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Opinion

Opinion

Book takes compelling look at racial bias

June 28, 2010

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“You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this all while not appearing to.” — Richard Nixon as quoted by H.R. Haldeman, supporting a get-tough-on drugs strategy.

“They give black people time like it’s lunch down there. You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: just us.” — Richard Pryor.

Michelle Alexander was an ACLU attorney in Oakland, preparing a racial profiling lawsuit against the California Highway Patrol. The ACLU had put out a request for anyone who had been profiled to get in touch. One day, in walked this black man.

He was maybe 19 and toted a thick sheaf of papers, what Alexander calls an “incredibly detailed” accounting of at least a dozen police stops over a nine-month period, with dates, places and officers’ names. This was, she thought, a “dream plaintiff.”

But it turned out he had a record, a drug felony — and she told him she couldn’t use him; the state’s attorney would eat him alive. He insisted he was innocent, said police had planted drugs and beaten him. But she was no longer listening. Finally, enraged, he snatched the papers back and started shredding them.

“You’re no better than the police,” he cried. “You’re doing what they did to me!” The conviction meant he couldn’t work or go to school, had to live with his grandmother. Did Alexander know how that felt? And she wanted a dream plaintiff? “Just go to my neighborhood,” he said. “See if you can find one black man my age they haven’t gotten to already.”

She saw him again a couple of months later. He gave her a potted plant from his grandmother’s porch — he couldn’t afford flowers — and apologized. A few months after that, a scandal broke: Oakland police officers accused of planting drugs and beating up innocent victims. One of the officers involved was the one named by that young man.

“It was,” says Alexander now, more than 10 years later, “the beginning of me asking some hard questions of myself as a civil rights lawyer. ... What is actually going on in his neighborhood? How is it that they’ve already gotten to all the young African-American men in his neighborhood? I began questioning my own assumptions about how the criminal justice system works.”

The result is a compelling new book. Others have written of the racial bias of the criminal injustice system. In “The New Jim Crow,” Alexander goes a provocative step further. She contends that the mass incarceration of black men for nonviolent drug offenses, combined with sentencing disparities and laws making it legal to discriminate against felons in housing, employment, education and voting, constitute nothing less than a new racial caste system. A new segregation.

She has a point. Yes, the War on Drugs is officially race-neutral. So were the grandfather clause and other Jim Crow laws whose intention and effect was nevertheless to restrict black freedom.

The War on Drugs is a war on African-American people and we countenance it because we implicitly accept certain assumptions sold to us by news and entertainment media, chief among them that drug use is rampant in the black community. But. The. Assumption. Is. WRONG.

According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms. In terms of raw numbers, WHITES are far and away the biggest users — and dealers — of illegal drugs.

So why aren’t cops kicking THEIR doors in? Why aren’t THEIR sons pulled over a dozen times in nine months? Why are black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones? Why aren’t WHITE communities robbed of their fathers, brothers, sons?

With inexorable logic, “The New Jim Crow” propounds an answer many will resist and most have not even considered. It is a troubling and profoundly NECESSARY book.

Please read it.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., is a columnist for the Miami Herald. lpitts@miamiherald.com

Comments

demonfury 3 years, 9 months ago

Looks like Lenny is back to doing what he does best: writing about the color of his ignorant ass. This article was a smoke and mirrors story about the inappropriate treatment of his people, not racial profiling , just black racial profiling. That's all Lenny can see.......

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beatrice 3 years, 9 months ago

I once got bad service at a Cracker Barrel in Oklahoma.

Since everyone involved was white, can someone explain this episode of double-reverse racism?

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emaw 3 years, 9 months ago

In my experiences, some of the most racist people were the ones who actually knew the least about the culture or race they claimed to hate...that being said, I am tired of having things that happened 40, 50, 200 years ago being brought up time and time again. Sure, we should never forget what happened but we will never be able to heal and get over this nation of hate and racism until we let it go and decide to move forward.

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jonas_opines 3 years, 9 months ago

I was at a predominantly black Chicken and Waffle House in LA and I got prejudiceded against too! Nah, I'm lying. I actually was there with a couple of other kids from my HS church in a predominantly black Chicken and Waffle House in LA, looked to the right and saw the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who we approached. He shook our hands and took a picture with us. It was kind of neat. (not lying)

Granted, we had been in the LA sun for a week, so we weren't really white anymore. More of a. . . glowing bronze. Maybe that helped.

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Mike Ford 3 years, 9 months ago

this conversation is hilarious... you have tom shewmon getting bad service because he is tom shewmon... and you have caucasians complaining about service in minority restaurants. I've been stared at as a mixed choctaw person more times I can count in rural restaurants yet been served and had great conversation in minority restaurants in places like greenville, mississippi. The people here have no idea what racism is. I remember seeing the KKK as an 8 year old at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Miss. Hwy 57 in 1978 near Ocean Springs, MS collecting donations in boots at that intersection. Right around the corner from the Nunih Waiya Mound north of Bok Chito, MS was the Nunih Waiya Missionary Mennonite Church. The original church was burned by the KKK when the Choctaw people told the FBI where the burned station wagon of the three civil rights workers was. You all have no idea...

