Shortly after sunrise on September 20, 2007, more than ten thousand protestors had already descended on Jena, Louisiana, a small town of about three thousand people. Because of the congestion on the roads to Jena, some protestors left their vehicles and walked into town on foot. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III were among those who traveled hundreds of miles to participate in what was heralded as “the beginnings of a new civil rights movement.”1
Black youth turned out to protest in record numbers, joined by rappers Mos Def, Ice Cube, and Salt-n-Pepa. National news media swarmed the town; cameras rolled as thousands of protestors from all over the country poured into the rural community to condemn the attempted murder charges filed against six black teenagers who allegedly beat a white classmate at a local high school.
This was no ordinary schoolyard fight. Many believed the attack was related to a string of racially charged conflicts and controversies at the school, most notably the hanging of nooses from a tree in the school’s main courtyard. Rev. Al Sharpton captured the spirit of the protest when he stated boldly, “We’ve gone from plantations to penitentiaries.... They have tried to create a criminal justice system that particularly targets our young black men. And now we sit and stand in a city that says it’s a prank to hang a hangman’s noose, but that it is attempted murder to have a fight. We cannot sit by silently. That’s why we came, and that’s why we intend to keep coming.”2
For a moment, the nation’s eyes were trained on the plight of the “Jena 6,” and debates could be heard in barber shops, in cafés, and in lines at grocery stores about whether the criminal justice system was, in fact, biased against black men or whether the black teens got exactly what they deserved for a brutal attack on a defenseless young white teen. Grim statistics about the number of black men in prison were trotted out, and commentators argued over whether those numbers reflected crime rates or bias and whether white teens would ever be charged with attempted murder and tried as adults if they attacked a black kid in a schoolyard fight.
The uprising on behalf of the six black teens paid off. Although the prosecutor refused to back down from his decision to bring adult charges against the youths, an appellate court ultimately ruled the teens had to be tried as juveniles, and many of the charges were reduced or dropped. While this result undoubtedly cheered the thousands of Jena 6 supporters around the country, the spectacle may have been oddly unsettling to parents of children imprisoned for far less serious crimes, including those locked up for minor drug offenses. Where were the protestors and civil rights leaders when their children were tried as adults and carted off to adult prisons? Where was the national news media then? Their children were accused of no crimes of violence, no acts of cruelty, yet they faced adult criminal charges and the prospect of serving years, perhaps decades, behind bars for possessing or selling illegal drugs—crimes that go largely ignored when committed by white youth. Why the outpouring of support and the promises of a “new civil rights movement” on behalf of the Jena youth but not their children?
If there had been no nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree, there would have been no Jena 6—no mass protests, no live coverage on CNN. The decision to charge six black teens as adults with attempted murder in connection with a schoolyard fight was understood as possibly racist by the mainstream media and some protestors only because of the sensational fact that nooses were first hung from a tree. It was this relic—the noose—showing up so brazenly and leading to a series of racially charged conflicts and controversies that made it possible for the news media and the country as a whole to entertain the possibility that these six youths may well have been treated to Jim Crow justice. It was this evidence of old-fashioned racism that made it possible for a new generation of protestors to frame the attempted murder charges against six black teens in a manner that mainstream America would understand as racist.
Ironically, it was precisely this framing that ensured that the events in Jena would not actually launch a “new civil rights movement.” A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the prevailing public consensus about race. Challenging these forms of racism is certainly necessary, as we must always remain vigilant, but it will do little to shake the foundations of the current system of control. The new caste system, unlike its predecessors, is officially colorblind. We must deal with it on its own terms.
Rethinking Denial—Or, Where Are Civil Rights Advocates When You Need Them?
Dealing with this system on its own terms is complicated by the problem of denial. Few Americans today recognize mass incarceration for what it is: a new caste system thinly veiled by the cloak of colorblindness. Hundreds of thousands of people of color are swept into this system and released every year, yet we rationalize the systematic discrimination and exclusion and turn a blind eye to the suffering. Our collective denial is not merely an inconvenient fact; it is a major stumbling block to public understanding of the role of race in our society, and it sharply limits the opportunities for truly trans-formative collective action.
The general public’s collective denial is fairly easy to forgive—if not excuse—for all the reasons discussed in chapter 5. The awkward silence of the civil rights community, however, is more problematic. If something akin to a racial caste system truly exists, why has the civil rights community been so slow to acknowledge it? Indeed, how could civil rights organizations, some of which are larger and better funded than at any point in American history, have allowed this human rights nightmare to occur on their watch?
The answer is not that civil rights advocates are indifferent to racial bias in the criminal justice system. To the contrary, we care quite a lot. Nor have we been entirely ignorant of the realities of the new caste system. In recent years, civil rights advocates have launched important reform efforts, most notably the campaigns challenging felon disenfranchisement laws, crack-sentencing policies, and racial profiling by law enforcement. Civil rights groups have also developed litigation and important coalitions related to the school-to-prison pipeline, inadequate indigent defense, and juvenile justice reform, to name a few.
Despite these important efforts, what is most striking about the civil rights community’s response to the mass incarceration of people of color is the relative quiet. Given the magnitude—the sheer scale—of the New Jim Crow, one would expect that the War on Drugs would be the top priority of every civil rights organization in the country. Conferences, strategy sessions, and debates regarding how best to build a movement to dismantle the new caste system would be occurring on a regular basis. Major grassroots organizing efforts would be under way in nearly every state and city nationwide. Foundations would be lobbied to prioritize criminal justice reform. Media campaigns would be unleashed in an effort to overturn the punitive public consensus on race. The rhetoric associated with specific reform efforts would stress the need to end mass incarceration, not merely tinker with it, and efforts would be made to build multiracial coalitions based on the understanding that the racial politics that gave birth to the War on Drugs have harmed poor and working-class whites as well as people of color. All of that could have happened, but it didn’t. Why not?
Part of the answer is that civil rights organizations—like all institutions—are comprised of fallible human beings. The prevailing public consensus affects everyone, including civil rights advocates. Those of us in the civil rights community are not immune to the racial stereotypes that pervade media imagery and political rhetoric; nor do we operate outside of the political context. Like most people, we tend to resist believing that we might be part of the problem.
One day, civil rights organizations may be embarrassed by how long it took them to move out of denial and do the hard work necessary to end mass incarceration. Rather than blaming civil rights groups, however, it is far more productive to understand the reasons why the response to mass incarceration has been so constrained. Again, it’s not that civil rights advocates don’t care; we do. And it’s not just that we are afflicted by unconscious racial bias and stereotypes about those behind bars. Civil rights organizations have reasons for their constraint—reasons that no longer make good sense, even if they once did.
A bit of civil rights history may be helpful here. Civil rights advocacy has not always looked the way it does today. Throughout most of our nation’s history—from the days of the abolitionist movement through the Civil Rights Movement—racial justice advocacy has generally revolved around grassroots organizing and the strategic mobilization of public opinion. In recent years, however, a bit of mythology has sprung up regarding the centrality of litigation to racial justice struggles. The success of the brilliant legal crusade that led to Brown v. Board of Education has created a widespread perception that civil rights lawyers are the most important players in racial justice advocacy. This image was enhanced following the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1965, when civil rights lawyers became embroiled in highly visible and controversial efforts to end hiring discrimination, create affirmative action plans, and enforce school desegregation orders. As public attention shifted from the streets to the courtroom, the extraordinary grassroots movement that made civil rights legislation possible faded from public view. The lawyers took over.
