Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.
The latest cause célèbre for prominent lawyers and judges in Minneapolis is the rights of a new, disenfranchised class of victims who, we’re told, can’t vote, serve on juries, or — in some cases — live in public housing.
Who’s this new victim class? Murderers, robbers, rapists, and dealers and users of illegal drugs — in short, convicted felons.
People incarcerated for felonies are disproportionately black, the argument goes, so laws that deprive felons of certain civil rights that law-abiding citizens enjoy are the racist equivalent of poll taxes in the Jim Crow South.
Does this sound like the musings of a fringe sociology professor? It’s a crusade by the Hennepin County Bar Association, the professional association of lawyers in Minneapolis and its suburbs.
In February, the HCBA urged all its members to read a book entitled “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” by law Prof. Michelle Alexander. In March, it conducted a Continuing Legal Education Seminar on the book’s thesis, led by Judge Pam Alexander (recently reappointed to the bench by Gov. Mark Dayton). Now the HCBA is promoting April discussion groups on the topic for its members.
Michelle Alexander’s book claims that America’s justice system has imposed a new racial caste system. Overt discrimination has become socially unacceptable, she writes, so white voters and officials are recreating a racial hierarchy by labeling people of color “criminals” and discriminating against them “in nearly all the ways it was once legal to discriminate against African-Americans.”
The primary vehicle for perpetuating the new racial hierarchy is the war on drugs and the stiff penalties it imposes for drug offenses, according to Alexander.
Those at the seminar on “The New Jim Crow,” which I attended, displayed a striking lack of skepticism toward these overheated claims. I saw no lawyerly cross-examination, just lots of heads nodding in agreement. Yet Alexander ignores the facts about the black crime rate, rewrites history on the war on drugs and obscures the real causes of disproportionate black criminal conduct.
Are America’s jails and prisons filled with penny-ante drug offenders? You might get that impression reading Alexander’s book. Yet “drug offenders constitute only a quarter of our nation’s prisoners, while violent offenders make up a much larger share: one half,” points out James Forman, a black Yale Law School professor who has written a powerful critique of Alexander’s book.
Likewise, the war on drugs was not a conspiracy by racist whites. Black leaders were among those pushing hardest for stiff penalties in the 1980s and ’90s, when a violent-crime surge — spurred by the crack cocaine epidemic — devastated their communities.
If “mass incarceration” were really the “New Jim Crow,” we’d expect black-controlled jurisdictions like Washington, D.C., to adopt more lenient sentences and rely much less on incarceration than other cities. Yet incarceration rates in America’s capital city mirror those in other cities, writes Forman. In fact, local officials there “have recently pushed for tougher criminal penalties.”
The tragic truth is this: America’s disproportionate black incarceration rate is a function not of a biased judicial system but of a sky-high black crime rate. In 2011, the black arrest rate for most crimes was between two to three times blacks’ representation in the population. Blacks made up 56 percent of all robbery and 34 percent of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.5 percent of all property crime arrests.
About 50 percent of all murders are committed by black people, though blacks are only 13 percent of the population. And African-Americans are disproportionately victimized by crime: Ninety percent of all black homicides are committed by other blacks, while 75 percent of all crimes against black victims are carried out by black perpetrators.
The decay of the social fabric in low-income black communities is a primary cause of the crime rate. In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, the black out-of-wedlock birth rate in America was 20 percent. In 2010, in Hennepin County, the rate for U.S.-born black residents was 84 percent. (For whites and Hispanics, it was 18 percent and 59 percent, respectively.) Many black children are growing up in violent, disordered neighborhoods where few fathers are present. The results are predictable.
You’re not likely to hear uncomfortable facts like these at Hennepin County Bar Association seminars. Yet unless we find ways to repair the devastating social breakdown in low-income black neighborhoods, substantially lowering the black crime rate will be an uphill battle.
Can we find better ways to help people with felony convictions reintegrate into society, if they have truly changed their ways? Very likely. But we won’t get far if the best we can do is portray felons as the new victim class.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.