By Robert R. Thomas
With an engaged group of 25 in the basement of Flint Public Library recently, Hubert Roberts led a conversation about “The New Jim Crow,” both Michelle Alexander’s eponymous book and the reality.
The conversation was part of the Tendaji Talks series, sponsored by Neighborhoods Without Borders, whose focus is systemic racism.
Roberts, a Flint educator, mentor and minister, opened the conversation with the proposition that the American justice system is not broken, as many critics suggest; instead, he said, it works exactly as designed by our founding fathers.
He backed his claim by reading from the Declaration of Independence. When he finished reading, the group confirmed through vocal feedback Roberts’ assertion that the focus of the founding fathers was on property and white men who owned it. The few controlled the many, he said.
“America is a business,” said Roberts, “and the business is white and male.” White landowners took precedence over people without property. Women could not vote. Slaves were property, not people. So much for ‘all are created equal’ and equally protected by government.
“We live in a culture of lying,” said Roberts. “History is critical to understanding American culture.”
He then laid out some American history.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, Roberts explained, slaves may have been freed, but there was no equality, no compensation of any sort, nor any jobs. After Reconstruction, from 1877 until the mid-1960s, Jim Crow laws and customs prevailed to legitimatize anti-black racism.
In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court helped undermine the Constitutional protections of blacks with its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision which legitimatized the Jim Crow laws and the Jim Crow way of American life. Its foundation rests on the premise that whites are superior and discrimination against blacks is acceptable,
Roberts continued his history lesson by noting the derivation of the term Jim Crow.
“Jump Jim Crow” is a song and dance from the early 19th Century performed in blackface by a white comedian who performed all over the country as “Daddy Jim Crow”.
The song may have been inspired by the song and dance of a physically disabled African slave named Jim Cuff or Jim Crow.
However it all came to be, the fact is that by 1838 the term “Jim Crow” and the mockery of blackfaced minstrel shows presented African Americans in the less-than-equal light lie of “separate but equal.” Segregation reigned.
Another needed historical enlightenment, according to Roberts, is that the New Jim Crow is the Old Jim Crow.
“They just changed the names in the New Jim Crow,” he said. “No matter the Crow, the reality remains segregation de jure.”
Roberts then ran a litany of systemic “new Jim Crow” operations that he suggested parallel the “old Jim Crow” caste system:
* law and order
* get tough
* war on drugs
* disposable people
* dividing the poor and the working class via fear and resentment
* mass incarcerations
He pursued the topic by playing a video of part of a conversation between Bill Moyers and Michelle Alexander about her book The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
“To fully understand what’s happened in this country,” said Alexander, “look back at least 40 years to the law and order movement that was born in the midst of the civil rights movement.
“Civil rights activists were beginning to violate segregation laws, laws they felt were unjust….Segregationists said this was leading to the breakdown of respect for law. But then this law and order movement began to take on a life of its own….The Get Tough movement and the War on Drugs were a backlash against gains of black Americans in the Civil Rights movement.”
Alexander said that a major result of such policies has been mass incarceration of a scale unknown in human history. She added that the majority of those incarcerated in America are impoverished people of color who, once they are swept into this justice system, lose whatever gains persons of color had made during the Civil Rights Movement. She noted that there are more people incarcerated today than the four million slaves emancipated after the Civil War.
“Today there are over seven million people in this country under some form of the justice system,” added Roberts.
“Why are we in this caste system today?” he asked at the conclusion of the video.
“Mitch McConnell done said, ‘We gonna do all we can to make sure Barrack Obama will be a one-term president.’
“In the interests of this country, even if you are from many different political parties, you should not want your president to fail. That’s insane,” Roberts asserted.
What is fueling the New Jim Crow caste system is what fueled the Old Jim Crow system, he contended.
“Back to what I said earlier, America is a business,” he said. “This country was founded, and was taken from people that were already here to develop business. It’s always a commodity. How can I exploit it? The concept of capitalism, guys, is I can exploit those that have no power.”
He emphasized that the few who have power control those other people in that environment as evidenced currently by the mounting police shootings of unarmed black men and mass incarcerations of people of color.
Roberts concluded with a briefing on prison labor, the contemporary plantation producing product for private companies.
“The prison systems today are on the Fortune 500. Michael Jordan has stock in prisons. And all you guys who have 401ks, many of your pension funds are in stock in prisons….Right now you have prisons across America that are making products for IBM, Motorola, Compac, Honeywell, Microsoft, Boeing, Nieman Marcus, Victoria Secret, Whole Foods, Sears, Walmart and more.
“So what’s happening is you have people in prison that are working making less than twenty-five cents a day that are producing products that could be jobs for people that are out in the community. The answer to this prison industrial complex is to close the prisons.”
Roberts wrapped up his presentation by stating: “Basically Jim Crow law means white people have maintained their power by any means. And history, one thing about history, it does show us how, unless we are committed to work together to change some things, things will be repeated.”
The Tendaji Talks continue next month on the first Tuesday and third Thursday of the month at 6P.M. at Flint Public Library.
Robert R. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.