Mass Incarceration and Black Oppression in “Colorblind” USA

The New Jim Crow and Liberal Reformism

Workers Vanguard

September 14, 2012

Over 40 years ago, Black Panther militant George Jackson wrote in a letter from a California prison: “Blackmen born in the U.S. and fortunate enough to live past the age of eighteen are conditioned to accept the inevitability of prison. For most of us, it simply looms as the next phase in a sequence of humiliations” (Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson, 1970). Since then, incarceration on a scale unexampled in the annals of American history has taken root, with black men by far the largest group in the prisons and jails, which hold some 2.3 million people. Many are victims of the bipartisan “war on drugs,” which has fueled a vast expansion of both police powers and the prison population. Taken together, the total of those locked up or on parole or probation is greater than the population of any U.S. city other than New York.

Over the past year, prisoners from California to North Carolina have engaged in hunger strikes against the appalling conditions in America’s overcrowded dungeons, fighting to wrest some vestige of humanity from their jailers. Eventual release is not the end of the abuse, as basic constitutional rights, including the right to vote and to bear arms, are stripped away and one door after another is slammed shut—jobs, public housing, social services—except the one leading back inside prison walls. In addition to the threat of incarceration, black youth daily face harassment and brutalization at the hands of the cops. In 2011 alone, nearly 700,000 people, 87 percent of them black or Latino, were victimized by the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” offensive. Tens of thousands in NYC have been saddled with criminal records for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana.

By vividly depicting the devastating “collateral consequences” of the caging of black America, Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness has tapped into deeply felt anger at the shattered lives and become a bestseller. A liberal civil rights lawyer, Alexander writes that she has been newly awakened to “the role of the criminal justice system in creating and perpetuating racial hierarchy in the United States.” Acknowledging that she is a part of a thin layer of more privileged blacks who benefited most from the civil rights movement, Alexander to her credit argues strongly against the prevalent disdain for the impoverished ghetto masses among blacks of her social standing.

The New Jim Crow also cuts against the myth that the U.S. has become a “colorblind” society, a central theme of the 2008 Obama campaign. Indeed, for “post-racial” liberals, his capturing the White House was proof positive of the dawning of a new era, never mind the cop terror and prison hell, unemployment, home foreclosures, desperate ghettos and prison-like inner-city schools that define life for masses of black people in capitalist America, now with its black overseer. Despite expressing some disappointment in the current administration, Alexander clings to the message of “hope,” titling one section of her book “Obama—the Promise and the Peril.”

Alexander details the racist backlash to the struggles of the civil rights movement, which resulted in the end of the Jim Crow system of legal segregation in the South. Taking the place of naked white supremacy were racist government policies, such as the 1970s “war on crime” and the subsequent “war on drugs,” which were sold to the population in coded language. She also makes a connection between black people being “trapped in jobless ghettos” and being “hauled off to prison in droves.” But while Alexander provides effective and compelling anecdotes and statistics detailing the second-class status of the millions ensnared in the prison system—what she calls the “New Jim Crow”—her wet noodle of a prescription is “movement building” to pressure the government for reform.

This liberal strategy has time and again misled those who seek to fight the evils of the racist capitalist system into reliance on the very government and political parties that oversee that system. Not surprisingly, Alexander’s approach is echoed by the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) and other left groups that have embraced her as their latest muse. In Socialist Worker (19 October 2011), the ISO crows that its Campaign to End the New Jim Crow coalition will push for “a fundamental shift from a punitive model to a healing and transformative model of justice.”

We await the ISO’s prediction of when pigs will fly. Organized violence in furtherance of the rule and profits of the bourgeoisie is the very purpose of the state machinery—the cops, courts, prisons and military. The ISO’s shameless sowing of illusions to the contrary is a measure of the fidelity of these “socialists” to the capitalist order. For her part, Alexander asserts that over the last three decades “the nature of the criminal justice system has changed.” Not at all.

