As I mentioned in my last blog I’ve been reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
I am aware that this book has caused much controversy. Many people are inflamed alone by the title. As a lawyer she is tying the increase in mass incarceration to the theory that black and brown minorities are the target of intentional, racially motivated profiling.
I’ve seen this on the streets of Uptown, especially with the residents I work with at Cornerstone community Outreach, a homeless shelter on the northside of Chicago.
All too often I hear from our local politicians that they are concerned about crime. I’ve come to recognize that “community safety” is code for clearing the streets of unwanted people such as the poor, homeless. That’s one of the reasons our alderman has removed benches at bus stops. Really? Is that why I see the elderly waiting, sitting uncomfortably on fire hydrants—because someone is afraid the homeless will use the benches to spread out and take a nap? Is safety really the issue when you wanted to forbid the Salvation Army from handing out hot soup at a corner near the park. Thank God that didn’t work. There was considerable blow-back from the community and from social agencies working in the area.
In the New Jim Crow safety and keeping the public safe is impetus behind legislation in the 1980s that ramped up stop and frisk, unwarranted searches and basically unleashed the police force to target minorities in the name of the War on Drugs.
Again in Uptown I see all this at work. We operate a program for homeless men where they sleep at an area church, in the gymnasium and then in the morning make the trek back to CCO for daytime drop-in, meals, showers, resources such as computers for job search and making appointments for housing, health, etc. Not only are the men routinely stopped and asked for identification, so also is the CCO staff. One hundred percent of the time we’re talking people of color.
One of the clients I work with at the shelter told me he rarely gets hassled. I asked him what his secret was. “I always carry a bag. I act like I’m returning from shopping. Even if I’m not carrying take-out or been to Target, it just looks that way.”
I guess consumers are less suspicious, less likely to be vagrants.
Hearing the complaints of staff and residents is pretty surreal—the reasons why they are stopped. Sometimes over the most ridiculous of pretenses. But the one constant is that they happen to be of color. I for one am interested in reading more about Michelle Alexander and what if any changes are being made in the justice system as a result of her writing this book.