Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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If you are interested in mass incarceration and social justice, you have already heard about this book.  I’ve had no less than three people recommend it to me and I finally took the time to read it last week.  Below is the Publishers Weekly review:

legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration.

Essentially, she argues that the so-called color-blind laws that we have in place today do not just passively result in the greater incarceration of the African-American population, but actively target that segment of America.  Just as literacy tests in the Jim Crow era (on their face, race-neutral laws) resulted in fewer African-Americans being able to vote, so too do today’s laws, either in what they criminalize (crack versus powder cocaine) or in how they are implemented (police focus of resources on high minority neighborhoods) disproportionately affect the black community.  Further, in our current society that lauds racial equality and elects a black president, it is no longer kosher to actively discriminate based on race; but racism is not dead, we have (perhaps purposefully in some cases, but blindly by most people) have given it a new name under the separation of felons and non-felons.  Based on our collateral sanctions laws, it is perfectly okay to discriminate against felons in employment and voter disenfranchisement.

This last point, although I had heard it before, had never truly hit home for me prior to  reading this book.  As long as we continue to prohibit those who are incarcerated or who have a felony record from voting, we are ignoring the very segment of the population that has a vested interest in changing the laws so as to be more fair and reentry-focused.

My only problem with her argument (and I am sure this is echoed by conservatives everywhere) is that unlike race, which you cannot choose, felons did choose to commit a criminal act.  Yes, we can discuss social cues and the sad consequences of poverty, etc, but there is that basic fact that is always going to shut many people’s ears to what she is saying.

Further, when laws are discussed in legislative committee hearings, the issue of the impact on race does not come up, nor do I believe that 99% of legislators (at least my state) actively want to target the black population.  According to Alexander, the issue of race should come up – we are fooling ourselves by thinking we are in a color-blind society and we should always consider whether the laws that we pass explicitly or implicitly target an ethnic segment.

In all, this book is an important piece that makes the reader reconsider preconceived notions about the high rate of incarceration of African-Americans in the US and the legislative choices that we make as a society that have led us here.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

  1. Joanne says:

    There is certainly something to what she is saying. Here in Canada, the racism is not against blacks but against Aboriginals who comprise anywhere from 70-90% of the incarcerated population! Saying that someone chose to commit an offense and therefore needs to be paying the price for it is used as a justification for sometimes inhumane treatment. Thanks for the review. I will put the book on my reading list!

  2. Hi Joanne – as always, thanks for commenting! And you should definitely put it on your list – it’s made a big splash in social justice and academic circles in America.

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