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  • Zohra Bouzitoun

What was segregation then, what is segregation now: based on Michelle Alexander’s work

Dernière mise à jour : 2 juin 2020

The United States has a notorious history of human rights violations and racism. Not so long ago, in the United States, skin color was a valid motive of discrimination. This concept is the very foundation of segregation. It all started with the decision Plessy v. Ferguson. The Supreme Court, in its absolute wisdom, allowed states to implement segregation amongst different racial groups. Justice Brown wrote for the majority and stated that “a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color -- has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or reestablish a state of involuntary servitude.”

Since this Supreme Court decision, segregation became common practice. In Louisiana, for example, workers who needed to be transported to their work place were segregated; white workers and colored workers either rode in different vehicles or were separated in a same car. Many laws and court judgments affirmed the concept of segregation. Those are now what we know as the Jim Crow laws.

However, the civils’ rights movement, starting in 1954 and ending in 1968, has brought a shift in the collective consciousness. One of the change brought forward was that the doctrine of “separate but equal” that originated from the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent was overturned by Brown v. Education. Interracial marriage was legalized by Loving v. Virginia in 1967 and multiple ratifications to federal constitutional amendments were made.

Since then, I believe that many would easily and confidently say that segregation has ended for good. African-Americans are as equal as the white majority in the United States.

Unfortunately, it is not the case according to Michelle Alexander in her phenomenal book , The New Jim Crow. She states that we live in an era in which segregation is still dictating the organization of our society, but this segregation has mutated from one form to another. Today, segregation happens through the American prison system. In other words, today’s segregation is seen through the criminalisation and massive incarceration of minority groups. This segregation has other forms. Because skin color segregation is now frowned, the elite has developed subtler, but equally lethal segregation forms.

Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow

This evolution of segregation was a response to the Civil Rights’ movement and happened in three different phases: the call for law and order, the war on drugs and the “get through on crime” rhetoric and following social programs and distribution of welfare made during the time of the civil rights movement and the effect on today’s society.

The Civil Right’s movement was, for American governors, simply a “breakdown of law and order”. Politicians at that time even argued that Martin Luther King preaching’s were correlated with the rising of the crime rate. They stated that “If [Blacks] conduct themselves in an orderly way, they will not have to worry about police brutality.” (Alexander), but what they failed to state is the fact that the “orderly way” of conducting one’s self was discriminatory and a violation of one’s dignity. The protests were criminalized and their political intention were blatantly ignored.

While this was happening, a feeling of insecurity and danger was felt by the American population, both in white and African-American communities. The media portrayed a state of terror and that was all the politician were talking about. This so-called “breakdown of law and order” was their one and only concern.

Eventually, the anti-segregationist movement gained legitimacy amongst the general population. Slowly people started to see clear through the rhetoric; the racism behind the “law and order” attitude began to appear to the general population. To pursue segregation, another mean had to emerge. That’s when the new enemy was no longer an anti-segregationist, but drugs.

At that time, the unemployment rate within African-American population was rising. African-American, due to a lack of opportunities and resources, were usually working in low skilled jobs. These low skilled jobs, because of globalization, left many African-American men unemployed. Besides, remaining industries were usually in suburbs, which meant that they were not accessible to the average African-American man.

To sum it all up, countless African-Americans lost their jobs. No income and no job was an incentive that lead many unemployed and impoverished people trying to make ends meet through illegal means. African Americans were 70 % of the blue-collar who lost their jobs. As a consequence, they were also most likely to be involved in criminal activities such as drug dealing. The segregationists were aware of this social issue and shifted their focus on drug users and drug dealers.

Reagan’s government made drug issues as the one and most important concern on American soil, although a survey conducted at the time revealed that only 2 % of the population considered drugs to be an important issue that should be on the political agenda (Alexander). Policy makers knew they had to make drugs an issue to keep their power.

The media’s new focus also shifted to crack and cocaine and covered it as a significant issue, when really, it was barely affecting the general population. The articles on the drug issues were usually featuring black women and their babies as “crack whores” and “crack babies” (Alexander).

These campaigns legitimized and permitted cuts that were done in social services and the extra budget allocated to prisons and law enforcement.

This war on drugs was the second phase of the counteraction against the Civil Rights movement. It is true that crack was getting in the poorer neighborhood and making a immeasurable damage to marginalized communities, but the fact that they chose to pursue crack specifically, which is known as the poor man's drug, and not cocaine, shows that they were targeting a specific population. Of course, as Michelle Alexander suggests in her work, the intention of the government was not to ban drugs and drug dealers off the streets. Instead, they wanted to create a new segregation and a new response to block the Civil Rights movement and make sure the African-American population stays on the margins of society. The same proportion of drugs, for example cocaine, were used in higher and whiter classes of society though the authorities just chose to not enforce the drug laws for this particular social group.

In 1988, the Congress adopted more severe crime laws and added what they called “civil penalties” (Alexander). These penalties included a spectrum of punishments for drug offenders. These punishments were designed to keep criminalized individuals to reintegrate society. For example, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act made it possible to evict someone from their dwelling because of drug related offences, making drug offenders more likely to be homeless. The war on drugs had a solid racist foundation; racism was such an important aspect of the war on drugs that the KKK was a volunteer to hunt down drug dealers.

After Reagan era, the segregationists’ ideology and legacy continued. Although Bush worked to achieve the same goals as the Reagan administration, the “get though on crime” politic was at its climax under Bill Clinton’s administration. He had to deal with two problematic communities: the racial minorities and the urban poor. As a candidate, he promised that he would be the toughest on crime, and he was indeed the toughest on crime. He made the prison system and the law enforcement budget expand greatly and in consequence, the number of inmates also expanded; “ a new racial caste system — mass incarceration — was taking hold ..” (Alexander). A report done by Sentencing Project, showed that 25 % of young African-Americans were under the control of the justice system. Incarceration became the new segregation, keeping mostly African-Americans and other minorities on the margins of the society.

Not only have they made the criminal system a new way to segregate racial minorities, they also created new laws to make sure that criminalized minorities and poor would never recover of this judiciary past.

Clinton passed laws to put limitation on the welfare system, plus he made it impossible for drug offenders to ever be eligible for the welfare program. He also made laws to make it possible for federally assisted housing to reject someone’s application because of a criminal antecedent (Alexander). Clinton also received a bill of $30 billion, with which he created more than twelve capital sentences. He also made it possible to receive a lifetime sentence for three times offenders (Alexander). The “get though on crime” rhetoric had no intention of suppressing crime in the streets, it rather had the intention to criminalize the urban poor and the racial minorities like African-American and Hispanic people to marginalize them even further. Through criminalisation, these people would never be seen as “normal” in our society and would be forever excluded in every sphere of their lives. In other words, these so-called criminals, will be segregated from our society and will always be perceived as different and inferior.

What has all of this brought us to? I believe its important to acknowledge that the American criminal justice system was built into a system that today, segregates minorities and underprivileged people. A more evident segregation was no longer tolerable to the American citizens; politicians had to find another way to segregate, in a subtler way, racial minorities and low-class citizens. The government strategy was to set apart these people by putting them under government control and to later make laws that would be obstacles to non-violent criminals to reintegrate society and eventually overcome marginalization. This response to civil rights movement and to the desire of putting an end to segregation was made in three distinct phases: the rhetorical call for law and order, the war on drugs and finally the get though on crime policies. Just like the anti-segregation movements were criminalized and the rhetoric of law and order was the ultimate justification to opposing civil rights activist, drug laws were constructed as a mean to recreate marginalization.

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