With all deliberate speed, civil rights organizations became “professionalized” and increasingly disconnected from the communities they claimed to represent. Legal scholar and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Derrick Bell was among the first to critique this phenomenon, arguing in a 1976 Yale Law Journal article that civil rights lawyers were pursuing their own agendas in school desegregation cases even when they conflicted with their clients’ expressed desires.3 Two decades later, former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer and current Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier published a memoir in which she acknowledged that, “by the early 1990s, [civil rights] litigators like me had become like the Washington insiders we were so suspicious of.... We reflexively distanced ourselves from the very people on whose behalf we brought the cases in the first place.”4 This shift, she noted, had profound consequences for the future of racial justice advocacy; in fact, it was debilitating to the movement. Instead of a moral crusade, the movement became an almost purely legal crusade. Civil rights advocates pursued their own agendas as unelected representatives of communities defined by race and displayed considerable skill navigating courtrooms and halls of power across America. The law became what the lawyers and lobbyists said it was, with little or no input from the people whose fate hung in the balance. Guinier continued:
In charge, we channeled a passion for change into legal negotiations and lawsuits. We defined the issues in terms of developing legal doctrine and establishing legal precedent; our clients became important, but secondary, players in a formal arena that required lawyers to translate lay claims into technical speech. We then disembodied plaintiffs’ claims in judicially manageable or judicially enforceable terms, unenforceable without more lawyers. Simultaneously, the movement’s center of gravity shifted to Washington, D.C. As lawyers and national pundits became more prominent than clients and citizens, we isolated ourselves from the people who were our anchor and on whose behalf we had labored. We not only left people behind; we also lost touch with the moral force at the heart of the movement itself.5
Not surprisingly, as civil rights advocates converted a grassroots movement into a legal campaign, and as civil rights leaders became political insiders, many civil rights organizations became top-heavy with lawyers. This development enhanced their ability to wage legal battles but impeded their ability to acknowledge or respond to the emergence of a new caste system. Lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve—i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation. The mass incarceration of people of color is not that kind of problem.
Widespread preoccupation with litigation, however, is not the only—or even the main—reason civil rights groups have shied away from challenging the new caste system. Challenging mass incarceration requires something civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to do: advocacy on behalf of criminals. Even at the height of Jim Crow segregation—when black men were more likely to be lynched than to receive a fair trial in the South—NAACP lawyers were reluctant to advocate on behalf of blacks accused of crimes unless the lawyers were convinced of the men’s innocence.6 The major exception was anti-death penalty advocacy. Over the years, civil rights lawyers have made heroic efforts to save the lives of condemned criminals. But outside of the death penalty arena, civil rights advocates have long been reluctant to leap to the defense of accused criminals. Advocates have found they are most successful when they draw attention to certain types of black people (those who are easily understood by mainstream whites as “good” and “respectable”) and tell certain types of stories about them. Since the days when abolitionists struggled to eradicate slavery, racial justice advocates have gone to great lengths to identify black people who defy racial stereotypes, and they have exercised considerable message discipline, telling only those stories of racial injustice that will evoke sympathy among whites.
A prime example is the Rosa Parks story. Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Civil rights advocates considered and rejected two other black women as plaintiffs when planning a test case challenging segregation practices: Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith. Both of them were arrested for refusing to give up their seats on Montgomery’s segregated buses, just months before Rosa Parks refused to budge. Colvin was fifteen years old when she defied segregation laws. Her case attracted national attention, but civil rights advocates declined to use her as a plaintiff because she got pregnant by an older man shortly after her arrest. Advocates worried that her “immoral” conduct would detract from or undermine their efforts to show that blacks were entitled to (and worthy of) equal treatment. Likewise, they decided not to use Mary Louise Smith as a plaintiff because her father was rumored to be an alcoholic. It was understood that, in any effort to challenge racial discrimination, the litigant—and even the litigant’s family—had to be above reproach and free from every negative trait that could be used as a justification for unequal treatment.
Rosa Parks, in this regard, was a dream come true. She was, in the words of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson (another key figure in the Montgomery Bus Boycott), a “medium-sized, cultured mulatto woman; a civic and religious worker; quiet, unassuming, and pleasant in manner and appearance; dignified and reserved; of high morals and strong character.”7 No one doubted that Parks was the perfect symbol for the movement to integrate public transportation in Montgomery. Martin Luther King Jr. recalled in his memoir that “Mrs. Parks was ideal for the role assigned to her by history,” largely because “her character was impeccable” and she was “one of the most respected people in the Negro community.”8
The time-tested strategy of using those who epitomize moral virtue as symbols in racial justice campaigns is far more difficult to employ in efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Most people who are caught up in the criminal justice system have less than flawless backgrounds. While many black people get stopped and searched for crimes they did not commit, it is not so easy these days to find young black men in urban areas who have never been convicted of a crime. The new caste system labels black and brown men as criminals early, often in their teens, making them “damaged goods” from the perspective of traditional civil rights advocates. With criminal records, the majority of young black men in urban areas are not seen as attractive plaintiffs for civil rights litigation or good “poster boys” for media advocacy.
The widespread aversion to advocacy on behalf of those labeled criminals reflects a certain political reality. Many would argue that expending scarce resources on criminal justice reform is a strategic mistake. After all, criminals are the one social group in America that nearly everyone—across political, racial, and class boundaries—feels free to hate. Why champion the cause of the despised when there are so many sympathetic stories about racial injustice one could tell? Why draw public attention to the “worst” of the black community, those labeled criminals? Shouldn’t we direct scarce resources to battles that are more easily won, such as affirmative action? Shouldn’t we focus the public’s attention on the so-called root causes of mass incarceration, such as educational inequity?
We can continue along this road—it is a road well travelled—but we must admit the strategy has not made much of a difference. African Americans, as a group, are no better off than they were in 1968 in many respects.9 In fact, to some extent, they are worse off. When the incarcerated population is counted in unemployment and poverty rates, the best of times for the rest of America have been among the worst of times for African Americans, particularly black men. As sociologist Bruce Western has shown, the notion that the 1990s—the Clinton years—were good times for African Americans, and that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” is pure fiction. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels in the late 1990s for the general population, jobless rates among noncollege black men in their twenties rose to their highest levels ever, propelled by skyrocketing incarceration rates.10
One reason so many people have a false impression of the economic well-being of African Americans, as a group, is that poverty and unemployment statistics do not include people who are behind bars. Prisoners are literally erased from the nation’s economic picture, leading standard estimates to underestimate the true jobless rate by as much as 24 percentage points for less-educated black men.11 Young African American men were the only group to experience a steep increase in joblessness between 1980 and 2000, a development directly traceable to the increase in the penal population. During the much heralded economic boom of the 1990s, the true jobless rate among noncollege black men was a staggering 42 percent (65 percent among black male dropouts).12
Despite these inconvenient truths, though, we can press on. We can continue to ignore those labeled criminals in our litigation and media advocacy and focus public attention on more attractive plaintiffs—like innocent doctors and lawyers stopped and searched on freeways, innocent black and brown schoolchildren attending abysmal schools, or innocent middle- and upper-middle-class black children who will be denied access to Harvard, Michigan, and Yale if affirmative action disappears. We can continue on this well-worn path. But if we do so, we should labor under no illusions that we will end mass incarceration or shake the foundations of the current racial order. We may improve some school districts, prolong affirmative action for another decade or two, or force some police departments to condemn racial profiling, but we will not put a dent in the prevailing caste system. We must face the realities of the new caste system and embrace those who are most oppressed by it if we hope to end the new Jim Crow.
That said, no effort is made here to describe, in any detail, what should or should not be done in the months and years ahead to challenge the new caste system. Such an undertaking is beyond the scope of this book. The aim of this chapter is simply to reflect on whether traditional approaches to racial justice advocacy are adequate to the task at hand. What follows is not a plan, but several questions and claims offered for serious consideration by those committed to racial justice and interested in dismantling mass incarceration. They are offered as conversation starters—food for thought, debate, and—I hope—collective action. Each is a challenge to conventional wisdom or traditional strategies. Far more should be said about each point made, but, as indicated, this is meant to be the beginning of a conversation, not an end.
Tinkering Is for Mechanics, Not Racial-Justice Advocates
The first and arguably most important point is that criminal justice reform efforts—standing alone—are futile. Gains can be made, yes, but the new caste system will not be overthrown by isolated victories in legislatures or courtrooms. If you doubt this is the case, consider the sheer scale of mass incarceration. If we hope to return to the rate of incarceration of the 1970s—a time when many civil rights activists believed rates of imprisonment were egregiously high—we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today.13 Prisons would have to be closed across America, an event that would likely inspire panic in rural communities that have become dependent on prisons for jobs and economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of people—many of them unionized—would lose their jobs. As Marc Mauer has observed, “The more than 700,000 prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers, and other personnel represent a potentially powerful political opposition to any scaling-down of the system. One need only recall the fierce opposition to the closing of military bases in recent years to see how these forces will function over time.”14
Arguably, Mauer underestimates the scope of the challenge by focusing narrowly on the prison system, rather than counting all of the people employed in the criminal justice bureaucracy. According to a report released by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Statistics in 2006, the U.S. spent a record $185 billion for police protection, detention, judicial, and legal activities in 2003. Adjusting for inflation, these figures reflect a tripling of justice expenditures since 1982. The justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2003—58 percent of them at the local level and 31 percent at the state level. If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.
