The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander recounts in great detail how the racial caste system is not dead. Published in 2010, the author walks us through how the mass incarceration system has taken the place of Jim Crow. Ms. Alexander brings to the forefront the genesis of the War on Drugs and how it was not only used as a political bargaining chip but led to the current unprecedented levels of incarceration we see today. Because Jim Crow was legally dismantled, the “system” had to create new ways to disenfranchise black communities. The book explains how the prison system became a business and the warehousing black bodies its primary product and service. Further, the War on Drugs was a means of controlling and enslaving the black population in much the same ways as Jim Crow. The Constitution makes a provision for forced labor in the case of punishment for breaking the law. Laws were created that disproportionately impacted black and poor people resulting in the United States of America locking up 2.3 million human beings, the highest of any nation on the planet. For example, research shows that blacks and whites do illegal drugs at roughly the same rate. However, more blacks end up in prison due to harsher sentencing guidelines. Crack cocaine, which has statistically been found in black communities, carries a much harder sentence than powder cocaine, primarily found in white communities. Same with marijuana. Blacks and whites, statistically speaking, engage in marijuana use and distribution at the same rate, yet blacks are much more likely to be arrested and/or go to jail.
What Worked Well
The New Jim Crow is a well-researched book. Though it is filled with facts and figures, it is hard to put down. What I like best about this book is the straight line it draws from slavery to modern-day. In 2010, not long after the election of President Obama, there was a sentiment, mainly amongst whites, that racism was dead. Being colorblind was suddenly back in fashion. For this book to come out during this period of time was shocking to this newly discovered utopia. What this book teaches us is that people no longer needed to talk about race. The word “race” was replaced with “criminal”. And these criminals were black. The new Jim Crow had been quietly claiming black bodies under the guise of being tough on crime. Ms. Alexander, who at one time in her career was a litigator, expertly debunks the myth of the War on Drugs. There was no drug epidemic, at least in the way it had been portrayed.
Another aspect of this book I thought was done well was to show how incarceration is a cycle of extermination. Once incarcerated people lose many of their civil rights. We know they can’t vote and have a hard time getting a job, but they also struggle to find a place to live, get a mortgage, and many other things that folks do every day. Ex-offenders become locked out of the benefits of a civil society. Ultimately they end up offending again in order to put food on the table, clothes on their backs and a roof over their head. Lastly, the author includes how the mass incarceration system has also impacted the white community as well. Though it’s an issue that has mostly impacted blacks, poor whites have become collateral damage of the system.
What Didn’t Work Well
It’s difficult to look at this body of work and say there is something that could have been improved. It’s a difficult read. It’s dense with facts and figures. Though they are necessary. I don’t know that anything should be left out, but it may leave potential readers feeling left out. I wonder if the population this book addresses would find it useful. Meaning, the book, from my perspective, is meant to expose how the prison system is the 21st-century racial caste system. For the people who live this every day, is this news? If it were me, I would want to know what to do to get out from under the system. These communities have been saying this for decades. If this book is meant to illuminate the real deal for those outside of the community, it does that. Should there also be a call to action in support of these communities? It left me asking, now that I know, how do I contribute to the solution?
This is hands down a must read. This is not a book filled with conjecture or conspiracy theories. It is a book that will cause you angst. What surprised me is there is more that I didn’t know. It may also leave you feeling helpless. One of my favorite Frederick Douglass quotes is included “power concedes nothing without demand; it never has and it never will.” Perhaps now that we know, the onus is on the reader to decide how they will address this every day, in the next election, at work, etc.
For more information about the New Jim Crow visit www.newjimcrow.com. Also worth checking out is Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix.
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