Juneteenth and Some Symbolism from “The New Jim Crow”

This Juneteenth I happen to be midway through listening to a book that is unintentionally, but highly symbolic of this holiday. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander (2020) has completely altered the way I view America. While June 19th celebrates the final messaging that American slaves were finally free, when Major General Gordon Granger shared the news to the citizens of Galveston, Texas on this day in 1865, Black Americans have yet to experience equality.


There are more Black men convicted of crimes today than were enslaved in 1850 (Chicago, T., 2013). 

The most incredible thing about Juneteenth, 1865 is that it came 2 and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation! The website History of Juneteenth presents a few potential reasons this may have happened. Slave holders in Texas may have tried to get one, and then more, harvests out of their unpaid workers. There is a story of the messenger who was assigned to bring the news to Texas being murdered along the way, preventing the Texan slaves from learning about their freedom. It is plain that the Southern state did not have enough Union soldiers to enforce the law until after General Lee surrendered in April of 1865. 

The reason I feel “The New Jim Crow” is symbolic of Juneteenth is that it communicates a Black America that has continued to be enslaved, during a time that civil rights were supposed to have been celebrated as finally achieved. How many White people feel like there is no difference between the potential of their offspring and the children of Black families? How many pride themselves in assumed colorblindness? This book opened my eyes to the stark reality of life as a Black person living in America versus my own view of the world around me. 

Before I continue writing about the paradigm shift that I’ve experienced, I think it important to point out that America is a big place. There are large parts that are far from any urban areas. Conversely, there are urban centers that would require an hour of driving before a farm is viewed. Books like “The New Jim Crow” present data and speak about ALL Black people, urban, rural, and suburban; educated, highly educated, and less educated; traveled, home-bound, restricted, and travel-averse; etc. I found that as I listened to the audiobook, I had to remind myself that there are many more Black people living in America than the few I am friends with. I can’t allow my personal relationships to skew my learning. 

The term White privilege is prevalent today. What does the antithesis look like? Black Lives Matter has arisen from mistreatment of unarmed Black men. It is important to draw attention to these atrocities, but what is going to stop the abuse? How can we fix what is broken? A huge step in the right direction is to attempt to understand the fuel of bad attitudes, racism, and prejudice that feeds the misbehavior. 

“The New Jim Crow” uncovers a pervasive, underlying attitude toward Black people in America. It points out messaging, practices, and laws that seem smart, but actually work at putting Black Americans in a place of second-class citizenry. The book begins by pointing out that there have been a few attempts to do this since emancipation. None have been as effective, though, as the most recent focus on branding Black culture as crime-infected

There are several ways that this messaging has been communicated. There seems to be data that supports it. Michelle Alexander dissects the disease of assumed-moral-depravity that racist and fearful White people have used to brand Black people. It is an inappropriate and cyclical label that needs to be broken. 

When I say, “There seems to be data…” supporting the idea that Black people are more prone to crime, it is because there are all kinds of charts, figures, and numbers that make it look like Black people are more engaged in criminal activity than White people. My last blog, “Sometimes it’s Classiest to Just Shut Up” was written as a reproof of people posting memes and texts on social media that attempt to steal the thunder or diminish the message of Black Lives Matter. I have seen tons of tables, charts, and graphs that make it seem like Black people are deserving of mistreatment. One Oklahoma police officer went as far as using data to back up the most outrageous statement I’ve ever read. Major Travis Yates of Tulsa, OK stated, “We’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we probably ought to be” (Flores & Shannon, 2020). What does this message communicate to people already steeped in bad ideas?

It would be pretty easy to manufacture larger numbers of any subgroup involved in any activity if you tallied those people more than anyone else! For example, if Black people, who on average own fewer cars and drive less than White people, are pulled over twice as much as White people, one could look at that data and deduce that Black people must be worse drivers than White people. 

The great thing about “The New Jim Crow” is that it is full of data that points to the misuse of information. It does not possess a whiny tone of complaining about mischaracterization. Rather, it straightens out misunderstandings through explaining logical and historical facts. For instance, crack cocaine is effectively the same drug as powder cocaine, but it has been deemed more deviant by the media. Lawmakers have assigned punishments that are ten times as harsh for distribution of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. 

Michelle Alexander pulls the curtain back on things like crack cocaine having been messaged as the illegal drug of choice for Black people, when the data shows otherwise. The media has fed sensationalized stories for years that have skewed the facts.

In conclusion, I warn you to avoid the trappings of your personal experiences. Just because you don’t know any racists does not mean they don’t exist. There is an orchestrated effort to make Black Americans appear less classy based on the color of their skin. This work is being done under the guise of colorblindness; “Wrong is wrong,” its proponents propose. Don’t be fooled! Read the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander (2020). 

Alexander, M. (2020). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness(10th Anniversary ed.). New York, NY: The New Press.

Chicago, T. (Director). (2013, March 15). “The New Jim Crow” – Author Michelle Alexander, George E. Kent Lecture 2013[Video file]. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gln1JwDUI64

Flores, J., & Shannon, J. (2020, June 12). Oklahoma cop faces backlash but won’t apologize after saying African Americans ‘probably ought to be’ shot more by police. Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/11/oklahoma-cop-black-americans-ought-be-shot-more/5346864002/

History of Juneteenth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2020, from https://www.juneteenth.com/history.htm

Sometimes it’s Classiest to Just Shut Up: Sequel to Silence is Not Classy

Social media has seen a war of words (and memes) since George Floyd’s death a few weeks ago. The treatment and subsequent death of an unarmed, non threatening Black man inspired the resurgent message that “Black Lives Matter.” As this three-word phrase flooded social media and people began to assemble with signs and solidarity, communicating discontent with the disrespect that Black people are shown across America, there has been push back, both literal and figurative. 

