Texas Tough: Nightmares of My Grandfather

05/26/2010 12:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My grandfather, Henry Fly, lived from the Age of Lynching to the Age of Obama. As a boy growing up in rural Mississippi, he once hid behind a gas station to avoid a rowdy bunch of men recruiting for a "nigger hunt." Almost ninety years later, he shuffled into the Hancock County Public Library and helped elect the nation's first black president.

The unfathomable became actual over the course of his life, but Henry, as he insisted we call him, never really doubted it would. An iconoclastic white liberal, he didn't sugarcoat the racist violence and relentless discrimination of his home state, but he taught us that reason would eventually triumph over ignorance, tolerance over bigotry.

I soaked up his lessons, but as I came of age amid the resurgence of conservatism (I was born in 1969, five months after the inauguration of Richard Nixon), I started to have my doubts. Dixiecrat demagoguery no longer got candidates elected to office, but harangues against crime, welfare queens, and affirmative action did. Schools were no longer segregated by law, but they remained separate and unequal. During Henry's prime, from the New Deal through the Great Society, social stratification in the South and the rest of the country diminished, but changes to the tax code and curtailments to social programs have since redistributed resources back upward. A recent Brandeis study found that the wealth gap between black and white families has quadrupled since the 1980s. In April, the unemployment rate for African Americans approached 17 percent, almost double the rate for whites.

This paradoxical hardening of inequality in an era of undeniable racial progress is especially stark in criminal justice. More than half a century ago, at the height of Jim Crow, African Americans were going to prison at roughly four times the rate of whites; now the black imprisonment rate is seven times that of whites. If present trends continue, a third of all black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. Millions more, due to felony disenfranchisement, will lose the right to vote, one of the dearest prizes of the black freedom struggle. In the 1960s, when my grandfather got chased out of Jackson, Mississippi for speaking out against segregation, African Americans were braving bullets to "March Against Fear." Today, African Americans are being marched off to jail.

My book, Texas Tough, is an attempt to reckon with the divergence between my grandfather's sanguine expectations and the bleak reality of persistent prejudice and unequal justice. Its concerns are broad--the re-southernization of American politics and the refashioning of the welfare state into a punitive state--but the research emphasis is more tightly bound. Rather than revisit Mississippi, "the darkest corner of the South," the book focuses on Texas, a roaring juggernaut that fought two wars of succession in support of slavery and that today serves as America's new bellwether state. Rather than sketching the transformation of politics writ large, the book homes in on the entwined histories of racism and the law, uncovering the origins of America's exceptionally harsh approach to criminal justice in the broken promises and iniquitous profits of the young republic.

Texas Tough is also the biography of an institution. It relates the troubled life story of a single southern prison system, one that started out with the construction of a pine-log barracks in 1842 and that has grown into the largest, harshest incarceration complex in the United States. It describes how a plantation-based penal system, long dismissed as a brutish backwater, managed to become a pacesetter in hardline prison management; how a retributive ethos of criminal justice that developed on slavery's frontier eventually took hold nationwide. Tracing the evolution of Texas and American justice over two centuries, the book explains how reform movements arose and were beaten back; how the divisive, fearful politics of law and order helped vanquish the hopes of Reconstruction and, later, integration; and how the specters of slavery survived to haunt the present. In short, it explains how the land of the free became the most incarcerated society in the history of democratic governance.

With the ascent of Obama, Henry believed the long backlash against civil rights had run its course. Hurricane Katrina, which swept away his home of forty years and nudged him into a final decline, had exposed festering racial wounds and inspired renewed efforts to heal them. In the criminal justice arena, there were scattered signs that the country might be moving in a new direction. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, the U.S. prison population declined slightly in 2009, for the first time in a generation. Thus far, politicians have enacted mostly modest, budget-driven reforms, slowing parole revocations, for instance. They will have to do much more if they want to significantly downsize a bloated prison bureaucracy that devours $70 billion a year, locks up 2.3 million people, and does surprisingly little to protect the public from crime. But there is a chance, as Obama noted in his Philadelphia address on race, that America can break from its "tragic past" and once again "narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals" and the reality of our time.

In June, Henry's many survivors--my ninety-four year old grandmother, their four children, nine grandchildren, and six great grandchildren--will gather in Bay St. Louis to scatter his ashes in the oleaginous waters of the Gulf. My hope is that the more equal, just, and genuinely democratic America he dreamed of in his youth and thought he saw taking shape in his twilight years is at hand. But it is still too early to tell what the tide will bring.