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novalissuperstar 3 years, 9 months ago

genetic difference are more than skin deep. why wouldn't they be?

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JustNoticed 3 years, 9 months ago

Kudos to Puddleglum. But, the most interesting thing to me about race is that it is a social construct created out of those genetic differences that stand out to us. There is nothing real about it at all.

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George Lippencott 3 years, 9 months ago

Hay CAIT you did not answer. I don' want to read the book. Since Mr. Pitts chose to bring it up in his column I think it appropriate he do a complete job. What do we do about it - set more quotas

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Bob Kraxner 3 years, 9 months ago

Mr Pitts you are sadly mistaken, Methamphetamine is used by more whites than blacks, by far. Take a look at statistics related to meth,and meth convictions, nationwide and then let's see what you have to say about racial profiling. There are twice as many white people in prisons, both state and federal, for non-violent drug crimes, as there are black people. Nice try though. I was beginning to wonder how long you were going to stray away from the only subject that you enjoy writing about. Reverse racism was old news 10 years ago, you really need to become part of the solution, instead of fueling the fire for more racism.

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puddleglum 3 years, 9 months ago

I had a similar experience.

One time I was passing through atlanta. It seemed that popeye's applebee's and KFC were the only choices, so I chose applebee's... I rolled in and the needle came off the record. Only white dude around. Hostess was fake-nice and sat us at a Jim Crow table next to the bathroom. Waitress threw silverware on table as everybody in the restaurant stared. Of course, I am very attractive, and soon enough-these people overcame their bigotry and began asking for my autograph, and asking for me to pose with them as cameras snapped away-bulbs flashing, cheeseburgers flying, golden sunshine flowing from my silky smooth locks of auburn greatness, shimmering in the cascade of strobe lighting like a comet flying around saturn.
after all was said and done, I found that these people could appreciate my beauty. But had I been simply average looking, or ugly-the outcome could have been dour. It would have been an ugly display of racism towards a poor white starlet such as I.

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BorderRuffian 3 years, 9 months ago

Racism is a bias in any direction toward or against someone of a different race, simply becausae they are of a different race. Seems to me that we have plenty of racism to go around in this country. White racism against blacks, black racism against whites, white or black Americans against non-Americans, non-americans against Americans, Americans against illegal aliens, illegal aliens against Americans, and the list goes on unchecked.

I AM against racism, classism, elitism, or any other "ism", in any shape or form. Strangely, because of history past, it seems these ism's are loaded up primarily on whites. Most of whom are doing their level best not to be racist.

I am now part of the most hated and despised demographics in America. I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class male. I am white by nature of my genetics, I am middle-aged by sheer luck, and I am middle-class because I have worked all my life. I have worked to keep racism and all other ism's apart from me, and it disgusts me when people of other backgrounds or make-ups label me as racist or otherwise-ist when I am the one trying to be fair and ethical.

I am proud of who I am and make no excuses about who I am. And if the rest of you want to keep on receiving the respect I happily extend to you, you can honor me for being who I am as well.

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Flap Doodle 3 years, 9 months ago

Here's an alternative look: "...Soon after his confirmation, Attorney General Eric Holder labeled us a nation of cowards, a people supposedly unwilling or afraid to discuss race. Based on my experience as an attorney at the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department, Holder has far more to fear from that discussion than do the rest of us. If we had that frank, truthful discussion about race, we’d learn that the Obama administration doesn’t believe some civil rights laws protect every American. The Bush Civil Rights Division was willing to protect all Americans from racial discrimination; during the Obama years, the Holder years, only some Americans will be protected. Americans have a right to know and judge the racial policies of the administration they elected in 2008. The dismissal of the voter intimidation lawsuit against armed New Black Panthers in Philadelphia is the most prominent example of this hostility toward race-neutral enforcement of civil rights laws. But that dismissal is far from the only manifestation of the beliefs infesting the Department. Many other cases and decisions — some of which I will detail below — are in question and deserve scrutiny. On Election Day 2008, armed men wearing the uniforms and jackboots of the New Black Panther Party were posted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the entrance to a polling site. They brandished a weapon and intimidated voters. After the election, the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice brought a voter intimidation case against the New Black Panther Party and these armed thugs. I, and other Justice lawyers, obtained an entry of default after the defendants ignored the case against them. Before a final judgment could be entered, however, our superiors ordered dismissal of the claims. Congress has sought answers from the Department about why the Black Panther case was dismissed. The Department has repeatedly claimed the “facts and law” did not support the case — which of course is false. Others have speculated about a White House involvement. But I believe the best explanation for the corrupt dismissal of the case is the profound hostility by the Obama Civil Rights Division in the Justice Department towards a race-neutral enforcement of civil rights laws..." http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/j-christian-adams-you-deserve-to-know-%E2%80%94-unequal-law-enforcement-reigns-at-obamas-doj-pjm-exclusive/?singlepage=true

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kansastruthteller 3 years, 9 months ago

Racism, racial bias etc. exists - indisputable, but racism is not limited to one race or group. Not the same as injust incarceration, but relevant - how many whites received an award from BET last night? How many whites were considered for an award? Isn't basing something on one's race racist?

