The New Class, a New Form of Racism, and the Police State
The American people are becoming more and more aware that jobs are not coming back. The first waves of mass layoffs and permanent layoffs began in the 1980s, first affecting industrial workers and then reverberating through the service economy, now affecting even knowledge workers as more and more of production is automated, digitized and turned over to robots and computers.
The problem for the ruling class have become, how does it control the rise of a huge and growing new class of workers that are no longer needed? At the heart of this new class is the Black worker, who had only just entered the industrial workforce after a mass migration from the sharecropping fields of the old agricultural South. The old Jim Crow no longer held sway for them, but the ruling class nevertheless relied on the historic forms of control that arose out of that sordid history of slavery and white supremacy. The target today is the new class as a whole, but the ruling class takes aim at the Black worker who is at the core of this new class. It is a kind of racism that is based more on economic status than on skin color, but it is racism nonetheless.
A Militarized Police State
The centerpiece of the ruling class’ response is the formation and implementation of a police state, principally as a form of social control. The power of the State has been and is being utilized to mass incarcerate more than two million of our poor, Black, male, and young people. It is a mass incarceration that is designed to warehouse a new class that is deemed disposable, no longer needed in the new global economy.
In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander provides many examples. In our major American cities as many as 80 per cent of young African American men have prison records. The jobless rate is as high as 65 per cent, and 70 per cent are high school dropouts. In some states Black men are in prison on drug charges at 50 times the rate of white men, even though a majority of drug users are white. More than 31 million people have been arrested since the “drug war” began. Ronald Reagan initiated the drug war in 1982, coincident with the disappearance of millions of manufacturing jobs due to the onset of the new technology.
Bill Clinton escalated the drug war with “three strikes and you’re out” and “ending welfare as we know it.” In 1996 funding for public housing was redirected for new prison construction. Public housing funds were slashed by $4.7 billion and money for corrections was boosted by $19 billion. Prisons became the main housing program for the poor. Banned from public housing, many became homeless.
Mass incarceration is bad enough, but it does not end there. Prison is a gateway to permanent marginalization. By a system of laws, policies, and institutions, ex-offenders are barred by law from ever entering the mainstream of society again. Once released, the former prisoner is denied the right to vote, excluded from juries, denied the ability to obtain employment, housing, or public benefits.
Those who have been convicted of a felony drug offense are banned permanently from receiving welfare or food stamps. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that public housing tenants can be evicted even if they had no knowledge of nor participated in alleged criminal action. More than 650,000 are released from prison each year, and finding a home is next to impossible for the rest of their lives.
And then there is the “box” – checking yes or no on an employment application if you have ever been convicted of a crime. In an environment where jobs are harder and harder to find, this amounts to a permanent life-time ban for employment. You are simply excluded.
Most who are released from prison also carry with them a heavy debt load. Many may work in prison for $1.25 to $3.00 per hour, but are forced to pay for drug testing costs, jail book-in fees, jail per diem, public defender application fees, bail investigation fees, parole or probation service fees, and then late fees and interest. It is a debt load from which they are never unburdened. Locked out of the legal economy, many are returned to prison for failure to pay their debts. The prison system has become a modern-day debtor’s prison.
Confronting this marginalized and excluded new class is the consolidation and implementation of a 21st century American police state. It is a State that has in the first place militarized the police and prison system. In 1999 alone more than three million pieces of military equipment were allocated to local police departments, including Black Hawk helicopters, M-16 rifles, grenade launchers, etc. SWAT teams are now routinely employed to serve narcotics warrants by forced unannounced entry into homes. No knock warrants have jumped from 3,000 a year in the early 1980s to more than 40,000 a year by the early 2000s.
Fascism by Legal Means
What is chilling is that all of this is being carried out by legal means. The “loophole” through which the legal system has been able to initiate what amounts to the formation of a fascist State by legal means is contained in the 13th amendment to the Constitution of the U.S. That is the amendment that bans slavery, but with one exception – punishment for a crime. To illustrate this in law, Alexander quotes Ruffin v Commonwealth (Virginia). “He has forfeited not only his liberty … but all his personal rights. He is for the time being a slave of the State.”
The Supreme Court has since moved to eviscerate the 4th amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure. It has approved mandatory drug testing of employees and students; upheld random searches and sweeps of public schools and students; permitted police to obtain search warrants based on anonymous tips; expanded the government’s wiretapping authority; legitimized the use of paid, unidentified informants; approved the use of helicopter (and drone) surveillance without a search warrant; allowed the forfeiture of cash, homes, and other property based on unproven allegations of illegal drug activity.
Added to this, taking the lead of the Supreme Court, the legal system is said to be formally color-blind. The door to claims of racial bias has been closed at every step of the legal process, from stops and searches to plea bargaining and sentencing. The results are otherwise. What we have is a closed circuit of permanent marginality, which has targeted a section of a new class objectively marginalized by laborless production, but which employs a new form of racism that targets a class based more on economic status. But at the forefront of that class stands the African American and Latino workers, who bear the brunt of the assault by the police state.
The Latino workers are targeted by the police state through Homeland Security’s ICE and are also subject to mass incarceration, but they are also virtually the definition of marginalization as they are excluded from jobs, voting, education, housing, and public benefits.
Alexander calls this “new Jim Crow” a racial caste system in the age of electronics, but her own words contradict her. While Blacks and Latinos are the main targets, it also includes the poor white workers, she says. What she describes is a new class which includes poor Black, white and Latino workers. The target is not all Blacks or all Latinos, and does not, for that matter, exclude all whites.
The process that has been ongoing for the past 30 years has become normalized. But what that poses for the American people is a moral dilemma: Where was I when they came for the Black or the Latino masses or our youth and I said nothing? Who will be left when they come for me? In truth, this section of our class may be marginalized and excluded, but they are still a part of us. If we do not take a stand for class solidarity in defense of all of humanity, then our whole society may become a prison.
September/October 2013. Vol23.Ed5
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Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011