Known by Heart, or Bound in a Birdcage?

7:48 AM

A democratic society requires mature, public conversation about issues of importance. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has convoked "A Year of Books" to offer such an opportunity. This commentary is part of a series of commentaries on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. My commentary on Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness will have multiple entries for this truly remarkable book. This is the third of those entries.

Many know well the oration delivered by Martin Luther King, Jr. from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The vision cast on August 28, 1963 did not reach its fulfillment in King's lifetime. In fact, Michelle Alexander contends that the dream was cut short in the years shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


At the heart of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow is an argument:
This book argues that mass incarceration is, metaphorically, the New Jim Crow and that all those who care about social justice should fully commit themselves to dismantling this new racial caste system. Mass incarceration-- not attacks on affirmative actions or lax civil rights enforcement-- is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. (p. 11)
Alexander builds her argument around "an evolution" of racial caste systems: from a system of slavery based on exploitation, to one of Jim Crow based on subordination, to one of mass incarceration based on marginalization (p. 219). Alexander describes the birth and death of slavery (pp. 22-30), the birth and death of Jim Crow (pp. 30-40), and the birth of mass incarceration (pp. 40-58). Her claim is that: "We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it" (p. 2). She elaborates the basic structure of her sweeping claims quickly. Most readers will agree immediately with her about both slavery and Jim Crow, but some readers may wonder about the merits of her more contemporary claim.

The racial caste system is more than the sum of its parts. Alexander refers to it as a "birdcage," drawing upon Marilyn Frye’s birdcage analogy of oppression,  to demonstrate why the New Jim Crow is often invisible, yet always immobilizing (pp. 184-185). Frye describes it:
Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon. ["Oppression", in Politics Of Reality – Essays In Feminist Theory (1983)]
In this analogy, the various manifestations of oppressions are the wires of the birdcage; invisible in a single wire, multiple systemically related barriers make it a structure of confinement. Alexander details the individual wires as including the War on Drugs, with its myriad of enticements for law enforcement (federal grants, seized property), diminished constitutional protections against detention, trial and conviction procedures, incarceration, and, with what has been dubbed "the period of invisible punishment," the sanctions imposed upon all who have felony convictions, even after they have served their sentence (pp. 185-187).

For years, I have been troubled by the statistics, but I never pieced it together. While the sale and use of drugs occurs at "remarkably similar rates" across races, the consequence of incarceration happens most heavily upon those who are black (p. 7). I have heard troubling stories from people of color of their interactions with law enforcement, pulled over in a traffic stop for dubious reasons and humiliated. I had heard that, because of incarceration, more black men received their "formation" in prison than in the university. Alexander documents how in Illinois in 2001, there were more black men incarcerated for drug charges than black men in undergraduate studies in the state universities (p. 190). Alexander argues convincingly that we have created, since the end of the Jim Crow era, a new, colorblind racial caste system via the War on Drugs.

Alexander also makes the case that this is our problem-- all of us. She cites a senator who read into the Congressional Record part of a New York Times editorial by Adam Walinsky:
Thus, if we can blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a Federal grant to develop it. (p. 53)
Once I read Alexander's description of the birdcage, once she explained the contours of the racial caste system, racial indifference is no longer an option.

As a student, I remember having to memorize poetry, soliloquies, and orations from Kipling, Shakespeare, and Lincoln, among others. The task was not only a work of the mind. In fact, when we can recall some prose or poetry or a song we say that we "know it by heart." It is a much richer and more fitting description. It is not only a mental exercise; the prose or poetry engages our entire selves. The New Jim Crow was uncomfortable to me because it required me to engage more than just my mind. King's speech, known by heart by so many, also casts a vision, much more whole, more life-giving, than the birdcage of mass incarceration. Which vision do we dare to allow to guide us? Do we dare to see things as they are? Do we dare to see things as they could be, as they ought to be? Do we dare, in that dissonance, to act?

Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

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