Alexander takes the title for this chapter – “The Cruel Hand” – from a speech by Frederick Douglass in 1853. This “cruel hand” still exists to keep criminals down and allow Americans to hate them.
When a person gets out of jail, he often knows very little about the world he will step into. His debt will never truly be paid and he seems to bear the mark of Cain. He cannot enlist in the military, buy a gun, obtain federal security clearance, or vote; he most likely cannot obtain federally funded health and welfare benefits, food stamps, public housing, or federal education assistance. He may have his license suspended. All of these things assure that the person who has served time will never be able to enter the mainstream.
The first issue is housing. If people have no one to stay with, or even if they do and it has been a few weeks, it is hard to find a place to live in. In the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1998, public housing agencies do not need to exercise discretion if a tenant or a tenant’s guest engages in criminal activity. They can develop their own exclusion criteria and deny eligibility for even the most minor offenses. They follow the “One Strike and You’re Out” policy, but this is hard for tenants who did not even know that criminal activity was going on (such as a woman evicted because her daughter had cocaine a few blocks from home). These families are vulnerable and have nowhere to go. Thousands become homeless.
The second issue is work, which most released people say is their number one priority. Work is considered by many to be a basic human need. It helps a person support their family, contribute, add value to society, and personally feel like they have value. Employers, though, can deny jobs to people even if they were just arrested for, not convicted of, a crime. Checking the box almost always means a job applicant will not get the job. Many of them already suffer from functional illiteracy and poor education, and the inability to get a job adds to their marginalization. In addition, if a person does not have a car, this makes getting a job even more difficult.
The stigma of having a criminal record also has a profound impact. Almost one-third of young black men in this country are out of work, much of this due to criminal records. There have been campaigns to take away the box on employment applications, but some scholars claim this may be deleterious because employers can just use other “popular but misguided proxies for criminality” (152) such as public assistance, public housing, and poor education.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did issue guidelines in 1987 saying that employers can not use flat bans and could only discriminate against applicants with criminal histories if they were looking at the nature and gravity of the offense, the length of time passed since the conviction/sentence, and the nature of the job. These guidelines do not have the force of law but judges often reference them in their rulings. Unfortunately, most employers do not care; many job ads and applications still outright preclude those with criminal conviction histories.
The third major issue is debt, which most people who come out of prison have a great deal of. Drug treatment, collection fees, child support, and more are difficult to keep up with and many people are shackled by this debt. Some even go back to jail; the threat of parole or probation revocation is used as a debt-collection tool. This is not far off from the days of Reconstruction when former slaves and descendants were arrested for minor reasons and then had to work off debt in convict leasing.
The fourth issue is that of food. Thanks to Clinton’s restructuring of welfare in 1996, there is a five-year limit on benefits, and states have to permanently bar individuals with drug-related felony convictions from federally funded public assistance.
The fifth issue is voting. Forty-eight states and D.C. bar inmates from voting, and most states prohibit it on parole or a period of time that sometimes encompasses the rest of one’s life. The United Nations Human Rights Committee calls them discriminatory and a violation of international law but so far nothing has been done.
For those released who have the right to vote, the bureaucratic maze of papers and fines can be insurmountable. Some people were told they could not vote when they could, and believed this because it made sense. Others did not want to call attention to themselves so they did not pursue their right. Overall, the votes of those labeled felons could have made a major impact in the elections of 2000 and 2004.
Many caught in the system say the shame and stigma are worse than anything else. Also, those who are assumed to be in the system are subject to this discrimination and persecution; “practically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals” (162). Many feel existential angst; the scorn and the “cruel hand” burden them. One black minister said the new n-word is “felon,” and Alexander comments, “today’s lynching is a felony charge. Today’s lynching is incarceration” (164). The shame also extends to family members of the incarcerated, who often lie to their communities to mitigate this shame. There is self-hate, repression, and “a collective denial of lived experience” (169).
