Book review: The New Jim Crow

new jim crowLaw professor Michelle Alexander wrote a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which has become not only a surprise best seller since its paperback version came out in January 2012, but arguably THE definitive book on mass incarceration, particularly of men of color.

From the New York Times: “The book marshals pages of statistics and legal citations to argue that the get-tough approach to crime that began in the Nixon administration and intensified with Ronald Reagan’s declaration of the war on drugs has devastated black America.

“Today… nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point, only to find themselves falling into permanent second-class citizenship after they get out… Professor Alexander’s book [asserts] that the crackdown was less a response to the actual explosion of violent crime than a deliberate effort to push back the gains of the civil rights movement.”

Our church studied the book in February during the Adult Education hour. In brief, Alexander shows an imperfect, but palpable, link from slavery to the Jim Crow laws that took effect, from after the American Civil War to perhaps a half-century ago. That was followed by a NEW Jim Crow of mass incarceration, where the number of people in prison in the United States grew from about 300,000 in 1970 to over 2 million by 2000.

Check out Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity and Breaking Down Mass Incarceration in the 2010 Census: State-by-State Incarceration Rates by Race/Ethnicity.

Impact

Moreover, that mass incarceration has had a devastating effect on communities. From the book:

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than with the language we use to justify it. In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.

Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.

The problem with having read this book is that, once you’ve done that, you know the basic premise to be self-evidently true, and don’t understand why EVERYONE doesn’t know this. The one saving grace is that, when Alexander first started investigating the issue early in this century, SHE hadn’t connected the dots either.

I will note that the author occasionally repeats the narrative, I reckon, so that she’s certain the reader gets the point she’s making. But these are important points. Moreover, the issues are still taking place. Read Jails: Time to Wake Up to Mass Incarceration in Your Neighborhood.