Reading assignment; summary of Monday 2/10

For Wednesday, please read Angela Davis, “Globalism and the Prison Industrial Complex.” It is available in the “readings” section.


Yesterday we discussed the first chapter of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. It was brought to my attention that the pages I assigned corresponded to the book, and not to the online text. Sorry. Unfortunately the citations below are to my copy of the book.

There were a few main themes we covered:

1. The relatively recent origin of the concept of “race” and “the racial bribe” offered to working class whites.

  • According to Alexander, “in America, the idea of race emerged as a means of reconciling chattel slavery — as well as the extermination of American Indians — with the ideals of freedom preached by whites in the new colonies.” (23) In other words, whites could only claim the United States was founded on the idea that “all men are created equal” if Africans and American Indians did not even count as “men.” The concept of race — fundamental differences within the human species that were more or less signaled by skin color — was how it became possible to argue that some people were not really people.
  • In response to insurrections by poor whites and blacks (like Bacon’s Rebellion), plantation owners invented what would come to be called the “racial bribe”: “Deliberately and strategically, the planter class extended special privileges to poor whites in an effort to drive a wedge between them and black slaves. White settlers were allowed greater access to Native American lands, white servants were allowed to police slaves through slave patrols and militias, and barriers were created so that free labor [i.e., wage labor] would not be placed in competition with slave labor. These measures effectively eliminated the risk of future alliances between black slaves and poor whites. Poor whites suddenly had a direct, personal stake in the existence of a race-based system of slavery.” (25, my italics) 

2. The “preservation through transformation” of White Supremacy in America.

  • The racial caste system, which puts “whiteness” on top and blackness, brownness, redness, and so on beneath it, is, according to Alexander, a persistent feature of American society. She notes that “the standard reply is: ‘How can you say that a racial caste system exists today? Just look at Barack Obama! Just look at Oprah Winfrey!” Here reply: “No caste system in the United States has ever governed all black people; there have always been ‘free blacks’ and black success stories, even during slavery and Jim Crow.” (21)
  • “Preservation through transformation” is the “process through which white privilege is maintained, though the rules and rhetoric change” in different social and legal contexts: “Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion — transition — in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined.” (21)
  • After slavery becomes illegal and the Civil War is fought, Jim Crow segregation became the new way the racial caste system is reorganized. Alexander’s major contention is that, after the Civil Rights movement ends legal segregation, the racial caste system in America became reorganized in the form of mass incarceration.

3. How “law and order” and being “tough on crime” were used as coded language for racist politics.

  • In the late 1960s, Republicans developed what became called “the Southern Strategy,” which meant appealing to the racist fears of poor, Southern whites. The Civil Rights movement, which involved large groups of African Americans engaging in civil disobedience to desegregate the South, terrified many whites. Still, the Civil Rights movement had created a new context in which it was more difficult to be openly racist. The Southern Strategy was an attempt capture the racist vote, without directly talking about race:
  • H.R. Haldeman, one of Nixon’s key advisers, recalls that Nixon himself deliberately pursued a Southern, racial strategy: “He [President Nixon] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. Similarly, John Ehrlichman, special counsel to the president, explained the Nixon administration’s campaign strategy of 1968 in this way: “We’ll go after the racists.” In Ehrlichman’s view, “that subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”

  • The theme of “law and order,” the “war on drugs,” and being “tough on crime,” combined with images that showed Black and Latino people, became, according to Alexander, the coded racial language that justified the tremendous increase in incarceration.
  • There is another important element to this story that relates to our theme of globalization:
  • In the early 1980s, just as the drug war was kicking off, inner-city communities were suffering from economic collapse. The blue-collar factory jobs that had been plentiful in urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s had suddently disappeared. Prior to 1970, inner-city workers with relatively little formal education could find industrial employment close to home. Globalization, however, helped change that. Manufacturing jobs were transferred by multinational companies away from American cities to countries that lacked unions, where workers earn a small fraction of what is considered a fair wage in the United States. To make matters worse, dramatic technological changes revolutionized the workplace — changes that eliminated many of the jobs that less skilled workers once relied upon for their survival. Highly educated workers benefited from the pace of technological change and the increased use of computer-based technologies, but blue-collar workers often found themselves displaced in the sudden transition from an industrial to a service economy. (50)

  • Prisons came as a “solution” to the economic collapse spurred by capitalist globalization in both urban and rural areas: the prisons are built and staffed by predominantly poor, rural whites, and lock up predominantly poor, urban people of color.

One thought on “Reading assignment; summary of Monday 2/10

  1. Dylan Carpenter

    We discussed how the prison industrial complex may have been formulated in a effort to enforce white supremacy upon other races. I am curious if this idea may just be people who have power trying to maintain that power. My question is slums and the prison industrial complex means to put white people on top of minorities or is people with power trying to hold on to that power by forcing everyone else down?


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