (ecstasy) in treating post traumatic disorder and the psychedelic ibogaine in treating heroin addiction.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander (2010)
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans functions as a racialized caste system similar to Jim Crow segregation laws. She defines caste as “as system in which a stigmatized racial group is locked into inferior position by law and custom.” In addition to the mass imprisonment itself, America’s unusually harsh treatment of ex-felons means extraordinarily high numbers of African Americans face legal discrimination for the rest of their life.
It’s both legal and socially acceptable to discriminate against ex-offenders. Federal agencies are legally required to exclude ex-felons from welfare and food stamp programs, public housing and Pell grants and student loans. Job discrimination against ex-felons is legal in nearly all states, and most states prohibit ex-felons from voting or serving on juries. Unable to find jobs or housing (relatives who take them in risk losing their homes under drug forfeiture* laws), many return to prison when they can’t meet the terms of their probation/parole (which usually includes stable housing and employment).
In addition to tracing the political origins of the War on Drugs, The New Jim Crow also provides a detailed analysis of the complex political and sociological dynamics that underlie white racism and the refusal of a post-racial “colorblind” society to acknowledge the immense damage mass incarceration wreaks on African American families and communities. She also explains the perplexing paradox that leads working class whites to vote against their own economic interests by electing Tea Party conservatives.
The War on Drugs: A Republican Scam
As Alexander elegantly demonstrates, the War on Drugs is part of a deliberate strategy by the Republican Party to play on racial animosity among working class whites to win their votes. The American elite has used this divide and conquer strategy to discourage multiracial coalitions all the way back to Bacon’s Rebellion* in 1676. According to Alexander, the original Jim Crow laws were largely a reaction to a brief multiracial coalition that formed as part of the Populist movement in the late 1800s.
Nixon was the first president to deliberately target the racist vote with the intention of transferring previously Democratic southern states to the Republican column. He pioneered the use of racially coded rhetoric such as “law and order,” “tough on crime” and the “undeserving” vs the “deserving” poor.
Here Alexander emphasizes that the affluent white liberals who championed 1960s civil rights legislation were essentially immune to the economic impact of most civil rights legislation. As professionals and academics, they weren’t competing with African Americans for the same jobs. Moreover, as residents of wealthy suburbs, their kids were excluded from mandatory busing laws.
Targeting the Racist Vote
Thanks to a highly sophisticated public relations campaign by Nixon and Republicans, by 1980 low income whites no longer saw poverty as stemming from a faulty economic system. They now blamed civil rights legislation and an overly generous welfare system. As a result, 22% of registered Democrats voted for Reagan in 1980.
Although Nixon coined the term, it would be Reagan who formerly launched the War on Drugs in 1982. The Reagan administration cut the white collar law enforcement in half to focus on street crime. This was during a period when street crime was rapidly declining and sociologists were predicting a phase-out of US prisons as they didn’t deter crime. Reagan also significantly increased DEA and FBI anti-drug enforcement while drastically decreasing funding for drug treatment. He also instituted financial incentives rewarding local policing units for high numbers of drug arrests. Alexander believes these financial rewards were directly responsible for initiating wholesale street sweeps and stop and frisk laws that have led cops to regularly jack up black motorists and inner city youths in the hope of finding illegal drugs.
Finally in 1985, he launched a major media campaign to sensationalize the crack cocaine epidemic. It worked. In 1980, only 2% of the US population viewed illegal drug use as the most important issue facing the US in 1980. By 1989 this number had reached 64%.
Clinton Escalates the War on Drugs
In 1992 Clinton and the New Democrats tried to recapture the Democratic votes they had lost to Regan and Bush by promising to enact even stricter anti-crime and anti-drug laws. Thus it was under Clinton law enforcement budgets and jail populations exploded. It was also Clinton who ended AFDC (Aid For Dependent Children) started under the New Deal – at precisely the same time inner city communities lost all their manufacturing jobs when factories shut down and moved overseas.
Clinton also initiated the federal programs to militarize local police, providing training to set up SWAT teams and surplus Pentagon tanks, body armor, weapons and helicopters. He also enacted the laws denying former drug felons access to federal programs. Sadly Obama, the first African American president, renewed and increased funding for many of these programs.
