I have never been denied the right to vote. I have not once been mistreated by police or asked my intentions when walking home late at night. I have never felt discriminated against because of the color of my skin, nor have I ever once feared going to jail because of a minor offense. I am allowed to be part of a jury. I have never had any trouble finding a place to live because I can easily rent an apartment. I have never checked “yes” on that little box on a job application that so gently asks “have you ever been charged with a felony?” I have access to government services and assistance if I should ever need them. By all accounts, I have lived a relatively privileged life. My friends and family would not deny knowing me or be ashamed of what I have done; a stigma has never dictated my life.
After I finished reading “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander, I was brought back to the night of November 24, 2014 when the grand jury made the decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for firing shots at Michael Brown. I was glued to the television the night of the riots in Ferguson, I was watching videos and reading blogs, I was informed, or at least I thought. I was with friends, and we were all well aware of the events that had led up to the night of the non- indictment. After the announcement was made, I remember us all sitting in silence, looking at one another. We were angry and sad, we knew this was an injustice, we all felt helpless as we watched. It was almost unbearable. I remember hunching off to bed that night, my heart feeling heavy and my shoulders feeling weighed down. I had the very same feeling as I finished Alexander’s piece. There must be something I was missing. I am well aware that other people are suffering and I know that many times that is due to the color of their skin and the unfair discrimination by the criminal justice system. But a New Jim Crow? How did I not this see this before? Is she sure?
As I read through this piece, I asked myself the same question over and over: “Is Michelle Alexander talking to me?” “Am I the intended audience of this piece?” I had my answer when Alexander quoted Dr. Martin Luther King “They were victims of spiritual and intellectual blindness. They knew not what they did. The whole system of slavery was largely perpetuated by sincere though spiritually ignorant person”. This moment in the piece made me stop, dead in my tracks, in a sudden silence, my mind still trying to grapple with the many statistics of mass incarceration rates of African Americans in the United States. Have I been blind to the realities of the new racial caste system all this time? How is it possible that this racial caste system and new set of Jim Crow laws has been thriving beneath my nose without my recognition? Here my blood begins to boil. Have I been a bad citizen and an uninformed member of my public for letting these injustices go on? Alexander sums up my questions with a simple assertion—Ignorance.
Has my ignorance really been bliss?
I believe Alexander’s piece is a call to action, not only for the public to take a good hard look at the “New Jim Crow laws” being formed in front of our eyes, but also to take responsibility for our own ignorance which has led to the formation of these “laws”. I believe that looking at yourself long and hard, and admitting you have been part of the problem, is the first way to begin fixing this problem. I sat down with this new feeling, a feeling of acknowledgement, and I reread. Acknowledging that just following the news stories, reading blogs, and being informed about discrimination against blacks, especially in the recent cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is not enough; that seeing and knowing are two very different things. I have seen injustice in my short twenty six years, but I was astonished to learn that I have never truly known injustice. I have been humbled through this piece that reveals my ignorance.
“I had a series of experiences that began what I call my ‘awakening’. I began to awaken to a racial reality that is so obvious to me now that what seems odd in retrospect is that I was blind to it for so long” (9). My take away here is that recognizing the ignorance that I carry, is the first step to my “awakening” as Alexander so eloquently puts it. The first step to action is always recognition, not just that there is a problem but that there is something standing in the way of us getting to the root of that problem, whether that is ignorance, fear, or relative indifference. Next is the ‘awakening’ Alexander speaks of, finally followed by action. Only when we acknowledge our beliefs, flaws, prejudices, and self-concepts can we recognize our own ignorance and begin to take action.
But what does this action look like? For me, it looks like listening to the stories of others and hearing what they have gone through and how they have suffered. I think that my action comes out of anger, an anger for what I haven’t seen before or what I wasn’t ready to see, but I am now ready to see thanks to Alexander. I believe that my action can be achieved through educating myself about the new realities that the New Jim Crow laws created in our country. I believe that starting a conversation and talking about these issues openly with one another without casting judgment, is a good place to start.
“The New Jim Crow” Michelle Alexander
Infographic on mass incarnation http://billmoyers.com/2012/05/30/infographic-u-s-incarceration-rates/
Interview with Michelle Alexander: http://www.npr.org/2012/01/16/145175694/legal-scholar-jim-crow-still-exists-in-america