The New Jim Crow: Valjean and Today's Ex-Con

8:45 PM

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 second of those entries.

Few things on stage have moved me more than when I first saw "Les Misérables." It was the summer of 1990 in Houston, Texas. Days before, I had devoured the novel by Victor Hugo. At various points during the stage show, I wept, perhaps none more than the final words of the musical: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

The intertwined story of Inspector Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius Pontmercy, Gavroche, and, of course, Bishop Myriel, who, with an act of charity and mercy, shook the foundations of the man at the center of the story, Jean Valjean.

Valjean, an ex-convict, punished by an unforgiving system, cannot find regular work or housing. Valjean steals the bishop's silver. When the police drag Valjean back to the bishop, the police tell the bishop that Valjean claimed to have been given the silver as a gift by the bishop. The bishop tells the police that, indeed, he had given Valjean the silver, but he added that Valjean forgot the best of it: two silver candlesticks. After the police depart, the bishop explains to Valjean that he must use the silver "to become an honest man" and that he has "bought his soul for God." Thus begins a journey that sees Valjean create a new identity as a factory owner and mayor, become the father to an adopted daughter, Cosette, and go to the barricade to save young Marius, Cosette's beloved, from French authorities.

My soul soared with this story of mercy triumphing over vengeance, love conquering hate, even amid a frustrated struggle for justice amid gross inequality. The novel is one of the finest written, and the musical compresses its most beautiful elements for the stage.

Les Misérables begins with a melody that will be repeated throughout the show, "Look down":
Look down, look down
Don't look 'em in the eye
Look down, look down,
You're here until you die  
Now bring me prisoner 24601
Your time is up
And your parole's begun
You know what that means. 
Yes, it means I'm free. 
Follow to the letter your itinerary
This badge of shame you'll show until you die
It warns you're a dangerous man 
Reading Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, a new Jean Valjean confronted me in her writing: "Once labeled a felon, the badge of inferiority remains with you for the rest of your life, relegating you to a permanent second-class status" (142). And then it dawned on me that if we plucked "Les Misérables" from 19th-Century France and placed Valjean into modern day Ferguson or Baltimore, or any other American city, we would see more dramatically its radical politics as well as the religious and romantic themes. The story likely would repel many who applauded the original until their hands were sore. Valjean most assuredly would be an African American felon, Cosette, ever as always the child of dead prostitute. Javert would be the faultless police official. And, sadly, I bet it would not win as many Tony Awards.

Alexander has written an extraordinary book that should discomfort any reader. She asks us to see anew a familiar landscape, to see with new eyes what has been in front of us all along. In several instances, she asks us to "imagine" (pp. 69, 91, 97, 161) ourselves in situations that may be quite removed from our own. Her task is not an easy one.

As Jesus discovered, it is easier to give sight to the blind (Mt 20:29-34, Mk 8:22-25, Mk 10:46-52, Lk 18:35-43, Jn 9) than to open the eyes of those who think that they can see (Mt 23:26, Jn 9:40). Jesus would ask his own disciples: "Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?" (Mk 8:18).

Alexander herself admits to not having seen it for quite some time:
Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow. (p. 4)
To be honest about what we see is difficult, and what we do not see, especially in matters of race. I grew up in a small western Kansas town that was predominantly white. As I grew older, I chose to live in diverse places: amid Arab and Jew in Jerusalem, amid mixed communities in Phoenix and South Bend of blacks, whites, and latinos. I lived in South America for more than five years, four of them in a neighborhood of immigrants. I have seen that other countries do not see race precisely as we Americans do. We have a unique history that has shaped our perceptions. I'd like to think that my formation and education have moved me to a more enlightened view of race. In fact, I had hoped that the U.S. had moved gradually to a better understanding of race, but neither I nor the nation have moved as far as I might have hoped. We remain stymied. Alexander's book names the issues well, and calls us to action

Additional commentaries on The New Jim Crow:

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