“The New Jim Crow” Michelle Alexander VS. Jesse Lee Peterson on Mass Incarceration

An interesting debate between a black leftist and a black conservative.

I would generally agree with Michelle Alexander’s thesis that the police/carceral state and prison-industrial complex is merely the modern version of American black slavery or Jim Crow. But where I would disagree is that I think her analysis is too limited to the race issue in a way that ignores the context of state and class,

The US ruling class response to the black insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s was the standard strategy: co-optation with the left-hand, repression with the right-hand. The creation of the civil rights paradigm, the expansion of the welfare state, race-based policy initiatives, and the “diversity” ideology were intended to co-opt the black middle class, expand its size, and incorporate it into the wider system.

The co-opation effort has been achieved on a spectacularly successful level, to the point that there is not only a much larger and much more integrated black middle class but also a black upper-middle class and upper class (e.g. Oprah, Robert Johnson, etc.).  The integrated black middle and upper classes have since developed their own left and right wings (with folks like Michelle Alexander or Cornel West on the left and Jesse Lee Peterson or Larry Elder on the right).

However, during the same period that the civil rights paradigm was being used as a co-optation effort, state repression against the black lower classes, along with the lower classes generally, was taking place under Nixon’s and Reagan’s “war on drugs” in the 1970s and 1980s, which was then expanded to a general war on “crime,” “guns,” “gangs,” etc during the era of the Bushes and Bill Clinton. The rising repression of the lower classes also corresponded with the regression of class relations under the emerging neoliberal economic paradigm.

Consequently, we now have both the largest, wealthiest, and most influential black middle and upper class in the world (if not in history), as black conservatives like Peterson, Elder, Loury, Sowell, etc. consistently point out. However, we also have a reconstituted slavery/Jim Crow/apartheid in the form of the underclass and the prison-industrial complex, as leftists point out.

However, “the new Jim Crow” is only a component of the wider American police/carceral state. The proper analogy is not to the Jim Crow South or apartheid South Africa but to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The US police state is not as extreme as those two, but it’s a matter of degree, not polar opposites. In the Third Reich or USSR, anyone could become a target of the state, irrespective of their race, class, religion, politics, etc. Obviously, it was better to be an ethnic German in the Third Reich than to be Jewish, and obviously, it was better to be a Communist Party member in the USSR than a kulak. But none of that shielded you from state repression per se.

Similarly, the US police/carceral state targets persons of all classes, races, religions, cultures, politics, and lifestyles. It is still more advantageous to be a white, suburban, “respectable” business person than to be a poor, black, inner-city pot dealer. But persons of all layers of US society, and all demographics have been targeted by the state for dubious, frivolous, or ridiculous reasons. It’s gotten so bad that many conservative, right-libertarian, Republican, and religious right organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Right on Crime, and Prison Fellowship Ministries are pointing this out.

The “New Jim Crow” element of the US regime is only a component that is particularly visible, not the sum total of the police/carceral state. Think of it as a more moderate version of the “Warsaw Ghetto” aspect of the wider Nazi police state, or a variation of the Soviet “social parasite” laws that were used to imprison lumpen elements in the USSR.

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