Discrimination in the Courts
In addition to discriminatory*** drug policing that focuses nearly exclusively on inner cities, African American defendants fare nearly as badly in court. Alexander cites many instances in which poor defendants receive limited or no access to legal representation. Many innocent clients, totally unaware of the future impact of a felony conviction, are intimidated into pleading guilty in return for a reduced sentence.
Ending the War on Drugs
In addition to outlining the ugly racialized history of the War on Drugs, Alexander also summarizes the conservative Supreme Court decisions that have systematically denied due process to people of color facing drug possessions. She concludes by offering a way forward – to end both the War on Drugs and the mass incarceration of people of color.
In addition to legalizing marijuana (and possibly other drugs), she calls for the total structural reform of the criminal justice system. She believes only a multiracial movement with bottom up advocacy for poor blacks and whites alike can bring this about. This is exactly what Martin Luther king was working for when he was assassinated.
In the following video, Alexander talks about her book
*Drug forfeiture or asset forfeiture laws allow federal and state authorities to confiscate any and all assets (mainly homes, cars and cash) of an individual suspected of a drug-related crime. A subsequent finding of innocence doesn’t guarantee return of the assets, which often requires a lengthy and expensive court process. Some police departments deliberately misuse this law to confiscate cash and belongings of black motorists even where no arrest is made.
**Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion of white settlers and black and white indentured servants that would lead plantation owners to push for formal slavery laws to discourage further collaboration between whites and blacks.
***Although African Americans constitute only 15% of drug users, they represent 75% of the US prison population. Statistically drug dealers are more likely to be white than black, but local law enforcement authorities make no effort to police white suburbs or university campuses for illegal drug use. In fact, 80% of drug arrests are for possession (in 80% of cases for marijuana). Only 20% of arrests are for sales
The third of four posts on America’s scandalous prison industrial complex.
While private prison companies and profits are the primary driver of America’s scandalous incarceration rates, institutional racism and the collapse of America’s mental health system also make a major contribution.
Most crimes in the US are committed by white people. The most heinous crimes, such as serial killings, mass shootings and mortgage and foreclosure fraud are nearly always committed by Caucasians. Yet ethnic minorities, who comprise less than 35% of the general population (14.3% African America, 17% Hispanic) represent 58% of the prison population
Institutional Racism in the Criminal Justice System
Reasons for the mass incarceration of ethnic minorities are multifaceted. Racially biased policing is the most obvious. Police randomly stop (and sometimes shoot) people of color for no other reason than their ethnicity. Once in custody, low income minority defendants have no choice but to rely on inexperienced, overworked and underpaid public defenders to represent them. Owing to time constraints and restricted investigation budgets, public defenders often pressure minority defendants who are “factually” innocent to cop a plea. This becomes especially worrying in cases where police have deliberately lied or fabricated evidence.
Once convicted, according to the Wall Street Journal, an African American offender will likely receive a harsher sentence than a white person committing a comparable crime. Nearly half of America’s prison population are doing time for non-violent offenses. This is largely due to racist war on drugs and tough-on-crime polices that force judges to impose minimum mandatory sentences and disallow non-custodial sentences, such as home detention and community service.
The main driver behind minimum mandatory sentencing and habitual offender (aka “three strikes”)* laws is race-based neoconservative fear mongering by corporate media and neoconservative politicians. Both deliberately portray ethnic minorities as inherently unstable, aggressive, violent and a threat to the social order.
In his 2003 documentary series The Power of Nightmares, Adam Curtis eloquently depicts how neoconservatives deliberately create myths about dark skinned Muslim fanatics to win votes and consolidate political power. The neocons’ racist law and order agenda is the domestic counterpart of their War on Terror. Convinced they are at imminent risk from African and Hispanic men, terrified white voters elect strong tough-on-crime candidates to lock them away for as long as possible.
*Typically three strikes laws require mandatory imprisonment without opportunity of parole for all violent offenders with two prior felony convictions.
To be continued with a final post discussing the wholesale warehousing of America’s mentally ill in prisons and jails.