Goodreads: The New Jim Crow
“Jarvious Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Klu Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation; his father was barred by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.”
As the United States celebrates the nation’s “triumph over race” with the election of Barack Obama, the majority of young black men in major American cities are locked behind bars or have been labeled felons for life. Although Jim Crow laws have been wiped off the books, an astounding percentage of the African American community remains trapped in a subordinate status–much like their grandparents before them.
In this incisive critique, former litigator-turned-legal-scholar Michelle Alexander provocatively argues that we have not ended racial caste in America: we have simply redesigned it. Alexander shows that, by targeting black men and decimating communities of color, the U.S. criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control, even as it formally adheres to the principle of color blindness. The New Jim Crow challenges the civil rights community–and all of us–to place mass incarceration at the forefront of a new movement for racial justice in America.
The New Jim Crow is an eye-opening look at the justice system in America. Even readers who think they have some understanding of how incarceration works in the U.S. may be surprised by Michelle Alexander’s findings. She lays out a compelling case to argue that the War of Drugs begun in the 1980s targets black and brown people, penalizing them with disproportionately heavy sentences for minor drug use. Once labelled felons, individuals become part of America’s under-caste; it is perfectly legal to discriminate against them in housing and hiring. Furthermore, they lose access to welfare, making it harder for them to feed themselves and their families. And they are denied the opportunity to vote. This system, which makes it almost impossible for previously incarcerated individuals to get a job, find a home, and feed themselves, stacks the deck against them, making it more likely they will have to return to illegal activities to stay alive. The system, Alexander, argues has to change. But we cannot do that until we stop being indifferent.
Alexander spends a lot of time dismantling the notion that a “colorblind” society can lead to true equality. She asserts that it is Americans’ belief in colorblindness and a postracial society that allows them to be indifferent about what is happening in the neighborhoods they don’t live in. While it is common for young Black men to be stopped and searched just for walking down the street or driving down the road, white people, as a rule, do nothing to contest this system because it does not affect them and because they believe that the people who are being stopped must have done something to deserve it. Yet, Alexander wonders, what would happen if white people were stopped at the same rates as young Black men? How long would it take for the system to change?
Some people may try to justify the incarceration rates of Black men, but Alexander asks her readers to rethink the way things are. Does it actually make sense to have heavy mandatory sentences for minor drug use? Should someone’s life be ruined just because they were found holding a small about of drugs? Why do we say of the white college student that, “He has his whole life before him! It was just a mistake. Give him another a chance.” But we don’t extend that same reasoning to the young Black man convicted of the same or a similar crime? And does the data actually support the notion that we must be “tough on crime” to keep communities safe? Why is there less focus on white collar crimes that affect more people than someone using? Why do the poorest get saddled with more jail time because they can’t afford to buy their way out with information or assets?
Alexander’s research forces readers to confront biases they may not have known they were holding. She asserts that the creation of the War on Drugs made being Black synonymous with being a criminal, and that this campaign was part of a purposeful effort to appeal to lower-class white voters who had to be prevented from finding solidarity with the poor Black community. Because of the concerted media campaign launched by the Reagan administration, people began believing that drug usage, which they had previously not cared much about, was engulfing America and that Black users were dangerous and violent. Young white men probably use drugs at a higher rate than Black men, yet, when asked to picture a user, most people will probably think of someone who is Black. Readers will have to ask themselves why. Does the data actually support the idea that Black men are more likely to be criminal? Or have they been unwittingly swayed by media portrayals that they have never thought to question?
The forces arrayed against meaningful change in the justice system are many. Discriminatory practices exist at every level, from pretextual traffic stops to jury selection to who gets adequate legal representation to who gets sentenced with what types of crimes. Additionally, there are many economic incentives for interested individuals to try to keep the booming business of privatized prisons going. Readers may have not thought of every piece of the puzzle, but Alexander compellingly lays out in detail how the entire system conspires to keep Black men on the fringes of society.
The question, of course, is what readers do with this information once they have it. On an individual level, readers may be convinced they need to rethink their unconscious biases. Do they automatically associate being Black with being criminal? How have biases such as this affected things like a company’s hiring practices? A landlord’s renting decisions? A school administration’s choices about who gets sent to alternative schools? Additionally, readers may feel more empowered to have difficult discussions about race, now that they have data to back them up. Ultimately, however, Alexander argues that we must have the courage to use this information to make real, systemic change–even if that means some people give up their privilege to make things more equal. It is an effort that she imagines can only be achieved through a popular, grassroots movement–not legal battles.
The New Jim Crow is a provocative, well-researched book that will have readers rethinking everything they have been told about the War on Drugs. It will open their eyes to practices they may have not even known were occurring. And, ultimately, it will empower them to take a stance. Find your copy today!