About twenty years ago I knew Catherine McGowen, a retired cleaning woman from a hospital in Montgomery, Alabama. A small African American, she had been one of grass roots activists in the civil rights movement. She was raising two young sons when the Montgomery Bus Boycott began . She attended the first mass meeting on December 5, 1955, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on people to fight “until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
I was interviewing Mary Robinson, the subject of the book, The Moisture of the Earth: Mary Robinson, Civil Rights and Textile Union Activist, and Mrs. McGowen was her older friend. Mrs. McGowen showed me her first voting card, for which she had risked her life. The only daughter of tenant farmers from “Bloody Lowndes County,” Mrs. McGowen boycotted buses and sang freedom songs at church rallies. One night white vigilantes trapped her and others inside the First Baptist Church of Montgomery for the entire night. She told me, “We felt power in ourselves. We sang songs and knew that justice was on our side.”
The civil rights movement was made up of thousands of people like Mrs. McGowen and Mary Robinson. Today, Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, calls for a new movement to dismantle the incarceration system that leads to a lifetime of warehousing and the loss of rights experienced by so many poor African Americans and other people of color.
To end the War on Drugs, which has swept thousands of poor people of color into blighted lives, we must quit pretending that we are a color blind society and instead recognize that it is because those most caught in the system are largely black and brown that we have indeed been blind, this time to their suffering.
Alexander states that: “Today, no less that fifty years ago, a flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system. When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminals–at least not the way they would have cared if criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.” (214)
Alexander calls for a movement building that recognizes color, as well as class and gender, as a system of stratification in our country, declaring that the “prevailing caste system cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach.” (239) Certainly, talking about race makes people uncomfortable, but it is our culture’s crime if we don’t deal with the way race has been used to demonize part of the poor in our society.
We need to have a vision of a “. . .thriving, multiracial, multiethnic democracy free from racial hierarchy. It would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for–a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security. This expansive vision could open the door to meaningful alliances between poor and working-class people of all colors, who could begin to see their interests as aligned, rather than in conflict–no longer in competition for scarce resources in a zero-sum game.” (259)
I was stunned by the enormity of the mass incarceration system in the United States. Reading the book felt life changing, but I am confused about what I can do. That is part of the insidious nature of such a inbuilt system. It parallels the lives of those of us on the outside, and we barely know it exists.
Somehow we must build that new movement Michelle Alexander talks about. The people at the beginning of the civil rights movement also did not know where to begin even though African Americans knew their living systems were saturated with injustice. Those of us who are white must also become aware of the injustice of the mass incarceration system. Reading this book and talking about it to others is a place to begin.