In 1963, the New York Times and Life Magazine ran cover photographs of firemen using hoses and policemen using attack dogs on protestors in Alabama. Brown vs. The Board of Education had declared Jim Crow illegal nine years earlier, then fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, then Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. But it wasn’t until people across the country saw how policemen and fireman – symbols of public trust and protection – reacted to peaceful marches against segregation that the Civil Rights movement gained national momentum.
Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech three months after hoses fired and dogs snapped – but without the visual records of how black Americans were attacked by public servants sworn to protect them, most Americans would not have been ready to hear him.
In 2005, Americans sat in their homes and watched blacks in New Orleans wait five days for any kind of government response to the devastating floods left by hurricane Katrina, blacks the media called “refugees” and “looters,” alongside white “survivors” who “searched for food.” Kanye West’s “George Bush does not care about black people” moment – and the minute or so rambling about media and poor government response that preceded it – might be seen as a poor substitute for King’s rousing speech. Or you could argue that it suits our 240-character, cult-of-celebrity world perfectly.
The 60s had Emmett Till, today we have Trayvon Martin. Michelle Alexander would not call them perfect teens, but she would point out that both boys were punished disproportionately to their crimes. And that is the gist of her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, delivered in much the same tone. The facts presented in The New Jim Crow are so incendiary, so galling, it’s amazing how calm Alexander remains throughout.
As the prison industrial complex looms larger in the cultural conversation, and correcting its ills becomes not just a priority but a necessity, we will look back on The New Jim Crow and recognize that it was as pivotal to race politics as James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time was in 1963.
Read The New Jim Crow and weep.
And, ultimately, wake.