TL;DR Black and White people use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. The New Jim Crow does and EXTRAORDINARY job of laying out the systematic ways that Black and Brown people have been unjustly locked up in the “war on drugs”. It goes (deep) into the history of the war on drugs, the ways police are incentivized to over arrest, how and why Black communities are targeted even though data would point police elsewhere, and how courts have been used to solidify the system. We don’t allow Jim Crow laws anymore, and we call out overt racism, but racism has just morphed to fit this new system. Honestly, don’t read this blog post, go read the book.
The next #mtbos book club meeting is next Saturday, January 20. In person in Minneapolis, on twitter if you can’t join us here. It’s on The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Full confession, I am not yet done with the book. I’m about 2/3 through it, but I want to get the ball rolling, and Marian Dingle (@dingleteach) made the very good point that MLK day would be a good one for this book.
Instead of summarizing the book here, what I’d like to do is share conversations I had with my class over the past week. I’ll be tweeting out lots of things from the book throughout the day once this is posted.
On January 8th, “The New Jim Crow” was trending on twitter. Marian forwarded me a tweet from Sean King.
I’m pleased to say that those prisons have walked back that decision as of January 10th.
Regardless, the ban sparked me to change my weekly mathematician talk, and it took up most of Wednesday in all of my classes.
Not only have I been reading The New Jim Crow (and listening! The audible version is really well done), I have also been reading The Brilliance of Black Children in Mathematics by Danny Martin & Jacqueline Leonard and they open the book by discussing Benjamin Banneker, who became the mathematician this week.
I’ve paired the beginnings of these two books in my mind because they both discuss something that I may have learned at some point in my life, but of which I was currently unaware. We didn’t have to live in a racist society. As Alexander puts it, when discussing the 3 eras of racial control in America (slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration) “The adoption of the new system of control is never inevitable, but to date, it has never been avoided,” (TNJC, p22). Pre-Revolutionary war, yes, African people were being enslaved in America, but poor White people were not that terribly different than Black people socially. Alexander lays out how indentured servitude, to which both black and white people were subject, morphed into slavery divided by racial lines, due in part to a concerted, intentional effort of upper class White people to drive a wedge between poor Black, Brown, and White peoples. They, “shifted their strategy for maintaining dominance…Instead of importing English-speaking slaves from the West Indies….many more slaves were shipped directly from Africa. These slaves would be far easier to control and far less likely to form alliances with poor whites.” (TNJC p24).
Leonard & Martin’s book explains that Benjamin Banneker’s maternal grandparents were a white woman who had served as an indentured servant and her (emancipated) black slave, Banneka. It goes into detail as to how and why that wasn’t really all that surprising at the time, and yet by the time Banneker himself was around, in addition to his brilliant mathematical work, he was advocating for racial equality.
I shared this, and the fact that The New Jim Crow had been banned in New Jersey prisons and it led to long discussions in class. Most students had never heard of the book, and when I explained, as Alexander does, that Black and White people use and sell drugs at the same rates and that, numerically, that means WAY more white people use and sell drugs, yet it is overwhelmingly Black men in prison for drugs, kids were outraged. I was actually a bit surprised about how many students were unaware of this.
Me: Our prisons overwhelmingly imprison Black men for drug offenses.
Student: Well, that’s because they’re the ones out there selling all the drugs! (laughter)
Me; Actually, black and white people use and sell drugs at the same rates. Around 11-12% of black and white people use drugs, and although its a much smaller percentage of black and white people who sell drugs, a slightly higher percentage of white people sell drugs, especially among young people.
[At this point I drew a sketch similar to the one below on the white board. I’m now looking at actual numbers, and have tried to make this pretty accurate using data from both The New Jim Crow and Black Stats by Monique W Morris]
Student(s): Wait a second, that means way more white people should be in jail, right?
The math teacher in me really enjoyed that we got to have a conversation about proportionality here.
We went on to talk about why they might have banned The New Jim Crow in prisons, and in all five of my classes, it was brought up (bless them), that at least now that marijuana is becoming legal, a lot of them will have to be let out of prison. When either a student or I brought up that in California it’s legal to sell marijuana, but the people in prison for that aren’t going to be let out, there was general outrage.
For those out there who think that social justice doesn’t have a place in the math classroom, I would love to offer this up as a counter example. I had NO intention of talking about math in this conversation except to highlight some of Banneker’s accomplishments, but the math just spilled out. Not only did we discuss the above graphic, students also got curious about just how many people were in prison (approximately 2 million, with 7 million on probation or parole), and how that compares to general population numbers. If I had been intentional about this (which I hope to be in the future) I could have brought in a ton more statistics for comparison. I’ll be tweeting some of those out today.
We, math teachers, have a responsibility to talk about this stuff. We have a responsibility to educate our students. Join us!
Here’s the first of my tweet thread for the day. Click on it and you should be able to read the rest of the tweets, too.