THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander
Book Review by Jim McCarthy
Although published 11 years ago, the content, information, and observations are not only fresh for consideration today but prophetic. The author offers a damning and relentless brief on the issue of mass incarceration of Blacks (mostly males) under the guise of a colorblind War on Drugs and the complacency of political leadership to the effects of a so-called war.
The American public was sold on a martial public policy labeled the War on Drugs by Ronald Reagan years before elected officials focused on crack cocaine as a new enemy against which to muster increased policing, prison construction, and memes depicting addicts, users, and sellers.
Michelle Alexander portrays a compelling case that the racial clarity with which Jim Crow laws were nationalized have been transformed and modernized within the criminal justice system to create, as she describes it, an undercaste, predominantly nonwhite. Chapter by chapter she weaves her advocacy for recognition of the effects of the political miasma that polluted our senses as to the realities of war cries about the necessity of mandatory minimum sentencing, crack dens, and inner city decay.
The pipes and drums from elected officials encouraged public support for stop and frisk, heavy-handed prosecutors, and a more unfriendly jurisprudence with respect to civil protections for alleged drug offenders. To this reader, the impact of Alexander’s revelations was anger-provoking in the realization of how easily we were led into this morass of public policy masking itself as a solution to the problem of crime.
The book’s scholarship is heightened by a plethora of citations substantiating the author’s observations and conclusions. For example, as she traces the lineage of the prevailing attitudes toward criminal justice, the author cites Ruffin v. Commonwealth, an 1871 Supreme Court case that affirmed the exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment permitting slavery or involuntary servitude “as a punishment for crime” while, at the same time, abolishing slavery. This duplicity has survived and continued to plague the nation’s criminal justice system.
Alexander is especially keen and insightful in calling attention to post-conviction policies and practices that promote and enforce punishment beyond imprisonment, [such as] loss of voting rights, jury service preclusion, licensing prohibitions, public housing bans, education aid, and employment discrimination.
Alexander is especially keen and insightful in calling attention to post-conviction policies and practices that promote and enforce punishment beyond imprisonment. Loss of voting rights, jury service preclusion, licensing prohibitions, public housing bans, education aid, and employment discrimination. These manifestations of anti-crime measures received bipartisan support locally and nationally. At the time of publication, the nation’s incarcerated population was over 2 million, with another 5 million under “community correctional supervision.” The penalty that society has paid was summed up by the author thus:
Today, the political fanfare and the vehement, racialized rhetoric regarding crime and drugs, are no longer necessary. Mass incarceration has been normalized, and all of the racial stereotypes and assumptions that gave rise to the system are now embraced (or at least internalized) by people of all colors, from all walks of life, and in every major political party.
Ms. Alexander is unsparing in her description of the corner into which we have painted ourselves and the difficulty of perceiving both the insidious nature of that corner but the high barriers preventing a more clear vision as well.
What is most concerning about the new racial caste system, however, is that it may prove to be more durable than its predecessors. Because this new system is not explicitly based on race, it is easier to defend on seemingly neutral grounds.
What is most concerning about the new racial caste system, however, is that it may prove to be more durable than its predecessors. Because this new system is not explicitly based on race, it is easier to defend on seemingly neutral grounds. And while all previous methods of control have blamed the victim in one way or another, the current system invites observers to imagine that those who are trapped in the system were free to avoid second class status or permanent banishment from society simply by choosing not to commit crimes.
All that was necessary for salvation was to heed Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” admonition. The actual dollar costs to sustain a multimillion population in enduring bondage is staggering. The social and economic costs cannot be estimated. Baby steps such as abolishing the death penalty, eliminating cash bond, curtailing mandatory minimum sentencing, establishing drug rehabilitation courts, funding public defenders’ offices, and increased civilian participation in policing, are among a few initiatives that may lead to more substantial change in reversing the decades of blind tolerance.
Alexander’s description of efforts to rein in these ills extends to an unabashed critique of the nation’s civil rights organizations which, she claims, have been co-opted by the breadth of the new Jim Crow and narrowly focused efforts on contesting legal battles rather than engaging the systemic and structural pillars fostered and foisted upon all, thereby expressing an “aversion” to confronting the deeper issues.
Alexander offers no ready or simple solutions, while noting some serious obstacles such as economic blowback to closing prisons. Many rural communities hosting residents dependent upon the prison economy would be joined by associated vendors such as uniform companies and gun manufacturers, among a few. She is also not despondent or cynical about the level of recognition and effort required to reverse deep-rooted public policies, however racist they may be. Those roots, she argues, are complicated and infused by the ostensible colorblindness of the very laws and policies that continue to imprison Black males.
This reviewer has a newly heightened sensitivity to the issue, despite the fact that The New Jim Crow raises blood pressure. At the same time, it also contributes to a more comprehensive appreciation of criminal justice that affords little justice as it more efficiently and effectively ensures criminality.