Tag Archives: history

Is Mass Incarceration the New Jim Crow?

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander was first published in 2010 and called attention to the impact the War of Drugs had on communities of color. In her preface to the 10th anniversary edition, Alexander discusses what a new version of the book would cover: the hopefulness of prison reform, the complicated legacy of Barack Obama related to incarceration, and the horrific consequences of Donald Trump’s presidency in general.

She resisted the urge to write an updated book and I agree with the decision. Things have changed since 2010 but as long as police have almost unlimited power to stop and search and prosecutors can keep people of color off juries for silly and superstitious reasons, our system is seemingly irretrievably broken. However, Alexander expresses some hope for change in her preface to this new edition.

The book is a meticulously researched historical timeline that shows how we moved from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration as institutional answers to segregation and racism. The latter is seemingly so entrenched legally, politically, culturally and economically that Alexander doesn’t offer much hope for reversing it in her first edition. She is particularly hard on Civil Rights lawyers and activists, including herself, who seem to ignore the issue because it often deals with people who did break the law and that makes it harder to defend them.

That focus, however, is changing and the Prison Policy Initiative is a good starting point for learning more about mass incarceration and the efforts to change the system. For my fellow Virginians, check out the profile page for our state. Here is one graphic to get you started: where the prison inmates come from in the state:

“Using 2020 census data, we looked at where people in Virginia prisons and jails come from. We found many of the state’s biggest and smallest communities are disproportionately harmed by mass incarceration.”
From Prison Policy Initiative

Required Reading

Book cover of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation

If you plan to read South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry, do so when you have time to slow down and savor this rich chronicle of our country and the importance of the South to our past and present. And, if you haven’t planned on reading this book, please reconsider.

Perry, a Princeton professor whose mentor at Harvard was Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was born in Alabama and despite moving Cambridge, Massachusetts when she was five, has close ties to that state. The book moves into and across the South from DC to Miami and Savannah to Houston. Her book pays homage to Albert Murray whose 1971 memoir of growing up in Alabama was entitled South to An Old Place.

Perry’s book is filled with stories of past and present–some we know and many others we have never heard–of communities, rituals and traditions with a focus on lives lived well under often crushing poverty, oppression, and the threat of state-supported violence never far away. I found myself heading to the Internet time and again to seek out writers and artists and activists that she mentions and realized my own ignorance about much of Black culture and art. For instance, I had never heard of Lil Buck, a dancer who specializes in a dance form called Memphis Jookin. He has famously danced with Yo-Yo Ma but here is an early example of his work as part of a TedX Teen event:

Perry’s prose is as rich and complex as the region she explores. And she is always clear that she is part of the telling, her reactions to what she experiences sometimes as complicated as those of the region she is describing. I appreciated her honesty and wisdom. In the end, however, she concludes that just reading her book isn’t enough. Action is required if we are going to finally allow all people to dream great dreams.

This review does not do justice to the book. I highlighted passage after passage where Perry pulled disparate ideas together then clinched them with one short sentence. Her writing is just stunning and I found myself out of breath a few times. I’m still processing the book and already thinking about a reread.

In a section on New Orleans, Perry describes the practice of plaçage, in which white men would contract with black women to keep them as mistresses. As she points out, it wasn’t a mutual consenting contract but one in which young black women were forced as part of the society in which they lived. This practice forms part of the plot of The Thread Collectors, a book that would make an interesting companion read to Perry.


I’ve been tinkering with the web since the late 1990s. In October 2001, as part of a grant project, I started a monthly newsletter that included resources for teachers. I’ve left them up as an archive but am not actively updating them. Every so often, I get an email from someone who has found a broken link and has suggested links for me to use. I got such an email this morning. The writer pointed to a link in the December 2002 newsletter. It turns out about half of the links are broken. I’m in the process of updating the whole website and may end up taking them down.

Except they provide an interesting snapshot of what was going on in the web. Google images was a relatively new feature. And I was already benefiting from the work of Tim Stahmer, linking to his top 100 websites.

I clicked on that link and discovered that Tim has one of the most helpful and elegant 404 pages I have ever encountered. And also that he predates me on the web by just a couple of years.

