The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
by Michelle Alexander
Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it helped inspire the creation of the Marshall Project and the new $100 million Art for Justice Fund; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the prestigious NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by Michelle Alexander’s unforgettable argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” As the Birmingham News proclaimed, it is “undoubtedly the most important book published in this century about the U.S.”
Now, ten years after it was first published, The New Press is proud to issue a tenth-anniversary edition with a new preface by Michelle Alexander that discusses the impact the book has had and the state of the criminal justice reform movement today.
About the author:
Michelle Alexander is a highly acclaimed civil rights lawyer, advocate, and legal scholar. She is a former Ford Foundation Senior Fellow and Soros Justice Fellow has clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun and has run the ACLU of Northern California’s Racial Justice Project. The New Jim Crow is that rare first book that has received rave reviews and won many awards and prizes; it and Alexander have been featured in countless national radio and television media outlets. Alexander is a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary and an opinion columnist for the New York Times. She lives in Columbus, Ohio.
Reviews about the ebook The New Jim Crow
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander will pick up your everyday white liberal guilt, tie it in knots, and leave you wondering how you could have ever been so simple-minded as to think colorblindness was benign, let alone desirable. While the “War on Drugs,” hopped up on federal funds and confiscated property, is systematically exploiting African American neighborhoods to supply the ever-growing prison industry with human beings to incarcerate, the mass imprisonment of young black men is inevitable. Felony convictions of African Americans for simple possession of the kinds of drugs that white youth are routinely expected to “experiment with” are easily obtained, but incarceration is just the beginning. Once branded a felon in America today, one has no future–no job, no loan for tuition, no food stamps to help feed the children, no vote, no jury service. In some states, no amount of restitution can change a felon back into a citizen. Alexander’s scholarly study is more than convincing and, as she admits, its lesson is more than challenging. While the best and brightest of African American leaders merely provide evidence for those who insist that racism is not the problem, the future remains grim.
This book will change the way you think about criminal and judicial systems in the US. It will shine a light on a new form of segregation based on race.
After looking at a pamphlet, proclaiming that the Drug War is the new Jim Crow, the author ignored it as a theory promoted by a bunch of conspiracy guys. She continues in her job as a civil rights lawyer, but in due course realizes that the statement was actually true. Millions of black and brown people in the US are languishing behind bars because of the Drug war that was unleashed during the ’80s when Ronald Regan was the president. The outcome of her quest to expose the truth in this book. And what a fantastic book this is.
Here are the key points raised in the book:
1. The race-based segregation never went away, it just changed to a form that was more palatable to the prevalent norms in the society. Started as Slavery, ended with the civil war in 1865. Transformed to Jim crow laws, ended with the civil rights law in 1964. Transformed to War on drugs in the 1980s, and still going on. It’s like a chameleon changing colors to avoid being detected
2. The criminal and judicial systems act in tandem to act as a funnel sucking in an increasing number of black and brown people into a life of segregation. At top of the funnel are the police who routinely stop and search the minorities looking for drugs, flagrantly defying the 4th amendment which was meant to protest people’s right to privacy. Black and brown men are put in jail for possessing even small quantities of drugs, while the white men are treated differently. Once they are behind bars, they are scared into accepting a guilty plea by the prosecutor, or go to trial and risk harsh sentences. The prosecutors have been granted virtually unlimited power to go after them. And bypassing laws, the higher courts have made it impossible for police and prosecutors to be held accountable for their actions
3. Once the person comes out, the segregation doesn’t end. They are discriminated against on every possible front: housing, jobs, social benefits. It is monumentally difficult for him to get back to normalcy. Often, he ends up back in jail. And the cycle continues
4. There are incentives for politicians and businesses to keep things the way they are. For politicians, it’s a way to keep the white people feel distracted by their poor economic condition. For businesses that manage jails, there’s money to be made as more and more people are put behind bars. Their profit depends on more people being incarcerated. With such strong incentives, it won’t be easy to pass legislation to abolish this race-based segregation
‘Colorblindness’ in the sub-title of the book means that we as a society have become indifferent to the plight of these minorities. Because it’s too convenient to think that segregation doesn’t exist, especially when we see a black man getting elected as the president. And we don’t hear people openly vouching for racist beliefs (although that is changing as we can see in the current US election). The author warns against this indifference. Just because those prisons are located in remote villages, away from the main society, we cannot ignore this race-based segregation.
