Cook: The new Jim Crow

Cook: The new Jim Crow

January 6th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

When they opened the prison gates and gave Cedric Conner back his freedom after four years in jail, the state penitentiary guards in Wartburg, Tenn., said something he remembers to this day.

We'll be waiting for you.

"They know the chances of you getting out there and making it are slim to none," Conner said.

Conner, 39, a Chattanooga native and father of four, is a convicted felon.

Despite graduating from multiple prison counseling classes and getting his GED and other academic credits, Conner -- once known as prisoner 455060 -- is now shunted for life into a second-tier America with other paroled felons.

His felony status affects his ability to find work, forbids him from voting, shuffles him into substandard housing and blocks much of his full return into society.

"Hundreds," Conner said, counting the number of job applications he filled out since he was released last spring. Job applications are a troubling crossroads for him: If he admits being a felon, no one calls him for an interview. If he doesn't, and his employers find out about his felony status, he's fired.

"It's a double standard," said Conner.

At the turn of the 20th century, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells and other Americans founded the NAACP to combat the double-standard violence of American racism.

A century later, the NAACP is needed as much as ever.

The hot racism of old has been replaced by a new form of legalized discrimination. No longer are black Americans imprisoned through slavery or the fear of lynching and white hoods at midnight, but through a legalized form of discrimination of prisons, drug laws and felon-branding.

It's the new Jim Crow.

"Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color 'criminals' and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind," writes Michelle Alexander in her stunning "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness."

"As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow," she writes. "We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it."

More black American men were disenfranchised in 2004 than in 1870, Alexander said -- they had lost the right to vote because of felony status.

In 2010, more black Americans were under governmental control -- prison, parole, probation -- than were enslaved in 1850.

Black Americans accounted for one of every three drug arrests between 1980 and 2007, according to Human Rights Watch. Yet research shows whites and blacks use drugs at relatively equal rates.

Locally (as well as nationally), blacks are imprisoned at disproportionate levels. Officials at Silverdale Detention Facility report 397 black inmates compared with 393 white inmates (as of last week). At the Hamilton County Jail, black males outnumber white male inmates 265 to 196.

"The system is controlled by people who don't want it to go right," Conner said. "I'd like for somebody to stand up and say, 'This is wrong. What's going on is wrong.'"

Conner, who is eloquent and speaks with a seasoned intellect, went to jail in 2008 after shooting a man he claims was attacking him. He's done his time. Now he's looking, hard, for work. Trying to start a mentoring program for local teens.

But he still fears the wicked gravity that keeps pulling him back toward those prison guards and their prediction.

And why they were so confident when they made it.