We now turn to another important difference between mass incarceration and Jim Crow: the direct harm to whites caused by the current caste system. Whites never had to sit at the back of the bus during Jim Crow, but today a white man may find himself in prison for a drug offense, sharing a cell with a black man. The direct harm caused to whites caused by mass incarceration seems to distinguish it from Jim Crow; yet, like many of the other differences, this one requires some qualification. Some whites were directly harmed by Jim Crow. For example, a white woman who fell in love with a black man and hoped to spend the rest of her life with him was directly harmed by anti-miscegenation laws. The laws were intended for her benefit—to protect her from the corrupting influence of the black man and the “tragedy” of mulatto children—but she was directly harmed nonetheless.
Still, it seems obvious that mass incarceration directly harms far more whites than Jim Crow ever did. For some, this fact alone may be reason enough to reject the analogy. An “interracial racial caste system” may seem like an oxymoron. What kind of racial caste system includes white people within its control? The answer: a racial caste system in the age of colorblindness.
If 100 percent of the people arrested and convicted for drug offenses were African American, the situation would provoke outrage among the majority of Americans who consider themselves nonracist and who know very well that Latinos, Asian Americans, and whites also commit drug crimes. We, as a nation, seem comfortable with 90 percent of the people arrested and convicted of drug offenses in some states being African American, but if the figure were 100 percent, the veil of colorblindness would be lost. We could no longer tell ourselves stories about why 90 percent might be a reasonable figure; nor could we continue to assume that good reasons exist for extreme racial disparities in the drug war, even if we are unable to think of such reasons ourselves. In short, the inclusion of some whites in the system of control is essential to preserving the image of a colorblind criminal justice system and maintaining our self-image as fair and unbiased people. Because most Americans, including those within law enforcement, want to believe they are non-racist, the suffering in the drug war crosses the color line.
Of course, the fact that white people are harmed by the drug war does not mean they are the real targets, the designated enemy. The harm white people suffer in the drug war is much like the harm Iraqi civilians suffer in U.S. military actions targeting presumed terrorists or insurgents. In any war, a tremendous amount of collateral damage is inevitable. Black and brown people are the principal targets in this war; white people are collateral damage....
It is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste
system based entirely on exploitation (slavery), to one based largely on subordination (Jim
Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration).
Source: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
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