There is also the private-sector investment to consider. Prisons are big business and have become deeply entrenched in America’s economic and political system. Rich and powerful people, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons.15 They are deeply interested in expanding the market—increasing the supply of prisoners—not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit. The 2005 annual report for the Corrections Corporation of America explained the vested interests of private prisons matter-of-factly in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission:
Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. This possible growth depends on a number of factors we cannot control, including crime rates and sentencing patterns in various jurisdictions and acceptance of privatization. The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.16
American Correctional Association President Gwendolyn Chunn put the matter more bluntly that same year when lamenting that the unprecedented prison expansion boom of the 1990s seemed to be leveling off. “We’ll have a hard time holding on to what we have now,” she lamented.17 As it turns out, her fears were unfounded. Although prison growth appeared to be slowing in 2005, the market for prisoners has continued to expand. The nation’s prison population broke new records in 2008, with no end in sight. The nonprofit PEW Charitable Trusts reports that inmate populations in at least ten states are expected to increase by 25 percent or more between 2006 and 2011. In short, the market for private prisons is as good as it has ever been. Damon Hininger, the president and chief operations officer of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private-prison operator in the United States, is thoroughly optimistic. His company boosted net income by 14 percent in 2008, and he fully expects the growth to continue. “There is going to be a larger opportunity for us in the future,” he said.18
Even beyond private prison companies, a whole range of prison profiteers must be reckoned with if mass incarceration is to be undone, including phone companies that gouge families of prisoners by charging them exorbitant rates to communicate with their loved ones; gun manufacturers that sell Taser guns, rifles, and pistols to prison guards and police; private health care providers contracted by the state to provide (typically abysmal) health care to prisoners; the U.S. military, which relies on prison labor to provide military gear to soldiers in Iraq; corporations that use prison labor to avoid paying decent wages; and the politicians, lawyers, and bankers who structure deals to build new prisons often in predominately white rural communities—deals that often promise far more to local communities than they deliver.19 All of these corporate and political interests have a stake in the expansion—not the elimination—of the system of mass incarceration.
Consider also the lengthy to-do list for reformers. If we become serious about dismantling the system of mass incarceration, we must end the War on Drugs. There is no way around it. The drug war is largely responsible for the prison boom and the creation of the new undercaste, and there is no path to liberation for communities of color that includes this ongoing war. So long as people of color in ghetto communities are being rounded up by the thousands for drug offenses, carted off to prisons, and then released into a permanent undercaste, mass incarceration as a system of control will continue to function well.
Ending the drug war is no simple task, however. It cannot be accomplished through a landmark court decision, an executive order, or single stroke of the presidential pen. Since 1982, the war has raged like a forest fire set with a few matches and a gallon of gasoline. What began as an audacious federal program, has spread to every state in the nation and nearly every city. It has infected law enforcement activities on roads, sidewalks, highways, train stations, airports, and the nation’s border. The war has effectively shredded portions of the U.S. Constitution—eliminating Fourth Amendment protections once deemed inviolate—and it has militarized policing practices in inner cities across America. Racially targeted drug-law enforcement practices taken together with laws that specifically discriminate against drug offenders in employment, housing, and public benefits have relegated the majority of black men in urban areas across the United States to a permanent second-class status.
If we hope to end this system of control, we cannot be satisfied with a handful of reforms. All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt. And that’s just for starters.
Equally important, there must be a change within the culture of law enforcement. Black and brown people in ghetto communities must no longer be viewed as the designated enemy, and ghetto communities must no longer be treated like occupied zones. Law enforcement must adopt a compassionate, humane approach to the problems of the urban poor—an approach that goes beyond the rhetoric of “community policing” to a method of engagement that promotes trust, healing, and genuine partnership. Data collection for police and prosecutors should be mandated nationwide to ensure that selective enforcement is no longer taking place. Racial impact statements that assess the racial and ethnic impact of criminal justice legislation must be adopted.20 Public defender offices should be funded at the same level as prosecutor’s offices to eliminate the unfair advantage afforded the incarceration machine. The list goes on: Mandatory drug sentencing laws must be rescinded. Marijuana ought to be legalized (and perhaps other drugs as well). Meaningful re-entry programs must be adopted—programs that provide a pathway not just to dead-end, minimum-wage jobs, but also training and education so those labeled criminals can realistically reach for high-paying jobs and viable, rewarding career paths. Prison workers should be retrained for jobs and careers that do not involve caging human beings. Drug treatment on demand must be provided for all Americans, a far better investment of taxpayer money than prison cells for drug offenders. Barriers to re-entry, specifically the myriad laws that operate to discriminate against drug offenders for the rest of their lives in every aspect of their social, economic, and political life, must be eliminated.
The list could go on, of course, but the point has been made. The central question for racial justice advocates is this: are we serious about ending this system of control, or not? If we are, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. The notion that all of these reforms can be accomplished piecemeal—one at a time, through disconnected advocacy strategies—seems deeply misguided. All of the needed reforms have less to do with failed policies than a deeply flawed public consensus, one that is indifferent, at best, to the experience of poor people of color. As Martin Luther King Jr. explained back in 1965, when describing why it was far more important to engage in mass mobilizations than file lawsuits, “We’re trying to win the right to vote and we have to focus the attention of the world on that. We can’t do that making legal cases. We have to make the case in the court of public opinion.”21 King certainly appreciated the contributions of civil rights lawyers (he relied on them to get him out of jail), but he opposed the tendency of civil rights lawyers to identify a handful of individuals who could make great plaintiffs in a court of law, then file isolated cases. He believed what was necessary was to mobilize thousands to make their case in the court of public opinion. In his view, it was a flawed public consensus—not merely flawed policy—that was at the root of racial oppression.
Today, no less than fifty years ago, a flawed public consensus lies at the core of the prevailing caste system. When people think about crime, especially drug crime, they do not think about suburban housewives violating laws regulating prescription drugs or white frat boys using ecstasy. Drug crime in this country is understood to be black and brown, and it is because drug crime is racially defined in the public consciousness that the electorate has not cared much what happens to drug criminals—at least not the way they would have cared if the criminals were understood to be white. It is this failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world.
Those who believe that advocacy challenging mass incarceration can be successful without overturning the public consensus that gave rise to it are engaging in fanciful thinking, a form of denial. Isolated victories can be won—even a string of victories—but in the absence of a fundamental shift in public consciousness, the system as a whole will remain intact. To the extent that major changes are achieved without a complete shift, the system will rebound. The caste system will reemerge in a new form, just as convict leasing replaced slavery, or it will be reborn, just as mass incarceration replaced Jim Crow.
Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant make a similar point in their book Racial Formation in the United States. They attribute the cyclical nature of racial progress to the “unstable equilibrium” that characterizes the United States’ racial order.22 Under “normal” conditions, they argue, state institutions are able to normalize the organization and enforcement of the prevailing racial order, and the system functions relatively automatically. Challenges to the racial order during these periods are easily marginalized or suppressed, and the prevailing system of racial meanings, identity, and ideology seems “natural.” These conditions clearly prevailed during slavery and Jim Crow. When the equilibrium is disrupted, however, as in Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, the state initially resists, then attempts to absorb the challenge through a series of reforms “that are, if not entirely symbolic, at least not critical to the operation of the racial order.” In the absence of a truly egalitarian racial consensus, these predictable cycles inevitably give rise to new, extraordinarily comprehensive systems of racialized social control.
One example of the way in which a well established racial order easily absorbs legal challenges is the infamous aftermath of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. After the Supreme Court declared separate schools inherently unequal in 1954, segregation persisted unabated. One commentator notes: “The statistics from the Southern states are truly amazing. For ten years, 1954-1964, virtually nothing happened.”23 Not a single black child attended an integrated public grade school in South Carolina, Alabama, or Mississippi as of the 1962-1963 school year. Across the South as a whole, a mere 1 percent of black school children were attending school with whites in 1964—a full decade after Brown was decided.24 Brown did not end Jim Crow; a mass movement had to emerge first—one that aimed to create a new public consensus opposed to the evils of Jim Crow. This does not mean Brown v. Board was meaningless, as some commentators have claimed.25 Brown gave critical legitimacy to the demands of civil rights activists who risked their lives to end Jim Crow, and it helped to inspire the movement (as well as a fierce backlash).26 But standing alone, Brown accomplished for African Americans little more than Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. A civil war had to be waged to end slavery; a mass movement was necessary to bring a formal end to Jim Crow. Those who imagine that far less is required to dismantle mass incarceration and build a new, egalitarian racial consensus reflecting a compassionate rather than punitive impulse toward poor people of color fail to appreciate the distance between Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and the ongoing racial nightmare for those locked up and locked out of American society.
