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.