How White People Became White

Notes of a New Jim Crow

I am here to do some truth telling!” So declared Michelle Alexander in Chicago on March 17, 2011, at a Roosevelt University-sponsored event featuring her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Since its publication in 2010, Ms. Alexander has made the rounds of television, radio and web appearances. But neither her book nor her media blitz adequately convey the intensity and passion that this young legal scholar and self-described “racial justice advocate” brings to her subject in person. Her focus is on a centuries-old wrong perpetrated against all peoples of color, but particularly against Black men – their mass roundup, imprisonment, and lifetime relegation to second class citizenship status thereafter.

Of course, Alexander is far from first to chronicle the American penal system’s attempts to neutralize, if not destroy, the Black community. She writes in the wake of not a few stalwarts – from the incisive pen of James Baldwin and Malcolm X’s fire-breathing oratory, to the persistent, clarion call for justice by and on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal; and from the public intellectualism of Cornell West and the late Manning Marable, to the tireless educative and organizational work of long time Black Power and anti-war and feminist Angela Davis, among many others. Alexander’s contribution to this body of protest literature and tradition is important not because she presents any novel ideas. Rather, for the first time, she meticulously lays bare the 500-year-old political, social, economic and legal context of this seemingly “new” phenomenon. But beyond context, Alexander names and defines this particular singularity in such a way that not just “racial justice advocates” but anyone with a sense of right and wrong may more productively analyze and then organize against it. The New Jim Crow, indeed.

The thrust of her argument is that the mass incarceration of Black men is simply the latest iteration of a racialized social control system first inaugurated by wealthy white colonial planters in 1676, a full one hundred years before slave rapist Thomas Jefferson declared that “…all men are created equal.” What is new, as Alexander patiently but insistently explains, is the method and means of implementing this revised social control system: the putative war on drugs waged under the guise of a faux racial neutrality – or as she puts it, “colorblindness.”

Early in both the text and in her talk, Alexander points to a largely forgotten, dimly understood yet seminal event in this budding republic’s history, Bacon’s Rebellion, which set the whole “racial” concept in motion. In 1675-76, rich white land owners instituted what Alexander calls America’s first “racial bribe.” To wit, in order to keep poor European American and African American indentured servants from uniting against them, the planters offered the European indentureds a chance at “freedom” based solely on their “whiteness” – a freedom which came “due” once their terms of “service” were completed and included a plot of land, tools, clothing, seed and foodstuffs. As another legal scholar, Cheryl I. Harris, has written,1 whiteness itself was thus rendered an intrinsically valuable and tangible property — as valuable, tangible and real as any other form of property. Crucially, though, this new property interest in whiteness was not fungible. That is, although it was as heritable as any other property, it could not be exchanged for any other commodity. Whiteness was therefore limited only to those who were recognized as or reputed to be, and thus validated as “white” by the paramount holders of all forms of property including whiteness – the ruling class of planters and their functionaries. Thus, it was a closed system of not just property relations, but “race” relations as well.

By their offer of substantial material gain, the planters convinced European workers that the absence of skin color, now defined as whiteness, was neither an abstraction nor a random accident of birth. Rather, the essence of whiteness’ – the condition of being “white” –was its inherent and static reification and affirmation of identity as a “fellow” human being. Deeper than an emblem or token, whiteness as one’s principal physical feature denoted ownership of one’s own person conveying meaning in much more than a physiological or even psychological sense. The lure of whiteness was irresistible because its possession was affixed to, dependent upon, and conferred the reality of personal “freedom.”

At the same time and as a result, African American indentureds were relegated to lifetime and hereditary bond servitude by virtue of their “non-whiteness”, their blackness alone. (After herculean efforts to enslave them, Native peoples had simply proven to be too “savage” and just plain too recalcitrant to be reduced to slavery in their own land. Alternating systems of “domestication,” internment, pogroms and outright extermination obtained against them instead).

Instead of receiving land and “freedom dues” for their years, often decades, of unrelenting, unpaid, backbreaking labor, African Americans were rendered “black” in direct opposition to the newly minted class of “whites.” African identity was emptied of all social and political content. Its only value was as a means of exchange – economic. African beings and their progeny became nameless chattel – a special class of property, to be sure — perfectly fungible and capable of being exchanged among whites (and a minuscule number of nominally “free” Blacks and indigenes) in the so-called “free market” economy of the day.

Alexander identifies this as the origin of the American version of the divide-and-conquer social control strategy, but with a decided “racial” twist, a strategy which has governed “race relations” in America ever since.

Alexander argues that this system was/is a racial caste system, overlain by an already in place and overarching social and economic class system. Africans were located completely outside this class system and by virtue of their status as eternal, biological, intellectual and moral aliens – a subspecies of true “humanity” — they constituted the lowest rung of a caste system which made them irredeemable and utterly unworthy of any interaction with “whites” save as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Due to the vagaries of human nature, this system could not and did not function automatically. As historian Lerone Bennett2 and others have pointed out, Black and white indentured servants had worked and relaxed cheek-by-jowl together for at least two generations before Nathaniel Bacon organized them into a protest-cum-revolutionary movement. Therefore, the system must needs be reinforced, adjusted, and adapted from time to time to meet changed circumstances or challenges to its legitimacy.

Alexander follows a dark meandering line of oppression: After 250 years of outright African (Black) slavery, the Civil War crushed the slavocracy and ushered in Emancipation and Reconstruction. Reconstruction constituted only a brief period (less than fifteen years) of political, social and economic uplift of the former slaves before a “white backlash” against the new “Freedmen” ensued.

Enter America’s second racial bribe: In exchange for the re-institution of white supremacist rule under a different guise, southern whites agreed to end their political opposition and obstructionism. Their payoff? One hundred years of African (Black) neo-slavery, featuring special Black Codes, share cropping, tenant farming, and convict leasing — all undergirded by a sometimes loosely, sometimes strictly enforced Jim Crow segregation and discrimination.

Just as the Civil War destroyed slavery, by the late 1960’s the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements finally broke the back of Jim Crow. Again, an uneasy peace, punctuated by significant gains among Blacks, including the creation of a fledgling Black middle class, obtained until the next white reactionary response appeared. Like clockwork, a backlash eventually set in signaled by the election to the presidency of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, a white backlash. The whole dynamic began anew.

Again, Alexander has termed that response The New Jim Crow. More precisely, she has identified it as a third American racial bribe: The Age of Colorblindness. Enter the war on drugs.

  1. Whiteness As Property, Harris, Cheryl I., 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1709-1791, 1724-1737 (1993). []
  2. Before The Mayflower: A History Of Black America, Bennett, Lerone, Johnson Pub. Co., Inc. (1962). []
Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Herb may be reached at: Read other articles by Herb.