I’m glad I was there near the beginning along with people like Tim. Having the long view helps put all the new, “earth shaking” changes in perspective.

For the record, I am in the middle of a website overhaul. There are still some gems on my site but they are hard to find and everything just needs reorganized and brought into my wordpress installation.

A Birthday Reflection

I turn 48 years old today. When I was born, the Vietnam War was just heating up, the Summer of Love was still five years away, and Kennedy was in the middle of those glorious thousand days that came to be known as Camelot. I am on the far edge of the Boomers and can even claim Generation X status when I get annoyed at what I think is the sometimes smug Boomer culture. All that Boomer optimism had faded by the time I came into the world and those of us in the 13th generation grew up in a much more cynical age. I have a good friend who is on the other end of the Boomers and when we play the Boomer edition of Trivial Pursuit she knows all the answers to questions about Howdy Doody and the Beatles. I get the ones about Watergate and the war.

There have been some positives over the past five decades…such as a focus on environmental conservation. But it doesn’t always feel like things have gotten much better. I lived just 30 miles from Three Mile Island when it melted down and am now sick over the oil gushing into the Gulf. Earth Day began when I was seven because things had gotten so bad that rivers were on fire and whole communities were being poisoned. Now, we regularly see bald eagles flying over head. But we still haven’t figured out how human beings can live without destroying everything else.

And, then there’s education: A Nation at Risk was written in 1982 and I am watching its influence play out now, nearly 30 years later. That report was all about what students didn’t know and that’s what we are busy trying to test now. There was little concern for what they could do or whether they could think and how schools could foster more critical, creative problem solvers. I wonder how long it will take to see any influence from current reform efforts as the slow educational pendulum continues its eternal swinging?

Technology was not absent from my classroom when I started teaching in 1988. They were very old school: film strips, film reels, an overhead projector and an oft-used record and cassette player. I did have a computer in my room…an early macintosh that was used with a laser printer to desktop publish the school newspaper. It was hidden away in the back room. There was no Internet, just the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, most of which we did not have access to. Yet, we learned together with the materials we had. Much of the technologies supported my presentations as a teacher. But they also provided creative outlets for my students. My students used the analog video camera to make public service advertisements. After cleaning the strips in chlorine, they used pens to draw their own film strips. We listened to music as part of our poetry unit and watched the movie versions of Shakespeare’s work which added an interactive element to what was often a text-only approach to literature. I didn’t really think about it as “technology,” the way we talk about digital technologies today, but was glad to have choices related to how I could present and have students interact with information.

The excitement today, I think, is what students can do with the technology. Creating film strips and analog videos seem like cave writing in comparison to digital videos and interactive web sites. My worry? That all this great technology is still mostly being used to enhance teacher presentations and kids don’t get much chance to do their own creation and interaction. I was glad to see that several of my pre-service teachers this semester adopted Google Maps for their lesson projects and allowed students to do the creation. You could argue that it’s not that innovative since teachers have been doing map work with students forever. But what a step away from the flat views with their colored pencil hatch marks. Add markers, draw lines, zoom in and out, check out the terrain, the possibilities are endless.

I’m a huge fan of Google Maps as a great example of the interactivity that I think is really the innovative part of digital technologies. I used it recently to plan and execute my recent walking tour of Denver. I created the map on my laptop, pulled audio from the Denver Story Trek website, and then moved everything to my phone. (Don’t get me started on my phone…I really am in love with my Droid.)

View Denver in a larger map

It’s been an interesting time to be alive. Technologically, watching the world move from analog to digital must be a similar experience to the generation that went from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles. I’ve seen great cultural shifts as well particularly in terms of individual rights. The landmark civil rights legislation was signed when I was a toddler. And while it didn’t pass, the Equal Rights Amendment was part of the milieu as I came to adulthood in the 70s. I’ve grown up surrounded by conversations about race, gender, and sexual orientation and while we are a long way from answers in any of those areas, we’re moving in a positive direction I think as we learn to think of each other as individuals first and then members of particular groups second. We’re complex beings whose identities are woven from disparate threads.

I’ll close with the weirdest thing about being this age: the President of the United States is my age! And, I graduated from William and Mary with John Stewart. My generation is moving in to the leadership, joining but also changing the establishment while the next generation breathes down our necks.