Did not race play a role in Sotomayor being nominated for SCOTUS? Of course it did, but is that okay?

Are there varying degrees of racism and some acceptable? Or is all racism vile and to be despised? If the latter is true then why do we tolerate any racism?

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headdoctor 3 years, 9 months ago

Tarball's attempt at baiting, -10. The 4 liberal judges were against gun rights for everyone. Their stance is not race specific. I am surprised you didn't try to cloud the issue with Obama's voting record on some of the gun issues by reporting it then twisting why he voted against it.

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Tarball 3 years, 9 months ago

4 of the 5 supreme court justices made compelling votes against 2nd amendment rights today. The 2nd amendment gave firearm rights to blacks. What does Pitts have to say about this? What do liberals have to say about this compelling example?

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Machiavelli_mania 3 years, 9 months ago

I don't have a racial bias. I have a bias for people who thoughtlessly reproduce and in too great a number.

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Machiavelli_mania 3 years, 9 months ago

I don't have a racial bias. I have a bias for people who thoughtlessly reproduce and in too great a number.

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George Lippencott 3 years, 9 months ago

equalaccessprivacy (anonymous) says… Pitts offers a compelling recommendation!

Help me here - what was the recommendation.

A problem was stated. A cause was assumed At best a solution was inferred.

I remember a similar cry in Vietnam. Stats pointed to too high a rate of non-judicial punishment for blacks. The cause was presumed racism in the system. The solution was to force balance in the stats. Don't know if there was every a follow-up. There were allegations of reverse discrimination (blacks not punished for what whites were punished for). Don't know the truth - but perception is not always something you want to trivialize.

Oakland, I am told, has an appreciable number of minority officers. Is the presumption of racism warranted or is there some other factor at work? Do we need “toto” to pull back the curtain?

And yes I live in the real world. There is racism. It is no longer by law in this country but apparently may still exist in enforcement of those laws – not to mention normal social interaction. How do you deal with it or is there a certain amount we must accept because humans are what they are?

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Paul R Getto 3 years, 9 months ago

Anyone who doubts the state of affairs in many communities should read: "Black Like Me ... by journalist John Howard Griffin first published in 1961. Griffin was a white native of Mansfield, Texas ........ describes his six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia passing as a black man...." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Li... =========== I suspect anyone who had the guts to try this again would have similar experiences in many towns. Another telling study of this issue is A Country of Strangers, David K. Shipler, which is more recent and scholarly but deals with similar issues and concerns. Good column, Leonard.

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Tom Shewmon 3 years, 9 months ago

And racism is a two-way street; many also forget that. I used to live in STL and for awhile, worked very close to a predominantly black area, in which I would frequently go to the grocery store or somewhere to grab lunch. I can not remember how many times I was ignored, mistreated and generally sneared at by blacks who worked in these places or by other patrons. I stopped at a Church's Fried Chicken once and I practically had to wave both arms high and wide to get the girl behind the counter to simply even acknowledge me, and when she did, she did with a look of total disgust.

Again, racism is a two-way street and I don't subscribe to any of it, no matter what race-baiting liberals on this board try to proclaim day in and day out about me.

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Richard Payton 3 years, 9 months ago

Pitts did you forget that Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine? Maybe not the person the story should have quoted. I agree with the overall principle that racial bias exist even today.

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grammaddy 3 years, 9 months ago

This will be my next book. Thank you Leonard!

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Cait McKnelly 3 years, 9 months ago

Racism is alive and well in this country. The Equal Rights Amendment did little to change things. I am white. Several of my close friends happen to be black. I have heard horror stories that would make your toes curl. I've seen a couple myself. In 1972 I witnessed police officers take an 18 year old black boy back up behind a high school and beat the c**p out of him. Why? He was walking on the street with a white girl. Me. After he was beaten he was released and returned to our home. Yes, I said our home. He was my house mate along with another white woman and an American Indian male. We all had our own bedrooms, had jobs and classes and split the rent. When he returned that night I went into a state of shock and disbelief. He was a gentle boy who had never done anything to hurt anybody. I bawled as I put ice on his black eye and cleaned the scrapes. That night he made the decision to move out because being there was too dangerous for him AND us. That danger was from law enforcement. Yes the Equal Rights Amendment became part of the Constitution. Too bad that in a lot of ways it wasn't worth the paper it was written on.

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jaywalker 3 years, 9 months ago

Now that's a Pitts' piece I can get behind! Oakland is a notoriously rough city, but the police force there has been just as criminal. Heard last night that they're having severe money issues and as many as 80 officers are going to be let go. Considering all, not sure that's a good or a bad thing.

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equalaccessprivacy 3 years, 9 months ago

Pitts offers a compelling recommendation!

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