The foregoing should not be read as a call for movement building to the exclusion of reform work. To the contrary, reform work is the work of movement building, provided that it is done consciously as movement-building work. If all the reforms mentioned above were actually adopted, a radical transformation in our society would have taken place. The relevant question is not whether to engage in reform work, but how. There is no shortage of worthy reform efforts and goals. Differences of opinion are inevitable about which reforms are most important and in what order of priority they should be pursued. These debates are worthwhile, but it is critical to keep in mind that the question of how we do reform work is even more important than the specific reforms we seek. If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium. Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it. We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.
Let’s Talk About Race—Resisting the Temptation of Colorblind Advocacy
So how should we go about building this movement to end mass incarceration? What should be the core philosophy, the guiding principles? Another book could be written on this subject, but a few key principles stand out that can be briefly explored here. These principles are rooted in an understanding that any movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control. This is not to say crime is unimportant; it is very important. We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is. This system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminals, rather than to eliminate crime or reduce the number of criminals.
It is not uncommon, however, to hear people claim that the mere fact that we have the lowest crime rates, at the same time that we have the highest incarceration rates, is all the proof needed that this system works well to control crime. But if you believe this system effectively controls crime, consider this: standard estimates of the amount of crime reduction that can be attributable to mass incarceration range from 3 to 25 percent.27 Some scholars believe we have long since passed a tipping point where the declining marginal return on imprisonment has dipped below zero. Imprisonment, they say, now creates far more crime than it prevents, by ripping apart fragile social networks, destroying families, and creating a permanent class of unemployables. 28 Although it is common to think of poverty and joblessness as leading to crime and imprisonment, this research suggests that the War on Drugs is a major cause of poverty, chronic unemployment, broken families, and crime today. But even assuming 25 percent is the right figure, it still means that the overwhelming majority of incarceration—75 percent—has had absolutely no impact on crime, despite costing nearly $200 billion annually. As a crime reduction strategy, mass incarceration is an abysmal failure. It is largely ineffective and extraordinarily expensive.
Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense, though, only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success. 29 In less than two decades, the prison population quadrupled, and large majorities of poor people of color in urban areas throughout the United States were placed under the control of the criminal justice system or saddled with criminal records for life. Almost overnight, huge segments of ghetto communities were permanently relegated to a second-class status, disenfranchised, and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies. One could argue this result is a tragic, unforeseeable mistake, and that the goal was always crime control, not the creation of a racial undercaste. But judging by the political rhetoric and the legal rules employed in the War on Drugs, this result is no freak accident.
In order to make this point, we need to talk about race openly and honestly. We must stop debating crime policy as though it were purely about crime. People must come to understand the racial history and origins of mass incarceration—the many ways our conscious and unconscious biases have distorted our judgments over the years about what is fair, appropriate, and constructive when responding to drug use and drug crime. We must come to see, too, how our economic insecurities and racial resentments have been exploited for political gain, and how this manipulation has caused suffering for people of all colors. Finally, we must admit, out loud, that it was because of race that we didn’t care much what happened to “those people” and imagined the worst possible things about them. The fact that our lack of care and concern may have been, at times, unintentional or unconscious does not mitigate our crime—if we refuse, when given the chance, to make amends.
Admittedly, though, the temptation to ignore race in our advocacy may be overwhelming. Race makes people uncomfortable. One study found that some whites are so loath to talk about race and so fearful of violating racial etiquette that they indicate a preference for avoiding all contact with black people.30 The striking reluctance of whites, in particular, to talk about or even acknowledge race has led many scholars and advocates to conclude that we would be better off not talking about race at all. This view is buttressed by the fact that white liberals, nearly as much as conservatives, seem to have lost patience with debates about racial equity. Barack Obama noted this phenomenon in his book, The Audacity of Hope: “Rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America; even the most fair-minded of whites, those who would genuinely like to see racial inequality ended and poverty relieved, tend to push back against racial victimization—or race-specific claims based on the history of race discrimination in this country.”
Adding to the temptation to avoid race is the fact that opportunities for challenging mass incarceration on purely race-neutral grounds have never been greater. With budgets busting, more than two dozen states have reduced or eliminated harsh mandatory minimum sentences, restored early-release programs, and offered treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders.31 The financial crisis engulfing states large and small has led to a conversion among some legislators who once were “get tough” true believers. Declining crime rates, coupled with a decline in public concern about crime, have also helped to create a rare opening for a productive public conversation about the War on Drugs. A promising indicator of the public’s receptivity to a change in course is California’s Proposition 36, which mandated drug treatment rather than jail for first-time offenders, and was approved by more than 60 percent of the electorate in 2000.32 Some states have decriminalized marijuana, including Massachusetts, where 65 percent of state voters approved the measure.33 Taken together, these factors suggest that, if a major mobilization got underway, impressive changes in our nation’s drug laws and policies would be not only possible, but likely, without ever saying a word about race.
This is tempting bait, to put it mildly, but racial justice advocates should not take it. The prevailing caste system cannot be successfully dismantled with a purely race-neutral approach. To begin with, it is extremely unlikely that a strategy based purely on costs, crime rates, and the wisdom of drug treatment will get us back even to the troubling incarceration rates of the 1970s. As indicated earlier, any effort to downsize dramatically our nation’s prisons would inspire fierce resistance by those faced with losing jobs, investments, and other benefits provided by the current system. The emotion and high anxiety would likely express itself in the form of a racially charged debate about values, morals, and personal responsibility rather than a debate about the prison economy. Few would openly argue that we should lock up millions of poor people just so that other people can have jobs or get a good return on their private investments. Instead, familiar arguments would likely resurface about the need to be “tough” on criminals, not coddle them or give “free passes.” The public debate would inevitably turn to race, even if no one was explicitly talking about it. As history has shown, the prevalence of powerful (unchallenged) racial stereotypes, together with widespread apprehension regarding major structural changes, would create a political environment in which implicit racial appeals could be employed, once again, with great success. Failure to anticipate and preempt such appeals would set the stage for the same divide-and-conquer tactics that have reliably preserved racial hierarchy in the United States for centuries.
Even if fairly dramatic changes were achieved while ignoring race, the results would be highly contingent and temporary. If and when the economy improves, the justification for a “softer” approach would no longer exist. States would likely gravitate back to their old ways if a new, more compassionate public consensus about race had not been forged. Similarly, if and when crime rates rise—which seems likely if the nation’s economy continues to sour—nothing would deter politicians from making black and brown criminals, once again, their favorite whipping boys. Since the days of slavery, black men have been depicted and understood as criminals, and their criminal “nature” has been among the justifications for every caste system to date. The criminalization and demonization of black men is one habit America seems unlikely to break without addressing head-on the racial dynamics that have given rise to successive caste systems. Although colorblind approaches to addressing the problems of poor people of color often seem pragmatic in the short run, in the long run they are counterproductive. Colorblindness, though widely touted as the solution, is actually the problem.
Saying that colorblindness is the problem may alarm some in the civil rights community, especially the pollsters and political consultants who have become increasingly influential in civil rights advocacy. For decades, civil rights leaders have been saying things like “we all want a colorblind society, we just disagree how to get there” in defense of race-conscious programs like affirmative action or racial data collection.34 Affirmative action has been framed as a legitimate exception to the colorblindness principle—a principle now endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the American electorate. Civil rights leaders are quick to assure the public that when we reach a colorblind nirvana, race consciousness will no longer be necessary or appropriate.
Far from being a worthy goal, however, colorblindness has proved catastrophic for African Americans. It is not an overstatement to say the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States would not have been possible in the post-civil rights era if the nation had not fallen under the spell of a callous colorblindness. The seemingly innocent phrase, “I don’t care if he’s black ...” perfectly captures the perversion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that we may, one day, be able to see beyond race to connect spiritually across racial lines. Saying that one does not care about race is offered as an exculpatory virtue, when in fact it can be a form of cruelty. It is precisely because we, as a nation, have not cared much about African Americans that we have allowed our criminal justice system to create a new racial undercaste.
