A Close Look at Individuals

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander finds a common ground between Republicans and Democrats when looking at who we consider change agents in our system. Both groups look at the power of the individual as the driving force of America and see the individual as the mechanism through which change and a better future are possible. The two camps may see the actions of the individual a bit differently, but nevertheless both focus on the individual.

 

Throughout her book however, Alexander is critical of the idea that the individual is capable of creating and instigating the changes in America that are necessary to overcome enormous challenges. There are too many structural barriers for individuals to overcome, and even if the individual does rise to the top, the idea that they can lift an entire group is unrealistic. The individual may play an incredible role, and in America the strength of the individual may be fantasized by popular culture, but the individual exists in a complex society that can only truly change and advance through the mobilization of entire social groups. I agree with Alexander that the structural barriers are too great for us to address on our own, and I want to look at how we think about the individual versus the collective, and examine the ways that Alexander believes this plays out in our criminal justice system.

 

Since our founding, the idea of the individual has been a palpable force in shaping our democracy. Protestant settlers tended to believe that their hard work would be rewarded with great riches from above, and success was (and still is) viewed as an individual’s divine blessing, given by a greater power to those who are hard working, virtuous, and special. If one was successful it was because a divine being had recognized and rewarded them, and through this same view, those who were not successful were in their position due to individual moral failures. On this foundation we built a nation and a constitution that centered around the strength and responsibility of the individual for personal gain. Our primary responsibility was to be a good Christian so that God would bestow great bounty upon us, and if we all focused on this goal as individuals, collectively we would all find an everlasting success. Failure was a result of individuals not living up to the contract from above, and within this lens we developed the idea of the deserving and undeserving.

 

From this foundation our nation has developed to where we are today. Describing the role of the individual in The New Jim Crow, Alexander writes, “Here we see both liberals and conservatives endorsing the same meta-narrative of American individualism: When individuals get ahead, the group triumphs. When individuals succeed, American democracy prevails.” Alexander is critical of this theory and I think she is right to criticize the focus on individualism. I do not believe there is a liberal and a conservative America, because when we use those terms we mean different things in different contexts, so I will drop her terms and simply use Republican and Democrat because party identification is more consistent and to me seems to be more causal than liberal or conservative ideology.

 

Alexander describes the Republican Party as being focused on individuals changing the system through entrepreneurship and insight. The individual can create great innovations if they are not constrained and limited by the system within which they operate. The Democratic party sees the individual as the flagship leader, raising up and pulling the status of the group and the fortunes of others up with them. Both of these views see power as resting with great individuals and leaders, and see exceptional leaders as the key to growth, progress, development, and a better future. Alexander finds this narrative lacking and dangerous, and I agree with her that it is an incomplete view.

 

To me, this focus on individuals is misplaced. What we get from our focus on individualism is instability, delays, and stagnation as often than we get flashes of brilliance, advancement, and progress. An incredible leader and voice may come along to lift up an entire group, as Dr. King Jr. did during the Civil Rights movement, but expecting a great leader to instigate meaningful change causes delays in achieving justice, making scientific advances, and solving substantial problems that impact people’s every day lives. This focus also creates instability since people change and die, and pinning all of our hopes on an individual leaves movements of change and advancement  vulnerable, as the assassination of Dr. King Jr. demonstrated.

 

The real power of the individual is not in change and progress as both Democrats and Republicans would hope. The true power of the individual is in the status quo. It is the power to defend the injustices that exist, the power to delay advancement and equality, and the power to be a barrier that limits other individuals. The reason why an individual has greater power to be a pest and not a hero is because we live in a society that requires collective action. The Republican Party has demonstrated that a few high minded individuals with great influence can derail the ideas of societal responsiveness and democratic representation. As an example, Grover Norquest’s anti-tax pledge is a commitment to abandon the collective more than it is a commitment to improve society. The Koch brother’s campaign against moderate candidates (candidates who more accurately reflect the majority of the country) is a demonstration that a few individuals can block progress and block the strength of our social groups while upholding structural barriers. President Donald Trump clearly shows us that a single individual can reverse and hold up equality and group advancement, while President Barack Obama showed us that even the best among us can only make so much of a dent without the support of broader communities.

