Spring birds, and The New Jim Crow
by Rob Tiller
Spring is definitely arriving here in Raleigh, and the birds are singing lustily. This week at Jordan Lake, I sawsome juvenile bald eagles, osprey, and great blue herons. At Shelley Lake, I enjoyed my old friends the Canada geese, and there was a towhee who posed nicely for me while singing.
At Jordan Lake, I thought I might have spotted a rarity — a black-headed gull. After studying my bird books, I posted a picture on the Carolina Bird Photographers Facebook page, and asked for the opinion of any gull experts. I got a quick response: it was a Bonaparte’s gull, which is not uncommon. I was a little disappointed, but I now have a firmer grasp of what a Bonaparte’s looks like.
For the spring migration, I’ve been refreshing on my bird song identification skills, using Peterson recordings and the Audubon app. I’m able to identify most of our local birds, and I’m getting ready for the less common migrants.
I finished reading The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which I highly recommend. Alexander, a former civil rights attorney and professor, paints a powerful and disturbing picture of mass incarceration in the US, showing that the war on drugs was to a great extent a war on black people. Seemingly race neutral laws resulted in a huge increase in imprisonment, with most of the prisoners black people convicted of non-violent drug crimes.
This had a ripple effect through black communities, destroying families and leaving a large percentage of black males unable tp find work and unable to vote. The effect has been comparable to the Jim Crow system for suppressing blacks after abolition, and has sustained our racial caste system using the race neutral terminology of crime.
There’s a quick overview of the book in Wikipedia, and she wrote a recent essay in the NY Times that has some of her main points. though I thought it was well worth reading the whole book.
Alexander was on The New Yorker Radio Hour podcast recently, and sounded like a really knowledgeable and thoughtful person. The subject of the podcast was prison abolition. This was the first time I’d heard that there is a prison abolition movement that is connected to the insights of her book. The basic idea is to address mass incarceration by changing our penal system, including redefining what’s criminal and designing less draconian punishments. This does not sound at all crazy, and I look forward to learning more.
When Alexander’s book was first published ten years ago, her message that the drug war was a symptom and expression of a racial caste system seemed radical, but it’s becoming widely accepted. We’ve made some progress in modifying the worst discriminatory laws of the war on drugs and addressing policing abuses, but much of the system is still in place, and the victims are all around us. It’s a prime opportunity to exercise our capacity for compassion, expand our political vision, and work for change.