Michelle Alexander’s presentation is incredibly insightful and well researched, which can often be difficult to digest, but as we work through the text in class, the material is reinforced quite well. At the Impact conference I attended this past weekend, nearly every presenter and panel speaker shared that The New Jim Crow was an essential read. I feel as though I am gaining valuable information that is altering my previous understanding of racial inequality, mass incarceration, and how I can approach difficult conversations surrounding these issues far better as a result of diving deeply into Alexander’s text.
The most interesting observation I made specifically in the Color of Justice chapter was the idea of discretion. The formal definition according to Miriam-Webster is, “the quality of having or showing discernment or good judgement.” In this portion of the novel, Alexander explains the process that the federal government followed in order to provide police officers, prosecuting attorneys, and American citizens with the opportunity to contribute to this new system of social control in their own authoritative manner.
It began when the War on Drugs offered a financial incentive for police to take a personal stake to wage the war. Their choice to become involved provided officers with the capacity to structure the entire endeavor, but specifically who they would target and the location in which they would concentrate their efforts. From there, police concluded that poor African American individuals inhabiting the “ghetto” or “hood” were the most vulnerable and sensible target for the War on Drugs. The media conveniently assisted in the plan to further criminalize the Black community and publicize horror stories associated with their use and dealing of crack. Once drug use was framed as a public health crisis, the political rhetoric and media imagery served as a grave threat to national order. As a result, police officers could begin to stop, frisk, arrest, and brutalize African Americans at their own discretion. Constitutional rights were no longer a barrier to protect the oppressed from open discrimination and implicit biases; even if law enforcement agents were to be questioned in court for their actions of inequality towards Blacks, as long as they did not openly say that they acted out of racist intentions, then judges and jurors remained complacent in a false trust in a corrupt institution and allowed freedom to yield to injustice.
Prosecuting attorneys possess the greatest amount of leverage in the criminal justice system, for they have the power to preemptively strike jurors for any reason, even if it is completely illogical and invalid. For example, in Alexander’s text, she offered a testimony from a reason behind a strike that was detailed as follows, “He had the longest hair of anybody on the panel by far. He appeared not to be a good juror for that fact.” Although race was the driving factor that led to the prosecutor’s decision, he relied on another trivial physical characteristic to have him struck from the jury pool, and was approved even though his explanation was absolutely absurd. This is a common trend, specifically for court cases involving an African American defendant. The jury is required to be comprised of one’s peers, but unfortunately, in thirty-one states adhere to the federal government’s guidelines that felons are excluded from the jury selection list for life. As a result, about 30 percent of black men are automatically banned from jury service for life (Alexander, Michelle. Page, 121). For a prosecuting attorney, devising a race-neutral excuse for jury exclusion is an exceedingly easy task, thanks to discretion.
Lastly, the American people, specifically white, have the discretion to accept the presentation of information from governmental leaders and the media as truth. Privilege is blinding. With the reinforcement of discriminatory and criminalizing framework from people and institutions of power, it is easy to accept it as truth without questioning the fallacies in illogical arguments. However, they are not individually placed in positions of oppression where they are propelled to rise from ignorance and complacency. However, I feel that it is our obligation to listen to those individuals who endure these inequalities daily, educate ourselves about the problem, (force everyone to read this book), and work together to utilize our privilege in order to navigate social institutions to the benefit of our marginalized brothers and sisters. If no one else is willing to bridge the gap in the ratio, it will have to be us, the people, to fight for one-to-one- to fight for equality.