Donald Trump has promised to restore “law and order” in America. On a number of occasions the president-elect has announced his unbridled support for controversial methods of policing, like stop-and-frisk, and just this week he threatened protesters with jail time for burning the flag. During a discussion Wednesday between Michelle Alexander, law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Vivian Nixon, Executive Director at College and Community Fellowship, an organization that helps formerly incarcerated get college degrees, the New York Times bestseller spoke about what the criminal justice system might look like for the next four—or more—years under a Trump presidency.
America’s history of incarcerating black men is key to understanding what might be to come, Alexander says:
You can’t tell the story of mass incarceration in America without telling, to some extent, the story of slavery. If we go back to slavery, we find that after the Civil War we had our first prison boom. Black people were incarcerated for loitering and vagrancy, and when they were arrested, many were sent to plantations, a system known as convict leasing. Mass incarceration was trotted out back then.
That history is not so far off from what we’ve heard from Trump himself about crime, inner cities, and African American communities:
Ideas emerged that black men are prone to violence and didn’t want to work and should be forced to work and need to be controlled….All this rhetoric was to justify convict leasing. After convict leasing eventually faded away, we saw the Jim Crow era emerge, a backlash to the populist movement that brought together poor whites and blacks….Whites were encouraged to choose racial superiority over economic solidarity. Jim Crow destroyed the energy behind the interracial populist movement, much how our president-elect has used the same rhetoric.
On ending mass incarceration, Alexander warns about the challenges ahead under the next administration:
It’s not as though we were on the cusp of ending mass incarceration before Trump got elected….Trump has declared himself a law-and-order president, and has endorsed practices like stop-and-frisk that we were close to winning the public debate on. And because he’s taken such an aggressive and arrogant posture that any criticism of the police is unpatriotic or un-American, we are in a very different political environment than most of us expected to be in. If Hillary Clinton got elected, I would have thought we had our work cut out for us….It’s going to require a real movement that forces a broad awakening to see what we’ve done as a nation by stripping millions of people of their dignity and human rights, and it would require a major political and social upheaval.
As for what comes next, resistance, it seems, will be key:
But now we’re going to have to deal with a political climate [in which] protest and movement building will be criminalized in a lot of respects….But if there’s any silver lining in all of this, [it’s that] the curtain has been pulled back and we can all see very clearly that there are real racial dynamics at work here, and that the punitive impulse comes from a place of deep racial divisions that have not been meaningfully addressed even in the era of Obama, where people believed we were entering into a post-racial era. Well, we’re kind of forced to deal, head-on with the racial reality. So it is my hope that restraint will be evident in the next four years or ending mass incarceration and reimagining justice in America.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.