The mistreatment and disregard for Black people’s lives prompted the need to share the clear message that their lives are important. Some people who are not Black have read the three-word phrase “Black Lives Matter” and misinterpreted it. No one is saying, “Black Lives Matter MORE.” Rather, the unseen, but implied adverb is “too” or “also.” If they would defend against misinterpretation, why isn’t one of these adverbs included? Why don’t we say, “Black Lives Matter, too*”? (I haven’t seen any writing about this, yet. If you are reading this and have, please share with me.) It is my opinion that too or also would weaken the message. It would imply that Black Lives Matter, because… Or, “Since other lives matter, Black Lives might as well Matter.” In short, it would weaken the message. 

If you aren’t sure what to say, how about listening?

There is a lot of writing about the phrase “All Lives Matter,” so I won’t go into that, here. Suffice to say, it attempts to kick the feet out from under the people holding the “Black Lives Matter” signs, figuratively, of course. There are more and more phrases and memes getting attention, though. Just this morning (June 18, 2020), I saw #WhiteStrike trending on Twitter. It feels like the opposition to #BlackLivesMatter is trying to instigate a race war of sorts. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve seen many less offensive, but still passive/aggressive messaging. People who post things about cops being shot or mistreated might feel like they are sticking up for a targeted subgroup. 

All of this seeks to discredit Black Lives Matter. Whether it be targeted or subversive, any phrase addressing the country’s racial tensions that does not affirm the clear and distinct message that the lives of people with darker skin are valuable, important, and no less meaningful than other persons’ seeks to take the wind out of the Black Lives Matter movement’s sails. 

I am not saying that the only thing that people should be saying, writing, or sharing is “Black Lives Matter.” That would be ironic after my last blog suggested that the ultimate evil was “silencing” people. My aim in this blog is to help people recognize the gross insensitivity and perceived racist messaging of purposefully stealing thunder from Black Lives Matter. In other words, while it isn’t wrong to point out that police officers get shot, too, sharing this information in the face of unarmed black men getting gunned down is like telling a recently diagnosed cancer victim that you have a hangnail. 

This blog is written for white people who are trying to make sense of an inner conflict. If you are feeling as though stating “Black Lives Matter” means “My life does not,” listen up. That is not the message. Your life is fine. It matters. They all do. However, many people in this country have been acting as though Black lives do not matter. For this reason, it is important to message that specifically Black Lives Matter. If this makes you feel a little uncomfortable, do some reading, do some inner reflection, etc. Get yourself ready and secure. Then make some noise. See “Silence is Not Classy.”

There are many ways to “Make noise.”

One of the best things you can do to prepare yourself is listen to others. The first and most important step in becoming a good listener, which ought to be the number one role of white people right now, is shutting up

The very first lesson that I share with my third grade students at the beginning of the school year has to do with being an active listener. The first three things, and I repeat these like a mantra all year long, that an active listener must do is stop moving, make eye contact, and smile. 

Personally, I even refrain from commenting on the negative things that have happened during these past few weeks of protesting. The only thing that I will verbalize about beginning fires or vandalism is that “I don’t know.” 

I don’t know…

…who is responsible.

…what their background is… And, I refuse to project personal opinions onto people and scenarios that I know nothing about.

… who or what was targeted… I don’t know the goal(s), and I will not assume to interpret from a platform of ignorance.

I want to conclude this blog with an eye-opening text that I read this year from the 20th anniversary of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017).

undefinedImagine the young eighth-grade girl who experienced the teacher’s use of “you people” and the dancing stereotype as a racial affront. Upset and struggling with adolescent embarrassment, she bumps into a White friend who can see that something is wrong. She explains. Her White friend responds, in an effort to make her feel better perhaps, and says, “Oh, Mr. Smith is such a nice guy, I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that. Don’t be so sensitive.” Perhaps the White friend is right and Mr. Smith didn’t mean it, but imagine your own response when you are upset, perhaps with a spouse or partner. Your partner asks what’s wrong and you explain why you are offended. In response, your partner brushes off your complaint, attributing it to your being oversensitive. What happens to your emotional thermostat? It escalates. When feelings, rational or irrational, are invalidated, most people disengage. They not only choose to discontinue the conversation but are more likely to turn to someone who will understand their perspective. 

In much the same way, the eighth grade girl’s White friend doesn’t get it. She doesn’t see the significance of this racial message, but the girls at the “Black table” do. When she tells her story there, one of them is likely to say, “You know what, Mr. Smith said the same thing to me yesterday!” (p. 142)

When I read this text, everything seemed to fall into place in my mind. I want to be the supportive White friend to my Black brothers and sisters, but I am often afraid of saying the wrong thing. Rather than remaining silent, however, I am choosing to actively listen. What are you going to do?

*A book with the title “Black Lives Matter (too)” by Mary Canty Merrill Ph.D. tells the story of the Black Lives Matter movement, but doesn’t explore the lack of the adverb.