However, if incarceration is so common, why isn’t it socially normative? It is absurd and racist to assume families in the ghetto don't want the same things as everyone else – safe streets, healthy families, good jobs – and feel no shame or regret for their plight. To this, many people often respond with the gangsta rap question: why do rappers celebrate drugs and violence and misogyny?
To begin with, people should not demonize a population, declare war against them, and then excoriate them. Gangsta rap is a way for young black men to embrace stigma; it is a psychological and political act. It is an “attempt to carve out a positive identity in a society that offers them little more than scorn, contempt, and constant surveillance” (171). Of course, it can be a self-defeating and destructive act, and the violence should not be lauded. This is the “paradox and predicament” of young black men, criminal or not.
Finally, Alexander discusses the minstrel show and how black people featured in the media are like minstrel figures because they are for white audiences and little more than stereotypes. So, then, should one hate or despise this black minstrel of today? Is he instead an unfortunate expression of the times and worthy of compassion? From a distance, we can see the emptiness and pain that he possesses.
All human beings make mistakes and fail to surmount obstacles. People should collectively embrace this already-stigmatized group and accept their humanity; however, this does not mean they bear no responsibility for their actions or we have to condone their behavior.
After analyzing the racialized aspects of drug policing and mass incarceration, Alexander looks into the world in which ex-offenders step into when they are released. The major irony (and tragedy) is that a jury or a judge, who either are or speak for the people, told offenders that prison was the way they paid their debt to society, but now that they have ostensibly paid this debt they realize that it is not the case whatsoever.
There are innumerable obstacles to surmount: finding housing, which is limited by one’s record; finding a job, which can be almost impossible because you have to check the box; getting food, which is also hard due to limitations on public assistance; voting, which is often taken away from ex-offenders or full of obstacles to re-attain; dealing with the psychological burden of shame and stigma associated with prison and crime; and paying debt accrued from time in prison, making it very difficult to provide for one’s family. All of these contribute to the undercaste Alexander mentioned in the early chapters, and exemplify the reasons why she chose Jim Crow as an apt framework to understand what is happening.
Although ex-offenders are legally citizens, they lack many of the basic privileges of citizenship. They are marginalized, stripped of the ability to participate fully in society. They often end up back in the system because the limitations placed on them make it difficult to survive. It is a moral failure, Alexander believes, and one we must account for. In an interview with Frontline she stated, “When you take a look at the system, when you really step back and take a look at the system, what does the system seem designed to do? It doesn’t seem designed to facilitate people’s re-entry, doesn’t seem designed for people to find work and be stable, productive citizens. No, if you take a hard look at it, I think the only conclusion that can be reached is that the system as it’s presently designed is designed to send people right back to prison, and that is in fact what happens the vast majority of the time.”
The distance between the inhumane criminal justice system we’ve created and the founding principles we pride ourselves on is vast. This is one of the themes that Alexander addresses multiple times in the text and that critics/readers tend to focus on. Meg Worden, an ex-offender herself and a contributor to Salon, expressed in an online discussion on the system, “Considering the importance of democracy, ownership, family, and the ability to earn a viable income as markers of relevant personhood in our culture, the penal system has actually rendered many African American men non-human. Targeted as ‘dangerous’ from their teen years, swept into the system, rendered powerless to care for themselves and their families, they are then crucified in the media as absentee fathers, creating unstable family units that breed more crime. It’s truly horrifying, how the human psyche can be so blind when their own lives are not at stake. The consequences of standing up to this kind of injustice makes people appear to favor violence and corruption versus peace. Everyone wants to belong to the side of right. Social acceptance is at stake and it holds great weight.”
This moral failure is also echoed in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famed Between the World and Me in which he writes, “One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.” American society cannot espouse a rhetoric of colorblindness, comfort itself in the rightness and effectiveness of procedural guarantees, and look the other way when something challenges its worldview all the while claiming to be an emblem of freedom, fairness, and morality.