I knew that the American “war on drugs” had led to extraordinary numbers of people being imprisoned for little reason; I knew that a highly profitable and job-creating prison industry depended upon a system which delivers torrents of new inmates to correctional facilities; I knew that sentences for inexpensive crack were absurdly and punitively higher than those for expensive cocaine; I knew that police organizations literally profit from being able to seize assets from drug arrests (or even drug suspicions), and that many law enforcement agencies depend upon these funds for their budgets; I knew that African Americans were far more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drugs than whites. In short, I wasn’t totally uninformed. But this book still provided me with a lot of fresh information, and — more importantly — a framework by which to understand in sum a lot of phenomena I had known about but not really understood. Alexander’s thesis is that America’s mass incarceration of African Americans represents the third great wave of racial control in this country, the first two having been slavery and Jim Crow. The genius of this system is that it professes not to be race-based at all. It’s not African Americans who are being put under state control and surveillance; it’s criminals. Everyone knows that we are not supposed to discriminate on the basis of race any more, but everyone also knows that we are universally free to despise criminals. So if you can see to it that vast numbers of African Americans are branded as criminals, you can achieve a system of de facto racial control and discrimination while at the same time professing that your laws and processes are colorblind. There are some line-level problems with Alexander’s reasoning here and there, but on the whole she presents a devastatingly effective and well-documented argument, one which has fundamentally altered how I think about our legal system and the state of racial discrimination in this country. I highly recommend the book, and if you lack the time for that, urge you to see Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In; the film explores many of the same issues, and also features interviews with Alexander.
I was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!
Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.