The deeply flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, is evidenced by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and brown men not as black and brown, but simply as men—raceless men—who have failed miserably to play by the rules the rest of us follow quite naturally. The fact that so many black and brown men are rounded up for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites is unseen. Our collective colorblindness prevents us from seeing this basic fact. Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated, jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse—a public conversation that excludes the current pariah caste. Our commitment to colorblindness extends beyond individuals to institutions and social arrangements. We have become blind, not so much to race, but to the existence of racial caste in America.
More than forty-five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. warned of this danger. He insisted that blindness and indifference to racial groups is actually more important than racial hostility to the creation and maintenance of racialized systems of control. Those who supported slavery and Jim Crow, he argued, typically were not bad or evil people; they were just blind. Even the Justices who decided the infamous Dred Scott case, which ruled “that the Negro has no rights which the white man is bound to respect,” were not wicked men, he said. On the contrary, they were decent and dedicated men. But, he hastened to add, “They were victims of a spiritual and intellectual blindness. They knew not what they did. The whole system of slavery was largely perpetuated through spiritually ignorant persons.” He continued:
This tragic blindness is also found in racial segregation, the not-too-distant cousin of slavery. Some of the most vigorous defenders of segregation are sincere in their beliefs and earnest in their motives. Although some men are segregationists merely for reasons of political expediency and political gain, not all of the resistance to integration is the rearguard of professional bigots. Some people feel that their attempt to preserve segregation is best for themselves, their children, and their nation. Many are good church people, anchored in the religious faith of their mothers and fathers.... What a tragedy! Millions of Negroes have been crucified by conscientious blindness.... Jesus was right about those men who crucified him. They knew not what they did. They were inflicted by a terrible blindness.35
Could not the same speech be given about mass incarceration today? Again, African Americans have been “crucified by conscientious blindness.” People of good will have been unwilling to see black and brown men, in their humanness, as entitled to the same care, compassion, and concern that would be extended to one’s friends, neighbors, or loved ones. King recognized that it was this indifference to the plight of other races that supported the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow. In his words, “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” The consequence of this narrow, insular attitude “is that one does not really mind what happens to the people outside his group.”36 Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.
Abandoning the quest for a colorblind society is easier said than done, of course. Racial justice advocates, if they should choose this path, will be required to provide uncomfortable answers to commonly asked questions. For example, advocates are frequently asked, When will we (finally) become a colorblind society? The pursuit of colorblindness makes people impatient. With courage, we should respond: Hopefully never. Or if those words are too difficult to utter, then say: “Not in the foreseeable future.”
More than a little patience will be needed when explaining the complete about-face. Probably around the same number of people think the Earth is flat as think race consciousness should be the rule in perpetuity, rather than the exception. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that people are incapable of embracing a permanent commitment to color consciousness. The shift may, in fact, come as something of a relief, as it moves our collective focus away from a wholly unrealistic goal to one that is within anyone’s reach right now. After all, to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference—a practical impossibility for most of us. The shift also invites a more optimistic view of human capacity. The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.
If colorblindness is such a bad idea, though, why have people across the political spectrum become so attached to it? For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves. For liberals, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to the dream of racial equality. The hope is that one day we will no longer see race because race will lose all of its significance. In this fantasy, eventually race will no longer be a factor in mortality rates, the spread of disease, educational or economic opportunity, or the distribution of wealth. Race will correlate with nothing; it will mean nothing; we won’t even notice it anymore. Those who are less idealistic embrace colorblindness simply because they find it difficult to imagine a society in which we see race and racial differences yet consistently act in a positive, constructive way. It is easier to imagine a world in which we tolerate racial differences by being blind to them.
The uncomfortable truth, however, is that racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity. It is a world in which there is extraordinary racial and ethnic inequality, and our nation has porous boundaries. For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.
This reality is not cause for despair. The idea that we may never reach a state of perfect racial equality—a perfect racial equilibrium—is not cause for alarm. What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others. We will look the other way and deny our public agencies the resources, data, and tools they need to solve problems. We will refuse to celebrate what is beautiful about our distinct cultures and histories, even as we blend and evolve. That is cause for despair.
Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream—a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.
The Racial Bribe—Let’s Give It Back
The foregoing could be read as a ringing endorsement of affirmative action and other diversity initiatives. To a certain extent, it is. It is difficult to imagine a time, in the foreseeable future, when the free market and partisan politics could be trusted to produce equitable inclusion in all facets of American political, economic, and social life, without anyone giving any thought—caring at all—about race. It may always be necessary for us, as a society, to pay careful attention to the impact of our laws, policies, and practices on racial and ethnic groups and consciously strive to ensure that biases, stereotypes, and structural arrangements do not cause unnecessary harm or suffering to any individual or any group for reasons related to race.
There is, however, a major caveat. Racial justice advocates should consider, with a degree of candor that has not yet been evident, whether affirmative action—as it has been framed and defended during the past thirty years—has functioned more like a racial bribe than a tool of racial justice. One might wonder, what does affirmative action have to do with mass incarceration? Well, perhaps the two are linked more than we realize. We should ask ourselves whether efforts to achieve “cosmetic” racial diversity—that is, reform efforts that make institutions look good on the surface without the needed structural changes—have actually helped to facilitate the emergence of mass incarceration and interfered with the development of a more compassionate race consciousness. In earlier chapters, we have seen that throughout our nation’s history, poor and working-class whites have been bought off by racial bribes. The question posed here is whether affirmative action has functioned similarly, offering relatively meager material advantages but significant psychological benefits to people of color, in exchange for the abandonment of a more radical movement that promised to alter the nation’s economic and social structure.
To be clear: This is not an argument that affirmative action policies conflict with King’s dream that we might one day be “judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.” King himself would have almost certainly endorsed affirmative action as a remedy, at least under some circumstances. In fact, King specifically stated on numerous occasions that he believed special—even preferential—treatment for African Americans may be warranted in light of their unique circumstances.37 And this is not an argument that affirmative action has made no difference in the lives of poor or working-class African Americans—as some have claimed. Fire departments, police departments, and other public agencies have been transformed, at least in part, due to affirmative action.38 Finally, this is not an argument that affirmative action should be reconsidered simply on the grounds that it is “unfair” to white men as a group. The empirical evidence strongly supports the conclusion that declining wages, downsizing, deindustrialization, globalization, and cutbacks in government services represent much greater threats to the position of white men than so-called reverse discrimination.39
The argument made here is a less familiar one. It is not widely debated in the mainstream media or, for that matter, in civil rights organizations. The claim is that racial justice advocates should reconsider the traditional approach to affirmative action because (a) it has helped to render a new caste system largely invisible; (b) it has helped to perpetuate the myth that anyone can make it if they try; (c) it has encouraged the embrace of a “trickle down theory of racial justice”; (d) it has greatly facilitated the divide-and-conquer tactics that gave rise to mass incarceration; and (e) it has inspired such polarization and media attention that the general public now (wrongly) assumes that affirmative action is the main battlefront in U.S. race relations.
It may not be easy for the civil rights community to have a candid conversation about any of this. Civil rights organizations are populated with beneficiaries of affirmative action (like myself) and their friends and allies. Ending affirmative action arouses fears of annihilation. The reality that so many of us would disappear overnight from colleges and universities nationwide if affirmative action were banned, and that our children and grandchildren might not follow in our footsteps, creates a kind of panic that is difficult to describe. It may be analogous, in some respects, to the panic once experienced by poor and working-class whites faced with desegregation—the fear of a sudden demotion in the nation’s racial hierarchy. Mari Matsuda and Charles Lawrence’s book We Won’t Go Back captures the determination of affirmative-action beneficiaries not to allow the clock to be turned back on racial justice, back to days of racial caste in America. The problem, of course, is that we are already there.
Affirmative action, particularly when it is justified on the grounds of diversity rather than equity (or remedy), masks the severity of racial inequality in America, leading to greatly exaggerated claims of racial progress and overly optimistic assessments of the future for African Americans. Seeing black people graduate from Harvard and Yale and become CEOs or corporate lawyers—not to mention president of the United States—causes us all to marvel at what a long way we have come. As recent data shows, however, much of black progress is a myth. Although some African Americans are doing very well—enrolling in universities and graduate schools at record rates thanks to affirmative action—as a group, African Americans are doing no better than they were when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and riots swept inner cities across America. Nearly one-fourth of African Americans live below the poverty line today, approximately the same as in 1968. The child poverty rate is actually higher today than it was then.40 Unemployment rates in black communities rival those in Third World countries. And that is with affirmative action!