 

In America we love our superheroes that pull the world back from the brink of destruction and manage to triumph in the face of adversity. We focus on what the individual can achieve and use material and financial success to demonstrate our value as individuals. What hides below the surface of our love for the individual is the fact that no one can be a superhero without some form of support from a larger group. What we hide in our past is that those who became incredibly wealthy in the early days of our society did so by exploiting the black body, justifying their actions as divinely ordained and rightful by biology and manifest white destiny. This attitude continued and the white individual was able to achieve their own success while holding the entirety of black society back. If we focus on individualism we allow such evils to persist. We must find a new way to be individuals and be successful on our own, but with the understanding that our individual success in terms of wealth, possessions, jobs, and family has as much  to do with with us as individuals as it has to do with the stability and protection offered by the larger society in which we live.

Rage

I find it frustrating to listen to people complain that protesters are angry. Somehow we have in our mind a vision that protestors should be peaceful, calm, and wise, and when we see protestors that are angry and easily stirred into violence, we become critical and fail to consider the ideology, the demands, or the injustices that are at the heart of the protest. When we look back, I think we view the marches of the Civil Rights Movement as being peaceful protests, but only because we have chosen to remember the peaceful movements when sharing the history in our schools and we have collectively forgotten most of the violence that did occur during that time.

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes about the anger that is built up within the activists today who fight for better justice for our minority communities. It is hard to accept mass incarceration and unequal treatment from police officers, prosecutors, and judges without becoming cynical and resentful toward the system and political leaders who have allowed for such inequities. Alexander writes, “Those of us who hope to be their allies should not be surprised, if and when this day comes, that when those who have been locked up and locked out finally have the chance to speak and truly be heard, what we hear is rage.”

Anger and even rage are real human emotions. We should not expect people to ignore their feelings and emotions, especially not when their liberties and futures have been taken away from them with such injustice. We must learn to look beyond the anger, rage, or even violence and rioting of protesters if we want to improve the status quo and create greater social cohesion. By criticizing the poor behavior of protestors, we only increase the anger and rage. We must understand that people are driven to such extremes when they feel isolated and powerless and feel that they have no other avenue to speak out against injustices. This may mean that we listen to people we don’t agree with, and it may mean that we open a floor to people we dislike, but it is a necessary step within democracy, for further disenfranchisement can only build anger and rage while honest discussion and a willingness to hear an argument or a protester’s demands will diffuse the tension and violence.

Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.

Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

Care and Concern for Others

I have written about the ways in which colorblindness has been adopted across the nation, but does not actually lead to the outcomes that we would expect. Rather than helping us create better situations for everyone, colorblindness is an excuse that allows for disparate outcomes based on race, as long as we say that our policies and systems were designed to be race neutral. Colorblindness is effectively ignoring the reality of other people and our differences and shutting some people out of our lives.

 

As an alternative to colorblindness, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow proposes the idea of color consciousness. She describes a shift to color consciousness from color blindness in detail. “The shift may, in fact, come as something of a relief, as it moves our collective focus away from a wholly unrealistic goal to one that is within anyone’s reach right now. After all, to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference—a practical impossibility for most of us. The shift also invites a more optimistic view of human capacity. The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”

 

Color consciousness is the idea that we can see race and be aware of our race, other people’s race, and the differences between us and our experiences of the world. When we are colorblind we are not able to accept the disparate outcomes of our policies, and we are encouraged to forget and mitigate the past. Rather than try to understand how our present moment is shaped by past events such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation, colorblindness assumes that we have progressed beyond such evils and live in a society where everything has been fixed, so race no longer matters. Color consciousness instead looks at the past to understand where we are today, and is able to be more thoughtful and considerate when developing new policies and strategies to help the lives of everyone.

What Racial Indifference and Blindness Create

It has become common and popular today to say that you don’t see race and that your actions and behaviors are colorblind. Our politicians, celebrities, friends, and neighbors will all say they are colorblind, trying to convey the idea that they do not act like a racist and that they love all people, regardless of race or skin color.

 

In her book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that colorblindness and our focus on outward racism is actually what has allowed racial attitudes and racially disparate outcomes to survive in the United States. The type of racism we have to be aware of is not an outward racism perpetuated by individuals, but rather an invisible racism built into our structures, ideologies, and communities. We claim to be colorblind and we tell ourselves and others that we are fair to all races because we have diverse friends, but at the same time we often support policies that impact the lives of black and brown people unequally relative to white people. The New Jim Crow demonstrates the ways in which our colorblind society has not done a good job of preventing racism from influencing our criminal justice system and goes further to show that racism is a consistent factor in the policies and politics that we support.