The simple truth is that the mills of capitalist “justice” will continue, as always, to grind out victims for the penitentiary from among the castoffs of a system rooted in exploitation and racial oppression, and that the state will use its repressive force—including deadly force—against those victims. As Marxists, we support struggles for whatever reforms can be wrested from the capitalist rulers, including not least the fight to abolish the racist death penalty. But justice will be done only when the capitalist order—with its barbaric state institutions—is shattered by a proletarian socialist revolution that establishes a planned economy with jobs and quality, integrated housing and education for all, thus smashing the basis for black oppression.

The Perpetuation of Caste Oppression

The ISO brags that its Campaign to End the New Jim Crow will jump-start a “movement that challenges the racist ideologies which have helped produced [sic] these conditions.” But black oppression is not the product of bad ideas. It is materially rooted in and central to American capitalism, which was built off the blood and sweat of black labor, from chattel slavery to the assembly line.

The enduring color bar has proved invaluable to the capitalist masters in dividing workers and weakening their struggles against the bosses. It has also served to retard the political consciousness of the American proletariat by obscuring the irreconcilable class divide between labor—white, black and immigrant—and its exploiters.

Originally, the myth of an inferior race was created to ensure a stable, self-reproducing supply of labor on the Southern plantations, where slavery was the central productive relationship. The “markers” of African descent were used to transform blacks into a permanent and perpetually vulnerable group relegated to subordinate status based on their skin color.

The Civil War smashed the slavocracy. But the promise of black equality was soon betrayed as the Northern bourgeoisie, driven by its profit motive, reconciled with the former slaveowners. The Compromise of 1877, under which the last Union troops were withdrawn from the South, brought a close to Radical Reconstruction, the most democratic period ever for black people in the U.S. There would be no “40 acres and a mule” for the emancipated slaves, who were driven back onto the land as sharecroppers and tenant farmers.

As the U.S. developed into an emerging imperialist power, the Jim Crow system was codified throughout the South, leaving its imprint on the rest of the country as well. When blacks escaped their miserable conditions in the South, which were enforced by police-state control and Ku Klux Klan terror, by flocking to Northern industrial cities, they became a crucial part of the proletariat. At the same time, they faced all-sided segregation and discrimination, backed up no less by the state’s repressive apparatus.

The legacy of the defeat of Reconstruction is that the black population in the U.S., although not returned to slavery, was solidified as a specially oppressed race-color caste. To this day, black people face discrimination, in different degrees, regardless of social status, wealth or class position. The caste oppression of black people is shown not just by the mass incarceration of ghetto youth. For example, even Henry Louis Gates Jr., although a noted professor and personal friend of Obama, was arrested for trying to enter his own house three years ago.

Our Marxist understanding of race-caste oppression flows from the fact that black people have historically been a vital part of the American economy while at the same time in the mass forcibly segregated at the bottom. The Spartacist League advances the program of revolutionary integrationism: Fighting against all forms of discrimination and segregation, we understand that the liberation of black people can be achieved only through integration into an egalitarian socialist society. This Marxist perspective is counterposed to both liberal integrationism, which holds that black equality can be achieved within the confines of American capitalism, and black nationalism, which despairs of the possibility of overcoming racial divisions through united class struggle.

The Civil Rights Movement and Its Demise

The anti-Marxist ISO seems to have discovered “racial caste” since reading The New Jim Crow, headlining its review of the book in International Socialist Review (September-October 2010) “How the Racial Caste System Got Restored.” But for the ISO, and Alexander, the term caste is reserved for those directly subjugated by a particular “system of control”—identified today as simply mass incarceration—that can be eradicated within the framework of capitalism. This turns the nature of black oppression on its head.

The ISO and Alexander’s singular focus on mass incarceration as the embodiment of racial oppression has a purpose: it poses the fight for black freedom as a matter of “dismantling” that system, much as the civil rights movement dismantled Jim Crow. But mass black incarceration is both a symptom and a means of enforcing the special oppression of black people that is fundamental to American capitalism (see “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Black Liberation and the Fight for a Socialist America,” WV No. 955, 26 March 2010; reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 21, February 2011). While the liberal-led civil rights movement could successfully challenge de jure segregation in the South, it could not challenge de facto segregation and black inequality in the U.S. as a whole.