When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our so-called colorblind society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure—the structure of racial caste. When those behind bars are taken into account, America’s institutions continue to create nearly as much racial inequality as existed during Jim Crow.41 Our elite universities, which now look a lot like America, would whiten overnight if affirmative action suddenly disappeared. One recent study indicates that the elimination of race-based admissions policies would lead to a 63 percent decline in black matriculants at all law schools and a 90 percent decline at elite law schools.42 Sociologist Stephen Steinberg describes the bleak reality this way: “Insofar as this black middle class is an artifact of affirmative action policy, it cannot be said to be the result of autonomous workings of market forces. In other words, the black middle class does not reflect a lowering of racist barriers in occupations so much as the opposite: racism is so entrenched that without government intervention there would be little ‘progress’ to boast about.”43
In view of all this, we must ask, to what extent has affirmative action helped us remain blind to, and in denial about, the existence of a racial undercaste? And to what extent have the battles over affirmative action distracted us and diverted crucial resources and energy away from dismantling the structures of racial inequality?
The predictable response is that civil rights advocates are as committed to challenging mass incarceration and other forms of structural racism as they are to preserving affirmative action. But where is the evidence of this? Civil rights activists have created a national movement to save affirmative action, complete with the marches, organizing, and media campaigns, as well as incessant strategy meetings, conferences, and litigation. Where is the movement to end mass incarceration? For that matter, where is the movement for educational equity? Part of the answer is that it is far easier to create a movement when there is a sense of being under attack. It is also easier when a single policy is at issue, rather than something as enormous (and seemingly intractable) as educational inequity or mass incarceration. Those are decent explanations, but they are no excuse. Try telling a sixteen-year-old black youth in Louisiana who is facing a decade in adult prison and a lifetime of social, political, and economic exclusion that your civil rights organization is not doing much to end the War on Drugs—but would he like to hear about all the great things that are being done to save affirmative action? There is a fundamental disconnect today between the world of civil rights advocacy and the reality facing those trapped in the new racial undercaste.
There is another, more sinister consequence of affirmative action: the carefully engineered appearance of great racial progress strengthens the “colorblind” public consensus that personal and cultural traits, not structural arrangements, are largely responsible for the fact that the majority of young black men in urban areas across the United States are currently under the control of the criminal justice system or branded as felons for life. In other words, affirmative action helps to make the emergence of a new racial caste system seem implausible. It creates an environment in which it is reasonable to ask, how can something akin to a racial caste system exist when people like Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Barack Obama are capable of rising from next to nothing to the pinnacles of wealth and power? How could a caste system exist, in view of the black middle class?
There are answers to these questions, but they are difficult to swallow when millions of Americans have displayed a willingness to elect a black man president of the United States. The truth, however, is this: far from undermining the current system of control, the new caste system depends, in no small part, on black exceptionalism. The colorblind public consensus that supports the new caste system insists that race no longer matters. Now that America has officially embraced Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream (by reducing it to the platitude “that we should be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin”), the mass incarceration of people of color can be justified only to the extent that the plight of those locked up and locked out is understood to be their choice, not their birthright.
In short, mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars. A belief that all blacks belong in jail would be incompatible with the social consensus that we have “moved beyond” race and that race is no longer relevant. But a widespread belief that a majority of black and brown men unfortunately belong in jail is compatible with the new American creed, provided that their imprisonment can be interpreted as their own fault. If the prison label imposed on them can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition.
This is where black exceptionalism comes in. Highly visible examples of black success are critical to the maintenance of a racial caste system in the era of colorblindness. Black success stories lend credence to the notion that anyone, no matter how poor or how black you may be, can make it to the top, if only you try hard enough. These stories “prove” that race is no longer relevant. Whereas black success stories undermined the logic of Jim Crow, they actually reinforce the system of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration depends for its legitimacy on the widespread belief that all those who appear trapped at the bottom actually chose their fate.
Viewed from this perspective, affirmative action no longer appears entirely progressive. So long as some readily identifiable African Americans are doing well, the system is largely immunized from racial critique. People like Barack Obama who are truly exceptional by any standards, along with others who have been granted exceptional opportunities, legitimate a system that remains fraught with racial bias—especially when they fail to challenge, or even acknowledge, the prevailing racial order. In the current era, white Americans are often eager to embrace token or exceptional African Americans, particularly when they go out of their way not to talk about race or racial inequality.
Affirmative action may be counterproductive in yet another sense: it lends credence to a trickle-down theory of racial justice. The notion that giving a relatively small number of people of color access to key positions or institutions will inevitably redound to the benefit of the larger group is belied by the evidence. It also seems to disregard Martin Luther King Jr.’s stern warnings that racial justice requires the complete transformation of social institutions and a dramatic restructuring of our economy, not superficial changes that can purchased on the cheap. King argued in 1968, “The changes [that have occurred to date] are basically in the social and political areas; the problems we now face—providing jobs, better housing and better education for the poor throughout the country—will require money for their solution, a fact that makes those solutions all the more difficult.”44 He emphasized that “most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain prices,” for the desegregation of public facilities and the election and appointment of a few black officials cost close to nothing. “White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”45
Against this backdrop, diversity-driven affirmative action programs seem to be the epitome of racial justice purchased on the cheap. They create the appearance of racial equity without the reality and do so at no great cost, without fundamentally altering any of the structures that create racial inequality in the first place. Perhaps the best illustration of this fact is that, thanks in part to affirmative action, police departments and law enforcement agencies nationwide have come to look more like America than ever, at precisely the moment that they have waged a war on the ghetto poor and played a leading role in the systematic mass incarceration of people of color. The color of police chiefs across the country has changed, but the role of the police in our society has not.
Gerald Torres and Lani Guinier offer a similar critique of affirmative action in The Miner’s Canary. They point out that “conventional strategies for social change proceed as though a change in who administers power fundamentally affects the structure of power itself.”46 This narrow approach to social change is reflected in the justifications offered for affirmative action, most notably the claim that “previous outsiders, once given a chance, will exercise power differently.”47 The reality, however, is that the existing hierarchy disciplines newcomers, requiring them to exercise power in the same old ways and play by the same old rules in order to survive. The newcomers, Torres and Guinier explain, are easily co-opted, as they have much to lose but little to gain by challenging the rules of the game.
Their point is particularly relevant to the predicament of minority police officers charged with waging the drug war. Profound racial injustice occurs when minority police officers follow the rules. It is a scandal when the public learns they have broken the rules, but no rules need be broken for the systematic mass incarceration of people of color to proceed unabated. This uncomfortable fact creates strong incentives for minority officers to deny, to rationalize, or to be willingly blind to the role of law enforcement in creating a racial undercaste. Reports that minority officers may engage in nearly as much racial profiling as white officers have been met with some amazement, but the real surprise is that some minority police officers have been willing to speak out against the practice, given the ferocity of the drug war. A war has been declared against poor communities of color, and the police are expected to wage it. Do we expect minority officers, whose livelihood depends on the very departments charged with waging the war, to play the role of peacenik? That expectation seems unreasonable, yet the dilemma for racial justice advocates is a real one. The quiet complicity of minority officers in the War on Drugs serves to legitimate the system and insulate it from critique. In a nation still stuck in an old Jim Crow mind-set—which equates racism with white bigotry and views racial diversity as proof the problem has been solved—a racially diverse police department invites questions like: “How can you say the Oakland Police Department’s drug raids are racist? There’s a black police chief, and most of the officers involved in the drug raids are black.” If the caste dimensions of mass incarceration were better understood and the limitations of cosmetic diversity were better appreciated, the existence of black police chiefs and black officers would be no more encouraging today than the presence of black slave drivers and black plantation owners hundreds of years ago.
When meaningful change fails to materialize following the achievement of superficial diversity, those who remain locked out can become extremely discouraged and demoralized, resulting in cynicism and resignation. Perhaps more concerning, though, is the fact that inclusion of people of color in power structures, particularly at the top, can paralyze reform efforts. People of color are often reluctant to challenge institutions led by people who look like them, as they feel a personal stake in the individual’s success. After centuries of being denied access to leadership positions in key social institutions, people of color quite understandably are hesitant to create circumstances that could trigger the downfall of “one of their own.” An incident of police brutality that would be understood as undeniably racist if the officers involved were white may be given a more charitable spin if the officers are black. Similarly, black community residents who might have been inspired to challenge aggressive stop-and-frisk policies of a largely white police department may worry about “hurting” a black police chief. People of color, because of the history of racial subjugation and exclusion, often experience success and failure vicariously through the few who achieve positions of power, fame, and fortune. As a result, cosmetic diversity, which focuses on providing opportunities to individual members of under-represented groups, both diminishes the possibility that unfair rules will be challenged and legitimates the entire system.