 

What colorblindness creates is racial indifference. It creates an atmosphere where we assume that if we are not explicitly mean and don’t act in deliberately malicious ways towards others, then those others will be fine and will succeed. Colorblindness does not really mean that we are not racist, but that the concerns, values, and lives of people of color do not matter to us. We cannot see the suffering, the disparate impacts, and the inequalities of society because we are indifferent to the lives of minorities. This is what we are truly saying by calling ourselves colorblind, even if we don’t recognize it.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Alexander quotes Martin Luther King Jr., “One of the great tragedies of man’s long trek along the highway of history has been the limiting of neighborly concern to tribe, race, class or nation.” Humans evolved in relatively small groups, working, hunting, and growing together, but our world today demands that we work as a single global people. Our minds did not evolve to truly understand and connect with billions or even just millions of people across the globe, and along the way we have developed stories to tell us who we associate with. These made up stories of race, nation, and sports give us a sense of community and help us understand who is part of our tribe. The problem, however, is that these stories are fictions and operating based on our tribal instincts hurts the lives of real people. When we cannot move beyond our tribal nature, we create inequities that create social tension and conflict. In the United States we have chosen to ignore our tribal attitudes and have chosen to believe that indifference to other groups is the same thing as supportive inclusion. Unfortunately, this allows racial biases to operate in the background as we favor our tribe over others and push others down in invisible ways. As Alexander writes in the book, “Racial indifference and blindness—far more than racial hostility—form the sturdy foundation for all racial caste systems.”

The Burden of a Nation

Today we have a problem with the number of people we arrest and the destroyed potential futures for those who have been arrested. As we arrest greater numbers of individuals for drug related offenses, the more families we break apart, the fewer people we have available to work, and the more our nation must spend on housing those who have been arrested. Prior to reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, I had assumed that this system operated fairly and I had criticized those who had been arrested for their own faults and personal shortcomings. What I did not see before her book are the choices that we made as a society that lead to the crime, the policing, and the levels of arrests that we see in our nation. We have a choice in determining the criminality of low level drugs like marijuana, and we have a choice in how harshly we will arrest and punish those who break the laws that we create. At a certain point, we must begin asking ourselves, beyond what an individual has done wrong, what has society done wrong so that so many people are violating drug laws, and should our response be imprisonment or less expensive and less socially damaging responses to crime.

In her book, Alexander writes, “Du Bois got it right a century ago: “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” It is up to all of us, not just up to criminals and those living in ghettos or low income areas, to solve the crime problems our nation faces and to strengthen our communities. Those of us who do not act and do not take steps to make our world better are equally at fault as those who commit crimes and make our society more segregated and less equitable. Alexander continues, “The reality is that, just a few decades after the collapse of one caste system, we constructed another. Our nation declared a war on people trapped in racially segregated ghettos—just at the moment their economies had collapsed—rather than providing community investment, quality education, and job training when work disappeared.” Our choices created the ghettos and in response to the effects of concentrated power, we decided that incarceration was the best option to deal with the crime that resulted. Alexander looks at the history of segregation in our country and how that has impacted our development, our communities, and the policies put forth by those in power. Our reaction to minorities has historically been to shut them out and deny them of opportunity, and today, when people in communities that have been isolated and exiled result to crime, we find justification in our actions and arrests.

“Of course those communities are suffering from serious crime and dysfunction today. Did we expect otherwise? Did we think that, miraculously, they would thrive?” Alexander pushes us to reflect on ghettos and segregated areas of concentrated poverty. Rather than uniting our communities and putting forth greater resources to help people in ghettos, we have decided to arrest individuals, which diminishes future potential and career opportunities, feeding back into a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and disfunction. Rather than try to build the areas in new and novel ways that put low income individuals next to more affluent families and people, we isolated the poor and the minorities so that they could be forgotten. It is expensive to provide community support to those who need it and to improve our ghettos, but it is certainly expensive to warehouse individuals in prisons and jails and to react to the crime committed by those who have lost future possibilities or live in disjointed households.