Sunday, April 21, 2013

New Jim Crow (and the death of Len Bias)

 Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow was one of themost important books we have read in this class because it deals with an issue that blacks are facing today, and more alarmingly an issue that is continuing to worsen while laregely going unnoticed. In a supposed “post-racial society” where people point to black exceptionalism like Oprah and Barack Obama as examples of black’s escaping the expectations of inner city blacks, Alexander’s work is important for the fact that it brings us back to reality.
In regards to the use of the term Caste I think it is appropriate because she is not literally comparing the class system in America to the historical caste system in India, but rather making reference to the myth of social moblility in America. For millions of black youth that face the threat of imprisonment they are trapped into a low socio-economic status that it is in many ways as inescapable as the caste system in India.

Another important figure that we did not discuss in class is Len Bias. Bias was a basketball prodigy who overdosed on cocaine two nights after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. This was an event that would forever change the NBA but also drug use and drug laws across the country.

This link covers much of the aftermath of Bias’s death. While Bias’ mother tries to put a positive spin on everything and claims that many people have come up to her and told her that the night Bias died is the night they stopped using cocaine, however the Anti-Drug Use Act of 1986 would worsen the situation.
The Article specifically references a work called “Drug Policy: A Challenge of Values” by Eric Sterling, in which Sterling highlights the post-tragedies of Bias’ death.
“Within a few years, it appeared that blacks were being disproportionately sentenced for the crack cocaine offense. Congress called upon the U.S. Sentencing Commission to study the impact of mandatory minimum sentences (P.L.101-647, Nov. 29, 1990, Sec. 1703). The Commission found that the disparity in sentencing harshness between white and black offenders had increased (U.S. Sentencing Commission, 1991, p. 82). Congress and the Administration did nothing to address this problem.
By 1995, no white person had been prosecuted in federal court under the 1986 crack mandatory minimums in Los Angeles and other major cities, although hundreds of blacks had been (Weikel, 1995). Another study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (1995) found the 100-to-1 powder cocaine-crack cocaine variation seemed to have an invidious impact on black offenders. For example, 88.3 percent of the mandatory crack sentences were imposed on blacks in FY 1993. The Commission recommended changes in the guidelines (60 Fed. Reg. 25,074, May 10, 1995), but for the first time Congress voted to disapprove the Commission’s proposed amendments to the sentencing guidelines (P.L. 104-38, Oct. 30, 1995).”

Also worth watching is the 30 for 30 entitled Without Bias (Available on NetFlix), which goes into depth about the life and death of Bias, as well as the implications of his death.

Even though it wad determined that Bias died after using 98% pure fish scale, the government and DEA used this an excuse to heighten the War on Drugs by going after crack dealers rather than 5 grams of crack.

In class I offered a personal example of A FRIENDS experiences with the D.C. penal system, but was unable to finish my point. I went through a year of pre-trial and two more years of probation. If this friend was black AND poor, and unable to afford a lawyer he would have gone to prison for 270 days as that was the punishment prosecution sought. I say this to highlight that the penal system does not only go after low-income minorities, but also to show that low-income minorities have the odds stacked against them and will not be able to squeeze their way out of imprisonment. Rather as Alexander points out the penal system is actively looking to warehouse these young low-income minorities. 

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