A brief flashback of the Jim Crow Era:
“Jim Crow” was a ridiculing phrase for a black man. It was a system that enforced segregation and discriminatory laws, prohibiting blacks from being equivalent to whites. Such rules were influenced by the ideas of White Supremacy. The U.S. Supreme Court actually helped maintain these laws.
“Today a criminal freed from prison has scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a freed slave or a black person living ‘free’ in Mississippi at the height of Jim Crow.” -Michelle Alexander
During Jim Crow, blacks were stigmatized based on race, however, they would find love and support in their own communities. Today, when released prisoners returns back to their communities, they often find scornful stares and contempt. Not only they’re denied the support but also deprived from the legal and economic privileges.
“The Cruel Hand” chapter 4 of The New Jim Crow takes us through the process of how black men are targeted by the law and labeled as felons. Then we get a clear view of the life of released prisoners and how they’re treated by the society. Even a minor offense has crucial effects in a person’s life. Once a black man is labeled a felon, this affects his access to his shelter, food, employment and child custody. The system is formed in a way where hundreds of thousands of men are being disappeared from the street and ending up in prisons. They are deprived from the right to vote once they’re marked as a felon and forced to disintegrate from the mainstream society.
Upon being released, they cannot hope to start afresh instead they’re stripped of their rights as humans. A marginal line is created that shouts “you no longer belong to our society.” These people barely have any rights, freedom or respect in the outside world. Some released prisoners refer to it as permanent social exiles and some calls it a mental punishment. The society plays an important role in condemning these formal convicts. They do not accept him as a brand new person, rather it continues to stigmatize him as an ex felon. And what adds more trouble is having to check boxes in job applications, welfare benefits forms, housing and school applications, identifying oneself as an ex felon demolishes the chances of getting any help. Alexander argues, “The “whites only” signs may be gone, but new signs have gone up—such notices informs the general public that “felons” are not wanted here” (Alexander 141.) Therefore, the released prisoners most likely lands back in prison due to barriers to accessing the mainstream society.
The released convicts today have no social or political freedom and neither can they demand it because of the criminal label that comes with shame lingers around them. They find themselves in harassment and continuing supervisions by the police even after their prison time has been completed. This is true not only for those who are labeled criminals but all those who are assumed to “look like” criminals. The ever present violence of police force today symbolizes the lynch mobs of 18th century which targeted blacks for cruel punishments.
Likewise, a wrong move or an abrupt body language today can result in counterattack with the police. A simple wallet can be confused with a gun. For example, in 1999, Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, was shot with 41 bullets when he reached his pocket to pull out his wallet while the cops mistook it for a gun. This tragedy happened right outside his apartment in Bronx. Also, a simple sweater such as hoodie could be mistaken for a criminal just as Trayvor Martin, a 17-year-old African American was targeted by a neighborhood watch simply because he was wearing a hoodie. Black males are at constant danger of being mistaken by the police and losing their lives.
Another important point that Alexander mentions is that a person doesn’t necessarily have to be found lawfully guilty of a crime in order to feel the shame and stigma of a criminal. As long as you “seem like” a criminal, you’ll be treated with the same skeptic attitude and disrespect by the police, security guards, school monitors and even by the store employees who would stalk you through the aisles to catch you red-handed as the “criminalblackman.” This is the archetypal figure who justifies the New Jim Crow.
To revert back to the earlier point Alexander makes in her essay about prisoners is that criminals are the new “whipping boys.” They are one social group in America we have permission to hate. Therefore, a convicted felon is subjected to lifetime discrimination and segregation for the rest of his life. Hundreds of years ago, the slaves were put in shackles because they were perceived as three-fifths of a person (less than human) and today we put them in cages. The increasing numbers of black men with felony convictions demonstrates that “Felony is the new N-word”: that is enough to criticize and treat a black person with disrespect just how the N-word was enough to degrade black men during slavery. These convicted felons are treated as properties, the unwanted ones by the law and by the people. “Today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynch mobs are professionals. They have a badge; they have a law degree. A felony is a modern way of saying, I’m going to hang you up and burn you” (Alexander 164.) In short, the legal system attempts to put black people back in their place through this method of conviction and mass incarceration because the authorities are afraid of losing control and power.
So here you are, a newly released prisoner—homeless, unemployed, and carrying a mountain of debt. How do you feed yourself? Care for your children? How would you gain their custody back when you aren’t capable of taking care of yourself? There is no clear answer to that question, but one thing for sure: do not count on the government for help. Not only will you be denied housing, but you may well be denied food (157.)
1. Alexander, Michelle. “The Cruel Hand.” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed. 140-177. Print.