Friday, April 19, 2013

Incarceration and Education — Problems with "De-Segregated" America

Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crowe, examines the systemic problems surrounding the mass incarceration of Black males in the United States.  With a particular focus on the War On Drugs and the discriminatory tactics of this "war," Alexander troubles the belief that America is presently free of institutionalized racism.  Beyond this, she asserts that we ought not even talk about this massive influx of men into prisons as a phenomenon separate from race.  She states, "[A]ny movement to end mass incarceration must deal with mass incarceration as a racial caste system, not as a system of crime control" (224).  If I was not sold on this point prior to Dayna's presentation this week, I can certainly say I am sold now.  Beyond the ways in which the police might target lower income, predominantly Black communities in their searches, there is clearly a legal, abhorrent class discrimination regarding drug sentencing, as evidenced by the legal penalty for carrying a smaller amount of crack cocaine (or cocaine base) being roughly equivalent to carrying grams more of pure — more expensive — cocaine.  Precedents like this are horrifying, because they are indicative of huge flaws in our legal system.

We've talked a lot about colorblindness in this class, and I think Alexander does a solid job highlighting the flaws with this paradigm.  In saying "our blindness [...] 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," Alexander agitates the notion that the United States has attained equality, for equality in spite of race is not equality at all (228).  On a more personal note, Alexander's mention of segregated schools reached me on a deep level.  Having volunteered or worked in the DCPS system for about two years, I have become increasingly sensitive to how important reading in particular is for future-building.  I'm going to link two short articles from Forbes and the Indiana state government website that talk about reading levels as early as third grade and their effect on how states perceive and project crime statistics.

P.S.  I have small problems with the ways in which both of these articles contextualize the given information, but the basic information is in keeping with what I have read elsewhere.


  1. Maggie - First, I love your quotation by Alexander that highlights the flaws of colorblindness. Second, I found the articles which offer a link between education and prisons extremely interesting. I've often heard people say, "look how much money we spend on prisons compared to education" but I haven't heard this other way that education and prisons are connected. The idea that reading scores among children are fairly accurate predictors of incarceration rates is upsetting. Even more concerning is that fact that this correlation is so accurate that it is used by states (i.e. Indiana) to understand how many prisons to build. Your post does a nice job of highlighting the way in which schools, unemployment, and the legal system are fraught with segregation and inequality.

  2. Comment from Matthew:
    Hi Maggie,

    I thought your post was important take on Alexander’s book and I am glad you focused on education. I have been working for since September with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which is the leading campaign working on ensuring that students read on grade-level by third grade. I have been gathering data for many cities across the nation all year and I am ways disturbed by the difference in reading proficiency between white students and black and Hispanic students. We have talked before in class about how social mobility in America is increasingly becoming a myth, and for children from low-income children reading is the key to improving academic outcomes and life chances. It is impossible to say we are living in a post-racial society with so much data proving otherwise. Early childhood literacy is the key to graduating and becoming a productive member of society, but for many children it is not even their fault. Third grade has been set as the benchmark because by then it is now believed you can tell if a child will graduate or not. Many kids are “chronically absent” (missing more than 20 days of school), and also lose tremendous grown in the summer compared to their more wealthy counterparts. BUT, this is also not the fault of parents necessarily. Rather than placing blame on someone or something it is imperative that we begin to work collectively on solutions to solving the literacy crisis or the prison population will only continue to grow. Recognizing the American system prison for what it is, or how Alexander tells us it is because of institutionalized racism, is a place to start.


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