In the face of mass protest, the bourgeoisie eventually acquiesced to legal equality in the South. Jim Crow had grown anachronistic—the mechanization of agriculture had largely displaced sharecropping. At the same time, blacks had become a significant part of the working class in Southern as well as Northern cities, such as in the steel industry in Birmingham, Alabama. Jim Crow also was an embarrassment overseas as U.S. imperialism postured as the champion of “democracy” in the Cold War against the Soviet Union, the industrial and military powerhouse of the non-capitalist world.

One factor helping to fuel the ISO’s dreams of building a popular movement for prison reform is that there are voices among the bourgeoisie complaining that the constant expansion and maintenance of the vast complex of prisons is just too costly, particularly at a time of massive budget shortfalls. But even if some sentences are scaled back and the prison population trimmed, it will no more achieve equality for black people than did the abolition of official Jim Crow.

Indeed, the civil rights movement was defeated in the mid 1960s when it came North, where it ran straight up against the conditions of black impoverishment and oppression woven into the fabric of American capitalism: mass unemployment, rat-infested slums, crumbling schools, rampant police brutality. These conditions could not be eradicated by Congress passing a new civil rights act.

The civil rights struggles in which the black masses courageously confronted the white-supremacist police states of the South profoundly shook U.S. society. In the mid 1960s, the fight for black freedom intersected growing opposition to U.S. imperialism’s counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam, helping fuel broader political radicalization. The role of Martin Luther King Jr. and other liberal black misleaders was to channel social protest back into the fold of the Democratic Party, enforcers of racist capitalist rule no less than the Republicans. Under both parties, the federal government mobilized its police and judicial machinery to assassinate and imprison black militants. In his 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here? King urged America’s rulers to “seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of Communism grows and develops.” King bemoaned the “sad fact” (for him) that many had been driven to “feel that only Marxism has the revolutionary spirit.”

The ISO and sundry other reformist outfits cover up for King by deceitfully portraying him as increasingly “revolutionary” in the period before his April 1968 assassination. In a Socialist Worker article (19 January 2009) on King’s 1967 book, the ISO’s Brian Jones reverently claims: “In that last year of his life, he campaigned for radical, social-democratic reforms that are still far beyond what the Democratic Party is prepared to accept.” Alexander likewise cites the “revolutionary potential” of the “human rights movement” that King championed at the end of his life. Lamenting that King’s “poor people’s movement” never came to fruition, the ISO and Alexander see this as a model for protesting “the New Jim Crow.” King spoke out in moral opposition to the war in Vietnam and went to Memphis in April 1968 to support black union members. But while various leftists portray such activity as a turn to the working class, the fact is that King remained a pro-Democratic Party reformer and opponent of militant struggle against capitalist rule.

Black Democrats and the “War on Drugs”

The ISO’s call for a “new civil rights movement” has also been raised by the likes of Democrats Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, given particular impetus with the execution of Troy Davis last September and again with the murder of Trayvon Martin by a racist vigilante in Florida earlier this year. Both cases touched a raw nerve with black people. As they always have, Jackson and Sharpton acted to quell this outrage by funneling it into electoral politics and appeals to the federal government for “justice.” The ISO sang the same tune, arguing after the Trayvon Martin murder for “federal investigations of local police murder and brutality cases” (, 30 July).

Alexander writes that some “black activists” were “wittingly or unwittingly…complicit in the emergence of a penal system unprecedented in world history.” With Sharpton and Jackson it was very wittingly, as they both spent years championing the “war on drugs,” a fact that goes unmentioned in her book. As noted in Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America (1999), Jackson long ago called for the appointment of a “drug czar” and more funding for local police, ranting that “drug pushers are terrorists.” He got what he wanted, today bragging on his Web site that he advocated the drug war way before it “became accepted public policy.” Sharpton, for his part, led “community” vigilantes against reputed pushers in the 1980s. And both Jackson and Sharpton have for years fulminated against guns in the ghettos. Seizing guns and other means of self-defense is as much a driving force of the NYPD’s racist “stop and frisk” policy as the “drug war.”