Finally, the author proposes that nothing short of a movement will end this form of segregation that is being waged under the name of the War on Drugs.
You need to read The New Jim Crow book. I don’t pretend to have a terribly high opinion of the US. Like Australia, it is a settler society that really needs to reconcile and make amends with its own past. For instance, until very recently the US had a holocaust museum, but no museum to slavery. The history of slavery and of Jim Crow is a stain that marks the entire sweep of US history – and that stain is red because it is in blood.
The problem is that since the US has never reconciled itself with its past, it finds it impossible to see how the stereotypes and common-sense assumptions that pervade its national consciousness remain profoundly racist. In fact, a large part of the point of this book is to show that ‘color blind’ visions of US race relations today are perhaps the largest problem facing people of color. From slavery to Jim Crow, to the criminalization of black America, the thing that makes the new racial system so effective is that it is hidden in plain sight.
Effectively, the US has an injustice system, rather than a justice system. I mean, the system is constructed to create criminals, it is created to destroy lives – and it does so in ways that make the pathways of escape from the systematic injustices of ‘law and order’ so narrow that hardly anyone can make it through. Well, when I say that, that only really applies if you are black or brown. White people are much less likely to be caught in the structural traps set by the criminal injustice system – but, hasn’t that always been thus?
The problem is the ‘war on drugs’. By any measure – well, other than counting the wealth of the owners of private prisons in the US, and criminalizing huge numbers of black and brown people – the war on drugs has been an abject failure. The US now has a quarter of the people imprisoned in the world. It is quite amusing hearing people from the US go on about their love of freedom – it displays a level of doublespeak that would make Orwell blush. But the war on drugs has been used most effectively to put black and brown America back in their place after the Civil Rights victories of the 1950s and 60s. As the author points out repeatedly here, whites and blacks use drugs at similar rates, they commit most crimes at similar rates (although, there is evidence that whites are actually more likely than blacks to use drugs) however, the social stereotypes are that blacks are the drug users and drug dealers and that stereotype is then realized in the way blacks are treated by the police force, and then by the criminal justice system, and then by the prison system, and finally in how they are treated after they leave the prison system. A white person caught with drugs is treated better by the criminal justice system at every single stage than a black person is. They are less likely to be arrested in the first place, less likely to get a conviction, less likely to end up in jail – and all of this while being just as likely to commit the crime. But the system has been so rigged by its assertion of ‘color blindness’ that even the profiling that clearly happens, and the disparities in sentencing that are blindingly obvious, cannot even be complained about, since everyone already knows that ‘racism doesn’t exist’ anymore – I mean, President Obama was black, wasn’t he…?
I’m not going to list the examples she gives throughout this of the jaw-droppingly horrible treatment of people – I kept finding myself making involuntary noises throughout reading this. Honestly, there were points in this so shocking I almost laughed out loud, it was like something from an incredibly poor taste comedy show – you know, called Justice in America. The chapter where she details how police are encouraged to confiscate ‘the proceeds of crime’ is so disturbing that Kafka could have written it. No, in fact, Kafka would probably think it was too over the top and so even he might have shied away from writing it.
The worst of this is that it isn’t all that clear to me how the gross injustices detailed in this book are ever going to be overcome. Defining blacks as criminals has been a master-stroke – I mean, it makes it nearly impossible for even the left to support the most black men who have had their citizenship rights removed from them – being someone who supports blacks is bad enough, but someone who supports criminals? Who is going to do that? Potentially, not even fellow blacks. Really, this book would make you weep.