Obama—the Promise and the Peril
This dynamic poses particular risks for racial justice advocacy during an Obama presidency. On the one hand, the election of Barack Obama to the presidency creates an extraordinary opportunity for those seeking to end the system of mass incarceration in America. Obama’s stated positions on criminal justice reform suggest that he is opposed to the War on Drugs and the systematic targeting of African Americans for mass incarceration.48 Shouldn’t we trust him, now that he is holding the reins of power, to do the right thing?
Trust is tempting, especially because Obama himself violated our nation’s drug laws and almost certainly knows that his life would not have unfolded as it did if he had been arrested on drug charges and treated like a common criminal. As he wrote in his memoir about his wayward youth, “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.” Unlike Bill Clinton, who famously admitted he experimented with marijuana on occasion “but didn’t inhale,” Obama has never minimized his illegal drug use. As he said in a 2006 speech to the American Society of Magazine Editors, “Look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”49 Those “bad decisions,” Obama has acknowledged, could have led him to a personal dead end. “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d have been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.” No doubt if Obama had been arrested and treated like a common criminal, he could have served years in prison and been labeled a drug felon for life. What are the chances he would have gone to Harvard Law School, much less become president of the United States, if that had happened? It seems reasonable to assume that Obama, who knows a little something about poverty and the temptations of drugs, would have a “there but for the grace of God go I” attitude about the millions of African and Latino men imprisoned for drug offenses comparable to his own or saddled for life with felony records.
But before we kick back, relax, and wait for racial justice to trickle down, consider this: Obama chose Joe Biden, one of the Senate’s most strident drug warriors, as his vice president. The man he picked to serve as his chief of staff in the White House, Rahm Emanuel, was a major proponent of the expansion of the drug war and the slashing of welfare rolls during President Clinton’s administration. And the man he tapped to lead the U.S. Department of Justice—the agency that launched and continues to oversee the federal war on drugs—is an African American former U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia who sought to ratchet up the drug war in Washington, D.C., and fought the majority black D.C. City Council in an effort to impose harsh mandatory minimums for marijuana possession. Moreover, on the campaign trail, Obama took a dramatic step back from an earlier position opposing the death penalty, announcing that he now supports the death penalty for child rapists—even if the victim is not killed—even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty for nonhomicides unconstitutional and international law strongly disfavors the practice. The only countries that share Obama’s view are countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and China, which allow the death penalty for things like adultery and tax evasion. So why did Obama, on the campaign trail, go out of his way to announce disagreement with a Supreme Court decision ruling the death penalty for child rapists unconstitutional? Clearly he was attempting to immunize himself from any attempt to portray him as “soft” on crime—a tactic reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s decision to fly back to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally retarded black man.
Seasoned activists may respond that all of this is “just politics,” but, as we have seen in earlier chapters, they are the same politics that gave rise to the New Jim Crow. Now that crime seems to be rising again in some ghetto communities, Obama is pledging to revive President Clinton’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program and increase funding for the Byrne grant program—two of the worst federal drug programs of the Clinton era.50 These programs, despite their benign names, are responsible for the militarization of policing, SWAT teams, Pipeline drug task forces, and the laundry list of drug-war horrors described in chapter 2.
Clinton once boasted that the COPS program, which put tens of thousands of officers on the streets, was responsible for the dramatic fifteen-year drop in violent crime that began in the 1990s. Recent studies, however, have shown that is not the case. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office concluded the program may have contributed to a 1 percent reduction in crime—at a cost of $8 billion.51 A peer-reviewed study in the journal Criminology found that the COPS program, despite the hype, “had little or no effect on crime.”52 And while Obama’s drug czar, former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, has said the War on Drugs should no longer be called a war, Obama’s budget for law enforcement is actually worse than the Bush administration’s in terms of the ratio of dollars devoted to prevention and drug treatment as opposed to law enforcement.53 Obama, who is celebrated as evidence of America’s triumph over race, is proposing nothing less than revving up the drug war through the same failed policies and programs that have systematically locked young men of color into a permanent racial undercaste.
The unique and concerning situation racial justice advocates now face is that the very people who are most oppressed by the current caste system—African Americans—may be the least likely to want to challenge it, now that a black family is living in the White House. If Obama were white, there would be no hesitation to remind him of his youthful drug use when arguing that he should end the drug war and make good on his promises to end unjust mandatory minimums. But do African Americans want the media to talk about Obama’s drug use? Do African Americans want to pressure Obama on any issue, let alone issues of race? To go one step further, could it be that many African Americans would actually prefer to ignore racial issues during Obama’s presidency, to help ensure him smooth sailing and a triumphant presidency, no matter how bad things are for African Americans in the meantime?
The fact that the last question could plausibly be answered yes raises serious questions for the civil rights community. Have we unwittingly exaggerated the importance of individuals succeeding within pre-existing structures of power, and thereby undermined King’s call for a “complete restructuring” of our society? Have we contributed to the disempowerment and passivity of the black community, not only by letting the lawyers take over, but also by communicating the message that the best path—perhaps the only path—to the promised land is infiltrating elite institutions and seizing power at the top, so racial justice can trickle down?
Torres and Guinier suggest the answer to these questions may be yes. They observe that, “surprisingly, strategists on both the left and right, despite their differences, converge on the individual as the unit of power.”54 Conservatives challenge the legitimacy of group rights or race consciousness and argue that the best empowerment strategy is entrepreneurship and individual initiative. Civil rights advocates argue that individual group members “represent” the race and that hierarchies of power that lack diversity are illegitimate. The theory is, when black individuals achieve power for themselves, black people as a group benefit, as does society as a whole. “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.”55
The absence of a thoroughgoing structural critique of the prevailing racial order explains why so many civil rights advocates responded to Barack Obama’s election with glee, combined with hasty reminders that “we still have a long way to go.” The predictable response from the casual observer is: well, how much further? A black man was just elected president. How much further do black people want to go? If a black person can be elected president, can’t a black person do just about anything now?
All of Us or None
At the same time that many civil rights advocates have been pursuing lawyer-driven, trickle-down strategies for racial justice, a growing number of formerly incarcerated men and women have been organizing in major cities across the United States, providing assistance to those newly released from prison and engaging in grassroots political activism in pursuit of basic civil rights. One such organization, based in Oakland, California, is named All of Us or None. The name explicitly challenges a politics that affords inclusion and acceptance for a few but guarantees exclusion for many. In spirit, it asserts solidarity with the “least of these among us.”
Diversity-driven affirmative action, as described and implemented today, sends a different message. The message is that “some of us” will gain inclusion. As a policy, it is blind to those who are beyond its reach, the colored faces at the bottom of the well. One policy alone can’t save the world, the skeptic might respond. True enough. But what if affirmative action, as it has been framed and debated, does more harm than good, viewed from the perspective of “all of us”?
This brings us to a critical question: who is the us that civil rights advocates are fighting for? Judging from the plethora of groups that have embarked on their own civil rights campaigns since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—women, gays, immigrants, Latinos, Asian Americans—the answer seems to be that us includes everyone except white men.
This result is not illogical. When Malcolm X condemned “the white man” and declared him the enemy, he was not, of course, speaking about any particular white man, but rather the white, patriarchal order that characterized both slavery and Jim Crow. Malcolm X understood that the United States was created by and for privileged white men. It was white men who dominated politics, controlled the nation’s wealth, and wrote the rules by which everyone else was forced to live. No group in the United States can be said to have experienced more privilege, and gone to greater lengths to protect it, than “the white man.”
Yet the white man, it turns out, has suffered too. The fact that his suffering has been far less extreme, and has not been linked to a belief in his inherent inferiority, has not made his suffering less real. Civil rights advocates, however, have treated the white man’s suffering as largely irrelevant to the pursuit of the promised land. As civil rights lawyers unveiled plans to desegregate public schools, it was poor and working-class whites who were expected to bear the burden of this profound social adjustment, even though many of them were as desperate for upward social mobility and quality education as African Americans. According to the 1950 census, among Southerners in their late twenties, the state-by-state percentages of functional illiterates (people with less than five years of schooling) for whites on farms overlapped with those for blacks in the cities. The majority of Southern whites were better off than Southern blacks, but they were not affluent or well educated by any means; they were semiliterate (with less than twelve years of schooling). Only a tiny minority of whites were affluent and well educated. They stood far apart from the rest of the whites and virtually all blacks.56
What lower-class whites did have was what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “the public and psychological wage” paid to white workers, who depended on their status and privileges as whites to compensate for low pay and harsh working conditions.57 As described in chapter 1, time and time again, poor and working-class whites were persuaded to choose their racial status interests over their common economic interests with blacks, resulting in the emergence of new caste systems that only marginally benefited whites but were devastating for African Americans.
