Preservation Through Transformation

In reading the first chapter of Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, “The Rebirth of Caste” I was struck by two sentences. First, in discussing how the social rhetoric and hierarchy has been restructured but not destroyed since America’s beginning, she quotes legal scholar Reva Siegel in saying this process is “‘preservation through transformation'” which is how “white privilege is maintained.” Secondly she wrote, under the heading “The Death of Jim Crow”, that “In the absence of a massive, grassroots movement directly challenging the racial caste system, Jim Crow might be alive and well today.” While this idea of a racial hierarchy is in direct conflict with the American Dream of “rags to riches” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”, it is nonetheless true that the racial caste in this country prevents specific groups of people from achieving what others in a higher caste can accomplish. This racial hierarchy is the result of hundreds of years of “preservation through transformation” of white privilege, from slavery to mass incarceration, the language and rhetoric changing with each restructure to reflect the appropriate language and beliefs of the time, each time making the disadvantages of being a POC seem more equal and appropriate to what their white counterparts experience. In spite of this, I am not hopeless about the state of our nation’s caste system and would still like to believe that we can do better. However, reflecting on the intensely public turmoil that our country has been struggling with for the past year, I cannot help but think that Alexander’s words hold true not only for the past dismantling of Jim Crow, but for the solution to mass incarceration, that it will only be through a major grassroots movement that these problems will be overcome.

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