Importantly, the attempt to shroud racist systems under the cloak of objectivity has been made before. In The Condemnation of Blackness, historian Khalil Muhammad reveals how an earlier “racial data revolution” in the nineteenth century marshalled science and statistics to make a “disinterested” case for White superiority:
Racial knowledge that had been dominated by anecdotal, hereditarian, and pseudo-biological theories of race would gradually be transformed by new social scientific theories of race and society and new tools of analysis, namely racial statistics and social surveys. Out of the new methods and data sources, black criminality would emerge, alongside disease and intelligence, as a fundamental measure of black inferiority.
You might be tempted to see the datafication of injustice in that era as having been much worse than in the present, but I suggest we hold off on easy distinctions because, as we shall see, the language of “progress” is too easily weaponized against those who suffer most under oppressive systems, however sanitized.
Readers are also likely to note how the term New Jim Code draws on The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s book that makes a case for how the US carceral system has produced a “new racial caste system” by locking people into a stigmatized group through a colorblind ideology, a way of labeling people as “criminals” that permits legalized discrimination against them. To talk of the new Jim Crow, begs the question: What of the old? “Jim Crow” was first
introduced as the title character of an 1832 minstrel show that mocked and denigrated Black people. White people used it not only as a derogatory epithet but also as a way to mark space, “legal and social devices intended to separate, isolate, and subordinate Blacks.”14 And, while it started as a folk concept, it was taken up as an academic shorthand for legalized racial segregation, oppression, and injustice in the US South between the 1890s and the 1950s. It has proven to be an elastic term, used to describe an era, a geographic region, laws, institutions, customs, and a code of behavior that upholds White supremacy.15 Alexander compares the old with the new Jim Crow in a number of ways, but most relevant for this discussion is her emphasis on a shift from explicit racialization to a colorblind ideology that masks the destruction wrought by the carceral system, severely limiting the life chances of those labeled criminals who, by design, are overwhelmingly Black. “Criminal,” in this era, is code for Black, but also for poor, immigrant, second-class, disposable, unwanted, detritus.