A part of this where I made one of my little noises was where she said that prisons are often placed out in the country, you know, where mostly white people live – where the prisoners then swell the local population, but, since they are prisoners, where they aren’t allowed to vote. This gives these mostly white areas more representative power (given their larger population), and it simultaneously takes representative power away from the black neighborhoods where the prisoners would otherwise live. Three-fifths compromise, anyone? Yep, it’s just like being back in the good ol’ days when a black person’s vote was worth only three-fifths of that of a white person’s – the more things change…
The use of shame to keep black people in their place is particularly disturbing but has proven stunningly effective. This book is a case study in discussing how effectively shame can be deployed as a form of symbolic violence against an entire population.
As I said, this really needs to be compulsory reading. Once again, I’ve come away from reading a book utterly despising both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Sure, I would be forced to support either of them before Trump – but the harm they both did as Presidents is beyond disgusting.
The central question of Political Philosophy is, “How to share liberties and resources fairly?” Rarely, does Political Philosophy look at the Cultural and Institutional barriers to answering this question? Its concern is the first principals.
Here’s one such first principle: why do we imprison others? I’m of the mind that it shouldn’t be to punish, however, bad the crime, but rather to protect the liberties of ALL. In the interest of subjective self-disclosure: I have two neighbors, who have each been through the prison system multiple times. Now in their sixties, I help with their banking and medication, because they are both illiterate. It would have been of the greatest benefit to society to teach them to read, but the principal of their incarceration was to punish.
Michelle Alexander has done something remarkable (also check the documentary, “13th” which wouldn’t exist without this book) in exposing structural inequality on an industrial scale. Her argument is elegant and carefully evidenced, it will profit anyone who reads it (even naysayers). As important as John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice”, and I hope destined to be a standard text alongside Hobbes’ “Leviathan”.
- Lumumba Shakur:
It is Michelle Alexander’s experience as a lawyer that makes this such a successful piece. It is not a novelty that makes this book so profound, but the authority upon which the argument is made: simple statistics and inarguable facts. In the very beginning, Mrs. Alexander states for whom this The New Jim Crow book was written: people who have a hard time convincing friends, neighbors, and others that there is something oddly familiar with the current order. She has done this perfectly and thus I highly recommend this book to anyone who has a hard time convincing others that the current state of Black America is not due to a mortal/cultural flaw, but instead stems from a perfect storm of institutional control that perhaps was initially well-intended, but at present insist upon maintaining a status quo that has decimated the African-American community and is doing the same to our Latino brothers and sisters.
I was both vindicated and saddened in finding evidence from a lawyer in confirmation of my understanding that the United States Supreme Court, particularly the current make-up, has been a friend to the political and economic elite of this country, an enemy to the politically impotent masses and the main obstacle against any meaningful change in society at large. It was both shocking and appalling to see that the chief justices in the land acknowledging the existence of corrosive racism that has become inherent in the criminal “justice” system while refusing to do anything but maintain the status quo since the only viable solution would be to dismantle the system – something which they deemed impossible. Once we reach that level of protectionism by the very same institution that is supposed to be the ultimate check on executive and legislative authority, what is left but a complete overhaul of the system – dare I say “revolution”?
The only criticism I have is that in her initial summary of the chapter contents, she seems to often have simply copied key sentences word for word, which is rather annoying, but minimal (and easily forgotten). Stylistically, it made for redundancy and the book perhaps would have been better off without any foreshadowing summaries at all (current and future authors take note).
It has always been my personal theory that most conspiracies are not concocted in smokey backrooms but simply come into existence when particular interests converge and work towards the same goal in a previously established order. In short, what you have before you is the anatomy of just such a conspiracy and an uncomfortable reality that needs to be first acknowledged before we can ever begin to talk about social, racial, and economic justice in the United States in any meaningful way.