Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker recently earned an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University and has been drug- and crime-free since 2002. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he now lives in New York City.

His new book is Larceny in My Blood: A Memoir of Heroin, Handcuffs, and Higher Education.

A few weeks ago I asked Parker what he was reading.  His reply:
I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The book asks hard questions, like why has our incarceration rate quadrupled over the last 30 years? And why is the vast majority of our exploded prison population made up mostly of minorities? The answers to these questions is the main thesis of the book: that the prison industrial complex is just a redo of the Jim Crow laws that kept African Americans oppressed for the better part of a century following the Civil War. She further contends that the current War on Drugs is just an extension of the Southern Strategy, a well-known conservative tactic that sought to drive a wedge between poor whites and poor blacks and other minorities—to in fact portray the latter as a threat (existential or otherwise) to the former in an effort to win the votes of the former.

I’ve seen mini versions of the southern strategy played out in numerous jails and prisons. Being a white male, I was constantly subject to the politics of Aryan prison gangs no matter how hard I tried to avoid both the gangs and the hate-laced rhetoric they espouse. Their main talking point is that the threat posed by the other races (especially Jews and blacks) to white America can only end one way; in a new civil war based on race. These scare tactics work surprisingly well in recruiting new gang members, particularly on fresh, young inmates. What’s pertinent is that many of the gang leaders at the very top could care less about race, but only exploit racial fear in order to shore up their power base.

But over one million American’s doing time for nonviolent drug offenses is one thing, dealing with the approximately five million felons on probation or parole is another. Alexander terms this the “prison label,” and is at pains to highlight how hard it is for convicted felons to make it on the outside: “A criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind [with Jim Crow]—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote.” I know from personal experience exactly what she’s talking about. In Arizona, where I did the vast majority of my prison time, I can neither vote nor rent an apartment in a decent neighborhood. Even living in liberal New York City I often feel the sting of the prison label despite the fact that I’ve been out of prison and off parole for close to 10 years. They don’t discriminate openly in New York, but I get the feeling that, when it comes to good-paying jobs, I’ll often be bypassed. Granted it is just a feeling—I have no concrete proof of employment discrimination—but it’s an all too familiar feeling; one that’s shared by literally millions of ex-felons who have paid there debt in full only to have society turn their backs on them.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the book, however, is the death grip the War on Drugs has on modern American jurisprudence. Even I, a veteran prisoner of the War on Drugs who has served 10 odd years on five separate sentences, was shocked and saddened by the sheer scope of it all; millions of lives ruined; hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars spent, and tens of thousands murdered by the criminals strung out on the unseemly profits that are there for the taking. The many arguments for the War on Drugs are well known, and as irksome as the same old junkie standing on the same old corner day in and day out, panhandling for a fix. The New Jim Crow, however, is a fresh argument against this decades-old war, and hinges more on our yearning for equal rights for all. And it is that dream of basic civil rights, inherent in every American, which The New Jim Crow demands.
Learn more about Matthew Parker's Larceny in My Blood at the publisher's website, and visit the Larceny in My Blood Facebook page.

The Page 69 Test: Larceny in My Blood.

My Book, The Movie: Larceny in My Blood.

--Marshal Zeringue