While we would favor any measure mitigating the drug laws, no amount of tinkering will change their reactionary nature or racist enforcement. We call for the decriminalization of drugs, just as we call for abolishing all other laws against “crimes without victims”—prostitution, gambling, pornography, etc. By taking the profit out of the drug trade, decriminalization would also reduce the associated crime and other social pathology that have led much of the black population to support drug law enforcement. Upholding the right to self-defense, we strenuously oppose the capitalist rulers’ attempts to disarm those they exploit and oppress. No to gun control!

The ISO’s dream of a “new civil rights movement,” one that can “fix” a “broken system,” is premised on the tired liberal notion that the Democratic Party can be pressured into acting in the interests of working people and the oppressed. The ISO may now be somewhat embarrassed about it, but they were among those who enthused the loudest over Obama’s victory four years ago. Brian Jones wrote in Socialist Worker (6 November 2008) on election night: “Huge numbers of people are energized by the fact that, yes, we can elect a Black president. What we get from this president depends mostly on what happens to this energy, and less on the president himself.”

What working people, blacks and other minorities “got” from the Obama White House was a continuing assault on union gains, mounting job losses, deepening immiseration, the evisceration of civil liberties under the “war on terror” and record numbers of deportations. Despite much talk of shifting tactics, the Obama administration has committed more, not less, money and resources to drug law enforcement, which will only deepen the misery. Meanwhile, U.S. imperialism has rampaged around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya.

Black radical academic Cornel West, who wrote a foreword to The New Jim Crow, is trying to keep the hope alive, calling in a New York Times (25 August 2011) op-ed piece for support to “progressive” bourgeois politicians. West concluded, “Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.” He’s right about one thing: the coffin is exactly where the road of Democratic Party pressure politics leads.

A Class-Struggle Perspective

In the ISO’s articles promoting a “new civil rights movement,” the working class barely registers on the radar screen. This is in keeping with their tailing of Alexander, who writes at length about the repressive measures adopted in the 1970s that mainly targeted black people but has not a word to say about the many thousands of workers, black and white, who engaged in hard-fought strikes in that period.

Black workers, who have for years had a higher rate of union membership than white workers, have been particularly hard hit by the onslaught against the labor movement kicked off by the 1981 smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers union and the deindustrialization that has devastated cities across the Midwest and Northeast. The war on labor has been accompanied by an ongoing wholesale assault on the gains of the civil rights struggles, from busing for school integration to affirmative action in the universities. Even voting rights are increasingly under attack, as seen with the rash of voter ID laws and the massive disenfranchisement of felons.

As the last hired and first fired, black people were always overrepresented in America’s reserve army of unemployed, to be tapped when the economy needed them and discarded when it soured. But the country’s rulers increasingly see the black ghetto poor as expendable, with the prison cell substituted for the paycheck. The ongoing economic crisis has only compounded this situation. In mid June, over half the blacks in NYC who were old enough to work had not held a job since the start of the year. As Karl Marx put it in Wage Labour and Capital (1849): “Thus the forest of uplifted arms demanding work becomes ever thicker, while the arms themselves become ever thinner.”

With the black ghettos simply written off, the bourgeoisie’s drive to imprison ever-increasing numbers of black youth reflects a sinister impulse to genocide. The great black comedian Richard Pryor once commented about the prisons, “Go in there looking for justice, and that’s all you find—just us.” If anything, that reality is even more staggering today. This lends added urgency to the observation in our seminal 1967 document “Black and Red”: “The fight must be fought now to maintain Negroes as part of the working class.”

Despite bearing the brunt of racist cutbacks and job losses, black workers continue to be a strategic component of the U.S. proletariat, which has the social power and historic interest to sweep away the decrepit capitalist system and its murderous police and prison apparatus. The all-sided attacks of the last four decades underscore the point made by Karl Marx at the time of the Civil War: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” By the same token, the failure of the union misleaders to mobilize labor’s power to combat black oppression has only further encouraged union-busting.

Under revolutionary leadership, black workers, who form an organic link to the downtrodden ghetto masses, will play a vanguard role in the struggles of the entire U.S. working class. It is the purpose of the Spartacist League to build a workers party that links the fight for black freedom to the struggle for proletarian state power.

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