“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander focuses on our nation’s criminal justice system, its shortfalls, and how racial disparities exist within a system that is supposed to be colorblind. Early on in the book she writes about discrimination against criminals and compares todays discrimination against criminals to historical discrimination against black people. She writes,
“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices e supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”
Alexander’s quote shows the challenges we face today in a time with less explicit racism and fewer individually racist people. People themselves may make racist jokes in the company of friends, but outward displays of racism are rare. This gives us all the sense that racism is no longer a major factor in our lives and it allows us to feel that we have overcome a great challenge in treating people more equally in this country. What we miss when we focus only on explicit racism and individual level actions are the factors that comprise larger parts of our institutions and norms.
Our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts the lives of hispanic and black people. We arrest minorities at a far greater level than we arrest white people, even though levels of drug use and crime are similar among white, black, and latino people. The result of disproportionate arresting is that white people are allowed to move beyond their mistakes and crimes and can build wealth, while people of color are haunted by their crimes and face discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and financial investing. Pretending that the system is equal because we don’t outwardly express racism hides the fact that our system is entrenched in racism and hides the structural and institutional ways in which racism has shaped our society and created disparate outcomes for people based on race. Because these issues go beyond individuals, we must work to change entire systems and policies to move beyond the current outputs of the system. Changing who we arrest is one step, but we must also shift housing and development policies, and changing housing and development requires that we take a new look at those we label as criminals. Ultimately, it requires that we look at those around us as human beings first, and look at criminal history in a new light. Moving to a point where outward displays of racism are not acceptable is good start, but we need to move forward to a point where we acknowledge the disparate impacts our society has accepted.