The New Jim Crow
2015 is the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when hundreds of civil rights marchers were attacked by local police forces in Selma, Alabama. The Selma marches catalyzed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That same year, the racial segregation laws, known as Jim Crow laws, were finally erased. Yet five decades later, overt, covert, and institutionalized racism still plays out in many ways, including segregated neighborhoods, disparate imprisonment rates, and significant income and employment gaps.
Black History Month helps celebrate the impact of Black Americans in our past, but it doesn’t seem to get us thinking as deeply as we should. It’s still difficult for us to talk about race; people don’t want to say or do the “wrong” thing. And it is difficult to personally realize that each of us plays some role in racial segregation and perpetuating racism. I absolutely think about this for myself. I want to be better, and I believe most of us want to be better, but we don’t always know how to get there.
Aeon’s management team is reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Alexander argues that America’s War on Drugs has produced new discrimination that targets primarily young black men. She provides powerful and overwhelming evidence about how the criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control that relegates millions to permanent second-class status. When writing about this evidence, Alexander uses the analogy of a bird cage — noting that each bar of the cage can be something you or I might not necessarily see as an overtly racist policy, funding action, or media coverage. But all of the bars are put in place — however innocuously, or well-intentioned — to keep the bird in the cage. At one point I was so disturbed listening to the audiobook that I had to pull over to the side of the road. I guess I hadn’t seen the cage in its entirety before.
But Alexander asserts that being angry, or even fixing some of the “systems,” won’t lead to sustainable solutions. Like most complicated issues, there’s not simply one thing we can do to solve the problem. We must have open, honest conversations about racism and its current impact. I’m personally committed to this, and challenge myself on it every day. Currently at Aeon, we are reading The New Jim Crow and from that looking for ways to hold ourselves personally and organizationally accountable. For example, we must re-examine how we decide who gets to live in an Aeon apartment home. In addition to the community voices we heard on this matter, the book served as an impetus to review selection criteria — including thinking through which aspects of a prospective resident’s background we should consider — and looking for other ways to take action toward racial equity.
Have you read The New Jim Crow? If so, I’d like to hear your reaction and thoughts on the book.
Alan Arthur, President & CEO
Aeon’s Annual Meeting & Celebration