Harper Lee's Passing: A Legend Dies, But Not Sa Raison d'Etre - Part 2

Harper Lee's Passing: A Legend Dies, But Not Sa Raison d'Etre - Part 1, paid tribute to Harper Lee's exposure of the harsh and cruel realities of both the black and white communities under Jim Crow in To Kill a Mockingbird and To Set a Watchman.

Unfortunately, as Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, shows racial profiling and discrimination within judicial systems is alive and well in America -- the land of, the supposedly free and the brave, who are certainly not Free, with very little sign of being Brave.

[The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness] 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 action or lax civil rights enforcement -- is the most damaging manifestation of the backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery and Jim Crow and celebrates the nation's "triumph over race" with the election of Barack Obama, is dangerously misguided... I use the term racial caste in this book the way it is used in common parlance to denote a stigmatized racial group locked into an inferior position by law and custom. Jim Crow and slavery were caste systems. So is our current system of mass incarceration.

It may be helpful, in attempting to understand the basic nature of the new caste system, to think of the criminal justice system -- the entire collection of institutions and practices that comprise it -- not as an independent system but rather as a gateway into a much larger system of racial stigmatization and permanent marginalization. This larger system, referred to here as mass incarceration, is a system that locks people not only behind bars in actual prisons, but also behind bars and virtual walls -- walls that are invisible to the naked eye but function nearly as effectively as Jim Crow lawsonce did at locking people of color into a permanent second-class citizenship. The term mass incarceration refers not only to the criminal justice system but also to the larger web of laws, rules, policies, and customs that control those labeled criminals both in and out of prison. Once released, former prisoners enter a hidden underworld of legalized discrimination and permanent social exclusion. They are members of America's new undercaste....

What is key to America's understanding of class is the persistent belief -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that anyone, with the proper discipline and drive, can move from a lower class to a higher class. We recognize that mobility may be difficult, but the key to our collective self-image is the assumption that mobility is always possible, so failure to move up reflects on one's character...

... There seems to be a lack of appreciation for the enormity of the crisis at hand. There is no broad-base movement brewing to end mass incarceration and no advocacy effort that approaches in scale the fight to preserve affirmative action. There also remains a persistent tendency in the civil rights community to treat the criminal justice system as just another institution infected with lingering racial bias...

We may think we know how the criminal justice system works. Television is overloaded with fictional dramas about police, crime, and prosecutors -- shows such as Law & Order.... It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control.

Those who have been swept within the criminal justice system [or family courts] know that the way the system actually works bears little resemblance to what happens on television or in movies. Full-blown trials of guilt or innocence rarely occur; many people never meet with an attorney; witnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government; police regularly stop and search people for no reason whatsoever; penalties for many crimes are so severe that innocent people plead guilty, accepting plea bargains to avoid harsh mandatory sentences; and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to adult prisons. Rules of law and procedure, such as "guilt beyond a reasonable doubt" or "probable cause" or "reasonable suspicion," can easily be found in court cases and law-school textbooks but are much to find in real life.

... Conviction for drug offenses are the single most important cause of the explosion in incarceration rates in the United States. Drug offenses alone account for two-thirds of the rise in the federal inmate population and more than half of the rise in state prisoners between 1985 and 2000. Approximately a half-million people are in prison or jail for a drug offense today, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980 -- an increase of 1,100 percent. Drug arrests have tripled since 1980. As a result, more than 31 million people have been arrested for drug offenses since the drug war began... Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs.

Before we begin our tour of the drug war, it is worthwhile to get a couple of myths out of the way. The first is that the war is aimed at ridding the nation of drug "kingpins" or big-time dealers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of those arrested are not charged with serious offense. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one out of five was for sales. Moreover, most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or significant selling activity.

The second myth is that the drug war is principally concerned with dangerous drugs. Quite to the contrary, arrests for marijuana possession -- a drug less harmful than tobacco or alcohol -- accounted for nearly 80 percent of the growth in drug arrests in the 1990s... By the end of 2007, more than 7 million Americans -- or one in every 31 adults -- were behind bars, on probation, or on parole...

Rules of the Game

Few legal rules meaningful constrain the police in the War on Drugs.... Virtually all constitutionally protected civil liberties have been undermined by the drug war.... As long as you give "consent," the police can stop, interrogate, and search you for any reason or no reason at all... People are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolvers, and most have no idea the question can be answered, "No." But what about all the people driving down the street? How do police extract consent from them? The answer: pretext stops...

... The fact that police are legally allowed to engage in a wholesale roundup of nonviolent drug offenders does not answer the question why they would choose to do so...? Drug use and abuse is nothing new; in fact, it was on the decline, not on the rise, when the War on Drugs Began. So why make drug-law enforcement a priority now?

Once again, the answer lies in the system's design. Every system of control depends for its survival on the tangible and intangible benefits that are provided to those who are responsible for the system's maintenance and administration. This system is no exception.

As seen in the text above, not only was the Failed War on Drugs never about combating drug consumption. What it really was about was a backlash to the Civil Rights Movement, and controlling and oppressing minority populations in the USA. The passage of laws, creation of international human rights instruments, as well as constitutional "democracies" around the world in the past 50 years, has done little to change the dynamics within our governments and societies.

America, with their Flag and Consumerism at All Costs, are at the helm of some imaginary Success Story in the Wonderland of Alice where only the Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts and the like, appear to Perceive the illusionary signs of Success, Prosperity and Happiness! Whereas the rest of the world SEES and LIVES the Reality and Wasteland of the excesses of the One-percenters.

Stay-tuned tomorrow for Part 3 of Harper Lee's Passing: A Legend Dies, But Not Sa Raison d'Etre.