Sunday, November 11, 2012

Michelle Alexander and Ronald Reagan

During the election, I kept thinking about how long we will still be feeling the effects of George W. Bush's presidency -- long after Obama's second term. The economic crisis that marked the end of Bush's administration is still clearly being felt, as the recovery slowly inches along. Some people blame the current Congress and/or Obama for the slow recovery--and I'm sure part of that blame is warranted--but the collapse of the housing market and everything that went down with it was catastrophic. Economies don't bounce back from a crisis like that over night. Aside from the economy (but related to it), we are still feeling the effects of two long-lasting wars and a decade of abysmal education policy (No Child Left Behind). Many military families have struggled and continue to struggle with lost loved ones. Many veterans, meanwhile, must cope with physical and psychological disabilities acquired from the trauma of combat, and the challenges of re-adjusting to civilian life after long and multiple deployments. Many students have struggled and continue to struggle with college and/or low-wage jobs, as they realize their under-funded schools under-prepared them for the 21st century. Many go into massive amounts of debt, not sure if they have the skills necessary to pass the college classes they need to be competitive in an unfavorable job market.

As I sink into dark thoughts like this, wondering how America will ever recover from the Bush legacy, I am reminded of the ways in which we are still trying to recover from the Reagan legacy. Although Reagan is often nostalgically romanticized as a lovable figure who brought Americans together and ended the Cold War, he is responsible for initiating two horrible policies that have drastically re-shaped American society. The first was the de-regulation of the financial industry. De-regulation enabled Wall Street to operate according to its own rules, consolidate massive amounts of power and wealth, and act in increasingly risky ways that threatened our whole economy (and even the global economy). The other initiative was the War on Drugs, which resulted in an exponential increase in the incarceration rate. The United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation on the planet. The social effects of creating such a prison-state will be with us for generations to come.

To get students thinking about the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to America's mass incarceration problem, I assigned the introduction to Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. Alexander argues that the mass-incarceration system is eerily analogous to the legalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era, noting that roughly 80% of America's 2 million plus inmates are minorities. In particular, she claims, vast numbers of African American men have been formed into a permanently subordinated caste, shut out legally from participating in mainstream society by the criminal justice system and associated social stigma. Below is a clip of her from the Colbert Report. (I find it a little weird, since her book is about such a devastatingly serious topic, yet here it is being discussed on a comedy show.)

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