A new generation of Black activists are fighting the new Jim Crow

October 20, 2016
Ferguson, Missouri, August 11, 2014

The systematic police repression of African Americans that Black Lives Matter (BLM) has exposed has prompted Black athletes to express their solidarity. The latest has been the silent protests at sporting events initiated by Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers.

His protest is simple. He kneels when the national anthem is played before games. In spite of attacks against him, other professional athletes have emulated his protest. Perhaps most significant has been the many high school players across the country who have joined in.

Kaepernick and the other Black athletes are young and the high school protesters are younger. It bodes well for the new BLM movement that young people have taken the lead in organising the protests.

Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow — Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, helps explain the new reality Blacks face in the United States.

This new system of mass oppression of Blacks is the culmination of the reactionary offensive against the mass civil rights and Black liberation upsurge of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. That movement brought down the apartheid regime, labeled “segregation”, in the Southern states known as Jim Crow.

Jim Crow

Jim Crow itself was a counter-revolution against the short-lived Radical Reconstruction in the South in the second half of the 19th century in the aftermath of the Civil War and abolition of slavery.

Rather than re-establish slavery, Jim Crow was a mostly new system for the oppression of African Americans. From its base in the former slave states, it spread to the rest of the country. Whereas in the south Jim Crow segregation was written into law, in other states it was applied de facto.

The “New Jim Crow” has likewise not re-imposed the Jim Crow system, but established a new system of oppression of Blacks with its own characteristics. It took some time for this new system to become established and solidified.

Early on, the reaction against the gains of the civil rights movement was expressed in “law and order” campaigns.

As vice-president from 1953-61, Richard Nixon said that increased crime “can be traced directly to the spread of the corrosive doctrine that every citizen possesses an inherent right to decide for himself which laws to obey and when to disobey them”. This was an attack on the 1956 boycott of segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama led by Martin Luther King Jr, and other examples of civil disobedience.

After the defeat of the Jim Crow system in the mid-1960s, the vilification by politicians and the capitalist media of African Americans increasingly shifted from the supposed racial inferiority of Blacks to their alleged criminality. This was the new era of “colour blindness” in which open racism was frowned upon.

War on drugs

This approach deepened in the 1980s when crack, a new form of cocaine that was much cheaper than the powdered version, was developed. Crack became prevalent in poor Black communities, while whites generally preferred the most expensive powdered form.

Crime was increasingly tied to crack and therefore to Blacks. There was a frenzy in the media about crack-related crime, which was linked to Blacks.

As Alexander notes, media reporting “typically featured Black ‘crack whores’, ‘crack babies’, and ‘gangbangers’, reinforcing already prevalent racial stereotypes of Black women as irresponsible, selfish ‘welfare queens,’ and black men as ‘predators’ — part of an inferior and criminal subculture”.

Initially spearheaded by conservative Republicans, Democrats joined in the “War on Drugs”. Draconian new laws against possession of illegal drugs were enacted. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, he dramatically expanded the War on Drugs.

Clinton launched a vast new program of greater police powers. Police departments, flush with cash, were militarised with army-style weapons. SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams were greatly expanded and given new powers to invade homes without notice.

Hillary Clinton was a public spokesperson and champion of her husband’s policies. One example was the now-Democratic presidential candidate’s statement that young Black men were “super-predators” — with no consciences or morals.

It looks likely that this evil couple will again inhabit the White House after the November election.

Mass incarceration

A vast new program of building prisons was launched, to house the prisoners of the War on Drugs. In 1980, there were 300,000 people in jail in the US. By 2000, there were more than two million.

In 2007, seven million (one in 31 adults) were in jail, on probation or on parole. Today, with only 5% of the world’s population, the US has 25% of the world’s prisoners.

The grotesque reality is the US stands out above almost all other countries, including the most oppressive.

The War on Drugs has nothing to do with drugs. It has not made a dent on the drug trade. Most convictions for drug offences are for possession, mainly of marijuana. Only 20% are for drug dealing, usually low level. The capitalist drug cartel leaders somehow always escape.

It is a war on Black people that has been extended to Latinos, another oppressed section of the working class. Whites almost never receive the same punishment under this war as Blacks. SWAT teams do not regularly invade their homes looking for drugs. There are very few whites who are regularly stopped and searched at random, as Blacks are.

Blacks and Latinos make up most prisoners, although they are a minority of the population. In the front lines of this war on Blacks are the police, who function as an occupying army. White communities are exempt.

The effects on the Black community continue well beyond jail terms. Branded as felons, the victims of the “justice” system find it difficult to be employed. They and their families can be barred from public housing.

These and many other stigmas affect their families and the entire community. The conditions are set to drive them into street crime — the opposite of preventing crime.

This new system of Black oppression has now been solidified. It no longer needs frenzied appeals to “super-predators”. The War on Drugs is now an accepted part of the landscape, as was Jim Crow for almost 100 years, and the slave system before that.

Neither the War on Drugs or mass incarceration has even been mentioned in the election campaign by Clinton or her Republican opponent Donald Trump. The issues barely featured in the campaign for Democratic nomination by Bernie Sanders either, who is now endorsing Clinton — who has supported the worst aspects of the new Jim Crow.

Supreme Court rulings have enshrined the new Jim Crow law. The Court has made it impossible to bring any charges or lawsuits against racial discrimination unless overt intent can be proved (which is virtually impossible), no matter what the evidence.

That is what “colour-blindness” means.

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