“The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander is an important book. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Baltimore Sun, which called it an “important book.” Still not convinced? Well, the Birmingham News called it “Undoubtedly the most important book published this century about the U.S.” In my opinion, this is not an exaggeration.
“The New Jim Crow,” as you might guess from its title, explores the development of a new system of racial control in this country. Alexander, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University, argues that even though slavery has ended and the era of de jure segregation is over, society is still profoundly unequal for African-Americans. As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” Because of the War on Drugs and a devastating and unprecedented system of mass incarceration, Alexander claims, the black community has been largely relegated to the position of an “undercaste,” exactly as it was under the former system of Jim Crow. This book is an especially timely one, considering recent events such as a the Supreme Court ruling that allows police to strip search suspects in any context and the Trayvon Martin tragedy.
“The New Jim Crow” starts with a useful review of racial caste systems in this country. For those who do not remember the inequities and iniquities of the former Jim Crow, African-Americans were denied the right to vote and to serve on juries; they were discriminated against when trying to obtain public housing, education, employment and welfare; they were subject to constant harassment from police; and they were harshly stigmatized. Alexander argues that every single one of these conditions still exists today for African-Americans as a result of mass incarceration.
Not too long ago, many experts believed that prisons were about to become a thing of the past. This was, of course, before the advent of the “War on Drugs,” which has accounted almost singlehandedly for a sixfold increase in the prison population in the last 30 years. Because of the War on Drugs and “get tough on crime” policies, the penalties for drug offenders have become exponentially harsher. Once drug offenders are released from prison, they are labeled “felons” and they can be legally discriminated against. They can be denied the right to vote and to serve on a jury; they can be legally discriminated against when trying to obtain public housing, education, employment and welfare; they can be constantly harassed by the police; and they are stigmatized. Sound familiar? The similarities between the way we treat nonviolent ex-felons and the way we treated African-Americans under Jim Crow are remarkable.
But the most important similarity is that those discriminated against in the Jim Crow South and those being discriminated against now look the same. Alexander painstakingly proves that the War on Drugs has largely targeted African-Americans. Studies suggest that African-Americans are no more likely to use or deal drugs that whites (if anything, they are actually less likely), but police target inner-city blacks more than any other group. Racial profiling is a widely used tool, but because of several Supreme Court rulings it is virtually impossible to challenge racist police practices. Mostly because of these practices (and racist laws that give harsher sentences to users of crack rather than powder cocaine), in many parts of this country “as many as 80 percent of young African American men now have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
Once profiled and searched — often without proper consent — a person carrying drugs is most likely to plead guilty to a lesser charge to avoid jail time. But even never serving a day in jail, a convicted drug user may still be subject to all of the collateral consequences faced by those who have. And after three minor drug offenses, it is common for the offender to be given a life sentence — all in the name of being tough on crime. Of course, those most likely to be affected by “get tough” policies are overwhelmingly African-American.
Who is to blame for this despicable system of mass incarceration? Alexander indicts our “colorblind” society, claiming that racial apathy is often as malignant as outright racial hatred. Instead of ignoring race, Alexander argues, we should acknowledge it. “Seeing race is not the problem,” she writes. “Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.”
The really remarkable thing about “The New Jim Crow” is that it relies so little on heartwrenching anecdotes — though there are more than enough of those. It uses facts and statistics — astonishing numbers that I never would have known existed — to prove its thesis. Alexander calls upon all Americans to work to create a new civil rights movement to combat the new Jim Crow. She acknowledges that this will not be easy, but insists upon its necessity. As influential Princeton professor Cornel West wrote in a foreword to “The New Jim Crow,” “The social movement fanned and fueled by this historic book is a democratic awakening that says we do care, that the racial caste system must be dismantled, that we need a revolution in our warped priorities, a transfer of power from oligarchs to people — and that we are willing to live and die to make it so.”