In retrospect, it seems clear that nothing could have been more important in the 1970s and 1980s than finding a way to create a durable, interracial, bottom-up coalition for social and economic justice to ensure that another caste system did not emerge from the ashes of Jim Crow. Priority should have been given to figuring out some way for poor and working-class whites to feel as though they had a stake—some tangible interest—in the nascent integrated racial order. As Lani Guinier points out, however, the racial liberalism expressed in the Brown v. Board of Education decision and endorsed by civil rights litigators “did not offer poor whites even an elementary framework for understanding what they might gain as a result of integration.”58 Nothing in the opinion or in the subsequent legal strategy made clear that segregation had afforded elites a crucial means of exercising social control over poor and working-class whites as well as blacks. The Southern white elite, whether planters or industrialists, had successfully endeavored to make all whites think in racial rather than class terms, predictably leading whites to experience desegregation, as Derrick Bell put it, as a net “loss.”59
Given that poor and working-class whites (not white elites) were the ones who had their world rocked by desegregation, it does not take a great leap of empathy to see why affirmative action could be experienced as salt in a wound. Du Bois once observed that the psychological wage of whiteness put “an indelible black face to failure.”60 Yet with the advent of affirmative action, suddenly African Americans were leapfrogging over poor and working-class whites on their way to Harvard and Yale and taking jobs in police departments and fire departments that had once been reserved for whites. Civil rights advocates offered no balm for the wound, publicly resisting calls for class-based affirmative action and dismissing claims of unfairness on the grounds that whites had been enjoying racial preferences for hundreds of years. Resentment, frustration, and anger expressed by poor and working-class whites was chalked up to racism, leading to a subterranean discourse about race and to implicitly racial political appeals, but little honest dialogue.
Perhaps the time has come to give up the racial bribes and begin an honest conversation about race in America. The topic of the conversation should be how us can come to include all of us. Accomplishing this degree of unity may mean giving up fierce defense of policies and strategies that exacerbate racial tensions and produce for racially defined groups primarily psychological or cosmetic racial benefits.
Of course, if meaningful progress is to be made, whites must give up their racial bribes too, and be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege. Some might argue that in this game of chicken, whites should make the first move. Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. After all, why should “we” give up our racial bribes if whites have been unwilling to give up theirs? In light of our nation’s racial history, that seems profoundly unfair. But if your strategy for racial justice involves waiting for whites to be fair, history suggests it will be a long wait. It’s not that white people are more unjust than others. Rather it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others. This tendency is what led Frederick Douglass to declare that “power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”
So what is to be demanded in this moment in our nation’s racial history? If the answer is more power, more top jobs, more slots in fancy schools for “us”—a narrow, racially defined us that excludes many—we will continue the same power struggles and can expect to achieve many of the same results. Yes, we may still manage to persuade mainstream voters in the midst of an economic crisis that we have relied too heavily on incarceration, that prisons are too expensive, and that drug use is a public health problem, not a crime. But if the movement that emerges to end mass incarceration does not meaningfully address the racial divisions and resentments that gave rise to mass incarceration, and if it fails to cultivate an ethic of genuine care, compassion, and concern for every human being—of every class, race, and nationality—within our nation’s borders, including poor whites, who are often pitted against poor people of color, the collapse of mass incarceration will not mean the death of racial caste in America. Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge—one that we cannot foresee, just as the current system of mass incarceration was not predicted by anyone thirty years ago. No task is more urgent for racial justice advocates today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last.
Given what is at stake at this moment in history, bolder, more inspired action is required than we have seen to date. Piecemeal, top-down policy reform on criminal justice issues, combined with a racial justice discourse that revolves largely around the meaning of Barack Obama’s election and “post-racialism,” will not get us out of our nation’s racial quagmire. We must flip the script. Taking our cue from the courageous civil rights advocates who brazenly refused to defend themselves, marching unarmed past white mobs that threatened to kill them, we, too, must be the change we hope to create. If we want to do more than just end mass incarceration—if we want to put an end to the history of racial caste in America—we must lay down our racial bribes, join hands with people of all colors who are not content to wait for change to trickle down, and say to those who would stand in our way: Accept all of us or none.
That is the basic message that Martin Luther King Jr. aimed to deliver through the Poor People’s Movement back in 1968. He argued then that the time had come for racial justice advocates to shift from a civil rights to a human rights paradigm, and that the real work of movement building had only just begun.61 A human rights approach, he believed, would offer far greater hope for those of us determined to create a thriving, multiracial, multiethnic democracy free from racial hierarchy than the civil rights model had provided to date. It would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for—a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education, and security.62 This expansive vision could open the door to meaningful alliances between poor and working-class people of all colors, who could begin to see their interests as aligned, rather than in conflict—no longer in competition for scarce resources in a zero-sum game.
A human rights movement, King believed, held revolutionary potential. Speaking at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in May 1967, he told SCLC staff, who were concerned that the Civil Rights Movement had lost its steam and its direction, “It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights.” Political reform efforts were no longer adequate to the task at hand, he said. “For the last 12 years, we have been in a reform movement.... [But] after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution. We must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement. We are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”63
More than forty years later, civil rights advocacy is stuck in a model of advocacy King was determined to leave behind. Rather than challenging the basic structure of society and doing the hard work of movement building—the work to which King was still committed at the end of his life—we have been tempted too often by the opportunity for people of color to be included within the political and economic structure as-is, even if it means alienating those who are necessary allies. We have allowed ourselves to be willfully blind to the emergence of a new caste system—a system of social excommunication that has denied millions of African Americans basic human dignity. The significance of this cannot be overstated, for the failure to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of all persons has lurked at the root of every racial caste system. This common thread explains why, in the 1780s, the British Society for the Abolition of Slavery adopted as its official seal a woodcut of a kneeling slave above a banner that read, “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” That symbol was followed more than a hundred years later by signs worn around the necks of black sanitation workers during the Poor People’s Campaign answering the slave’s question with the simple statement, I AM A MAN.
The fact that black men could wear the same sign today in protest of the new caste system suggests that the model of civil rights advocacy that has been employed for the past several decades is, as King predicted, inadequate to the task at hand. If we can agree that what is needed now, at this critical juncture, is not more tinkering or tokenism, but as King insisted forty years ago, a “radical restructuring of our society,” then perhaps we can also agree that a radical restructuring of our approach to racial justice advocacy is in order as well.
All of this is easier said than done, of course. Change in civil rights organizations, like change in society as a whole, will not come easy. Fully committing to a vision of racial justice that includes grassroots, bottom-up advocacy on behalf of “all of us” will require a major reconsideration of priorities, staffing, strategies, and messages. Egos, competing agendas, career goals, and inertia may get in the way. It may be that traditional civil rights organizations simply cannot, or will not, change. To this it can only be said, without a hint of disrespect: adapt or die.
If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm. This new generation of activists should not disrespect their elders or disparage their contributions or achievements; to the contrary, they should bow their heads in respect, for their forerunners have expended untold hours and made great sacrifices in an elusive quest for justice. But once respects have been paid, they should march right past them, emboldened, as King once said, by the fierce urgency of now.
Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage. The rage may frighten us; it may remind us of riots, uprisings, and buildings aflame. We may be tempted to control it, or douse it with buckets of doubt, dismay, and disbelief. But we should do no such thing. Instead, when a young man who was born in the ghetto and who knows little of life beyond the walls of his prison cell and the invisible cage that has become his life, turns to us in bewilderment and rage, we should do nothing more than look him in the eye and tell him the truth. We should tell him the same truth the great African American writer James Baldwin told his nephew in a letter published in 1962, in one of the most extraordinary books ever written, The Fire Next Time. With great passion and searing conviction, Baldwin had this to say to his young nephew:
This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.... It is their innocence which constitutes the crime.... This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.... You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp on reality. But these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.... We cannot be free until they are free. God bless you, and Godspeed.64