Daniel M. writes:
Coincidentally, I'm currently a TA for a class in which significant portions of this book have been assigned (a philosophy of law class, focusing on legal punishment). Alexander's main focus in the book is not incarceration (and related phenomena) in general, but the War on Drugs in particular. An important part of her case for the racially discriminatory nature of "mass incarceration" (a phrase by which she means (a) the entire system of state-control over offenders, whether prison, parole, probation, etc., as well as (b) the post-punishment effects on offenders such as barriers to voting, employment, public housing) in the U.S. is the claim that black Americans are no more likely to use/deal illegal drugs than are white Americans, and yet law enforcement have disproportionally targeted black Americans. She thinks that this discrimination largely results from the great procedural discretion which law enforcement have in prosecuting this War (both at the level of police forces and individual officers in deciding where/whom to search, and at the level of prosecutors in deciding what kind of sentences to seek). This discretion, along with the need to be proactive in order to bust people for drug offenses, creates the opportunity for racial biases, whether conscious or unconscious, to shape how the War is prosecuted.
When I read the bit you did, my first thought was that it was ridiculous to compare Cotton's political "disenfranchisement" to his KKK-killed great-grandfather's political disenfranchisement. I still think that about this case (homicide/robbery...), but I did become more sympathetic to the idea that there were interesting connections between Jim Crow and "mass incarceration." The main difference is that the "New Jim Crow" is officially "colorblind," not a result of overt racism (at least by and large). The official aim is to maintain "law and order," not to sweep black Americans into the state's control. The alleged parallel is that you have a class of people largely characterized along racial lines who are shut out of mainstream society in various ways (voting, public housing,employment). The new reason, having a felony on your record, is very different - and, one might think, much more justified than the old reasons. But I was struck by (a) the claim that black Americans are not more likely to be guilty of drug crimes and yet are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for them, and (b.) the severity of punitive measures attached to drug offences (including the felony label for many such offences, with all the ensuing ramifications).
Thank you for that, Dan. A few brief remarks:
1. Are black Americans no more likely to use/deal illegal drugs than are white Americans? I rather doubt that. We know that blacks commit proportionately more crimes than whites in general, so one would expect that to be true for drug dealing in particular. This is of course an empirical question, but it is exceedingly difficult to get to the truth of the matter because of the 'hot button' nature of the question and because fields such as sociology and criminology are heavily infected with ideology. For example, how many conservative sociologists are there in universities as compared to leftists? A very small number. What does that say about universities and about sociology? Given the leftist bias of most sociologists, it is reasonable to be skeptical about anything they claim is a result of 'research.'
2. Leftists conflate the world with the world as they wish it to be. And they wish to believe that we are all equal. And so they cannot accept the notion that blacks have a greater natural propensity to commit crimes than whites. This leads them to think that blacks are disproportionately 'targeted' and 'labeled' felons. The truth, I suspect, is that blacks commit more crimes proportionately, which is why their rates of incarceration are proportionately higher.
3. This is consistent with a frank admission that there is plenty of injustice in the criminal justice system. There are corrupt judges, vicious cops, and ambitious prosecutors willing to sacrifice human lives to their careers. Needless to say, I am against all that.
4. Why would anyone want to single out blacks for especially harsh treatment? This is a question that needs answering, and 'racism' is no answer to it. That word is well-nigh meaningless: it is is used by leftists as an all-purpose semantic bludgeon to beat down conservatives. It means anything leftists want it to mean. What is racism? If I argue against ObamaCare, leftists call me a racist. But ObamaCare is a policy, and policies, last time I checked, have no race. So for leftists 'racism' and cognates mean everything and nothing. Do people dislike blacks because of their skin color? Perhaps a few do. But dislike of blacks is not for most people based on skin color but on black behavior. This brings us back to the empirical question whether blacks as a group behave worse than whites as a group. If they do, then this would explain why they are incarcerated in greater numbers.
5. Should felons have the right to vote? First of all, how many criminals want to vote? The typical criminal is someone whose only concern is himself and the immediate gratification of his basest desires. Such people have contempt for civil society. They are not interested in participating in it. For them it's a joke. These are not people who think about the common good. If you mentioned civic duties to them they would laugh their heads off.
So we need to ask: who is it that wants felons to vote? Not felons for the most part. But leftists! Leftists want felons to vote to expand their base. Leftists have a an exceedingly casual attitude toward criminal behavior. They are by nature lenient and forgiving. So if criminals are allowed to vote, they will of course vote for leftists, in the USA, for the Democrats.
That is why leftists want to extend the franchise to felons.
Whether or not they want to vote, should criminals have the right to vote? Of course not. Criminals can't even order their own lives, why should have a say in how society is ordered? Furthermore, removal of the right to vote is part of the punishment that they deserve for raping and drunk driving and drug dealing and murdering and for being the generally worthless individuals that they are.
6. Finally, I am open to the idea that drug laws need to be carefully examined. I am opposed to draconian 'zero tolerance' laws that make a felon of some harmless hippy who grows marijuana for his own use. But if he drives while stoned, or sells the stuff to school kids, then I want the law to come down on his shggy head like a ton of bricks.