When legal discrimination was abolished white institutions and communities, of course, did not simply welcome African-Americans with open arms. As Michelle Alexander explains in her powerful book The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010; newjimcrow.com), maintaining racial inequality and segregation even in the face of formal equality requires disguised strategies of suppression. The criminal justice system is very well suited for that purpose. Convictions and incarceration are means to legally exclude a large segment of the black population from full participation in American Society without appearing to discriminate by race. Stopping and searching people because they look “suspicious” while in a “high crime” area may be viewed by most people as good, proactive police work. But historically and sociological speaking, it serves a similar function as overt racial segregation and targeting. These tools of exclusion are particularly pernicious because no conscious racist actors are required. A black police officer who aggressively checks i.d.’s for warrants and makes drug arrests in the name of proactive policing likely has no idea that he or she is helping sustain relatively high rates of black unemployment. By a very clever sleight of hand, most Americans are convinced that behavioral choices (or maybe class differences) rather than unconscious or institutionalized racist practices explain colossal and anachronistic racial gaps in poverty and incarceration.
Of course, mass incarceration is a product of many forces, including many that had little to do with race. After all, racism was even more virulent in the early 1970’s when incarceration rates were much lower than now. In addition, white Americans are also incarcerated at alarming levels. However, I strongly suspect that mass incarceration would not exist if there were no large black population that white America felt compelled to neglect, demonize, exploit or control. And the historical parallels between plantations and prison towns are too compelling to ignore. Prison towns, like plantations in the Old South, allow mostly white people to earn a decent (or excellent) living through the subjugation of mainly black and brown bodies.
There are many reasons to oppose the policies and practices that sustain mass incarceration. I wrote this song in order to remind people of one major reason to oppose them. They serve to perpetuate one of America’s greatest shames. These days are not behind us. Jim Crow lives on in disguise.